Scaling Up

I’ve written about mapping out rides before but plotting a route for the Transcontinental is bigger than any previous way finding I’ve needed to do by roughly a factor of ten. Both in terms of distance and the number of countries involved. I’ve been drawing a line across Europe. Superimposing a single simple line across many complicated interconnecting lines. Many lines have been drawn and redrawn across the continent throughout human history. Many kinds of lines have been marked across the landscape, some connecting, others separating, some natural, others man made. Many are weighed down by history, even though gone still visible in various ways. The line Jo and I will ride is invisible to all but us and we will traverse lightly, a tracing that will leave no trace other than in our memories. This isn’t strictly true as there’ll be dotwatchers following us and GPS recordings, but that is all just a digital simulacra that will be forgotten in the noise of the internet. This line will be our life for two weeks – we’ll follow it, eat on it, sleep on it, maybe change our minds about it, deviate from it, but we’ll always be close to it.

Two weeks of lunch hours, evenings, and weekends of looking and thinking. No prior knowledge, except for I rode up the Muur a couple of years ago. There’s no memory map to call upon this time. Information is gleaned from where ever it can be found; Paper maps, online routing tools, Streetview, Google Maps, satellite images, eavesdropping on Twitter conversations, searching for trans-European cyclepaths, checking (and double checking) the race manual. Checking the Foreign Office website for border controls and travel guidance. I think to myself I’m glad we’re doing this pre-Brexit – this could be a whole heap of hassle in a couple of years, but let’s not scratch the surface of that subject just yet (I’m sure there will be something else to write about being European after I’ve ridden across the continent). Lots of conversations about the pretty way versus the easier way have been had. We’re going the pretty way whenever possible. I don’t really see why you wouldn’t. This does mean I’ve routed us over the highest pass in the Eastern Alps, but oh heck it looks stunning. Anyway 20km of uphill will be followed by 20km of downhill…fast downhill. Sixty switchbacks I read. Then there’s the option of the easy valley road or climbing in and out of the Dolomites. Pretty vs. Easy, again.

All of Europe has been unfolded and laid out across the floor to see how places link up and which of the multitude of ways between them are both the most feasible. Trying to make sense of something that isn’t entirely sensible. Figuring out road numbering systems (is that a motorway?) and factoring in border and river crossings, sometimes one and the same – the Rhine between France and Germany, the Danube between Romania and Bulgaria. Using paper maps for an overview, to see the lay of the land. Looking for ways across, between or around mountain ranges, finding the flat(ter) way, if there is one and as long as it doesn’t add too much distance. Tapping these thoughts into routing apps and tweaking almost ad infinitum. Avoiding one hill just to find a mountain. Forgetting to take scale into account when checking profiles – when the big pointy bit is significantly higher than 2000 metres then the chances are those other smaller pointy bits are still going to be over 2000 metres. Everything is scaling up.

Additionally there is the need to know we can find food and water at regular intervals along the way and the task has been almost as time consuming as the ride will be. Deliberately routing us through the middle of towns to ensure we can find the things we need along the way. This isn’t my usual practice, I usually look for the smallest little roads that pass through nowhere, but experience tells me food and water can be hard to find following this pattern. I’ve been marking down Lidls and Tescos, McDonalds and Shell petrol stations. We want to soak in some of the culture and customs we ride through, take ourselves out of our comfort zones, live in the moment, experience the situation, that’s all part of the point of riding a bike, to be a part of what surrounds you, not separated and simply viewing. Yes these known quantities are easy, the recognisable amongst the unfamiliar, and as much as I don’t like the thought that these chains have leached across the world we’ll want, or more importantly need the convenience and ease of familiarity every now and again when exhausted and hungry. They are the nearest to a comfort zone we’re likely to get. My experience of Streetview is that the photos may be old and that little shop may no longer be there, but the big chains will be. As much as I want to support local economies sometimes I’m just going to want a big cup of coke whilst I upload to Instagram on the free wifi. Also big chains often means clean toilets.

