Dwelling on bikes

I went out for my first training ride in three weeks yesterday. I fell off my bike descending Barbondale towards Gawthrop near Dent on a Monday night early in November. We knew it was going to be a cold night, but the forecast hadn’t predicted sub-zero temperatures and the roads had been fine up until that point. But it’s always colder as you climb higher into the fells, and it’s nearly always colder inland, and ice had started to form on the steep north-facing descent into Dentdale. I hit a patch, lost then regained control, hit another patch, and down I went, head first over the bars. I think I felt myself doing a mid-air somersault, but with no witnesses (Colin, Jules and Reuben were safely up ahead, John behind) that’s unconfirmed …

Down in Dentdale a very hard frost had started to form, and we picked our way very gingerly west towards Sedbergh, where we cut our planned ride up to Fox’s Pulpit short, because we were 30 miles from home, I was hurting, and the conditions were likely only to get worse on the back lanes in the high fells. But conditions improved once we got on to the bigger roads, the A683 from Sedbergh to Kirkby Lonsdale, and then on towards Wennington and the pub.

I thought I’d got off lightly – some cuts and bruises, but nothing too serious. I did, but still, over the next few days my bashed ribs got more rather than less painful. I’m very glad I’ve not had a cold, as coughing and sneezing (as well as laughing) have been especially painful. The pain also got much worse during the night. I’ve kept commuting by bike, 8 miles, 5 days a week. But I hadn’t ridden very much apart from that until yesterday.

I couldn’t really have picked a better time to have three weeks off the bike. November’s perhaps anyway the hardest of the months through which to ride, and November 2009 in the north-west of England, as you’ll know if you live around here, and as you might have seen on TV if you don’t, has been particularly wet. And whilst of course I want to be out there riding – training – a few weeks off the bike now is a lot better than after Christmas, when I’ll be much more consciously aiming to build my fitness and speed in preparation for 2010’s first races.

Still, I’ve also been feeling frustrated not to be getting out, and yesterday – after all that rain – was just glorious; blue skies and sunshine. So with my ribs feeling still a bit sore but so much better, off I went on one of my regular circuits – along the river to the Crook o’Lune, then north-east through Aughton and Gressingham to Arkholme, round to the north via Docker Park, and then south back to Lancaster via Capernwray and the Kellets; 27 miles all up. The kind of ride which even on a slow day I can have done, with bike cleaned afterwards and safely stored away, in under two hours.

You need to be wary of dogs and their walkers for the first five miles, along the shared-use route to the Crook. But once past there, climbing up Green Hill along Park Lane, and then flowing out on the open road towards first Aughton and then Arkholme, I was really overcome with sheer joy at being back out on the bike. Riding a bike is a way of being which I’ve grown very accustomed to. I think riding a bike has become part of who I am, not just psychologically, but also physically. Funny, but riding along through the north Lancashire countryside, I really felt at home on my bike, as if my bike is my home. Not my only home, of course, but a tremendously important one, and one which I realised, sitting there, just how much I’d been missing. I’d been a little worried about getting back on my bike; the crash knocked my confidence more than I’d expected, or like to admit. My usual innate, unthinking trust in my wheels had been suddenly dashed, and I suspect there’ll be a gradual process involved in restoring my trust in them. Yesterday I rode cautiously …

So riding my bike, I was at home without quite feeling at home, yet … I was reminded of how people sometimes talk about experiencing their home after it’s been burgled. Something’s gone, and needs to be built up again, restored. What you take-for-granted, your sense of home, security and comfort, is lost; yet it’s that process of loss which makes you realise what you had, and maybe you appreciate that all the more when – eventually, hopefully – you regain it.

