Category Archives: Cycling

On bicycles

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.

A year in the saddle

This time last year I’d ridden a total of 15 miles, which was a New Year’s Day figure-of-8 through Rockbeare and Broadclyst that took about an hour. I rode again on January 5th; a regular 15-mile loop down to Lympstone, over Woodbury Common, and back into Exeter down the Sidmouth road.

And then I stopped.

I rode once in February – a variation on the Woodbury Common loop on the 16th – and then I didn’t ride again until April 20th.

In truth, I hadn’t really ridden since late October 2012. That month I rode three times, totaling 64 miles. The September I’d ridden three times, totaling 110 miles. August was five rides and 140 miles. I’d ridden 250 miles in July, 165 in June, 220 in May, 151 in April, 180 in March, 100 in February, 240 in January. What happened?

Weather happened; it rained in 2012 like I’ve never known it rain before; twice we took a week’s holiday to ‘staycation’ – looking for houses, tending our allotment and bike riding was all that was on our itinerary – and each time it rained all day, every day. Our vegetables died, the allotment flooded. There are only so many sodden bike rides one can stomach.

I’d ridden more than 3,000 miles in 2011, having got a bike for the first time since I was a student the year before. A simple, solid commuter, that I took to hammering down cyclepaths with in the evenings, which gave way to a cyclocross bike a year later, which I put skinny tyres on, made as aggressive as I could, would take over Dartmoor whenever I had the chance, rode 100 miles on in a day with Peter one (the only) hot July day, just to see if we could.

But in November 2012 we moved house – to a house, a proper, sensible house, from our awesome, cool flat in the desirable part of town – and the bike went in the shed and didn’t come out again. The move was expensive and protracted and stressful, and I couldn’t face cycling for a while; things needed decorating (most of them still do), and a year of rain with barely any summer had taken its toll. Once you fall out of a habit, it’s hard to get back into it.

I rode 80 miles last April, 70 in May, and 23 in June, despite the weather being better. Cycling didn’t seem like something I did anymore.

But then something changed. On a prosaic level, I took my bike to get a service, and it had a new bottom bracket and headset fitted, and became a pleasure to ride again. I cycled 300 miles in July, 300 in August, bought a new bike (a proper road bike) on September the 1st and rode 300 miles that month, too. The light faded and I managed 240 in October, 180 in November.

In the last 28 days I’ve ridden 344 miles. 225 or so of those have been since Christmas Eve. I’ve already done as many for this January as I did in January, February, and March or last year added together. I intend to keep it up.

What else changed? I bought myself some cycling indulgences to encourage me – a new helmet, new shoes, a new jersey, prescription sunglasses, a softshell – and though none of these on their own were amazing revelations (bar perhaps the sunglasses; how have I managed 20+ years without?), added together (with the bottom bracket and headset too) and considering the glorious summer we enjoyed, the aggregation of marginal gains made a massive difference to how it felt to ride.

It reminds me a bit of how I felt about music through 2008 and into the start of 2009; I was tired, alienated, bored, but a new pair of speakers in spring 2009 reinvigorated all the music I already owned and also made me want to get out and hear new music, too. A new bike, new shoes, new jersey, etcetera have made me want to ride all the old routes I used to ride, and also made me want to turn down different, newer roads, too. And I’ve got a nice network of people to ride with now, much like I have a couple of record clubs to keep my listening fresh, too.

