by Our Bicycle Lives
A fellow blogger calls it ‘my crazy idea generation machine’. The brain? No, the bicycle. As soon as my bike gets out on the road, thoughts and ideas start going through and around my head and scramble to get out too. All my Thoughts For The Weekend come into existence on two wheels. Fleeting ones go quickly and are hard to recover, like the distant memory of a dream when we’ve just woken up, so I have to catch them in flight. Others settle down for a while. Some won’t leave at all and recur persistently, between fixation and obsession. Most catch me unawares, while I am waiting at traffic lights or negotiating a junction. Reflections, questions, observations . . . there are journeys so fruitful that thoughts seem to fly my way from every corner. An early Ridley Scott short, Boy and Bicycle (1962), stars his brother, the future director Tony Scott, as a boy playing truant for the day: with freedom from school comes a stream of consciousness, an interior monologue that accompanies his bike ride. In a 1980’s theatre production of George Perec’s I Remember, the actor was pedalling throughout the play while reflecting and reminiscing. Because on a bike, the brain is bubbling with life.
‘The rhythm [of the spinning pedals] puts serious activity in the brain to sleep: it creates a void. Random thoughts enter that void.’ writes Rob Penn. Cycling isn’t passive, it is a physical activity, not so strenuous that it concentrates all our attention, but not so monotonous either that we can focus on something else entirely (we’re not in the gym). We’re clearing our head, creating a vacant space and allowing thoughts to sneak in. It’s called switching off, but it actually means switching on the thought machine. And since we don’t want to sleepwalk our way through London, we’re not lost in thoughts but more exactly alive with them: the ride gives them direction. So we’re alert and open. Porous, but not empty. There is so much going on inside, let alone outside, that I’ve never known boredom on a bicycle. As I explain here, this blog is a way ‘to pin [thoughts] down on a web page’. I cycle, therefore I think. Or, to hijack Descartes, ‘I cycle, therefore I think, therefore I am’. I cycle, therefore I exist. The question remains of what comes first, because, without a doubt, ‘I think, therefore I cycle’ is also a valid proposition. Cycling is not just conducive to thinking – Einstein famously said he came up with his theory of relativity whilst riding his bike – cycling is thinking.
When I don’t cycle, the space I allocate to thinking shrinks, taken over by doing and planning and sorting out and rushing. A bike is one of the few places where I can concentrate on just one thing. And thoughts come. There are exceptions. A handful of times a year, strong wind, rain or aggressive drivers make my ride unpleasant. Then my brain turns into a one-track mind, focuses on getting there and barricades itself against any distraction. But there are cyclists, those caught in the rat race, for whom the daily commute is a chore to get through. Getting on a bike means becoming bulletproof, impermeable to the world, not just switching off their cognitive and sensitive faculties but shutting them down and reverting to basic instincts. Hence my (silent) retort to foolhardy road behaviour: ‘THINK!’ My ordinary bike journeys have nothing in common with others’ commuter sport: both our outlooks and our thought processes are different. We inhabit totally different worlds, between which communication is lost in translation.
On a bike, my thoughts create some sort of shelter, as they attempt to analyse and shape my environment. As surprising as it may seem, it is my ‘quiet space’, my place of choice to mull things over, solve conundrums and come up with my next project. I imagine cyclists in the Netherlands or Copenhagen may share this experience. I marvel at the number of unexpected ideas that suddenly occurred to me while cycling (‘But why don’t I start a blog?’). Having an original thought doesn’t happen too often so it’s a thrill when it does. I once had a job that involved some repetitive manual work; co-workers called it therapeutic. Cycling even goes beyond that, it feels as if one’s mind expanded inward, in harmony with one’s breathing. Deep inspirations. That is where I find my deeper self. Perhaps this is why cycling gives me balance: because I am at the best of my abilities. And so are many other people on bikes.