On Not Cycling…

Here’s an article I wrote for Boneshaker Five – based on my experience of “Not Cycling” on a container ship through the Indian Ocean and Suez Canal.

You can pledge for my Boneshaker Book Project “Mind is the Ride,” on Cycling and Philosophy, crowdfunding here.


On Not Cycling

I am on a container ship in the middle of the Persian
Gulf. It is March 2010; Civil war is ahead of me, earthquakes
behind and pirates in the middle. And yet I am pedalling,
pedalling for all I am worth on an exercise bike in the corner
of the ship’s recreation room. Through a porthole I can just
see the ocean and, owing to the up-down-side-to-side motion
of pedalling, it feels like this ocean is moving in jumps in time
to my own knock-kneed revolutions. In other words I am
powering a 75,000 tonne container ship as it chugs through
the Middle East. But in reverse. The exercise bike is pointing in
the opposite direction. And I can’t stop. I can’t stop pedalling.
For the past ten months my girlfriend and I have been
cycling across Europe and the Middle East to India from the
UK. We arrived in Bombay, cycled another 2000km and now
it’s time to go home. We are on a freighter ship packed with
the products of cheap labour, stacked like building blocks in
metal containers; plastic tat, frozen goods and foil wrapped
tea on its inexorable journey to our supermarkets. And then,
tucked away in the corner, there’s ‘Billy’ and ‘Bertle’ – our
battered touring bikes. We left Bombay in a flurry of ferries,
bribes, plastic bottles and masala curry and now find ourselves
on an air-conditioned tub with twenty crew and nowhere to
cycle and everywhere to go.

It’s hard to explain what it feels like to cycle eight hours
a day, five days a week for months and months and months.
It’s even harder to explain what it feels like when you stop.
What stopping most feels like is ‘not stopping’. This is where
the brain and the body have a major fall out. The brain goes
“Look mister, enough with the cycling. You are on a boat in
the middle of nowhere, read a book, eat a schnitzel, watch a
film, cut your toenails, trim that terrible hippy beard – but
just stop cycling.” Basically – chill out.

But the body is having none of it. “Listen mate,” it says,
“these muscles have been cycling continuously for the last
ten months. We don’t do stairs. We don’t really do chairs.
Certainly not chairs with backrests.”

And so I find myself circling the exercise bike. Or rather
it circles me. I can hear it whirring beneath the guttural diesel
turbines of the boat. And before I know it I’m on a shiny
plastic seat pedalling nowhere and everywhere at the same
time. I have become the air-conditioned hamster in a cage I
was trying to escape all those months ago. Is this really true
or am I just unwinding the spool I wound over all those
months? The word ‘unwind’ is wholly a verb, it hints that
stillness can be reached only by its opposite, that is ‘not
cycling’ by in fact ‘cycling.’

The further East we go the more time slips. A tinny tannoy
announces “All crew please note clocks go back half an hour” and
“All crew please note clocks go back an hour.”And, as if by magic,
all the ships clocks retreat by the same amount, connected by an
invisible network behind the plywood panelling. This only adds
to the sense of unspooling what has already been spooled, day
after day, mile after mile, click after click.

Our ‘real’ bikes, Billy (named after a goat) and Bertle
(named after a Bert), have been lashed by a Philippine sailor
to a metal pipe. They too travel backwards and riderless. The
sailor is bemused as I fuss over the pedals so they don’t lean
into each other’s spokes or chainset. Most if not all ‘ordinary
people’ (read ‘non-transcontinental cycling’) have been
bemused by this anxiety. When the bikes have not been cycled
(i.e. strapped into some other form of transport) I always find
myself in a demented shouting match with its owner.
In Bombay we had eight taxi drivers, four pushing from
the back, four pulling from the front, trying to ram our bikes
into the back of a cab. It’s difficult to be assertive when you’ve
had a forty hour train journey and landed in one of the most
populous cities on earth at midnight, but there goes the
derailleur twanging against the top of a taxi seat you’ve been
told definitively does not fold down.

