Kate lent me her car in case I wanted to go shopping in the nearest town whilst they were both out at work. What a strange experience that turned out to be. I drove slowly down their uneven drive and turned right onto the public road. Accelerating away I realised after a while that I was driving on the wrong side of the road and pulled gingerly over to the left. Why should this be? After all I had been cycling on the left ever since I left home. A few miles further on I discovered that I still hadn't changed up into top gear. It was all I could do to summon up the courage to change up into top, and for the rest of the day I never exceeded forty miles per hour. After the initial shock I was driving perfectly well in a mechanical sort of way. I could steer, accelerate and brake according to the needs of the road and the other traffic; my body knew what it was doing. But the driving felt disconnected from the world.
The soft ride, the light controls, the silence (cars are silent inside), and the absence of rushing air, made it seem as if I was in a dream. The experience, the pleasure of driving, is in the feel; the balance of braking, accelerating, and cornering forces; the ride and the handling; the messages coming from the road through the steering wheel. All these sensations had gone; all that was left was a mechanical competence. Like riding a bike, once having learnt to drive a car it cannot be forgotten. But this was not the driving in which I once delighted. I was used to driving fast in a GTI, revelling in the power and speed, guiding the car in a seamless flow along the curving road. All that had gone. I pottered gently round the country lanes being honked at by local drivers for driving so pitifully slowly and cluttering up the place. It was an alien world and I did not enjoy it.
It wasn't that my meandering progress around the coast was making me sluggish and dulling my reactions. I needed every bit of awareness and responsiveness for cycling. But those responses were tuned to the world of the cyclist rather than the world of the motorist. And they do inhabit different worlds: the micro-world rather than the macro-world; the world of a mouse, not that of a cheetah. It is a world that operates on a different scale, with different perceptions and different rhythms.
On a bike you are aware of every ripple and repair in the road. Every glitter of glass, every sunken grating to be avoided or their shock anticipated, the passage of every wall and gate heard and felt, every gust of wind. It is different even from walking where you lope along, above and over obstructions without even noting their presence. On a bike you feel the grain and texture of the road, the very warp and weft of the fabric of the road.
And where the road goes I follow. Usually when going on a journey you choose a route which joins together the places you want to visit, or which passes through beautiful countryside. Sensible cyclists will choose a route which avoids hills. Walkers will walk from hostel to hostel or campsite to campsite. But following the coast road cuts across all those concerns
There are few decisions to be made. Like a rudderless ship adrift on the sea, the road takes me where it will. All I need do is surrender to the road and see where it leads. I am only momentarily in control of my life. It is like being a child again, absolved of responsibility. I still have to decide what to look at along the way, where to stay, and how long to spend there. But that is the limit of my responsibility. I have no need of planning, no horizon beyond the next few days. Each morning I place my trust in the road and follow where it takes me.
I have to trust also my ability to achieve what I have set out to do. But this involves working with the road not challenging it. People run marathons because they like running; sail around the world because they like sailing; climb Everest because they like climbing. They may talk about challenges because that is what is expected of them. But their internal language is not about battles and victory or defeat. You can never defeat the mountains, the sea, the weather. You can work with them, try to deflect them, but they will always overwhelm you if you are foolish enough to challenge them. The challenges are within yourself: to know what can be done and what cannot; to accept; to be.
This journey is the hardest thing that I have ever done. But it is also the easiest. Each day is easy but the relentless burden of day following day threatens to turn it into an epic of endurance. Of course, each day has not in fact been easy: I have been learning the hard way what it takes to make it easy.
When running I had discovered that during each run the first quarter was spent getting into a rhythm. In the middle two quarters I would be floating on air, the brain euphoric with the endorphins released by the body, feeling as if I could run for ever; the runner's high. The final quarter was just bloody hard work. This pattern persisted whether the distance was five miles or twenty-five, I simply ran faster or slower according to the distance. The trick was to learn what even pace would take me through that process without being completely drained before the end of the run. That judgement of pace came quite easily. What was more difficult was learning what pace for a daily run left sufficient resources for the next daily run, and the next, and the next, and still left enough for a long, enjoyable run at the end of the week.
