My Bicycle & I
Although I go on out on my bike for nothing more the pure pleasure of a ride, I do like to feel fit when I go and so over the past year I have been working on making what Sir David Brailsford and the folks at Sky call ‘marginal gains’ – those little and often overlooked details in training and riding that (in their case) can make the difference between winning and placing in the Tour de France or (in my case) the difference between turning around at Pevensey on a Sunday morning ride and saying oh-what-the-heck and pressing on and doing an extra twenty, thirty, forty miles.
To that end, I have been doing to the gym nearly every day and toiling away on the cross trainer there. I try to do an hour each time, pumping along at a fairly high cadence and at a reasonably high resistance level too.
It’s quite tedious it must be said, and made all the more so by the fact that the only distraction, as I churn away, is Sky News on the big-screen TV that is affixed to the wall in the gym. I have never been much of a TV watcher and as for news, I would always much prefer to read a story than watch it on TV. But, hey-ho, I have no choice here but to watch – and suffer.
And suffer, I do. The advertisements are bad enough, ranging from mildly insulting to one’s intelligence to the outright barbaric, but what is truly testing of one’s mettle in an hour of distance run, is the sub-titling in the news coverage. Words fail. Indeed. It is unbelievably – even hilariously – awful, like a really, really bad Google translation from Chinese. And it doesn’t stop, and never gets better. As a writer and a journalist I find it excruciating to watch and read. As the seconds and minutes drag by, with nowhere else to look, I’ve had to learn to dig deep and focus, shut out distractions, maintain cadence no matter what. I’m not saying I’m ready to tackle The Hour record yet, or become a champion time trialist, but I’m certainly on my way at least as far as the mental aspect goes. Certainly I noticed the difference this morning as I was spinning along the country lanes, homeward bound from a distant ride, and decided to try to maintain my jaunty pace all the rest of the way home. And I did it too. After endless hours on the cross-trainer, tormented by awful syntax, malapropisms, misused homonyms, and sheer gobbledygook, a fast and focussed ride in the cleansing morning sunshine seemed a piece of cake.
I’ve just spent a glorious weekend at Goodwood, attending the Member’s Meeting courtesy of a good friend of mine who is an exhibitor there. I had never been to Goodwood before so I was quite excited to be going even though my knowledge of motors and automobiles is such that the whole of it could be inscribed in ninety-six point font on the end of a spark plug. I made up for my lack of nous with boyish enthusiasm. While there was lots of immensely powerful and exotic cars there, with big throaty engines and high-octane thrills on the track, my eyes were drawn to the Edwardian automobiles. I’ve always loved that era, which was a golden one for bicycles and automobiles alike – a decade when there was a kind of giddy enthusiasm in general for both these new-fangled forms of transportation (and motorcycles too!) and the open-road freedoms they offered; when motorists and cyclists were able to share the roads amicably and going out to explore the countryside on a Sunday afternoon, be it by car or by bicycle was something of an adventure. What fun it must have been!
Although Goodwood is very much a motoring weekend, there was still much for the nostalgic cyclist to see and admire, bearing in mind how many automobile and motorcycle manufacturers started out as bicycle makers – behold the dashboard on the Bianchi, pictured above!
As a writer, and professional user of words and language, I have been rather bemused by the notion floated this week that we should all stop using the term “cyclist” to refer to those of us who get about on bicycles, on the grounds that the term “cyclist” has such negative connotations nowadays with motorists and politicians.
Instead, it is suggested, we come up with newterms, several of them, in fact, one each to denote the various ways in which we rideour bicycles: commuting, touring, racing etc. Apparently the Dutch have different words to describe those who race bicycles – as in the Tour de France – and the mere mortals who simply ride them and the flowery logic here seems to be that this flexibility in the Dutch language somehow creates flexibility in thinking as well. We English speakers, the thinking goes, should do likewise.
