My Bicycle & I
One of my favourite poems as a child was Windy Nights, from A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson. It tells of a marvelling child who peers out his window late on a wild and windy night and observes a rider – a horseman in this case – bound on some mysterious midnight errand. Smuggler? Courier? Spy? Who knows. Ever the romantic, I loved the way the poem conjured the adventure mystery and urgency of travel in the small hours. And all these years later, I still do.
What a lovely morning it was for a bicycle ride along the quiet country lanes in the Sussex weald, with the early morning sunshine slanting through the oaks and deepening the greens of the new spring leaves. There’s a reason Sussex is called ‘Leafy Sussex’ – and this is it. This image captured along a lane near near Winchelsea, just after sunrise on this cool and slightly misty morning
On weekend mornings in particular I like to get out early with my heavier DSLR camera, a rather sturdier tripod than I usually carry and fairly fancy remote shutter release and make a more leisurely ride, stopping along the way, setting up photo shoots and capturing images of the simple beauties of a bicycle ride. Here is the sunrise this morning on the mist-shrouded marshes between Cooden and Pevensey.
Spring has sprung and with earlier sunrises and better light on our poorly surfaced roads I have taken to venturing further afield in my morning rides, leaving behind my old familiar winter route through the coastal marshes to Pevensey (and back) and heading inland, into the narrow, winding, hilly lanes in the Sussex weald.
It’s a different world up there: sunken mediaeval lanes, deep in shadows, the overhanging branches creating tunnels of leaves and rich green ferns flourishing on the embankments in such profusion you could almost believe you were riding in a rainforest, somewhere in the tropics – if it were not for the very English briskness in the air and the foxes and badgers and pheasants one encounters on an early morning ride. This image was taken on an ancient lane that stretches between Pett village and Winchelsea – a reminder yet again that one needn’t fly to the ends of the earth to experience the romance of travel; save a bit of carbon, hop aboard a bicycle and explore the exotic around you.
What lovely people they must be at The Sunday Times, gleefully proclaiming a ‘victory’ for motorists after recent research showed that the numbers of cyclists on the roads was falling sharply – the declining numbers said to be due in no small part to the fact that an increasing number of riders feel intimidated by the speed and aggression of motorists.
Small wonder cyclists feel that way. Other recent surveys show that as many as a third of motorists do not even regard cyclists as ‘people’ with as many as one in ten motorists admitting to deliberately trying to cut up cyclists on the roads, steering directly into them or trying to pass as close as possible in order to frighten and intimidate. The effect of this bullying – and its all too often lethal consequences – that of monstering cyclists off the roads, is a good thing, according to The Sunday Times; A Victory for Motorists.
The kindest thing one can say about a piece of crap journalism like this is that it is unprofessional, biased and ill-considered, and not the sort of thing that would pass muster on any reputable publication, and least not in the days when journalism was a respectable profession; certainly it would ever have slipped passed the editors or copy editors of any the newspapers or magazines for which I have ever worked.
Indeed the reportage is so crass it is hard to know just where to begin, but lets choose the use of the loaded term ‘victory’ as a starting point. For there to be a victory there needs to be a contest, a campaign or even a war, as is the implication in this story – and a war with very real casualties too, virtually all of them on one side. Indeed were one to report on a battle in which one side suffered scores of casualties, horrific injuries, killed and wounded, while the other side – heavily armoured and with overwhelming force – suffered nary a scratch, ‘massacre’ might be the term one would use rather than ‘victory’ and triumphalism in the reportage would rightly be considered to be in extremely poor taste. One thinks of the Sun‘s infamous ‘Gotcha’ headline during the Falklands War.
Let’s look past that the loaded phrasing and triumphalism for a moment and look at the larger social question. Should the relationship between various road users be characterised as a war in the first place? Is that not rather inflammatory? I guess it comes down to how the editors of The Sunday Times see their roles and the role of journalism – should it be to present balanced coverage, strive for social justice and speaking up for the underdog, or is it to play agent provocateur and pour oil on troubled flames? Someone should remind them that motorists and cyclists both have a perfectly legitimate enshrined right to be on the roads. That vulnerable road users fear for the lives and are increasingly staying home, declining to exercise their rights because they don’t dare to in the face of such bullying is nothing to celebrate. It’s precisely the kind of injustice the noblest of newspaper editors used to campaign against – and should be all the more so today with climate change and carbon emissions being the big news stories of the day.
What a glorious sunrise this morning! For the first time in ages I brought my cameras and tripods and other photographic paraphernalia along with me on my morning ride and paused to capture this image of the sunrise as I pedalled across the marshes near Pevensey.
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.