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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.

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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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Mind is the Ride – Nearly at seventy percent funded!

This autumn I have been to the “Rapha cc” cycling cafe in Manchester, “Pedalling Ideas,” a hive of cycling conversation in Leeds and “Magazine Brighton,” an ace indie magazine shop in, you guessed it, Brighton.

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Magazine Brighton – photo by Stuart Langridge

As a result of all this touring, and with your support, “Mind is the Ride” is nearly seventy per cent funded. The blog below is a journal of these Autumn talks and a call to get your loudhailers out and roll the project past the seventy per cent mark. Here is a link where people can pledge https://unbound.com/books/mind-is-the-ride

Rock n Roll Tour (Part 3)

When I was shown into the high windowed room on the third floor of the Manchester Rapha cycling club I hadn’t expected to find an original Eddie Merckx bicycle propped up behind me, an original Tour de France winner, complete with parts hand drilled out by Eddie Merckx to make it that bit faster..

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My beast, “Bertle,” looked like a tank floating above it. A clear case of tortoise and hare. Eddie’s bike would definitely get past the finish line first but I like to think the tortoise tank would have pondered its own slowness with philosophical clarity and set up a crowdfunding campaign…

Thanks to everyone at Rapha for the opportunity to talk in such a noble setting and the staff who lugged the bike and gear up three floors into the Manchester sunshine. Thanks also to my friend Graham, who I met in the Peak District, at one of the very first events, went on to pledge for one of the “Mind is the Ride” bike rides and who put me up that night in Manchester. We both have a similar number of bikes and no space to keep them.

Graham and I went on to meet at…

“Pedalling Ideas,” which is, essentially, a brilliant Idea. Set up by all round “ideas man,” Ian Street, it’s a place to ferment discussions about bikes and bike culture. The sheer variety of speakers was particularly refreshing; from Mini Pips, an eleven year old cyclist who has probably pedalled more miles than I’ve nudged in my entire adult life, and Peter Yates, a rider in his eighties, who is still cycling two hundred km audax rides.

You only realise the deficit of women speakers at cycling events when someone, like Ian, takes the initiative to put an equal number of men and women speakers on the roster. Then it feels like there’s LOTS of women speakers, when in fact it’s just the balance being redressed. I particularly enjoyed seeing Joolze Dymond’s talk on cycling photography, Laura Moss on the alliance of status-quo-challenging women that is “The Adventure Syndicate” and Caren Hartley on bike framebuilding. Caren was talking just after Brant Richards…;

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Designer Brandt Richards creating a bike, online, from audience “instructions.”

My most recent talk was at Magazine Brighton, a superb indie magazine shop in Brighton’s lanes. Set up by entrepreneur, thinker and “yes” man (in a world of “maybes”) Martin Skelton, Magazine Brighton is a homage to the written word, paper and fresh ink. Boneshaker magazine sits on its shelves like a pal amongst good friends.  Thanks to Martin for inviting me. And to Roxy Rock, Martin’s accomplice at Magazine Brighton, for helping to make it a memorable night and for undeniably having the coolest name in the South East.

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Now a clarion call…

Friends, cyclists, people with an interest in philosophy, random strangers I have bullied on off-peak train journeys, your time has come. Wrest your bike bells from your cupboards and ring them from the windows, the web and whatever porch or stoop or bike path you’re sitting on. We’re very nearly at seventy per cent funded. We can get this book rolling onto the presses and across the hemisphere.  Please recommend “Mind is the Ride” to all your friends and colleagues and get them to pledge at

https://unbound.com/books/mind-is-the-ride

The finish line is in sight.

The tortoise nibbles the hare’s tail.

Jet

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Greek Stoicism and the Self Sufficiency of Puncture Repair

Here’s my article on Greek Stoicism and the Self Sufficiency of Puncture Repair for Boneshaker Magazine.

BS4-Punctures

You can pledge for the crowdfunding Boneshaker book project “Mind is the Ride” about my 4000 mile bicycle journey from Western to Eastern Philosophy here:

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Mind is the Ride Crowdfunding Now!

My book “Mind is the Ride” in association with Boneshaker Magazine is crowdfunding now!

PLEDGE HERE AT UNBOUND

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Crowdfunding Video with Overhead Drone Shots!

The Video for the crowdfunding pitch is being made by my friend Ben. We’ve got roll along shots with his camera attached to the chainstay of his bike while I rumble down the hills. We’ve got overhead drone shots in the mist and fog. We’ve got shots of me doing my best, talking-to-camera look, in a bike workshop. All we need now is Ben’s video editing skills and a bit of techno chicanery and the video should soon be up on Unbound     

Keep you posted. In the meantime check out the details on the project below and do fill in the contact form if you’d like to be updated.

Camera on bike frame

Instagram

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New book on Cycling and Philosophy with “Unbound”

I’m excited to be writing a new book called “Mind is the Ride.”

It’s an adventure through Philosophy and Cycling based around my year long bike ride from Bristol to India. The book will be published by a bold new publisher called “Unbound” who raise part of the costs through crowdfunding. Unbound have already published some remarkable titles including the Booker nominated “The Wake” by Paul Kingsnorth and are currently funding a title by Bella Bathurst who wrote the excellent “Bicycle Book.”

There’s more information on how it all works at Unbound

The project is a joint venture with Boneshaker magazine who I’ve been writing with for sixteen issues.

We’re hoping to start the crowdfunding process sometime in November and I’ll be keeping everyone up to date on progress with blog posts etc.

Please get in touch if you want to know more about the project or get involved.

Bring. Bring. (Copyright Bike Bell Sound). Let’s pedal.

