My Head

Here’s an article I wrote for Boneshaker #8 – on cycling without a helmet and the mind-body-bust-up.

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


“Freakin’ intellectuals on bikes. They’re everywhere.” Jonny slammed his beer glass on the table.


“Out there…” He pointed round the Oxford pub in a wide arc.

There was a gambling machine and an old man in the corner staring at a glass of ale. The gambling machine reflected neon on the outside of the old guy’s inch thick glasses.

“Can’t see any.”

“Out there” said Jonny, “on the streets.” He prodded at the imaginary masses. “The crème de la crème of a generation, scuttling round on their bikes from lecture to lecture…” He banged his fist down on the table so his pint of beer and his bike helmet lurched upwards, “and none of them are wearing helmets.” He screwed his finger into his temple. “Mental.”

“And you’re as sane as a fresh walnut?”

“My head,” he said, tapping his skull, “is my livelihood. And I’m not going to risk it like those,” he paused for emphasis, “tosspots.”

Jonny built missile guidance systems for the military. I did try and point this out, given that he built the brains that killed brains, but after four pints of beer and a packet of pork scratchings he was unwilling to see the paradox and left in a huff.

I watched him wobble down the dual carriageway on his old racer, his helmet strap flapping loosely under his chin.

“Tosspots!” he shouted at the distant domes of the Oxford colleges.

Cycling without a helmet, at least in the UK, is up to the individual. It’s a debate so old it’s got cobwebs coming out of its lugholes. I don’t wear a helmet. Other people do. The difference between me and other people is not measured by virility, foolishness, dullness or heroism. It is measured only by a helmet. My choice is a mop of hair. Other people’s choice is a plastic shell that increases the safety of their noggin by a measurable percentage.

I know that the responsible thing is to wear a helmet. And I really do want to be responsible. But I just don’t want to prioritise my head. I like the whole of my body. In the world of road safety this makes no sense at all. You can look up the facts and you can place your bets but I just want to ride with my mop of hair in a greasy flop in the spring air. In no way does this denigrate those who don’t want to ride with their greasy mops in the spring air. It’s just my choice. And choice is a feverishly potent word. It suggests a moral ambiguity in the equations of risk. For me it’s not about whether you wear a helmet or not, it’s about why.

Jonny believes that his “livelihood” is his head. But the head is just a hood for a life. And life is a sensuous dance of the mind and body. If you’re wearing a helmet just because of that part of you that flops backwards and forwards on the top of your spine, you may as well be on a monorail. A bicycle will spin you through the world, head, body and soul, like a cartwheel, if you let it.

Jonny’s ethic is built on the ideas of René Descartes, a seventeenth century philosopher. “I think therefore I am,” said René and the Western World doffed its hat and agreed.

Descartes was a “Dualist” who divided the mind and body into two distinct substances, a view of reality that prized the head over the neck below. But if I am anything I am a “Monist”, where the mind and body are one. And the truth of it is that anyone that gets on a bike is also a Monist. There is yet to be a bike that runs on telepathy. And there is yet to be a bike powered by a headless telepath.

Freakin’ Monists on bikes. They’re everywhere.

If you pop a head open you find the left and right hemispheres and, a bit lower down, like a bow tie, the cerebellum. If anything is the “mind” of a cyclist it’s this chap, astride the flip flop head and the adjoining spine. The cerebellum is the middle man, wheeling and dealing information between the brain and the limbs. It is responsible for a cyclist’s muscle memory so that we don’t have to keep doing those twitchy left right wobbles for the rest of our life when we first take our feet off the ground.

In the evolutionary scheme of things when man had enough muscle memory to lope around picking veg, the cerebral hemispheres bloomed above the cerebellum, which brought the mixed blessing of consciousness and, in Western civilisation at least, a mechanistic view of life that prioritised mind over body.

But it was not always so. The oldest existing works of Western literature are Homer’s ‘Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey’ from ancient Greece. And as Michael Clarke points out in ‘Flesh and Spirit in the Songs of Homer’ Homeric man had no understanding of body or mind “rather his thought and consciousness are as inseparable a part of his bodily life as are movement and metabolism.”

A man might consult his ‘thumos’, a vital energy that leads to certain thoughts and actions, but this thumos also required drink and nourishment. Homeric thought is associated with “the palpable inhalation of breath, and the half-imagined mingling of breath with blood and bodily fluids, in the soft, warm, flowing substances that make up what is behind the chest wall.”

And I would argue that the cyclist lost in the hypnotic rhythm of a long ride, cerebellum flickering, propels this same ‘thumos’; the mind flowing in body, breathing in the breathing world. And, like Homer, “the common ground of meaning is not in a particular static thing but in the ongoing process of living.”

