I can still remember the first time I cycled from Dawlish to Exeter. I was 22, and, like most feats of vague idiocy at that age, it was inspired by a girl. I’d met her a week or two earlier, and she worked in a record shop in Exeter. The bike was a red mountain bike that I’d bought for £150 as a student so I could get from campus to campus more easily. The ride to Exeter, 13 miles each way, seemed enormous and insurmountable and insane. I’d never done it before and didn’t know where to go; I just had a vague inkling that you could get all the way up a trail alongside the river Exe. I didn’t even know Exeter well enough back then to know how to get from the river to the city centre. The things we do for girls we’ve just met, eh?
I think the ride took me about two hours each way, which makes me laugh these days; I’ve hammered down the main road to Dawlish in about 45 minutes. But back then, on that sunny Saturday, it felt like the most amazing adventure, venturing into uncharted territory both literally and emotionally. Crazily, although it was the start of a relationship – thirteen years later we’re married, own a home together and are expecting our first child – it wasn’t the start of a hobby; the bike went in the garage not long after and rusted away for years. It wasn’t until we lived in Exeter and got married, nine years hence, that I got a new bike and was slowly, surely, bitten by the bug.
On Sunday afternoon we were driving to Dawlish and passed, down Barrack Road, a gang (for want of a better word) of boys – teenagers, perhaps 15 or 16 – out on their bikes together. Four on road bikes of various kinds – an old steel racer, a tourer, a modern compact alloy frame, etc – and one on a mountain bike. No helmets, no lycra, no cleats; just jeans and trainers and t-shirts and a backpack each, heading out on the first day of summer for an adventure, weaving across each others’ paths, laughing, talking, pedalling like mad for a split second and then freewheeling downhill. They looked like they were having fun, and I was far more jealous of them than of any Sunday morning peloton I’ve seen hammering the tarmac to Tiverton or down the Teign Valley.
It’s that sense of freedom, and adventure, and excitement, that I really love about cycling; it’s why I feel far more inspired by John Prolly’s Instagram feed than by the Tour de France. It’s why, no matter how much I love my racing bike, I love my steel cross bike more, even after only two and a bit weeks. It just feels like a different kind of riding; partly because ramping off a kerb or swerving across a grass verge or heading across a gravel trail isn’t an issue at all, but more because… it just makes me want to explore, to turn down roads I’d otherwise ride past, and the knowledge that I can makes me approach riding differently.
So this summer my priority isn’t hitting personal bests, or increasing mileage month-on-month; it’s recapturing that feeling I got when I rode to Exeter to see Emma all those years ago, about getting a hint of that euphoria those boys were heading for last Sunday as they freewheeled down the road towards wherever it was they ended up. About enjoyment.