A lyrical essay about what cycling has meant to me over my lifetime.
Published in the online literary journal Apeiron Review, issue 3, May 2013, pp. 68-71. Click here to see the issue of Apeiron Review.
I did not learn to ride a bike until I was sixteen, in Shropshire. My father, who cycled to work, taught me. I did not see my mother on a bike—she did not own one—until many years later. My father was an impatient teacher, and I was doubtless a terrible learner, being at once a perfectionist and a coward. Great unpleasantness ensued as I attempted to trust myself to this contraption and take both feet off the ground at once, wobbling around the flat country lane. Dad’s method of instruction was generally to express amazement that I had reached my current age without knowing how to (skate, wire a plug, play tennis or ride a bike) and annoyance at discovering that it was up to him to rectify the situation, which he did peremptorily, as if on a military expedition. Even after I had, miraculously, got the hang of propelling myself forward while seated, I continued to be extremely cautious and distinctly remember a nasty encounter with a six-foot holly hedge on a hill near our house.
Ironically, though, loose dogs were what most frightened me when I began cycling by myself, and the reason I had to overcome a fear of training alone. In our early rides, Ned and I had several terrifying experiences of passing isolated farms and being chased by dogs, sometimes several at a time. Our tactic was for Ned to stay on my back wheel, bellowing ferociously, as we pedaled for dear life. If a dog chases me when I’m alone, I’ve learned to dismount, keeping the bike between us, and flag down the next car that passes. Then I ask the driver to keep the car between me and the dog until I’m out of its range. Over the last twenty-five years, what were once isolated areas with little traffic have become more populous, and people generally keep their dogs indoors or chained, so riding alone has fewer canine hazards. There has also been a noticeable decline in harassment and wolf whistles from male motorists in that time—due, I assume, to my aging, a welcome upside.
Riding for several hours a day, five or six days a week, grounds me in the body and balances my cerebral, sedentary work as a writer and translator. Cycling is meditative, and I find myself sinking to a deeper level of consciousness. I have fewer thoughts, especially sustained thoughts—just odd flashes of words or images or memories. After long training rides all I want to do is eat, sleep or read. The world is very quiet. I am profoundly, sustainably content—the kind of contentment I felt when nursing my son. Long-distance riding has an undeniably addictive quality: the more I ride, the more I want to ride. My body loves being used, and it happily makes the shift to riding being its work, its occupation.