Runners always train on a few routes, which they use over and over again, every gradient and every corner known. Invariably these are circular routes, as much with the wind as against it. It is easy to learn the pace for such a route. Learning the cycling pace has been much harder.
Now I have to go where the road takes me. Into rain and hail and howling wind; grinding up a winding hill; bowling along a flat road with a following wind. I stop for drinks and meals, sleep in the sun, take a photograph of a beautiful view, spend an hour gawping at an historic castle. There is so much to break up an even pace.
And there is a tension between the cycling and the sightseeing. I have come on this journey to see parts of Britain I have not seen before, cycling is simply a means to an end. Yet the very act of cycling militates against me seeing things. When the sun is out, the wind is fair, and my body is rested, nothing will induce me to stop and look at a castle. Photographs of the most wonderful scenery are deliberately missed in the urge to keep on cycling. The rhythm of the road and the rhythm of cycling are everything. This euphoria of cycling is greater than any runner's high that I have known. Only the fear of exhaustion will force me to stop for water, food, and rest.
But there is also the tyranny of the road. When the rain comes down and the cold wind blows, cycling is miserable. Time then to stop and visit a stately home? Not a bit of it! To stop and take off waterproofs, put on extra layers of clothing to prevent the chilling of congealing sweat, to drip around a draughty castle, then put on waterproofs again and urge cold muscles out once more into the rain; this is a dubious respite from the misery. Better to keep my head down, carry on pedalling, and let the rhythm of cycling carry me through a miserable day to an early bath and a warming meal.
It is often claimed that travelling by bike you see much more than travelling by car. This claim is spurious except in a rather limited sense. It is stating the obvious to say that you travel much faster by car than by bike. Inevitably then you can travel through more countryside and stop to look at more sites in a day's travel by car. And my experience has been that when cycling I spend less time looking at sites than if I were driving from site to site. It's partly that I am more conscious of time passing and feel the urge to get back on the road. That may seem a contradiction when I have also said how happy I am to let time drift by. What I mean is that the rhythm of the road which urges me back into the saddle also contains the seed of why I am content to see less.
It is the fault of these wretched endorphins which bring the euphoria of running and cycling. Strenuous exercise is very relaxing as well as very tiring. It calms you down. It is satisfying in its own right. It makes you less demanding of your surroundings. Exercise lowers your expectations. Arriving at a town which might have a dozen things worth visiting, I am happy to see one or two before moving on feeling satisfied. Arriving by car I would pound round all the sites, leaving many with a sense of frustration, before moving on to the next destination: done that, what's next? Touring by car is a restless experience, touring by bike a relaxing one. Only on my rest days do I feel the need to assiduously pound the tourist trail.
This satisfaction at seeing less is compounded by the greater satisfaction of the travelling itself. It is in the travelling that the cyclist's claim of seeing much more begins to be justified: though you see much less in total, you see much more in detail. And the experience of it is enhanced by the heightening of awareness which cycling brings. Exercise is the only legal, mind-expanding drug on the market!
In saying that I am driven on by the rhythm of the road, I am of course exaggerating to make a point. There have been times when that drive was compulsive and inexorable. And times when the rhythm made me oblivious to my surroundings. But for the most part I dance to a gentler rhythm. On those days I sense everything around me. Stone walls and bridges glowing in the sun or glistening in the rain. The hedges and fields, and the smell of damp grass. The chattering of birds and insects. The caress of the breeze, and the sensuous road unfolding before me. Countless opportunities to stop and stare. Endless time for savouring and enjoying the world, for contemplation and reflection.
It is that ability to stop and
stare which is at the heart of cycle touring. In a car you drive
past the countryside, on a bike you travel in the
countryside, you are part of it. It is the difference between
sport on television and sport in real life; enjoyable enough in
its own right, but no substitute for the real thing. It is the
difference between the frenzied excitement of a city and the sweet-temper
of rural life. Villagers have time to stop and talk to one another;
cyclists have time to stop and converse with the countryside.