That lurking dis-ease notwithstanding, my mood certainly lifted, just through being out on the bike. Cycling is a key way in which I experience the world. I dwell on a bike, and yesterday I felt this dwellingness more than I’ve ever done before. I was back in a position which, over the years, has become second-nature – bum higher than my hands, perched on a slither of a saddle, arms stretched out, legs rotating, occasionally rising out of the saddle to tackle a climb. I was being-in-the-world …

For any philosophers out there, the language I’m perhaps slightly clumsily adopting here, and particularly my use of the word ‘dwell’, is consciously Heideggerian. But you don’t need to know about Martin Heidegger’s philosophy (and I’m certainly no expert, in case you’re wondering) to know what I mean here; I think anyone who’s ridden a bike a lot will understand what I’m saying. I remember a few year’s ago talking with Steve Carroll, organiser of the Ardgay 400 km Audax in the far north of Scotland, and getting that same sense from him – that people who ride bikes a lot start to feel very much at home on their bikes; for them, cycling is a primary way of ‘being-in-the-world’, of experiencing and orienting to the world; in short, of dwelling.

We might extend this notion of dwelling on bikes to a shared, cultural level. Clearly, for example, the Dutch know a thing or two about dwelling on bikes – they sit much more comfortably on bikes than do most of the rest of the world. They learn to dwell on bikes in ways which we don’t, yet, in the UK. Their experience of the world will differ, to that extent, from ours – their collective orientation to the world will be much more from the cyclist’s point-of-view (homogenising, for a moment, ‘the cyclist’s point-of-view’, for there is never just the one), and this will – and indeed we can say that it has – permeate through to the design, planning and use of the transport and wider built environments. Although beyond these rudimentary early ruminations I’ve not done this, and it could of course be a dead-end, I suspect that taking this dwelling perspective and applying it to thinking about  how to promote cycling might be reasonably productive … How do we not just get people cycling, but help people to sit comfortably on bikes, to learn to see and experience the world from the saddle of a bicycle? How do we turn our towns and cities into places where dwelling on a bike makes sense, and can become – as it is to some extent (though of course they can always do much better!) for the Dutch – second-nature? This isn’t simply about getting people on bikes, then. It’s both more important and more subtle than that; it’s about making bikes the furniture through which people move around, so that they are comfortable on their bikes and comfortable on their travels around town, city and countryside … Cycling becomes a primary way of fitting oneself into the world …

… When I say ‘we dwell on bikes’, then, I’m not referring to the way in which – when we meet up with other cycling enthusiasts – we tend pretty quickly to become friends, though that’s also important. During those kinds of encounter we orientate to our shared passion, and find common ground, even if that common ground is sometimes based on disagreement (which kind of cycling or bike is best; who’s the greatest cyclist of all time; where’s the best place on the planet to ride a bicycle, etc). That’s a quite lovely and special way in which we dwell on, and in, cycling, and one of the reasons why – I think – cycling inspires such passion – cycling is a passport to companionship of the most precious kind. But the dwelling to which I’m referring here is much more to do with actual physical occupancy of the cycle, and how that makes us as distinctive individuals.

From Gressingham I took the little lane north up towards the Carnforth to Kirkby road. As I came up to the junction, a lone cyclist went by, heading like me towards Kirkby. He looked so neat and tidy, his Carradice saddlebag beautifully packed, his rainwear rolled and tied impeccably to its top. He appeared so very comfortable in the world, and again I was jolted. Only three weeks away from it, but how I’ve missed what ‘old-timers’ still sometimes call ‘the fellowship of the wheel’! Cycling is always sociable, there are many inherently sociable things about it. But out beyond the city limits exists a special type of camaraderie. It’s based on a tacit knowledge that you hold something in common even if (and usually, you don’t) you never have the chance to talk. It’s a communion achieved through a shared love – a demonstrable love, because you’re out there, doing it – for cycling.

I rode up alongside him as we descended, alone but together now, for a moment, to Arkholme, where I was due to turn north. He was off up to Killington reservoir alongside the M6, near Sedbergh. He’d come from “t’other side of Garstang”. He was at least 20, quite possibly 30, years my senior. He reminded me of my Grandpa, though he’s been dead almost 30 years and I never saw him on a bike. Something to do with grace, dignity and integrity, I think …

We congratulated one another on being out in such superb weather. After I left him to his journey, and continued on my own, I silently congratulated myself on riding a bike … and today, a day later, I’m still feeling the wonderful effects of being back on my bike. God, I love cycling …

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