I’ve nothing profound to conclude here, no insight to offer or epithet to close with. I want to ride 3,000 miles again this year, ride some more new roads, take the bike to different parts of the country, and just keep riding, and enjoying it. A year ago I’d have hated the 28 damp miles I did this morning (and being bitten by a dog while doing them!) but today I loved them. It’s the bit before you start riding that’s awkward, and those first two miles. Once I’m pedaling and beyond the city, I’m free. And once the days are longer…

Every time you jump a red light, I get shouted at – on bad cyclists

I am a cyclist. I cycle. Quite a lot. Yesterday night I did 8 miles. On Saturday morning I did 46. Today I did 1.6 to work and later I’ll do 1.6 home (in fact I might go the long way home, and do more). This year I’ve done 1,600+ miles, even though up until June I only did 250, for various reasons. I own two bicycles – a summer road bike, and a winter / commuter bike. The year before last, when I cycled the whole year round, I rode more than 3,000 miles. Since June 2010, when I got a bike again for the first time since university, I’ve ridden more than 7,000 miles. I ride for leisure, for exercise, for convenience, and for pure fun. Riding is great. Bicycle people are great. But I still wouldn’t class myself as an expert, or even a very good cyclist. I’m just, I hope, not a bad cyclist. I also walk and drive a lot, and I don’t want to die, or cause a death, whilst travelling by any of those means.

Which is why I’m getting more and more militant about bad cyclists. Bad cyclists piss me off. Every time a bad cyclist does something stupid, a good cyclist bears the brunt of it. I get shouted at probably 30% of the time when I’m out, generally by dickheads leaning out of car windows. I don’t think I’ve ever been doing anything wrong when I’ve been shouted at; some motorists just hate cyclists, and bad cyclists doing stupid things that piss off motorists, just makes motorists hate cyclists more.

(A note to people who shout at cyclists from cars; we have no idea what you’re saying to us, and you come across as enormous wankers. Just so you know.)

I’m aware that this post could be seen as victim-blaming, and, yes, ideally the cities, towns, roads, and rural areas of this country would simply be a lot more accessible and friendly towards cyclists, with better infrastructure and policies, and we’d all ride bikes more and be healthier and the economy (people who cycle to city centres spend more than those who drive, strangely) and environment (cyclists don’t pollute) would benefit. I hope the popularity of Borgen, where the prime minister and TV journalists and everyone else is shown cycling around Denmark to work and the shops, will make us and our government realise that bikes make cities (and towns, and villages) better places to live in, and that policy and infrastructure will be altered accordingly. But the simple fact is this country is not Denmark or the Netherlands or Germany or any number of other countries where cycling isn’t something done by lunatics, and so you have to ride accordingly, and that means not doing insanely dangerous, stupid, or illegal things while on a bike, like…

Ride without lights in the dark.
By ‘the dark’ I just mean any sub-optimal light; it might be midday and foggy, or dawn, or dusk, or cloudy and under tree cover. If you’ve not got lights on, people cannot see you very well, if at all. You’re also practically silent. This is not a good combination. Most modern cars seem to have slightly tinted windows to minimise glare, which means you’re practically invisible to motorists in anything less than good daylight. I know this because I cycle and I drive. Because I drive, I would never cycle in sub-optimal light without lights for fear that I wouldn’t be seen. Riding without lights is stupid and insanely dangerous. It’s also, you know, illegal.

Jump red lights.
On Saturday I rode up a busy main street in Exeter, which has several sets of traffic lights, both for junctions and crossings. I stopped at all of them, as did another guy on a bike. A girl on a bike rode through on red each time. We’d then overtake her, stop at the next lights, and she’d catch us while we were stopped and jump through on red again. I was exasperated, and I may have shouted. It was busy. Cars and pedestrians were crossing the flow of traffic from all directions, and she could very easily have hit or been hit by something. I include, in this example, people who just nip up onto the pavement for a second to circumvent the lights, and cross with pedestrians. Jumping red lights is stupid and insanely dangerous. It’s also, you know, illegal.

(Slight caveat – sometimes this is unavoidable, for instance very early in the morning when no cars are about, at lights which change on a sensor; most sensors simply don’t recognise cyclists, so you have to ignore them sometimes. But I only do this if there’s absolutely no traffic. Would I do it in a car? I wouldn’t need to.)