I don’t want to Streetview the entire route (not that there’s enough time for that) but there’s a trade off, a compromise between having some understanding of where we’re going and what’s in store for us, against the desire to leave things to be found and surprise us. We don’t want to find that that road turns into a dirt track through a forest on a Bulgarian mountain, that way lies difficulties and wolves, but it’s nice to know that there’s a little bar on that corner so we can get a coffee and fill up our water bottles. Also seeing the changes between regions and countries, and how things look more and more unfamiliar the further east and south we travel, only add to the anticipation. Finding place names lodged in my consciousness for reasons I can’t quite pin down – Graz, Bratislava, Sofia – but probably from sixties spy films. Perhaps from geography lessons back in school, but some places aren’t in the same countries as they were when I was a kid. Even in my lifetime the borders of Europe have been re-drawn. Other place names mean nothing now but in a few weeks will have taken on all kinds of significance. I’ve found places to go back to and explore at leisure.

However no matter how much looking at maps and photos I do riding 4000km in two weeks will be an entirely different experience. A line, some photos, a list of countries

Austria (again)

and place names. It’s a flat one-dimensional world I’ve been looking at and it certainly won’t be that when we’re there. There again that corner of Hungary we’ll skedaddle across looks a bit flat.

Mapping Out

I look at the map, planning a ride, following yellow and white roads, the quiet ones, linking them up, matching arcane symbols at junctions and hilltops with the key. Unfurled across the floor I crouch over the flat piece of paper surveying a land where the only ridges are the straight folds of the paper, the antithesis of reality where nothing is level or regular. I read the contour lines to find the real ridges, the crinkles and curves of the landscape. In my mind’s eye I superimpose my own symbols and codes; cafes I like, climbs I don’t, the fast swoopy bit, there’s a pothole just there. Previous rides are embedded in the map in water stains, scuffed and torn hand made folds added where folds of manufacture and packaging obscured places or disturbed the flow.

However a map is a contained world, a distillation, a reality codified into a flat image. A minituarized flattened world where conditions are constant, fixed in time, a blueprint. Always daylight and always dry. Out there seasons turn and weather changes, things are always the same but never the same. Veils of history, literature, art, drape across the landscape, paintings seen and books read. Yet more layers lie on top, things I’ve been told – anecdotes, rumour, reputation, stories told over cups of tea and slices of cake in favourite tea rooms. Riding with friends over the years their knowledge has melded with my own, “Do you know that lane?” and “Have you been along here?” are mixed in to my own memory map, differing histories stirred together. Layers interlock and weave around each other, boundaries and edges blur and become indistinct. All these things get pushed and pulled into a route that will keep me interested for the hours that I will ride it. Fragments build into a coherent whole.

Where indoors I trace a line across a piece of paper and through my imagination outside I’ll cut through air dense with remembrance and fuzzy recollection. One day it will be a headwind to fight , another a friendly tailwind. The repetition of action, legs spinning, and motion empties my mind, lets it drift elsewhere, thoughts and memories sneak up on me. Some memories weigh heavy, others flash around my head light as snowflakes. Fleeting glimpses, things caught out of the corner of my mind trigger thoughts, the here and now combined with there and then. Then I’ll snap out of reverie, become lost in the moment, the feeling of air on my face, taking a good line around a corner, speeding down a hill, the metronome of my breathing, the ache of effort in my legs. I concentrate on the here and now until other thoughts bounce around my head and collide. Previous instants blend with the moment, my mind inextricably links the present, past and future – rides remembered and thoughts of rides yet to happen. Time and space bend and scrunch like the folds of the map, places far apart instantaneously touch, ever so briefly, just for a moment, connections between places and times appear and disappear.

Another time I’ll ride with no route plotted or thought about, no map to hand. Meandering without purpose, wandering for the simple sake of wondering. No destination to reach, simply to move through space and places, no point, just lines. Local roads ridden so frequently there’s a fluid ever-changing map in my head to reference. I plot and replot as I ride, remembering some place else or happening across a lane I’ve not ridden for a while. I’ll re-route myself, change my mind, recalibrate that map in my imagination. Familiarity with place means no need to worry about where I’m going or how I’m getting there. I’ll end up where I end up. I may pass a lane that I’ve passed a hundred times and never ridden along. I’ll turn into it and follow wherever it leads. How lost can I get close to home? The worst that can happen is it leads somewhere unfamiliar but I won’t mind, it’s just somewhere new to add to the grid in my head. Sooner or later I’ll happen across somewhere I recognise or come across a signpost to somewhere I know. Or perhaps I won’t, maybe it will lead somewhere else entirely. My repertoire expands, like adding words, or phrases, or even whole pages to a never ending book. One where passages loop back on themselves, motifs repeat, stories build. Ready to be added to the next time.


You Are Here


You are here.