That something needs to be done is highlighted by a survey of Australian motorists that found that an alarming percentage of drivers – 31 per cent! Nearly a third – perceive cyclists as not being fully human, and are desensitized to their humanity to the extent with about one-in-ten motorists admitting to deliberately swerving at cyclists, cutting them off, or deliberately passing as close as they can without making contact (and potentially getting themselves in trouble, or at least having to fill out a lot of fussy paperwork)
Now, I agree that it would be a great thing if everybody could get along better on the roads – cyclists, motorists, whoever – but for the life of me I can’t see how an act of preciousness on the part of cyclists, by coming up with coy new terms for self-identity is going to do anything but perpetuate – and indeed thrust further into the limelight – the old libel that cyclists are rather too precious to begin with. Words matter, to be sure. As a writer I know that better than most. But inventing clever new synonyms for “cyclist” in the hope that such a thing will catch on and broaden minds and open hearts seems absurdly naive.
Long ago when I was growing up in New Hampshire I used to love winter, all that deep snow and astonishing sub-zero cold and tromping through the woods on my snowshoes – right up until about March, when suddenly I would tire of the whole thing and be eager for a change. From then on I would start cheering on spring, delighting in seeing the snow retreat, those first promising patches of bare ground, the piquant smell of damp earth and the liquid treble of meltwater. I revelled in the freedom of no longer requiring snowshoes to go for walks in the woods, but could happily get by in just my LL Bean boots, their high leather tops proof against the slush and mud as I poked along the banks of the brook, surveying my old favourite fishing holes, or re-exploring the beaver bogs after the hard winter, full of jaunty expectancy at the thought that fishing season would soon commence.
And then every year, sometime in the first week of April, reliable as clockwork, a late season blizzard would blow in out of nowhere, dump a foot and a half of snow, and set the change of season back by another couple of weeks. At least. It always just seemed so gratuitous. It was snow that did nobody any good, a waste, really, of a perfectly good blizzard that would have been treasured in February but in April was simply an impediment, an irritation, a heartbreak. Enough already. Let’s just get on with spring.
Which is precisely how I feel about changing the clocks for daylight savings time, irritated, frustrated, wanting to get on with the deliciously early summer mornings. For weeks now when I have been going out on my pre-dawn morning rides, I have been taking quiet pleasure in seeing the subtle changes in the sky, the gradual lightening as sunrise came earlier and earlier each day, until this past week I needed my headlamp only for the first half an hour or so, and could enjoy the sunrise as I pedalled along the seafront promenade. But now, as of this morning, we’re back to starlight again – gratuitously, in my opinion, not that anyone is asking. I do appear to be in good company though as regards my dislike of daylight savings. An article I read in the Guardian this week about the EU’s desire to put an end to daylight savings, reported that 82 per cent of British respondents in a poll about daylight sayings wanted to see the practice ended. Alas, it also reported that the British government has shown absolutely no interest in pursuing this. What was good enough for the home front in 1916, when daylight savings time was first introduced, is still good stuff today in their view, so the only change in sight for us is the change back to standard time later this year on 27 October.
In a continuation of the Wodehouse-worthy tale reported upon last week, it appears that the redoubtable Lord Winston is not a man to let things drop, even when they don’t appear to be going his way. Having raised himself into high dudgeon over the matter of all these cyclists gadding willy-nilly through the streets of London, unencumbered by the bureaucracy that blights the existence of decent folk, and plainly feeling let down by his fellow peers who are apparently not as consumed by this issue as he is, His Lordship has decided to launch a private members bill that would require that all cyclists be registered and have license plates on their bicycles.
In support of his proposed legislation – quod erat demonstrandum – he cites a misadventure he claims to have suffered just the other day at the hands of a cyclist while he was strolling through Bloomsbury (But of course! Where else!) According to His Lordship, he spotted a woman cycling on the footpath and being a forthright peer of the realm, one of the nation’s lawmakers, he marched up to have words with her, tell her what she was doing was illegal and to get off the footpath straight away. Curiously, instead of being grateful to Lord Winston for pointing out the error of her ways, the woman – according to Lord Winston – instead tried to damage his mobile phone, and then kicked him (he doesn’t specify where) before pedalling away. Here, surely, he argues is all the evidence one needs that cyclists are simply out of control and must swiftly be brought to heel.
