Our Bicycle Lives

I cycle, therefore I think

Category: Outdoors

Sounds

When you’re sharing the road with hundreds of other vehicles of all speeds and sizes, sounds are half the picture. Hearing, that is the perception of sound, provides me with the crucial information I need to navigate the streets of London and I rely on my ears as much as on my eyes. Temporary deafness following a severe earache once put my cycling exploits on hold: indeed, how could I make up for the missing information? I wouldn’t dream of wearing earphones while cycling, however appealing it sounds (the view from the bike like a uninterrupted tracking shot . . . add music and you’re Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider*). Even recent research showing that a cyclist with earphones ‘hears much more outside noise than a car driver, even when that driver has no music playing’ has not changed my mind. I use a bicycle to be in my environment so moving absent-mindedly through it en musique would defeat the purpose. Instead, I am all ears and I am all there.

On a bicycle I sit in close proximity to the outside world. I love that there is no separation. But every coin has two sides: my whole body is exposed to noise, as well as fumes and other harmful substances, and is at times submerged by it. It is as if I had vanished; even the sounds I emit disappear completely amidst the roar of exhaust pipes, the screeching of wheels, the beeping of horns and the rumble of engines. I can’t hear myself breathe, I can’t hear myself think, I do not exist any more. It is particularly striking when joining a main road from a residential street: one is met by an iron curtain of noise which obscures the vibrancy of our urban surroundings as drastically as air pollution. I lose myself – literally – in this ocean of noise, and I am lost: I listen but I am unable to hear. I use hearing to guide me and, just like a whiteout is as disorientating as pitch darkness, an over-abundance of noise stimuli is as unsettling as complete silence: they cancel themselves out. I lose my bearings and find myself adrift.

The big noise overwrites the smaller, important sounds. The click of the chain. The thud of the tyres on the tarmac. To perform my bike’s daily health check, I need only listen to it. An unusual noise, which starts without warning and, more tellingly, persists, is almost always a symptom. Its frequency, its pitch, its place of origin – which can be difficult to tell as sounds travel along the metal tubes: beware of replacing a costly bottom bracket when it was only a loose saddle – all help the diagnosis. In several instances I was led to think that a worrying rattle had finally stopped but alas, I was simply cycling on a busy road!

It seems that what I call noises are unwanted, machine-produced, aggressive sounds that block out the welcome human-centred sounds of a living street: people talking, doorbells ringing, laughs and shouts, keys jangling. Noise takes me back to the frustration of some 1960’s Godard films where dialogues are deliberately rendered incomprehensible by the surrounding cacophony. Sounds communicate instead, and being at eye-level with pedestrians and other cyclists allows for interactions. I remember three young men on hired bikes who playfully raced me one Saturday evening then introduced themselves and started a conversation at the traffic lights; or the ‘Nice bike!’ someone called before promptly cycling off. Cars, on the other hand, are soundproof.

The immediacy of external sounds (for better and for worse) stems from the unique – and amazing – superiority of bicycles over engine-powered vehicles: the fact that we are virtually silent. Like birds – which the Olympics opening ceremony with its winged cyclists may have alluded to – we move without sound; we glide fluidly and pounce silently onto our prey: the city! Cycling two abreast in the early hours, not a sound disturbs our quiet conversation and we partake in the silence, at one with the world and our selves. Unlike my disquieting walks home late at night, I find cycling alone in the darkness akin to meditating. The peaceful, soothing rhythm of the spinning pedals cradles my thoughts. Everyone should try it once in their life. Clear your head. Listen to the density of silence and the absence of noise. To what is left when there is nothing left.

* Dennis Hopper, 1969

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Rain

Contrary to popular belief, rain is rare: on average we only get wet on our way to work about eight times a year. Of course, if one doesn’t work, it’s a different matter, as I’ve noticed in the past few months when I’ve faced drizzle and downpours and any manner of water coming from above as soon as I stepped outside. In the ideal world of musical comedies, I would be cycling and singing along in the rain, like Gene Kelly in the 1952 Stanley Donen film, enjoying the splashes, the puddles and the displacement of water a bicycle at speed creates. In the real world of South London, however, I weigh the odds of raindrops turning into steady penetrating rain, try to decide if it’s worth putting an extra layer of stiff and not very breathable material, aka my waterproof trousers, on and calculate whether I will get wetter or drier if I cycle faster.

