I’ve always been attracted to landscape and distance rather than speed. I watch grand tours for the helicopter shots of roads winding around mountains, along valleys and across patchwork fields as much as the actual racing. As a kid I would often go out and ride my bike all day, and it’s something that has continued into adulthood. Reading maps and daydreaming comes easily.
A bike is transport to me, a tool, both beautiful and beautifully simple, that facilitates escape and adventure. Not necessarily grand adventures, I don’t need to travel half way across the world, or even huge distances to have an adventure, to get a sense of wonder. It could be a ride over my ridge of hills to sit and look and think on that other ridge over there. It could simply be riding the long way home from work. Just to be somewhere different.
Adventure is proportional to what makes me uncomfortable. I’m not always the most daring person, so riding a bike a long way in one go counts as an adventure for me. To ride around another county, one I don’t live in, one I don’t know like the back of my hand, is sufficient to feel adventurous, to cast my gaze on landscape new to me, have time to watch it and read it, to see it change, lose myself in it. Travelling into and through it rather than across it.
Having said that, distance does become addictive; If I can ride this far then maybe I can ride that far. Distance is relative and gained incrementally. I may be able to ride 400 miles in one go now but it started with a ten mile ride, then twenty, then sixty, then a hundred. Each new distance achieved extends the boundary of my comfort zone and hence slightly further is required next time to feel pushed beyond my limits, to experience that fizz of excitement, of adventure. Every successive ride alters the scale and recalibrates what I think of as ‘a long way’.
There’s always a fear, well not fear as such, an anxiety – What if I can’t do this? What if something breaks? However all that is easily suppressed, it falls to the back of my mind and is forgotten the moment I push off. I’m drawn to ride into the unknown and have learnt that I have the ability to cope with getting lost both literally and metaphorically. I’m comfortable with self-reliance. I’ll happily head off on my own for a day or long weekend (damn the day job). It appeals to my nature which tends to the introverted and insular.
Friends say “I don’t understand how you can do that”, and it is hard to explain when you just look at the numbers, miles and hours are simply markers, easily communicated and understood, at least some kind of relative comprehension, but they tell you little. The other stuff, the unseen, untold, felt and experienced in a specific place and time, the particular, the incidental – a spitfire over a fen, the dawn chorus on a darkened lane, a sunset over an unknown coast, the song of a skylark reminding me of home, the frozen silhouette of alert deer across a field, the curve of that hill, the way the wind plays with the wheat, how light glances off those trees over there, meeting sunrise on a hill top – these are the things that long rides are about. Then there are the things that make a smile emerge across my face for no discernable reason, the things that I can’t put into words.
You find these moments on any ride if you’re open to them but it’s the way they add up and multiply on a long ride describing the passage of time and a changing land that gets into my core and makes me want to do this again and again. Yes, there are the bits that hurt – physically and mentally – and the scruffy bits on the edge of towns and crappy roads, but all that fades from the memory. This other stuff stays. It’s the reason for coming back, to unfurl the maps, look for somewhere new, something further away.
Photo by George