Ride on the pavement.
Riding on the pavement is for little kids. Tiny little kids. With stabilisers. It is not for wannabe hipster teenage boys on vintage racing bikes; my wife will shout at you if you do this, and you are an idiot for doing it. Racing bikes, especially older ones, are not stable at slow speeds unless you’re pretty accomplished; riding them very slowly along the pavement, weaving precariously past pedestrians and looking like you’re going to fall off / crash into somebody, is stupid and insanely dangerous. It’s also, you know, illegal.

Undertaking traffic.
You know those t-shirts cyclists wear which say “You’re not stuck in traffic; you ARE traffic”, taunting motorists who are… stuck in traffic? Well, if you’re cycling on a road, you are traffic too. The problem is that neither cyclists nor motorists seem to quite understand what that means when it comes to passing other vehicles when you’re on a bike. And the law doesn’t help, either; it’s not illegal to undertake static or slow-moving traffic if you’re on a bicycle, nor to overtake, but which is best? This is a tricky one because it’s not necessarily insane or stupid, and it certainly isn’t illegal, but it can be dangerous.

As both a driver and a cyclist, motorists, in my experience, are generally not expecting people to undertake them, even bikes. And high-sided vehicles (buses, lorries, vans, even big people-carriers and 4x4s) simply don’t have adequate visibility of small things passing on their left. Even people in cars don’t always indicate their intentions, and can easily cut across cyclists. Unless I’m in a dedicated cycling lane I almost never undertake, and even then I’m loathe, and certainly never anything high-sided.

Ignoring one-way systems.
Again, you are traffic. You are obliged to obey the rules of the road, and that includes one-way systems. Cars will NOT be expecting you coming the other way, because you shouldn’t be coming the other way. Drivers pulling out of junctions into one-way systems probably won’t look the way that traffic shouldn’t be coming from, and even if they do I doubt it will be as thoroughly. Going the wrong way down a one-way street is stupid and insanely dangerous. It’s also, you know, illegal.

Ride too fast where it’s not appropriate.
I like to go fast. I have a decent road bike and I can cap 40mph on it downhill in good conditions. It’s exciting, and going down hills fast is one of the reasons why I cycle up hills in the first place (and I live and ride in Devon, so there are a lot of hills). I will admit to feeling a little shiver of delight when I set off a speed camera, even though I shouldn’t. Let’s blame Strava. Sometimes, speed is just not appropriate or safe. I have seen more than one riding buddy stack it into a hedge or a ditch because they were riding too fast. They’re lucky they didn’t stack it into an oncoming car. Riding too fast where it’s not appropriate is stupid and insanely dangerous. It’s also, if you’re going above the speed limit, you know, illegal.

Pedestrians and motorists are stupid, too.
Pushing baby buggies down cycle paths. Not controlling their dogs around cycle paths. Not looking for cyclists properly at roundabouts. Shouting at cyclists for no reason. For every bad cyclist there are more bad pedestrians and motorists, which is why you need to be a good cyclist, so you can avoid getting hurt or killed by them.

This list is in no way comprehensive; it’s just stuff I’ve noticed a lot – probably because I cycle and walk and drive in and around a university campus a lot of the time, and students, as we know, can be a little lackadaisical about their own personal safety and wellbeing. I want more people to ride bikes, but I want them to ride bikes well, so that it becomes a far more normal and accepted mode of transport. And so that idiot motorists don’t shout at me for not hugging the kerb when I’m doing 30mph on a downhill section of a main road in a 40mph limit.

Here’s some advice on filtering and “taking the road” from Cyclescheme.

A hundred mile bike ride

Pete and I have been talking for a while about wanting to ride 100 miles in a day, for no other reason than to see if we could do it. Obviously I cycle quite a bit, and whilst Pete doesn’t ride as much as I do, he does run marathons, and has a requisite amount of bloody-minded determination.

My longest single ride previously was only 60 miles, but there have been many 40-50 milers, and many days where I’ve ridden that kind of distance consecutively. Pete’s ridden up to 80 miles in a day before whilst touring across France or Amsterdam.