Jet Bridge Estuary

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Naked bodies on Bikes. Chorlton and the Wheelies.

Some thoughts on watching hundreds of naked cyclists go by on a “World Naked Bike Ride” ;

I love bikes. I love people, mostly. I love bodies, mostly. Naked bodies on bikes. Tops. Mostly.

I’ve always thought of bikes being an extension of bodies. Those posters of apes evolving into humanoids and then humanoids evolving into bicycle riders aren’t just funny, they’re true. Those two wheels are the fifth and sixth limbs of man and woman and seeing hundreds of naked people cycle round a city centre on a hot saturday afternoon was fruity social biology. I love the way that the flab and cellulite flaps and bops and wobbles with an endless variety that is mimicked by the endless spectrum of fancy dress bicycles.

Humans used to be hairy apes, then they became less hairy cyclists, and soon all the hair and skin will go and we’ll just be skeletons riding around on bikes. And everyone will see that the bike frame is just the bones of the body elaborated. And soon enough the bike bones and body bones will mingle and we’ll all be wheeling along like Chorlton and the Wheelies (1970s “kids” programme about the surreal unicyclist creatures fight against a kettle witch.)

What I don’t like about naked bike rides are some of the fully clothed responses. The bald guy with a pint outside the roadside pub laughing and pointing at the genitalia rolling by.

Your bald head looks like genitalia. But I don’t point.

I’m stripping off my lycra.

I’m riding to the beach.

I’m cycling off the pier edge.

I’m cycling the sea bed.

To meet my starfish friends.

The bald headed guy can sit on his deck chair sinking cans of Tenants.

I know where the fun is.

With the seaweed and the bike bells and the bums.

Cycling back to the reptiles.

Revolving back through evolution.

To meet my naked friends.

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Magnetic Bike Stands and Magnetic Bikes

Everytime I lean my heavy touring bicycle against the inverted “U” of a municipal bike stand it invariably topples over. The toppled bike then topples the bike on the other side of the bike stand. There then follows a very British internal monologue that runs along the lines of:

“OK Lets pick their bike up.”

“I hope they’re not watching. They’ll think I’ve deliberately knocked it over.”

“They’ll probably think I’m trying to nick it. To replace my ridiculously heavy touring bike.”

“They’ll probably come out now and hit me with a saucepan cos I’ve made a microscratch on their classy Italian spray job while I’m trying to nick it.”

The solution to all this neuroticism and to bicycles, toppled like drunks, is magnetic bike stands and magnetic bikes.

If we can magnetise fridge magnets and the bodies in MRI scanners why can’t we magnetise bikes; the bike stand one polarity, the bike frame the opposite flavour? That way we get a bit of tactile adhesion before the lock is applied. That way my ridiculously heavy tourer won’t slide over when bumped by a shopper with a weeks load of groceries or a bad boy doing a pimp roll too near to the urban cycleways.

But no. No one wants to magnetise bikes. No one wants to put them in an electromagnetic tunnel and connect it to the mains. No one wants to make bicycles stick to the railings and the lamposts like hungry clinging flies. Fools.

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Motorway Service Station “Now Half Fully Open”

There is a sign for a motorway service station on the M5 between Bristol and Gloucester that reads “now fully open”. And this fills me with regret. Regret that I have never been to the motorway service station on the M5 between Bristol and Gloucester “now half fully open.” In fitful dreams, yanking back the linen of the dawn, I go to that place “now half fully open”, between junctions 13 and 14, junction 13.5, slipping down the sliproad like a rabbit down a hole. In this place, “now half fully open,” burger chefs are flipping patties of meat not yet cooked, UFOs of bloody mince, hang in the air, unsizzled. The cutlery is not yet stamped out from its blocks of industrial plastic. The carpet not yet laid, the lino untacked and undisguised. The plastic ketchup and brown sauce bottles are translucent, ungutpunched, unfingerprinted, like the hourglass waists of glamour models yet to be squeezed. And there is nothing in the gift shop. Nothing. Except a tea towel of Gloucester cathedral, a cathedral with no roof, just the timber struts of medieval labourers and a wide open sky.

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Yorkshire Tea and Electric Cars

There is a story about the band The Happy Mondays snorting ketamine off the exhaust pipe of their tour bus. Now, call me a prude but that’s not my kind of decongestant. I mean those buses run on diesel don’t they?  This is my personal festival fantasy; once I’d finished my dirty low down folk set the band would watch me plug my travel kettle into the cigar socket of my electric car and we’d all have a bag of Yorkshire. Yep you heard me right. Yorkshire. That’s a strong brew. I’ve tried them all.  Tetleys. Sainsburys Own. That organic one in the nice recycled cardboard with offset print. Man I’ve busted all those cuppas. But Yorkshire really hits the strainer. We are talking a heavy tea bag here. Think Heathcliff in a sodden flannel bodysuit, think Alan Bennett bungee jumping from a really high terraced house, think Michael Parkinson rollerblading against the traffic with quite heavy pebbles in his pockets and you’ve almost got it. And when me and my folk n roll pals hear the roil of that kettle boil we are rushin’ and I mean rushin’ to open the semi skimmed milk and splash it into our medium sized camping mugs. Sometimes I rev the accelerator on my fantasy electric car. Not because that boils the water any quicker but there’s something so thrilling about the barely audible whirr of an electric car that really makes me want to press the tea bag hard against the side of a tin cup.  And when you’ve had a cup of Yorkshire tea rocked off the battery of an electric car then man, you are flying. I mean microlite gliding over the Moors in your long johns.  A pair of maracas in one hand and toasted tea cake in the other, watching your shoes slip from your feet into freefall.

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