Are cyclists the Homeric heroes and heroines of ancient Greece? Sometimes it’s hard to feel like this stuck in the guff of a five lane traffic queue. At the rump of three millennia the archetypal Western man is Homer in the cartoon ‘The Simpsons’, plumbed into a television by his eyeballs, his body extrapolated into an engulfing sofa. (It is left to his son Bart to kick off the kerbs on a skateboard and flow with the wind, his wisecracking ‘thumos’ whirling past the lanes of traffic).

So how did we get from here to there, from ‘thumos’ to plasma TV? It was all Plato’s fault, chief Greek philosopher and betrayer of Homeric verse.

“Originally man was only a head,” said Plato, “and so that head might not roll upon the ground with its heights and hollows of all sorts, and have no means to surmount the one or climb out of the other they gave it a body as vehicle for ease of travel.” After a bit of shenanigans over the next thousand years this kind of thinking ended up with Descartes and his mind body divide, each part stuck together like bits of an Airfix kit. But the bicycle refutes this. Emerging out of the industrial revolution it is the most wayward of machines. Then, as now, it nurtures the buried belief that the mind is body and the body is mind.

Ian McGilchrist’s recent book ‘The Master and his Emissary’, examines mind within body by describing the cerebral hemispheres of the brain, the walnut atop the cerebellum. He proposes that the right hemisphere, with its predominant role in the body, its ability to synthesise meaning and empathise, its openness to intuition (the functions of the “lunatic, lover and poet”) has become too separate from the left hemisphere, with its formulaic agenda, its internal logic, its reliance on language.

He argues that this separation, and with it the prioritisation of left hemisphere thinking, has led to the mind–body divide in Western life; “….the body has become a thing, a thing we possess, a mechanism, even if a mechanism for fun, a bit like a sports car with a smart sound system.”

You can see this in Sports Science, where the physical outputs for athletes have become systematised and maximised, where cyclists recognise only cadence, speed and kilometres. The head watches the click of the cycle computer and not the roll of the road.

But the right hemisphere cannot exist without the left, for as a poet needs the logic of language, so a daydreaming cyclist needs the science of gears. The difference for McGilchrist is that the separation has become so absolute that it is now the logic of the left hemisphere that predominates and it is this binary logic that directs so much of our debate. Good and bad. Dirty and clean. Happy and sad. Helmet or no bike helmet. There is no room for the ambiguous flux of choice.

I spend my time pootling around on bike paths and in parks. Perhaps I won’t wear a helmet. Perhaps I will. It is a flexible choice but it is still a choice.

I cycled 10,000km from England to India with my helmet strapped to the back of my bike. Some would argue that was a foolhardy choice and I would be inclined to agree but I enjoyed having my sweaty head exposed to the air. In fact I was more of a high viz man, fluoro over my trunk, while my girlfriend preferred a helmet. We seemed to epitomise the mind–body divide as we rode along separately but together we looked like one reasonably safe unit. I didn’t think my girlfriend was any more or less wayward than me. After all she had also chosen to cycle east for a year.

Why carry a helmet all that way on my bike and never use it? A talisman perhaps. Or rather I preferred to know it was there if I needed it, the wind blowing through its cage like reckless thought.

The bicycle at its best fits the human body as if it was a part of that body, so right does it feel. And if we are clear that the body is not a machine but part of the wholeness of being human, then by extension a bicycle is part of that humanity.

Am I saying that a beaten-up utility bike in a skip has soul? Yes if you yank it out, grease it up and ride with the sun on your legs, rain on face and wind in your mop of hair.

Yesterday I was cycling home and these kids on BMXs nipped past doing hops off the pavements. It looked like they’d just made it back from the barbers and the winter sun shone off their shaved scalps.

I pulled my cycling cap tighter. It didn’t protect my head but it kept it warm. It was merino wool, breathable, top of the range. The left hemisphere approved. I needed to get home to do some DIY before the sun set. The left hemisphere approved. I needed to get to the hardware shop to get the tools to do the DIY before the sun set and I clicked into a higher gear. The left hemisphere rejoiced. But the kid in front then stopped to bunny hop over a manhole, forcing me to brake in a skid, as the skinheads raced on laughing.

“Tosspots,” the left hemisphere thought.

Then, instead of using the concrete slope, the kids rattled down the steps that led down to the bike path, cackling and whistling as they bumped.

I turned after them and bombed down the steps, only to catch my foot in a toe strap, topple sideways into a flower bed, and end up with the bike on top of me and a big smile breaking across my foolish face.

The right leg ached. The whole man approved.


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

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