In many years as a journalist I have heard many stories, but this singularly well-timed one – the events occurring just when His Lordship happened to be in need of a good personal anecdote to back up his claims about rogue cyclists – strikes me as peculiar in a number of other ways, not just the timing. Me thinks there is perhaps more to this story than Lord Winston is telling.
For starters, there is the description of the rogue cyclist herself. Lord Winston tells us she was a woman in “her late thirties or early forties” and “clearly well educated”.
Now, I have certainly seen rogue cyclists doing hair-raising things on city streets – haven’t we all? – but invariable they have been male, and generally fairly young and aggressive. In all my years of cycling, and assignments that have taken me to cities all over the world, I can’t recall ever seeing a “clearly well educated” (Lord Winston’s words) female cyclist in her thirties behaving like a Lycra lout. His Lordship must have found the only one in existence.
Secondly, he says she was riding on the footpath when he went up to her to inform her she was breaking the law. This also strikes me as curious. Lord Winston is 78 years old. He must have been striding remarkably swiftly down the footpath for a man his age – or indeed any age – in order to accost her, since even a slow pedalling cyclist will be moving along at eight to ten miles per hour, or rather faster that double-time march in the Army. Well done, Lord Winston!
Or perhaps she was coming towards him and he merely blocked her way, forced her to stop. I believe the phrase he used was that he managed “to halt” a cyclist – and here my inner humorist conjures an image of a bowler-hatted gent twirling an umbrella and thrusting its tip urbanely into the spokes, although I’m sure His Lordship did no such thing, and does not wear a bowler hat.
In any event, however, one way or another, he managed to “halt” this female cyclist. And so now we have this confrontation in which, according to Lord Winston, the “clearly well-educated” woman on the bicycle attempted to damage his mobile phone and then kicked him. Being a journalist who is used to asking questions, and teasing out details that are sometimes deliberately left out of the telling of a story, I find myself wondering how Lord Winston’s mobile phone came to play a central part in all this. The more I think about it the more I find myself wondering if maybe he was filming her or taking her photo, or attempting to do so at the time. And when I start my mind wandering down those paths, I start wondering how this interaction might have appeared from the woman’s point of view. She may have been pedalling along the footpath, or she may have just rolled up onto it and been gliding to a stop in front of a shop – who knows? – but either way suddenly she has this irascible old man, a total stranger, either blocking her way, or accosting her from behind, taking her picture.. We live in troubled times. If this was what happened, small wonder she grabbed at the phone and gave him a kick, then pedalled away from there.
Whatever the truth of the matter Lord Winston says he decided against reporting this alleged assault to the police. Maybe Jussie Smollett told him it would be a really bad idea. It would be pointless to report it anyway, His Lordship claims, since with no license plate on on the bicycle it would be impossible for police to identify the cyclist in question. Oh he of little faith. Perhaps someone should tell His Lordship that the police are really rather clever at finding crooks who don’t wear name tags when they commit crimes, assuming crimes have been committed, that is. Not to mention all the CCTV around. But hey-ho, never mind. Thankfully Lord Winston’s calls for licenses and license plates for cyclists appear unlikely to be heeded, with most expert commentators dismissing the notion as unworkable, expensive and ultimately a pointless waste of resources. But since His Lordship is like a terrier with a bone when it comes to cyclists it seems unlikely we have heard the last of this.