Yeah I know, the little animated arrow following the blue line on the screen tells me that much, but not a lot more. It’s zeroes and ones, information without knowledge. Satellites pinpointing my coordinates, nothing more. It’ll get me from A to B but won’t tell me anything about the journey. GPS has the inherent contradiction of showing precisely where I am without explaining where I am.

This isn’t going to become an anti-technology rant though. I’ve recently bought a Garmin and I like it. It makes it easy to get from place to place, particularly in areas I don’t know. It’s made audaxing a whole lot easier even if I’m a little uncomfortable with using a computer over a typed route sheet. It seems like cheating, diminishes that overall warm feeling of self-reliance. However in the middle of the night or in howling wind and rain a line on a screen is a hell of a lot simpler to follow than a list of instructions.

This also isn’t going to be a paper is better than computers rant. I plot routes online all the time. Often with a paper map to hand, the best of both worlds, the two things complement one another. The paper map contextualises things and the digital plot calculates accurate distances and profiles. I like the internet and all the things it makes possible but it’s not perfect. It may not have edges like a paper map, it’s scope is endless, but my view of it is limited by scroll bars and flicking between windows. Unlike a map I can’t unfold it on the floor and lay it out, lean over it as if a giant surveying the land around me. OK, I can’t Streetview an OS map but again those photographs only give me limited information. A map places me in the surrounding topology, I can see how things fit into the wider landscape, contours and landmarks give a sense of location. I know it’s no more ‘reality’ that the things I can find online, it is also simply data, a graphical, coded representation of a possible reality – but it’s one I’ve learned to read so I understand the hints and clues it contains.

I’ve also used Strava for years to record where I’ve been allowing me to virtually explore further afield when I get home – those bits of rides when I pass the end of lane which looks nice and think “Where does that go?”. I can upload my ride and then zoom in and follow all those lanes that strike off at tangents. They then become part of the next ride.

The Garmin definitely makes things easier, fewer stops to check bits of paper and maps, but still I feel something is lost. It’s not the Garmin’s fault, the problem is me and how I use it. I need to remember it’s a tool, just a thing, same as a map is just a thing. However one of those things makes me think and look, the other allows me to be lazy. That laziness is my issue though and a constant battle to be fought. I can’t allow it to narrow my field of vision, to suck me into a digital simulacrum of the world actually around me.

When I plotted routes previously and created a list of instructions I’ve had to trace the route in my mind, follow it on a map. The act of writing things down somehow fixed it in my head. I had an idea of where I was going, enough to sense when I may have gone off course. However following a list of instructions successfully is also based on the premise that firstly I’ve written them down correctly (I am very good at confusing left and right) and the I follow them correctly (I am very good at confusing right and left). I tend to route rides via the smallest lanes I can find on the map. This means towns and signposts are few and far between. This invariably means beautiful and quiet rides but missing an instruction, getting out of sync, sometimes finds me lost hoping my sense of direction is good enough to at least head vaguely the right way until I find something that corresponds with something on the list of places. Worst case scenario there’s always a back-up GPX file on my phone (see, I told you I wasn’t anti-technology).

With the Garmin once I’ve plotted the route I’ve probably simply downloaded it. I won’t have gone through it in my head in the same way I do with paper routes.  The vagaries of online route plotting tend to try and send you across a field or down a bridleway which doesn’t appear to exist every now and again anyway. Fortunately I know this from paper lists so I know not to put all my trust in that blue line. I mustn’t be tempted to follow it blindly. Somewhere sometime it’ll be wrong.

The screen. That is the real issue. I go out on the bike to avoid screens and there I am with one attached to my stem, visible out of the corner of my eye, asking to be looked at, checked constantly. It draws the eye like a silent television across a noisy pub. It can separate me from the now. In full view it creates anxiety that a piece of paper in my pocket out of sight never did. Why when I’m riding a straight road with no junctions do I look at it to make sure that this is still the right straight road with no junctions rather look at what is around me? I have absolutely no idea and it’s a newly formed habit that needs breaking before it sets in. A list on a piece of paper may be no more meaningful that blue line but at least I take it from my pocket and hold it up in front of me, level with the view around me, check it, stick it back in my pocket. I look up not down.

I have to figure out my relationship with this little screen on my handlebars, make it work for me. I have now entered the 2017 Transcontinental Race and if I get in it is far too long to make a list of junction by junction directions, and I can’t carry maps for half of Europe. I will have to follow that blue line and hope – really hope – I plotted the right blue line.

If not I’ll find a petrol station and buy a map.

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