Monthly Archives: March 2012
Small wonder the weather is such a big topic of conversation here in Britain – there is just so much of it to talk about. With their sceptred isle situated at the crossroads of several North Atlantic storm tracks, subject to the whims of both the Azores Highs and the Icelandic Lows and with the Gulf Stream handy to add its bit of variety to the show, a body simply never knows what’s going to happen next and it’s seldom any good asking the Met Office or checking in with the BBC’s weather page, because they generally don’t know either – it is just kind of a guessing game, a national pastime to rank with cricket: lick your finger, hold it in the air and say the first thing that pops into your mind.
This week of course it’s all been good news – a string of gorgeous spring days with clear skies, soft sunshine and gentle breezes and with each passing fine day our sense of wonder has grown, so that we feel a bit like punters who’ve witnessed the same number come up on a roulette wheel come up five spins in a row. While the peculiar fickleness of Britain’s weather, good and bad, provides a useful entrée to conversation with strangers, or to pass the time with fellow parents waiting outside the school gate, it can also make for a real challenge when you are heading out the door for a longish bicycle ride and wondering which of the many English climates you ought to be prepared for – especially in the springtime, and most particularly when you are setting out in the cool grey half-light just before dawn when the day hasn’t yet declared itself. You never trust your run of luck, or assume what the climate will be like in the neighbouring village. The weather around here doesn’t just do four seasons in a day, it can do four seasons in the space of five miles just as easily.
Many’s the time I’ve set off down the street here under fair skies and cold clear starlight and yet found myself battling wind, rain or thick sea mists even by the time I got as far as Bexhill – and then returned home to sweet, clean golden sunshine. Once, a years ago, I ran into three inches of snow over there – four miles away – on a morning when we hadn’t even had a frost in Hastings.
You just never know – not for sure anyway, although over the years and thousands of miles I have developed a sort of peasant’s eye for the local weather, which is to say my guesses have been getting better lately. Cycling sure is wonderful for putting you in touch with your inner barometer. These days I seem to be able to step out the door and know, to a reasonable degree of probability, whether there will be mists over the marshes or along the seafront, know where the frost hollows are, and make some pretty shrewd appraisals of just what the cloud cover has in store in the near-term. Between that and a canny springtime wardrobe of lightweight wool jerseys, bib tights, a soft-shell jacket and gloves, I am good to go. Consequently the light sea mist that, against all expectations, awaited me along the foreshore this morning was just so much additional atmosphere.
Henri Desgrange, the stubborn, dictatorial founder of the Tour de France, was famously scornful of variable gears on bicycles, seeing them as a sign of weakness in body and character and for many years – as long as he was in charge of the event – he forbade the use of derailleurs in the Tour.
“I still feel that variable gears are only for people over forty-five,” he wrote in a 1902 article in his magazine L’Equipe after a test organized by the Touring Club de France showed comprehensively that the new-fangled derailleur was far superior to the old fixed gear for getting cyclists up and over high mountain passes, with the reigning cycling champion of the day, Edouard Fischer, being easily defeated over a mountainous 150-mile course by a rider on a Gauloise bicycle equipped with a three-speed derailleur. Desgrange wouldn’t have it.
“Isn’t it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a derailleur? We are getting soft. Come on fellows. Let’s say this test was a fine demonstration for our grandparents. As for me, give me a fixed gear!”
And so it went. It wouldn’t be until 1937, when kidney disease had shunted Desgrange off to the sidelines, that the enfeebling ‘artifice’ of a derailleur would finally be allowed in the Tour de France. By then champion riders were regularly suffering the indignity of being passed on the cols by derailleur-equipped cyclo-tourists who had taken to the new gadgetry in droves.
Seventy-five years down the track, in a world of electronic shifting and eleven-speed rear sprockets, where the peloton spins through the Pyrenees at a cracking pace, the idea that using low-range gears to conquer cols could ever have been seen as unmanly seems quaint and antediluvian – unless, of course, you are talking about triples here in Britain, the island where Desgrange’s musty old Spartan ideals have evidently crawled off to die, and where scorn is heaped upon those weaklings and moral degenerates who opt for a third chainring.
You see it on Internet forums all the time – somebody will be planning to tackle oh, I dunno, say, the Fred Whitton Challenge (for those who aren’t from these parts that’s a famously, brutally hilly 112-mile sportive in England’s Lakes District where gradients can exceed 30%) and start a thread tentatively floating the idea of putting a triple on their bike to help them up Wrynose Pass and wondering how badly they will be sneered at by the ‘real’ riders, hard-core roadies who, it is assumed, will all spin up the passes in 52×23 or smaller.