Over the past week or so there has been a exhilarating balminess in the air, not so much in the mornings when I go out on my bicycle, but later on, in the afternoons, when the sun is shining broadly, the flowerbeds are bright with daffodils and crocus, the magnolias are in flower and the sky is a soft pastel blue. Such balmy afternoons never fail to remind me of long-ago springtimes in the 1960s when I used to fly kites. Every kid did back then, or at least they did in the little pocket of suburbia where we lived, an hour or so south of Chicago, in a town called Hazel Crest. Come the warm fine days of spring and every afternoon after school or on weekends the sky would be dotted with kites. It was nothing then to look around and see a dozen of them in the distance, tiny beacons from other streets and neighbourhoods.
It gave me a quiet thrill to see them. There was at the same time a sense of fellowship connecting these dots and a wondrous suggestion of a great wide world out there, beyond the end of our cul-de-sac.
It was a fringe sort of suburbia that we lived in so there were still a few open fields scattered amongst the new housing developments, one was just behind our house. It was there we flew our kites, out of reach – usually – of kite-eating trees. I should add that these were not ‘performance’ kites, those skittish things with a harness and two strings that allow you to dive and swoop and perform loop-the-loops. Our kites were the classic diamond shape made of balsa and tissue, costing pennies at the Five & Dime. To get them to fly straight you’d add a tail made from a few rags from the ragbag tied together. We became quite expert at it. Launching our kites was simple and exhilarating: a short dash into the breeze, then let out as much string as you dared, watching your kite shrink as it rose away from you. Once it achieved cruising altitude you just enjoyed the simple pleasure of watching it float in the sky. Many pleasurable daydreamy hours passed this way.
Since these easily assembled diamond kites didn’t cost very much losses to crashes or trees were sustainable. One spring though, when I had somehow accumulated some extra funds, I splurged on a box kite – the cost of these fancier more elaborate models running up towards the dollar mark. I had always fancied trying a box kite – I liked their Wright brothers styling and their jaunty improbability. The one I bought fully lived up to expectations, being not only easy to launch but floating higher and lazier than any kite I’d ever had previously. One flight in particular sticks in my memory. It was a particularly fine spring day, bathed in sunshine; one of those days when colours seemed bright as candy and the air was warm with just a pleasant hint of breeze.. I’d bought an extra large bundle of string – six hundred feet of it – at the Ben Franklin store and went out in the field with my box kite. The light breeze caught the kite perfectly and almost before I knew it I’d managed to let out all six hundred feet and thanks to a just the right puffs of wind my kite was sailing nearly vertically overhead, astonishingly high. To this day I can vividly recall the dizzying sense of looking up at it, and actually feeling a bit unnerved at the steepness of the line and the sight of my tiny speck of a kite way, way, way up there against the hard enamel blue of the sky. I was a little jittery about heights then and my active imagination had no trouble associating myself with that kite, scarily high up, and suspended by nothing more than light currents of air and held by a slender length of twine. The shivers of vertigo I felt looking up at it were as thrilling as they were unnerving. I loved it. I flew the kite all afternoon, daydreaming at my end of the string while my kite floated effortlessly sky-high at the other. Eventually my mother summoned me to dinner with the cowbell she rang when we were out of sight of the house. I was loath to haul it in, losing all that lovely altitude – six hundred feet of it! I went out again the next day to try to repeat my success and on subsequent days with even more string to see if I could go higher, but could never quite find the right currents of air to get it so precipitously high, or so joyously or memorably, as I did that afternoon, with every inch of string played out and rising as steep as a cliff over my head. It was perfect.
It’s been fifty years. Yet another spring has rolled around but nowadays the skies are empty of kites. Today’s kids do other things. I wonder though if they will look back fifty years from now and recall with similar fondness an afternoon they spent with their mobile phone and an app?
