A couple of years ago I rode from Land’s End to John O’Groats. It’s a ride which is both ordinary, because so many people do it, yet quite extraordinary, because behind every one of those rides lie magnificent stories – simply in order to cycle a thousand miles from one end of Britain to the other you’ve got to be committed; you must plan and negotiate time out from the rest of your life, and whoever you are, the ride is a challenge you’re doing for your own unique set of reasons.
I had lots of reasons for doing the ride. Some were personal. My Dad had recently died. The previous few years had been marked by the intensities of raising two young children into the world, and the stresses which that had perhaps inevitably induced in my relationship with Sue. I was fast approaching 40. I wanted time out. I wanted to think about the kind of man I was becoming, and the one I’d rather be.
Some of my reasons were less personal, more sociological (though check out the work of the great sociologist, C. Wright Mills, especially his The Sociological Imagination, to explore how the two are always connected). I was, still am, deeply interested in what’s happening to cycling. Cycling is always in transition, moving away from being some things and towards being others. I wanted to make a journey through cycling, and to get a feel for the state of cycling in the UK at the start of the twenty-first century. Riding this legendary journey would give me the opportunity to visit people and places of significance to cycling, hear people’s stories, and use them to create my own.
I rode with members of the Penzance Wheelers down to Land’s End, with Critical Massers through Manchester, on a recumbent around Edinburgh, and on a mountain bike at Glentress Forest. I visited the British Cycle Museum in Camelford, Sustrans HQ in Bristol, the Pashley cycle factory in Stratford-upon-Avon. I rode through big cities and national parks, and on as many different kinds of cycling infrastructure as I could – along off-road routes, dual carriageways and, obviously, mile upon mile of quiet country lanes. All along my way, I met people who love, and live, cycling.
I wanted to tell a story about cycling, my own story about cycling, but one built out of many other cycling stories. I wanted to weave many cycling stories into a bigger cycling story. I planned to write a book about my ride, this journey through cycling. So I became a madman, talking incessantly into my digital recorder, whether on or off the bike. I recorded my thoughts and conversations with people I met along the way. I made notes, I assembled my – in sociology speak – documentary evidence. Then I came home, impatient to convert my wealth of experiences into a book, and …., and began slowly to realise that writing a book is tough, surprisingly tough … Everything seemed to get in the way, and to be frank I was often rubbish at staying motivated in the absence of external deadlines. So although my book proceeded, it did so in fits and starts. And then, disaster … I took a full-time job!
So Ride: a journey through cycling remains unfinished. But I hope some day to finish it, so as to record and publish my thoughts and experiences on cycling – and the state of cycling – from one end of Britain to the other early in the twenty-first century.