But why? Why am I determined to see it as an unpleasant experience when, objectively speaking, it largely isn’t? Sure, road surfaces do get somewhat slippery, pools of dirty water can obscure potholes and debris, and wearers of glasses like yours truly suffer from steamed up lenses. But tyres grip well and brakes still do their job nowadays in wet conditions and it can feel cosy and snug, if a little sweaty, to cycle through showers with good waterproofs on. Maybe it’s just the anticipation of the disaster zone that is a cyclist’s home after a wet ride: clothes dripping by the radiator, soaked shoes, puddles forming on the floor. Maybe it’s the memory of the few times when I didn’t factor the unpredictable weather in, of sitting through a film chilled to the bone, my wet jeans sticking to my skin. If only I could let go of my lust for dryness and ’embrace soddenness’, as the Guardian Bike Blog put it. One day last June, towards the end of a bike ride, I got drenched. It was warm, I was nearing home and dry land, I thought: ‘What do I care?’ and laughed. It was so liberating to overcome my inner cautious self…and it so seldom happens.

Funnily enough, I am not the only one to feel demoralised on a wet day. Occasional riders on improbable machines, flip-flop wearers and cyclists chic ride the tube and the bus instead and I miss their moderating influence on the super fast boys of the road. I resent the rain for what it does to the cycling fauna of my habitat: all of a sudden cycling necessitates preparation, it isn’t as spontaneous as an afterthought anymore (‘oh, I could just take the bike!’) and it becomes the realm of the hardcore. As a native of The Continent, I am not comfortable with this new image. Streets are duller, anonymous thoroughfares speeding vehicles in and out of town centres, and I am looking at an emptier and greyer world: faces obscured by umbrellas and hoods, bodies huddled at bus stops, children kept indoors, animals taking shelter. London’s radiance is dimmed.

Could it be that people in cars, despite being protected by a metal shell, perhaps feel the same way? Like children who become fidgety after sitting down for too long, motorists are perceptibly cranky and irritable when rain gets in the way of their rush from A to B and forces the ‘masters of the universe’ (to quote Tom Wolfe referring to Wall Street traders) to slow down. On a foul day, I’ll come across regular instances of poor driving, as if there was a need to take out the awful weather on us people on foot and on bikes who are actually feeling the rain down our sodden necks.

So, as all crawl back into their shells in frustration, the rain brings on a deeper sense of isolation, what I precisely seek to avoid when I get on a bicycle. It’s every man and woman for themselves. But when occasionally not only seasoned cyclists but also families with children, riders in club colours and a colourful crowd all brave the weather and get together, like on the London Cycling Campaign’s Big Ride last April, it becomes an enjoyable social occasion masqueraded as an act of defiance to the weather. Then, sooner or later, the last drops of rain fall, the clouds part and the sun appears: these very first minutes when the road is glistening, people are emerging from doorways and awnings and streets bursting into life again feel like a rebirth, and yes, then I do feel like singing and dancing and cycling all at once! All is right as rain again.

Hills

Do you want me to try a new cycle route? Tell me that it’s flat. I like a landscape on a human scale, the valleys, lowlands and unassuming rural villages rather than the more dramatic highs. I am aware, though, that ups and downs are the law of geography, just as joy and sorrow are of life, and that you can’t get one without the other. To paraphrase Jean-Paul Belmondo in Itinėraire d’un Enfant Gatė* (‘Happiness? That’s when hassles take a break’), I know that plains are when hills take a break and that they are short-lived unless you happen to live in the heart of London.

Climbing a hill is a test of strength: I am using my physiological potential and the power of my leg muscles to go beyond my limits and aim for the sky. Hills connect me deeply to my body. I feel my breath going in and out of my lungs, my heart pumping blood through my arteries, my hands gripping the handlebars, the soles of my feet pushing hard against the pedals. We rise beyond the aches and pains of effort to conquer the hill and ourselves too. No wonder the sense of achievement is huge and that other cyclists describe uphills as well as downhills as exhilarating.

Going down, on the other hand, is a pure question of weight, mass and forces in motion, of physics rather than physiology. It is like taking a parachute jump into the wide expanse of space in front of me. I crouch on the bike, adopt a mock aerodynamic position and fly down to sea level. What an adrenalin rush speed can be! I love free-wheeling downhill but a steep slope that is driving me forcefully forward can be terrifying, as I lack the swift reactions needed to control my movements. I can’t even imagine having to struggle with a bad case of shimmy (i.e. severe wobble of the front wheel at speed). Like I said, I am a small-town girl, not one for scaling new heights.