So we spent the last couple of weeks waiting for the weather to break, and plotting what route we’d take. Yesterday was the day, and we set out from my house a little after 9am, just over a litre of fluids each in our bottle racks, Pete with jam sandwiches and me with flapjacks to spur us on. Nearly 9 hours later, just before 6pm, I locked my bike up back at home, after over 7 hours in the saddle.

We climbed three big hills in our first 50 miles, which registered in order as categories 4, 3, and 5 on the Tour de France scale: out of Exeter towards Dunsford; from Kingsteignton over Bishopsteignton to Teignmouth Golf Course; and over the back of Woodbury to Otterton. We wound our way through back lanes for much of the last 40 miles, doing our damndest to find shaded, flat routes where we could escape the heat of the afternoon sun on the hottest day of the year.

We followed the Teign valley and traversed both sides of the Exe estuary as we drew a huge figure-of-eight with the crossroads centred on Exeter, past Christow, Chudleigh, Dawlish, Exminster, Ottery St Mary, Feniton, Talaton, Broadclyst and more. There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky all day.

Pete seemed to struggle a bit between about 45 and 60 miles, before finding the energy and determination to see it through. I found the last 18 miles or so difficult; into a headwind towards Turf Locks (89 miles in) I was almost ready to call it a day, but a pint of shandy and a bag of crisps and ten minutes standing up and stretching out of the saddle recuperated me.

The last 3-4 miles were spent doing crazed loops of Exeter city centre in rush hour traffic, trying to find an easy, quiet way to tick off the last few miles to get to 100. It got quite psychedelic at points, hanging off the bike, spinning pedals, time seeming to pass too slowly, brain not thinking, no energy to speak.

I’ve never felt as exhausted, mentally or physically, as I did when I got home. My head was spinning and I thought I might pass out for a split second. A can of coke, a banana, and a cold bath to relax my muscles helped. Remarkably, I almost feel like I could get back on the bike again today, although I doubt for more than 20 or 30 miles. I certainly wouldn’t want to do any hills.

You can see our route here, taken from Pete’s Garmin watch.

Mass observation diary – 12.05.2012

Yesterday, rather than just make a note of all the music I listened to, I diarised everything, in order to help out some researchers. As I was diarising my listening already, it didn’t seem like too much of a stretch to record everything else as well. And I love helping out researchers.

Awoken by Cosmo the cat, who wanted to snuggle in by my elbow. Read The Guardian, Twitter, and ilXor, and checked blog stats on my iPhone. Tried to get back to sleep, without much success, because our bedroom faces the morning sun, which was bright even at this time in the morning.

Got up and went to the loo. Went back to bed.

Got up properly. Ate a slice of granary toast and drank a glass of orange juice. Listened to Endless Summer by Fennesz. Tweeted my music choice. Got Emma’s breakfast stuff ready, as she was going to work in the shoe shop today for her dad. Did yesterday’s washing-up.

Because Emma is working (every other Saturday or so, to help out her dad over the summer) I have alternate Saturdays pretty much entirely to myself, which is strange, because we’ve spent practically every Saturday together for the last ten years. It does mean that I can go on guilt-free bike rides without having to leave at 7am so I’m back before she’s awake, though.

Sat down at the dining table with the laptop and typed up yesterday’s listening diary. Spoke with Em about my plans for the day; explained the diary research. Fought with Bob the cat half-heartedly because he’d rather I stroke him than type on the laptop.

Went down to the yard and flipped my bike stem to make the handlebars a bit racier. I’ve been pondering a new stem for ages; it took Pete getting a new bike and being told that he could flip his stem over to make it more aggressive for me to realize that I didn’t need to spend any money, just undo some bolts and then do them back up again.