In India bikes are just oxen – one-speed wonders that can
carry ten times their weight and get you places, not in style or
even much comfort, but they get you there. This is laudable
in a Western cycling culture where many bikes have become
fetishised like fashion items, the latest titanium stallion
gathering dust in a garage or whipped out on a Sunday for a hot
pant jaunt. In India a bike is just a bike and if something breaks
there’s always a hut round the corner to slot in a replacement
for the price of a cup of tea.

The downside of this is that our touring bikes, the friends
that have carried us 10,000 km, are treated with the same
workaday shove. “It’s only a bike,” think the eight bored taxi
drivers, “why is he shouting so much?” The back of Billy’s
mudguard breaks but the chainsets, remarkably, survive
unscathed. Indians love to fiddle with the gear levers, argue
over the role of pannier racks and, most often, squeeze the tyres
– the equivalent of a carpenter giving a piece of wood a knock
to see if it’s sound. But bikes, generally, are at the bottom of the
transport pile. Every night it was a battle to get them locked
inside or anywhere near our rooms. “They’re just bikes…” Yes
but they’re just our bikes.

In South India we had to give a ‘tip’ to a porter to load
Billy and Bertle safely into the luggage compartment of a train.
Half an hour later we see them on the opposite platform,
unlocked and leaning against a lamppost as a hundred other
passengers walk by. Billy and Bertle have been carried on ferries,
trains, taxis, cranes, boats and once in a fisherman’s canoe
(after a monsoon had washed the road away). But not once
have they been scorned as much as they have been on a British
train. Too many times I have had some franchised conductor
foulmouthing my bike and I for ‘holding up the service’ as if
bikes were somehow the new ‘leaves on the track’ of Network
Rail. Once I saw John Grimshaw, ex-head of Sustrans – the
UK’s sustainable transport network – being bullied off a
carriage by a stream of commuters as he tried to wobble his bike
onto the platform. Back in India, bikes may be at the bottom of
the transport ladder but at least they are accorded a rung in the
climb. Sometimes in Britain it feels as if they don’t deserve to be
there at all, as if a bike not being cycled is not a cycle at all, it is
an encumbrance.

Here I sit on my exercise bike ‘not cycling’, unwinding
to a more mundane existence, and what surprises me is just
how boring this ‘not cycling’ is. It reminds me that the actual
act of revolving your legs round and round is dull, dull, dull.
There is an endorphin hit, yes, but with nothing to see and no
handlebars to steer, what is there to do? I find myself revolving
my legs and flinging my hands in front of my chest in the
open-palmed gesture of a rapper in full flow. Here I am on a
boat in the middle of the Persian Gulf rapping to a ‘Safety First’
poster as my legs go round and round and round.
But the paradox is that this ‘not cycling’ makes me
realise what cycling actually is. It’s not about the muscles, the
kilometres, the kilojoules. It’s about the steering. It’s about
being in charge of your own destiny, the control that all other
transport systems try to wrestle away from you. More than that
it’s about seeing the world, really seeing the world. Not behind
a windscreen or a seatbelt or a porthole or a flying metal tube
but out in the big wide open. Fast enough to get places, slow
enough that people can reach out and touch your shirt, offer
you a “Salaam” or a “Namaste,” give you some fruit, ask you
to stay, argue about the cricket, give you a carton of cold milk,
discuss the weather, or just sit in the midday shade with you,
waiting for the heat to go.

Some may see cycling as a lonely occupation, man and
machine against the mountains. But it is supremely social: it
weaves into other peoples journeys, it opens up the world by
opening up individual worlds. It is in fact ‘microtourism,’
meeting other people face to face, an antidote to the armies
of mass tourism and their sausage factory experiences.
But before I get too righteous, too indignant, I must
remember I am sat on the plastic seat of an exercise bike on B
deck of CMA CGM Wagner, sweat dripping off my nose and
a bit of an ache in my right knee from too much ‘unwinding’.

‘Overuse,’ I think they call it.
There is a time and a place for cycling and ‘not cycling.’

Balance in all things. That’s what I should have learnt when
my Dad first took the stabilisers off and I went freewheeling
down the hill, my hands on the grips trying to wrestle control.


You can pledge for my Boneshaker Book Project “Mind is the Ride,” on Cycling and Philosophy, crowdfunding here.

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