I hit a pothole on a Devonshire back lane at about 25mph yesterday morning; a proper, 3-inch deep crater presumably caused by a tractor (it was amid serious farm territory around Thorverton), and I was instantly grateful that my new bike was a cyclocross and not a straight road bike – the vibration-absorbing thingamabobs on the front forks and the slick, resilient Gatorskins I’ve put on the wheels saved me from jarring my wrists and blowing my front tyre, which would presumably have seen my face end up slamming into dirty Tarmacadam at pace. Nasty, potentially. Instead I carried on as if nothing had happened – because nothing had.
I’ve had my new bike for 19 days so far, and I’ve ridden over 390 miles on it, almost all of which has been on Devon back roads. I chose the bike with those back roads in mind, because they’re the roads I’ve most enjoyed riding on. Since I picked up the bike on July 20th I’ve smashed pretty much all my previous personal bests, from quickest mile to quickest 10 miles, most miles covered in one hour, quickest 20 kilometres, quickest 50 kilometres (I’ve not done a single 50-mile trip on it yet, to measure that, but it’s coming). It’s not as quick as a pure road bike would be, but it’s pretty damn close, and to be honest I don’t want it to be – riding, for me, is about discovery; geographical rather than self discovery, though I’m not averse to the idea.
This is why I rarely have a route planned when I go out on the bike. I often have an end destination in mind, or a target distance or time I’d like to cycle for, or certain places, landmarks, or stretches of road I’d like to pass through or avoid, but I seldom if ever plan anything closely with a map. On a couple of occasions on longer rides with friends, when routes have been asked about, I’ve deferred or delegated any kind of planning to somebody else in the party.
This can be problematic on occasion – when I accompanied Rob and Tom on the second day of their epic Land’s End to John O’Groats cycle, just a few days after picking up the new bike, if I ended up leading the pack I would almost always fire past whichever turning we were meant to take, hear a shout, skid to a halt, turn around, and have to catch up again. Likewise when I decided, after 25-30 miles in their company, that it was time for me to peel off and head southwards and home, I had no idea of the exact route I should take. After a couple of miles headed in vaguely the right direction I consulted the maps app on my phone at a crossroads, but somewhere way east and a little north of Thorverton signal was in short supply and I was left a little discombobulated. Luckily a gaggle of roadies pedalled passed me and one of them pointed me in the direction of Talaton – from there Aunk was a short jaunt, and I just had to climb the hill between Aunk and Westwood and I was back to Broadclyst and practically home.
Normally I ride alone, but I’d rather have company. My aversion to planning routes, and a habit of getting up and out very early indeed (6.45am is a pretty common start time for weekend rides in summer) means I’m not great at facilitating riding partners though, so I’m often left with nothing but my bike or, occasionally (if I’m on long stretches of cyclepath), a pair of headphones and a playlist for company. I’m not sure what I think about when I ride; I’m not sure I consciously think of anything other than the road, the bike, my bum, my knees, my average speed. In company, as usual, I talk a lot, but otherwise it’s like driving – conscious brain switches off to a degree and the task becomes who you are as well as what you’re doing for a while.
There are very few more pleasurable things to do than roll for 40 miles through Devonshire hills on a gorgeous sunny day, turning down any lane you like the look of, slogging up a hill and then hammering down the other side of it – Upton Pyne to Brampford Speke, Little Silver to Exminster (I capped a mile in 2:16 there this evening), out of Sidmouth over the accursed Peak Hill towards Budleigh (I’ve tried it twice and not made it up without stopping yet). But this is all better when you have company. Pete and I did 30 miles together in glorious sunshine the weekend before last, and we both agreed that mornings like that made us vaguely regret all the mornings wasted with hangovers in our more hedonistic years. I’ve been steadily receding more and more from that kind of behaviour over the last decade anyway, having been an occasional monster at university, but it’s no coincidence that these days I rarely if ever have more than two drinks in an evening, and even then no more then two or three times a week. I can’t remember the last time I had a hangover.
These days I’m beginning to find the tribalism of cycling amusing; with a ‘proper’ bike and a couple of proper cycling jerseys now I’m beginning to understand the culture(s) of it all a bit more. These days the roadies wave at me and say “hi” when we pass, like drivers of the same model of classic car, even though I’m definitely, defiantly, not quite one of them. The tribalism I feel is good humoured though; I jokingly refer to mountain bikers as disgusting savages and proper roadies as scumbag ponces. As for ponderous, pottering weekend cyclists, three-abreast on the cycle path and oblivious to all…
My mum and dad, and my wife, and a guy I know on the internet, have all referred to me as obsessed in the last three weeks, as my cycling has ramped-up a level with the new bike. It’s Rob’s fault; I’m jealous of his end-to-end epic. I want to do it myself. I also want to cycle to Portland Bill, camp, and return the next day. I want to do the WWW loop up from Exeter to Willand, Wellington, and Wiveliscombe, back through Tiverton, 75 miles in a day. I want to do London to Paris in 24 hours on midsummer’s eve. I want to cycle back lanes in glorious sunshine, see a turn-off I’ve never noticed before, feel intrigued, head down it, and discover a piece of countryside I’ve never seen before.
And I think that’s why I haven’t written anything on here in the last six weeks. I’ve been writing a lot at work – ghostwriting blog posts for academics, editing interviews, writing copy for websites, but I’ve had no time, and no impetus, no will, to write anything for myself. In keeping my writing diary I’ve realised that I don’t really plan my writing; I often have a point I want to get across, an impression I want to make, or a word count I want to hit when I sit down, but most of what I do is discovery writing; making it up as I go along. For now, at least, discovery riding has taken over.