Went for a bike ride, only my second in two weeks since damaging my knee again (the first was the night before, with Peter). It seems counter-intuitive to some people, but cycling is actually quite therapeutic for your knees if you used clipped-in pedals; the motion is entirely linear (it’s lateral movements and twists that cause my knee to give way) and with clipped-in pedals you’re not putting as much force through the knee on the downstroke. I took a few photos on the way and tweeted them, because it was a beautiful, sunny morning. I thought about the nature of psychedelic music whilst cycling up a sizable hill, and how Paul’s Boutique by the Beastie Boys is psychedelic, and vaguely planned to write a blog post about it. Had Ill Communication lyrics in my head for whole ride in a bizarre internal medley. It’s amazing how your brain works to distract you from the hill you’re cycling up; I’m pretty sure I’m only concentrating on the road and my speed when I’m descending quickly. I cycled 21 miles altogether, on top of 32 the previous evening. Near the end I picked up my t-shirt from Rick’s house, which I’d left in his car after playing football last week.

Stopped off to water the allotment on the way home.

Got home, showered, got dressed, and went out to get lunch. It was the first day this year that I’ve put shorts on apart from to cycle or play football – normally I live in shorts, when I’m not at work, from about April to October. My mum rang, to ask what we’re doing on my birthday, which is next Tuesday. She offered to buy us a Chinese takeaway if we went down to see them after work.

Bought a slice of pizza and a brownie from my favourite delicatessen. Whilst out and about I met our old neighbours, who have moved because they had a baby. I also met Tony the sociology professor from work, and we discussed knee injuries – he damaged his whilst skiing. Met Rob from work and his wife and baby on the cathedral green, where I ate my lunch. Heard a man playing Spanish-style acoustic guitar on one side of the cathedral green, near Abode, possibly heard a trumpet on other the other side. The combination of the two reminded me of Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis. Bought a ginger beer in M&S. Browsed HMV for a few minutes, and heard Let Forever Be by The Chemical Brothers for the second time in two days, which felt like an odd coincidence as I’ve not heard it in probably years. I started to feel very tired after two bike rides sandwiched around not much sleep, so I walked home.

Got home, and lolled on the sofa listening to Truelove’s Gutter by Richard Hawley, which was excellent.

Went down to the yard to clean my bike, listening to the ‘I need this song on my iPhone’ playlist on my phone, via my Koss Portapro headphones. I took the wheels off, gave the gears and chain a damn good clean, and changed the tyres to my slick summer pair.

Finished cleaning my bike, came back inside, and jumped in the shower to wash the grease and dirt off my hands and feet because they were filthy.

Lolled on sofa whilst listening to Giant Steps by The Boo Radleys. Ate an apple; it was straight from the fridge, so I peeled it first. For the record, it was a Pink Lady, which I feel guilty about because of the air miles, but we had a voucher, and I love them.

Popped out to B&Q to buy gardening shears so we can cut the grass easily at the allotment tomorrow, and to get onions, ginger, poppadoms, and beer from Sainsbury’s.

Got home and started cooking a sweet potato and spinach curry, whilst listening to the last seven track of Giant Steps, which I’d paused before popping out.

Got to the end of Giant Steps, so I put on Ill Communication. Still cooking the curry, which wasn’t to a recipe, but off the top of my head. I’ve done this curry before, and just apply various curry-cooking principles I have picked up fro recipe books and websites to the set of ingredients I wanted to use.

Emma got home from the shoe shop. I was still cooking. We ate bits of poppadoms with lime pickle, mango chutney, and diced onion and coriander. I let the curry simmer gently whilst Emma phoned her mum.

The curry was finally ready to serve. Put the telebox on; Come Dine With Me was the only thing even vaguely worth watching. I drank a beer (an IPA) and Emma had a glass of white wine.

Finished dinner; Emma washed up and I put portions of leftover curry into Tupperware containers; five in all. Three went in the freezer, and two in the fridge for Monday.

I spotted on Twitter that Japandroids are playing in Bristol in a week and a bit. Told Emma, and she bought tickets.