It seems like whenever one reads about Hastings in the newspaper the adjectives ‘faded’, ‘shabby’ and ‘deprived’ are always nestled somewhere in the copy. Indeed these same adjectives appear in virtually any story about Britain’s old seaside towns which, sadly, nowadays seem better known for drug use and crime than glorious summer sunshine and bucket-and-spade holidays on the beach. To be sure, there are social problems a-plenty in these seaside towns, but there is also still a lot of beauty and charm if anyone cares to open their eyes to see it. As with so many of the unnoticed vignettes and compositions that lie close at hand around us, no matter where we live, they are best viewed and appreciated from a bicycle, at a bicycle’s jaunty clip and with the openness to experience that spinning along on two skinny wheels seems to inspire. I often bring my camera with me on my rides, to capture some of these moments of light and colour and composition. Later, when I show these images to friends, colleagues, magazine editors – some of whom live in what would be considered quite glamorous locations – I am intrigued and a little bemused by how often I am told how lucky I am to live and ride in such a beautiful place. And I have to agree. And I think to myself: who needs the transforming magic of an aeroplane journey when you can hop aboard a bicycle, pedal down the street and experience the wonders of travel and discovery in your hometown? Herewith a small portfolio of images from my rides along the seafronts of Hastings, St Leonards and Bexhill. Click HERE
A sparkling Sunday morning here in Sussex and how nice it is to see the sunrise once more when I am out on my early morning rides instead of going out by starlight and returning by it as well. I usually like to be on the road no later than 5am and in Britain, for a good many months of the year, that means riding in darkness. Not that I mind overly much. I’ve grown quite used to it in fact, and indeed enjoy it. I’ve an excellent German-made headlamp to see by and a gratifyingly bright multi-mode taillight to clip onto the rear rack, and the moon is a wonderful companion. But all the same there is something exhilarating about witnessing the sunrise from the saddle of your bicycle, when you’re already miles from home, spinning free and easy along a quiet country lane or across the marshes with the sunlit mist rising all around you. It’s a perfect fusion of the simple joy of a bicycle ride with the picaresque freedom of the open road and a day brimming with promise.
As I spin along on my bicycle this morning, exercising my imagination as well as my legs, I find myself bridling over an article I read the other day in The Observer. It was written by a fashion writer named Adrian Clark – a rather stern but distinguished looking man with a silver goatee – who decided to take his fellow fifty-somethings to task and tell us what we must no longer wear and telling us in rather peremptory tones, too. Having recently attained the age of two score and ten himself, he had a Damascene moment about what was and was not appropriate for men in the fifty-to-death age bracket and being a writer – gosh I know thatfeeling – he decided to share.
In his opening paragraph, after he establishes his bona fides as one who has – sigh – reached the sobering half-century milestone, he informs his younger readers, those who have yet to have this levelling experience, that despite what they may have heard to the contrary, age is most assuredly not just a number. Fifty, he implies, hurts. Nevertheless he has accepted the new realities with the sang froid of a French aristocrat stepping into the tumbrel, shot his cuffs and retreated from the hurly-burly of London to the coast of Kent in pursuit of a more rewarding and peaceful existence. “As we get older we all hanker for a slower pace of life, right?” he writes, before promptly answering his own question: “Correct.”
Clearly a man of strongly held opinion.
As part of this sea change, he cleaned out his wardrobe, with a stern eye to age appropriateness. “Men entering their 50s,” he writes with the conviction of a newly minted 50 year-old, “fall into one of two camps; those who have given up, and those who don’t know when to give up.” For those lost souls who would be guided, he says, look to tweed coats and roll-neck jumpers. As for trousers, ditch the youthful skinny jeans in favour of something with a smart-casual edge, a classic jean made in a luxury fabric, not denim, or ‘a chino that has a careworn vibe’. His tip: a washed cotton twill chino by Margaret Howell, a snip at £165. As for sneakers, he consoles us, they needn’t be abandoned entirely by a man in his 50s, not when he can pick up a quality leather non-branded pair from Harry’s of London. “You can’t go wrong with the Nimble at £295.”
I should ruddy well think not.
To his credit, he follows his own advice and carries off the style with aplomb, looking far more distinguished in the photographs accompanying the piece, more of an homme du monde than I could ever manage to do. The silver goatee helps, of course, as does the expression of hauteur with which he gazes into the camera lens. I could never pull that off, even if I cared to try. On me that expression would suggest a touch of gas rather than hauteur, while the recommended haberdashery and the eye-wateringly expensive sneakers would hint amusingly at costume.
