This is an article I wrote for Boneshaker six, based on the joy of leather saddles and cycling from Bristol to India.
You can pledge for my Boneshaker Book Project “Mind is the Ride,” on Cycling and Philosophy, crowdfunding here.
It would be a mistake to say that my leather saddle fits me like
a glove. Gloves are for hands and saddles are for backsides.
But on some days, with a good tailwind and a smooth highway,
there is a sense of being borne aloft like a couple of free
range eggs on a silk mitten.
When my ‘B67’ saddle arrived in the post it looked more
like a pain in the arse. The ‘B67’ sounds like a tactical
bomber and resembles a thug on bedsprings. Relatives
would rap the seat with their knuckles, bite their bottom lip
and give me that ‘look of doom’, the kind of look older men
reserve for younger ones going into battle.
Having cycled over 10,000 km to India I can honestly say I survived without mortal canker.
I never got used to the ‘B67’ but it, with the slowness of a
craftsman, with the sympathy of time, got used to me. If I gaze
at the ‘B67’ long enough I see, not the face of God, but the
careful scoop of my own testicles, the right slightly higher than
the left, darkening its brown leather hide like thumb indents in
iron clay. But saddles aren’t porcelain made by potters. They’re
cushions made by masochists. Day after day. Mile after mile.
Hill after hill. ‘Breaking it in,’ they call it. But who are they,
and who, breaks who?
My journey began eighteen months ago, long before my
trip, with a visit to the doctor.
“Balls,” I said, pointing down, in case he’d forgotten which
half of the body they were in. “Pain,” I added, “cycling.”
“How far in a week?”
“About fifty miles.” I was pretty pleased with myself.
This would surely get me a medal or at least a low blood
“Saddle?” he continued.
“Leather,” I said, “the B67.”
“ Pretty good saddle,” the doctor said, “after you’ve broken it in.”
What? How would he know? He was a doctor and I,
I was a cyclist.
“Got one on my Brompton,” the Doctor said.
What did he want? A medal.
The real subtext to this consultation was the book I’d been
reading, ‘It’s Not About The Bike,’ by Lance Armstrong.
For those who don’t know, Mr Armstrong is the drug disgraced anti-hero of American cycling. But when I read the book he was a hero to pumped up race cyclists everywhere. Prior to this I’d read ‘Full Tilt’
by Dervla Murphy, about an Irish woman who’d cycled to
India with a revolver strapped to her leg. I’d figured that
Dervla was a woman with balls and if Dervla was a woman
with balls then Lance Armstrong had to be ballsier, a cyclist
with balls and balls. If anything would inspire me to cycle
to India it would be this book.
But Lance Armstrong’s narrative launched straight into his
battle with testicular cancer. By the time I’d got to chapter
three I’d put it back on the shelf. It wasn’t that he wasn’t
heroic. It was that I wasn’t.
No matter how nonchalant I was pretending to be to
myself, to my friends, to my girlfriend, the prospect of
cycling to India was terrifying. And this introspection, this
thinking, took seat in that part of me most closely allied to
the bike and to my sense of masculine, competitive, pride.
What, I began to worry, if this pain was something more
serious? What if, like Lance Armstrong, it would end up
with x-rays and scans and bikes gathering dust in the yard?
One doctor’s appointment and an ultrasound scan later,
I left reassured but still with my nagging ache. Looking
back now I realise this pain was an admixture of worry
and the minor wounds of urban riding. Pot holes, kerbs,
cobblestones, roadworks, emergency stops, the stuttering
patter of city life holding me back from the big adventure.
Eventually it rained on my leather saddle and this softened it
up enough for the first thousand miles. After that it was bliss.
When songwriter Paul Simon penned the tune ‘Slip Sliding
Away’ he was actually referring to the legendary smoothness
of a well turned saddle. The ischial tuberosities of the hip
bone roll into the indentations of leather like snooker balls in
sockets. The weight is borne by the tuberosities and not by
the flabby bits of bum that sit with them. They are so loosely
borne that they roll in and out of the sockets leaving the bum
to slide happily over shiny leather. “The nearer your destination
the more you’re slip sliding away,” Mr Simon says. The groin,
heaven praise, is spared.
Much like some actors never mention Macbeth without
spitting over their shoulder, there are some long distance
cyclists who are afraid to mention the word ‘groin’ or more
specifically ‘EDS’, “erectile dysfunction syndrome”. There
are a parade of sporty saddles that pander to this angst,
replete with midline cutaways sparing the sensitive soul. I
have yet to meet a cyclist who has admitted to EDS, on or
off a leather saddle, but maybe that’s the point. No one’s
ever going to tell you apart from old men too unabashed
to care. Before I cycled to India a bike shop owner in his
eighties cast his eye over my saddle.
“Ought to be careful…”
“Terrible problems when I was lad” He offered me the look
of doom. It turned out he had only ridden razor-seated
racers, in chamois leather shorts. At the end of our ride to
India I met a guy called Patrick on a beach. We were trying
to impress him with the scale of our adventures when he
let slip he’d been cycling around the globe for 15 years.
His secret? He leaned toward me, slightly away from my
girlfriend, as if she might be tainted by so mentioning it.
“Point your saddle down…” he said and tapped his nose.
I personally think all this talk of EDS is a bit apocryphal.
The brilliant cardiovascular work of cycling has to balance
out any losses from sitting in the saddle. The naysayers
from their couches are missing the point. A diet of TV
meals is inevitably going to end up more problematic
than a jaunt across the subcontinent on two wheels.
And the real crux of the issue here is the balls themselves.
A vocal sensitivity about potency belies the need to prove
it, and like all outdoor endeavours, cycling has its share
of testosterone nutters. Head down, bullet-like creatures
with no bells. France is full of them. It’s the most amazing
country for cycling. Less people, less cars, more tiny roads.
But it is very ballsy. We did meet a boy/girl French couple
on our travels, on a tandem made from two bikes welded
together. The bike would break in half and they’d happily
weld it back together and return to the road. But they were
the exception, not the rule. French cycling culture is all
about racing, not simply getting from A to B. And with the
world’s biggest cycling event beamed across the planet it’s
easy to see why. If Lance Armstrong could do it seven times
over then why can’t I, think a million Frenchmen aged
between fifteen and seventy five, with varying degrees of
Lycra-wrapped flab. But where are the women? Not on the
backroads of France, that’s for sure.
If Lycra-clad testosterone cycling goes far enough it actually
circles back on itself and becomes gay. In the Champagne
region of Northern France we came across a racing cyclist
in red hot-pants and what appeared to be a see-through
lacy blouse. He was out of the saddle waving his derrière
from left to right as he cycled very slowly along flat ground.
He was the campest rider we’d ever seen. He was being
followed by two giggling women as he went round and
round the village ring road. But the point here is the that
girls were in a Citroen 2CV and not on bikes.
The UK has its faults but there is an increasingly diverse mix of
cyclists and it was a pleasant surprise to come back from riding
through the Middle East and Asia (where there is an absolute
paucity of women on wheels) to find all genders and ages out
for a spin, hot-pant racers just part of the mix.
Back home after my long trip I ironically find myself
eyeing up those superlight racing bikes I had once been so
dismissive of, the net result of plodding for thousands of
miles on a fully laden touring bike.
I begin to have flights of fancy. “I could hop on that razor
thin saddle and get to Manchester in the time it takes to
make a mochaccino.” My girlfriend catches me with the
shiny bike catalogues in the garden, hiding them like
porn in the long grass. “It’s lighter than air” I say, flicking
my finger against a sliver of saddle that looks like it’s
made of fibreglass.
“Balls,” she says.