Sat on the sofa, watching old episodes of Grand Designs (and then a new episode of Casualty) and typing up this diary, which I’d been keeping in the Notes app on my phone, and then transferred to Word on the laptop so I can flesh it out and make it into a full blog post. Drank a second beer.

Switched to Channel 5 to watch CSI:NY. Drank a glass of white wine. Exchanged tweets with various people. Noticed two Massive Attack songs (both from Mezzanine; Angel and then Risingson) on the CSI soundtrack.

Went upstairs, cleaned teeth, and went to bed.

Fascinating, n’est pas?

Legal disclaimer – I have to include this bit so that the researchers can use this diary.
“I donate my 12th May diary to the Mass Observation Archive. I consent to it being made publicly available as part of the Archive and assign my copyright in the diary to the Mass Observation Archive Trustees so that it can be reproduced in full or in part on websites, in publications and in broadcasts as approved by the Trustees.”

Why don’t cyclists use cyclepaths?

This hateful piece of sub-Clarkson publicity-by-controversy was published on my local newspaper’s website recently. The newspaper is going rapidly tits-up (like all newspapers), having recently gone weekly, and the author has just launched a new radio station in the area, so is no doubt trying his damndest to get as much attention for himself and his new media business venture as possible by being an odious twat. Anyway, after spitting bile about the piece briefly on Twitter, and having been sworn at and had nasty, mean hand-gestures made at me on a couple of occasions by cockfarmer motorists whilst cycling on the road , I thought I’d quickly outline some points about why I don’t always use a cyclepath, and, more importantly, why I am entirely entitled to cycle on the road if I choose to do so.

Different people cycle for different reasons
In fact, so do I. Sometimes I’m just nipping to the shops. Sometimes I’m going for a gentle summer ride with my wife. Sometimes I’m exploring new parts of the countryside. Sometimes I’m going to work. Sometimes I’m out for exercise. Depending on the reason, I might cycle at different speeds, some of which are wholly inappropriate for narrow, winding, bollard-studded cyclepaths. In fact…

I like to cycle quite fast
Over the course of a 30-mile ride across Devonshire countryside, taking in country lanes, main roads, cyclepaths, hills, flats, etc etc, I will average just over 15mph. On a straight, flat, wide road with a nice surface I will average 18-22mph depending how much I’m going for it. Cyclists are apparently not actually legally allowed to ride on cyclepaths at speeds of over 18mph; therefore we go on the road. There’s a reason skinny, drop-bar bikes are called road bikes.

Cyclepaths are full of obstacles
Bollards; chicanes; gutters; leaf-mulch; bins; broken twigs and branches; people on rollerskates; benches; children on those little silver scooters; pedestrians; dogs: these things are all much more common on cyclepaths than they are on roads, and they are all dangerous to cyclists, and cyclists are all dangerous to them. Shared-usage paths are one thing, but I regularly see pedestrians walking on specifically delineated cyclepaths when there are also specially delineated walking paths – if I were to do that as a cyclist I’d expect abuse.

Cyclepaths are often badly designed
Especially where they cross junctions with side roads, roundabouts, traffic lights of any kind, or any other complex road topography. Cyclepaths are almost always added later, as an after-thought, which is why they can stop seemingly arbitrarily or continue without signage, causing confusion and thus danger amongst cyclists and motorists alike. Coming down the hill from Haldon, a cyclists’ paradise, you’re dumped from broad, fast, excellent cyclepaths onto what’s effectively the hard-shoulder of the busiest stretch of dual carriageway in Devon; it’s petrifying, and signed so badly that I’m surprised there aren’t regular deaths.