But I would not care to try, neither the expression nor the styling, nor at the age of sixty do I feel I ought. Mr Clark may have impeccable fashion sense, and indeed he does, but he misses an important philosophical point. “Turning fifty was inevitable,” he writes loftily in conclusion, “but at least, wardrobe edit in the bag, I can control how stylishly I live it.” Of course he can, and to his own taste, but turning fifty was no means inevitable. Any more than turning sixty will be. Or seventy. Or eighty. Or fifty-one, for that matter. There are no guarantees in life, only the moment in which you are living, and the genuinely inevitable fact that when you have passed your two score and ten, the clock is necessarily ticking louder and more insistently than ever. Surely, if ever there was a time in your life to defy convention, not take yourself too seriously, and give short shrift to those who would tell you what you ought to wear and how you ought to wear it, it’s the back side of fifty.
And so with all due respect I think I shall quietly set aside his well-meant advice and instead take my fashion cues from that gleeful ode to non-conformity by Jenny Joseph: “When I am old, I shall wear purple… with a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me…”
I read the other morning, over my bacon and eggs, that Lord Winston feels it is high time something is done about all the “hoodlums in Lycra” that are gadding about London’s streets these days causing His Lordship no end of anxiousness when he crosses the street in front of the House of Parliament. In this, apparently, he found ready agreement from his fellow peer, Lord Sharkey who described the crossing of the street in front of Parliament House ‘an accident waiting to happen’ especially during the rush hour and all because of cyclists. One could be forgiven for thinking this rather quaint-sounding exchange came from an archived story from The Times,circa 1896, or perhaps something from the pages of P.G. Wodehouse, but no, it was from the BBC’s news website, reporting on a discussion in the House of Lords this week.
I have often wondered where the Wodehousian world had crawled off to die, and now I know: it hasn’t. How very like an English Milord of popular myth to take matters thus in hand. In a city beset by a wave of knife crime, with stabbings and murders taking place routinely, and police resources stretched to breaking point – the wool-gathering Lordships feel that cyclists are the menace that must be tackled if London’s streets are to be made safe.
Their answer of course, as is their answer to most things, is regulation and plenty of it. They know just the stuff to give the troops – licenses and insurance, taxes and bureaucracy and vigorous enforcement of this vast new regulatory environment they envision. With three million new bicycles sold every year, that ought to give everybody plenty to do, what?
As Lord Wills noted, in chiming into this feast of reason and flow of soul, of the 38 police forces to hand out fines to irresponsible cyclists last year, 30 of them had issued fewer than five. Twelve had issued none. Surely, he argued, such a state of affairs can’t be allowed to stand.
Leaving aside all the knife crime, the stretched resources and the mountains of paperwork already burdening Britain’s beleaguered police forces, the detail that of the 1800 people killed on British roads each year, cyclists typically account for between zero and two (if it’s been a bad year) seems to have escaped their Lordships’ notice. As does the fact that according to the government’s own research 86 per cent of motorists exceed the speed limit in 20mph zones, 54 per cent exceed the 30mph limit, and more than a third admit to using a mobile phone while driving. To say nothing of the estimated one million uninsured drivers out there, and the estimated 10,000 motorists who are legally still driving on Britain’s roads despite having accumulated enough points on their licenses through speeding and drink driving to (theoretically) ban them from getting behind the wheel.
If one could but summon the nerve, one would like to doff one’s cap, touch one’s forelock, approach the bench and humbly suggest that perhaps there are more pressing matters of public safety and law enforcement out there in that great wide world beyond the Lords Chamber than the odd errant cyclist, and that if, when crossing the street in front of Parliament House their Lordships lowered their snoots a little, raised their lorgnettes to their eyes and remembered to look both ways, their difficulties with cyclists might just resolve themselves. Who knows? Be worth a try anyway.