My friend Lilli shared her experience of the all-night Dunwich Dynamo thus: ‘It’s pitch black and you can’t see how far the hill is stretching, so the only way to get to the top is to relax and keep pedalling.’ The trick to master a hill, it seems, is to look just a few metres ahead and to take it slowly. But this is beside the point: I find hills not just off-putting but pointless. What goes round comes round, what goes up comes down. Big deal! To quote another friend who took part in a tougher than advertised ride, ‘There came a point when you saw yet another hill to climb and thought: that’s just not fair.’ Too many hills and it feels like the world is against me. And yet there is nothing to be done since hills, like Transport for London, are an unmovable, unfeeling body, an inert mass. My rogues’ gallery of most miserable uphill moments would include being red in the face and overtaken by another cyclist; pushing my bicycle all the way to the top (never have both body and bike felt so heavy); turning a corner without any kind of momentum to come face-to-face with an unexpected hill; false flats; a gradient so steep that I start to roll backwards. I could go on. On the other hand, my best hills are easy to describe: the flat ones with good views! Basically, I’d like a room on the ground floor please. With a view.

I look at cyclists who profess to like hills with a mixture of awe, incredulity and incomprehension, the way I look at people who like going to the dentist. ‘You’re mad!’, I think. In company with these hill riders, I am getting a glimpse of a different world, a dim view of what cycling could be like if I was fit, had the right sort of disposition, was training hard and above all if I owned a fast and snazzy, lightweight but strong machine – since reading Robert Penn’s riveting book, I know that It’s All About the Bike. As for mountain cyclists, they are like a different species aspiring to transcend the human condition through gruelling self-mortification. There is something primeval about our desire for hills. They are obviously striking a deep chord in us human beings. Our ancestors often invested them with mythical powers, perhaps as the abode of the divinity like Mount Olympus for the Ancient Greeks, and today the cyclists who master them seem almost superhuman.

* (Claude Lelouch, 1988)

Wind

Of all the elements that affect me as a cyclist, the wind is probably the most irritating. Back in the days when I was a pedestrian, I loved hearing the rush of the wind through the trees in our street, feeling the breeze on my way to the bus stop. But now that I live on two wheels, the wind both puzzles and hinders me in equal measure.

First, it hides! Much as I try to prepare myself, before I set off, by scrutinising the street furniture and vegetation for any sign of movement, there never seems to be any. But the moment I start pedalling, I notice it. It is there, blowing full in my face, or, even worse, making me wobble with sudden side gusts of air rushing out of nowhere, even though the tree leaves are as still as your run-of-the-mill courier doing a track stand at the traffic lights. And of course, when I stop moving, the wind stops too. Deceptive, underhand, the wind is expert at deceiving me. Snow, rain and mist, at least, put their cards on the table from the start. Not the wind: I was anticipating an easy ride and got taken for a ride, and I bear a grudge.

So I start grumpy. Then I grow puzzled. Where exactly is the wind blowing from today? Is it cold air, a North Easterly wind perhaps? Or is it a gentle Southern breeze? I am like a seaman looking at the sky and forecasting travel conditions for the day. Somehow, as soon as I cross the doorstep on my way to work in the morning, I feel connected spatially to the bigger picture, the island (hence strong, variable winds) I live on, the geography of the world around me, all thanks to that elusive element. I am also connected temporally to the way I will relate, today, to that space. Fast or slow, the wind dictates my journey. Along with bike stands and cycle lanes, weathercocks should become an integral part of the urban cycling infrastructure, perched on prominent rooftops. Alternatively, I’ll ask my body: am I growing tired or exhilarated? Is a headwind pushing me back to where I came from, or am I wheeled effortlessly towards my destination?

So powerful is the wind that it makes all the difference to my ride, and no amount of cycle-specific clothing will change that. Perhaps that is why I resent it to the point of tears sometimes: it is entirely beyond my control, whereas I first got on a bike to regain control over my London commute. I’ve got wheels, I’ve got freedom. But suddenly, some days, the wind says that I haven’t any more. There is nothing worse than cycling against the wind on just the spring day when London planes have decided to start shedding their minute hairs, when one is battling to move forward while trying to keep tiny scratchy itchy things from flying into one’s eyes and throat (I find the only time when having a piece of grit in one’s eye is romantic is on a Thursday evening in Milford Junction Railway Station*). My muscles ache, my eyes are red, I am coughing and spluttering miserably and the only wish I have left is to arrive now. A sorry sight.

Then there is the other side of the coin. The days when I think ‘not a drop of wind this morning, how lovely!’ until I realise that pedalling feels so smooth and easy because the wind – yes, it is always around – is taking me in its arms to deposit me exactly where I want to go. That Messenger Chick calls them ‘tailwind days’. The way back from town, after an arduous first leg, when cycling is bliss because the wind is with me. The very rare days when, between my outward and return journey, the wind has turned and I am in cycle heaven both ways. The times of the year when I have long hair and I let it float in the wind and I get home dishevelled and light-headed and happy.

With no other element have I such an ambivalent relationship as with the wind. It is like a strong, unbreakable bond, for better and for worse.

  * In Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945), I mean.