I pay for the roads too
There is no such thing as road tax. Council tax, which I pay, because I live within a council (several, in fact – Devon County Council and Exeter City Council for a start), pays for roads. The tax disc on your car is Vehicle Excise Duty, and is a tax because cars are dirty disgusting things that pump out rancid minging fumes. I pay Vehicle Excise Duty too because I drive a car. Bicycles don’t have to pay Vehicle Excise Duty because they don’t cause any pollution (whilst being ridden – obviously there’s the embedded pollution of their construction, but that’s paid for in business taxes). It’s quite simple; cyclists pay for the roads as much as motorists (and pedestrians too, for that matter), and thus are allowed to use them as much.

Motorists often ignore cyclepaths
I do not think motorists are idiots. I am one. I am also a cyclist, and a pedestrian. I have witnessed many, many fine, courteous motorists, and many, many awful, idiotic cyclists, sans lights, sans attention, sans care for other road users, sans knowledge of the law. Idiots come in all modes of transport, as do decent people. An idiot, discourteous cyclist, however, isn’t quite as likely to kill someone as an idiot, discourteous motorist. So please, don’t park on cyclepaths; don’t even pull over onto them for a second to drop someone off. Don’t pull up into the green block for cyclists at the head of traffic lights. Don’t regard cyclepaths as extra space for you to swerve into; there might be a cyclist there.

Why do I cycle?

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.

Why do some motorists hate cyclists?

I blasted a quick 10 miles down the estuary and back through Exminster this evening, leaving just before 5:30pm to take advantage of what I suspected might be the last of this unseasonable sunshine and warmth. “The last hot ride of the year” I said to Em when I got back, and sure enough I arrived home to clouds and premature twilight. It had been about 25 degrees when I left. It wasn’t exactly cold when I got home, but a breeze had begun, and was fanning the trees ominously.

That 10 miles leaves me five shy of 100 for the month of October already, only three days in. Last October I managed 200 for the entire month. Evening rides are obviously going to be less frequent now, but I’m determined to keep up my big weekends mornings, even if I set off at 10am rather than 6:30am. I’ve bought arm warmers, winter socks, a snood, and ¾ bib knicks in an effort to equip myself properly.

If Sunday morning, out at 7am, is anything to go by, I’ll need them. 35 miles of fog, forests, foxes, and farmsteads from Exeter towards Tiverton, east to Cullompton, back south again, the wooded upland areas preserving warmth, making me sweat beneath jersey and wind jacket, but descents to areas close to water, even the tiniest streams, seeing temperatures plummet, and rapidly. I was glad of the wind jacket and the winter socks, but by 9am, as I neared home again, the sun was up, the sky blue, the fog turned to mist and then evaporated completely. I cleaned my bike after lunch and spent an hour or so at the allotment after that, and it was steaming hot.

I’d done 50 miles on Saturday morning, setting out at 7:30am, through golden river mist at Topsham, over Woodbury Common, meeting up with Monstershark for a dozen miles or so at Ottery to Feniton and then Whimple, before heading back towards Exeter, over the crest at Little Silver, and along the estuary home. Along the estuary an impatient guy in a classic car, who was forcing his way past a family out on their bikes and wanted me to stop and jam myself into a hedge for him, called me an idiot.

That was only the second or third time I’ve received abuse from a motorist. It was a tiny, quiet lane from Exminster to the estuary trail, the most popular cycle path in the area. It’s busy with cyclists, especially when the weather’s good. The driver didn’t have to stop his car, I didn’t have to stop my bike, there was clear space between us; I was confused. But then, today, I saw Danny Care’s comment about cyclists retweeted. “I hate cyclists. Get a car!” he wrote. I’d link to it, but he’s deleted it now, seemingly. I shan’t link to his profile, either, because he seems like a moron. He’s a professional rugby player, apparently. I’d never heard of him; I’ve no interest in rugby.

