So Rob has decided to abstain from the cycling challenges we’ve been doing via Endomondo. As he explains, we set-up these challenges between a (very) loose group of us, connected via friends of friends and the internet, occasionally finding strangers stumbling across our challenges and joining in, people taking part for a couple of months and then vanishing, a core group of three of us – Rob, myself, and my brother-in-law Peter – the most committed and consistent participants, more often than not jostling with each other come the end of the month (or year) to see who can finish first.
My initial, pretty thoughtless reaction was to hold my hand to my forehead in an ‘L’ shape and breathe a sigh of relief that this year I’ll be able to win our mileage challenge (had Rob not done his epic and admirable Land’s End to John O’Groats trip I’d have beaten him by about 100 miles for the year – except that he’d not have let that happen). My second reaction was a twinge of sadness, because it’s been great fun competing against each other for the last 18 months or so, pushing each other onwards to better things; I’ll miss it.
But reading Rob’s post and thinking about why I love riding so much, I can see completely where he’s coming from. There is a danger that tracking your mileage can make the act of riding a past-tense pursuit, about having ridden, about the miles you’ve covered rather than about the things you might see if you head down that road or over that hill. I never went as far as going out for a ride just before midnight on the last day of the month just to pip my competitor at the post, but Endomondo certainly offers a frightening potential for competitiveness when, as I’ve written before, the main thing I get out of riding isn’t a sense of being better at it (or more frequent at it) than anyone else, but, as Rob put it, a rush of endorphins and a sense of discovery. (Saying that, I know from playing board games with Pete that competitiveness doesn’t just need a GPS device in order to manifest itself spectacularly.)
I don’t think I took our monthly challenges quite as seriously as Rob; I never considered the psychology or habits of my fellow challengers (bar Rob himself on a couple of occasions) for instance: the person I was competing most against was almost always myself. As Pete got more and more into running, and Rob’s mileage total leapt into insurmountability via LEJOG, my monthly and annual efforts were less about beating or catching them than they were about pushing myself, setting a target and going for it – like wanting to do over 500 miles in one month (August), ride at least 10 miles each day (and generally quite a few more) over the Christmas holiday, or finally take on the hill at the back of my parents’ house (this morning; and it was wonderful).
I’ll admit that there is occasionally a certain edge or intensity to the motivation behind cycling, beyond discovery and enjoyment and freedom. A hint of masochism and testosterone; almost something a little Fight Club-ish; the desire to keep one’s body from the flabbiness of sedentary comfort, to not die without any scars (or shoulder injuries, or the imprint of a chainring on your calf, or aching thumbs from braking hard on a fierce downhill bend in an effort to avoid eating hedgerow), a wish, in the joyful realisation that we’ll never be movie stars, to at least know that we are alive now, and living, not always tied to screens and phones and electricity. The irony of GPS tracking being, of course, that even in those blissful moments of pedalling free, the iPhone is in the pocket, relaying information back and forth. We’re never free.
The other day I received a transcript of an interview I did about cycling with a researcher a couple of months ago; while talking to him about why and how I cycle, how I feel about it, how it’s changed me, etc, it struck me that writing, cycling, and music, the way I approach them, have something in common; a sense of wanting to discover new routes in order to re-experience emotional phenomena in new dimensions: not mere recreations or facsimiles of former feelings, but extensions, developments, new versions. The 2,000 CDs in our front room are all an attempt to get that magic feeling from as many different sources as possible, lest it wear out and fade from any direction. Riding and writing, both done usually with an end-point or duration in mind but seldom a route, seem like similar undertakings to me, perhaps. It’s not about winning, even if it is about achievement of a sort.
Maybe now we’re not riding against each other, we can (literally) ride together more; not just Rob and me but Pete and anyone else who fancies it (I suspect Steve is going to want some social training for his summer ride to Istanbull [not Constantinople]), and take the social side of riding off the internet and put it onto the tarmac (and cake shops) of Devon. I’d like that.