The antipathy that motorists allegedly have for cyclists confuses me. I’ve barely ever experienced it, but I generally ride on the roads early at weekend mornings, when they’re quiet. It confuses me that motorists would think that cyclists don’t own cars, too. I do. I love driving. I think I prefer cycling, though; in August I rode over 500 miles. I’m pretty sure we didn’t do that many miles between us in the car. I’m not a fanatical cyclist. Not yet anyway. But I agree with this guy, that we could really do with yet more encouragement from the government, as a nation, to accept cycling, both in terms of other people doing it and as something to do ourselves. Some friends rode to Amsterdam the other weekend, when we were in Ibiza, and the stories of glorious, busy, well-maintained cycle routes have me wide-eyed with jealousy. I must go there with the bike next year.

Cyclists don’t always do themselves favours. On campus today I saw two ignoring one-way systems. On the way to work I saw one mount the pavement and cycle through people rather than wait for traffic lights. Don’t do this! It gives us a bad name; it makes people hate us, both motorists and pedestrians. Don’t jump red lights either; we saw two cars smashed together tonight as we headed out to buy cat litter and bike grease, presumably because one had jumped the lights. If one had been a bike there’d have been a worse outcome than whiplash and insurance claims. I admit I jumped a red light on Sunday morning, but there wasn’t a car to be seen in any direction, it was 7am. Excusable? Maybe not. No one would know if I hadn’t written it here.

The photograph with this post is by, who’s a lovely guy and great photographer. That’s me, by the Exe Estuary, last Wednesday evening.

Out of the saddle

Normally I’d have cycled about 20 miles by now on a Saturday morning. Daylight hours are receding so I may wait until 7am rather than heading out at 6:30, but I haven’t missed an early Saturday morning ride since the first weekend in June, when I was getting ready to fly to Spain. Weekend mornings, before everyone else is awake, are my favourite times to cycle, whether it’s taking the familiar coast route down to Dawlish to see my parents for breakfast on a Saturday, or heading east to Clyst St. George and Woodbury, ascending up over the Common, north to Ottery, and back through Talaton, Aunk, and Broadclyst, a 30-mile loop that takes just a smidgeon under two hours on a Sunday.

But today I haven’t cycled. It’s grey; the air is semi-sodden with faint drizzle but still. It’s the type of morning that makes you want to not get out of bed. Except that I’ve been waiting for a day like this, for faint moisture, for coolness. I’ve got a new cycling jacket, an expensive, wind-resistant Rapha thing, that I haven’t cycled with in anger yet because it’s been too warm, too temperate, on the days I’ve been out on the bike since it arrived. Not that I’ve been out many days. Not at all since last Saturday morning, when I did the usual roll to Dawlish, except with some added hills, as the start of serious preparation for the Exmoor Beast, 100km across Exmoor at the end of October with thousands of feet of climbing.

I haven’t cycled since then because that ride caused the pain in my shoulder, initially sparked by building the shed some three weeks ago, to return, only this time it hasn’t gone away. It’s eased at various points, under assault of ibuprofen both taken internally and rubbed into the shoulder as a gel. The pain has varied between something harsh and something dull, has limited movement, has eased, has been a mild ache, has seemed to move around to different muscles, has been a clicking in my shoulder with some movements I’ve made, has seen me put weight back on in only a few days after having lost the best part of a stone in the last three months, has made me miserable and frustrated, each easement of pain a tantalizing hint that I might be able to get on the bike again and climb over Woodbury Common, drop down that two-mile descent at 35 miles an hour into Ottery, set off one of those 30mph speed traps that displays your speed in an effort to shame you in front of other motorists, turn off down a random lane I’ve never gone down before simply because it looks tempting and I want to see where it goes. But then the pain returns, slowly, unpleasantly, the joint feels week, heavy, hollow, and the black pall of dread that comes whenever your body fails you again, a twisted knee, a herniated abdomen, an infected wisdom tooth, a badly sprained ankle, a strained muscle in the groin, wells up over your shoulders and permeates from the back of your mind to the front. What if I can never cycle again? What if I can never play football again?

I’ve booked a physio appointment for later this morning. I need to get this sorted.

Discovery riding

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.