Or there will be somebody new to cycling, or just getting back into it after years away, who lives in a hilly area and wants something really low range that will help them up the hills so they don’t get left behind by their mates – but at the same time are afraid of being laughed at if they show up for a club run with a triple on their bike. Or somebody going off on a self-contained tour and wondering if after all they might need, or be better off with, a triple for carrying their gear up long mountain grades. All of these queries seem to be posed with a tentativeness and hesitancy that makes he think they are either hoping for some kind of support or approval, an acknowledgement that others secretly feel the same way and that it is okay to embrace the triple – but on the other hand seem equally ready to retreat and scoff at the notion themselves if the scoffing from others gets too loud.
It’s weird. As far as I know this heavy bias against triples doesn’t exist in the United States or Australia – or at least I do not remember things being that way (of course, it’s been a while) – while on the Continent nobody seems at all bothered about fitting a triple chainset to their bike. To be sure, in a lot of circumstances a modern compact chainset and a generously geared rear cassette will be more than adequate to get you up whatever hill you need to climb, while most road triples these days, with their 30-tooth granny rings, aren’t geared low enough to make much difference over a compact, but that doesn’t mean triples in principle should be so roundly scorned – especially since most of the scorn is based on aesthetic, snob and character grounds.
As for me, a garlic-and-onions expat, and at 53, old enough so that even Henri Desgrange would cut me some slack, I’ve unashamedly got triples on two of my three bikes – my Thorn eXp expedition tourer (46-36-24) and my Enigma randonneur (48-34-26), while my Pegoretti road bike has a compact chainset (50-34) coupled with a touring sprocket (13-29) on the rear. True, I don’t use my ‘granny gear’ very often (or the 29 on the Pegoretti, for that matter) but I like to know its there, and while the more crowded look of a triple may not be a popular here in Britain, I happen to like the touring aesthetic these chainsets give my bicycle – and the tacit suggestion that even if I am not at the moment heading for distant places and challenging terrain, I could go anytime if I wanted to. And anyway, which is more aesthetically pleasing – pedaling your bicycle up a hill in the granny gear of your triple chainset, or walking beside it, pushing it uphill, with your oh-so-trendy-and-just-like-the-pros double sitting idle?
No sooner do I return to England and get back in the saddle again than it’s time to turn the clocks forward to Daylight Savings Time, plunging me back into darkness once more when I go out for my early morning rides. It just seems so unfair. For the past few weeks I’ve been enjoying the earlier and earlier sunrises, to the point where it would be broad daylight by the time I rocked up back home again. Now its dark again. So although the clocks might have sprung forward an hour, it felt to me when I went out this morning like the calendar has sprung backwards a whole month. Now I have to watch the sunrise creep forward over the same ground all over again.
I never really understood the rationale behind Daylight Savings Time – actually that’s not quite so; perhaps it would be better to say I never agreed with the rational behind it. Theoretically it is meant to save energy, reduce crime, and improve the overall quality of life for city folk over summer by giving us all more (supposedly) useful hours of daylight for leisure activities after work. I just don’t see it myself. I’m with the farmers on this one; they don’t like DST either.
Funnily enough the idea of Daylight Savings Time was originally the brainchild of Benjamin Franklin, the man who also coined the phrase “early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise”. Go figure. As a cyclist – and as an early riser in general – I’d much rather have the extra hour of daylight at the start of the day, bright and early, when I am fresh and bright and eager and able to make best use of them rather than sit through artificially long evenings when I am feeling done for the day, had my dinner and am ready to hunker down for the night. Instead by the time June rolls around, and the Summer Solstice, I am confronted with long invitingly sunny evenings that leave me feeling as though I ought to go out and do something, go out on another bike ride, perhaps, just to make use of all this extravagant daylight. But frankly I seldom want to, or can find the energy. Instead I sit and mope and wish it away, and feel kind of relieved when at last the long slow slide into dusk finally begins.
Mornings on the other hand are beautiful, quiet, so fresh the dew is still on them – the perfect time of day. To be sure, we get nice early sunrises here at latitude fifty-one north, even with daylight savings time, with the sun popping up as early as at a quarter to five in the morning in high summer and with plenty of light to see (and ride) by at four o’clock. That’s pretty early. I’m not sure that even I wouldn’t be all that keen on heading out the door a full hour earlier than that just to make maximum use of the dawn’s early light if, for some reason, they dropped the idea of Daylight Savings Time. But I’d love to have the chance to see. For now though and the next few weeks I’ll just make do once again with darker starts and lamp-lit finishes.
There is something marvellously therapeutic about that first bicycle ride after coming home from a long flight – and it isn’t just because all that pedalling and fresh air clears away the jet-lag induced cobwebs from your brain and gets your circulation moving again after all those hours spent cramped in a cattle-class seat, trying to elbow your neighbour’s love handles from the armrest without provoking a turf war. It restores your dignity and sense of self as well. You’re back in charge of your life, captaining body and soul wherever it is you want to go, without reference to procedures, protocol, security or schedules. You can go where you please, as you please, moving along at your own pace, setting your own course and bearing and changing it on a whim if it pleases you.
Best of all you become invisible to all that overweening authority that you don’t tend to think about in your day-to-day existence, but which lurks out there all the time and which you can’t avoid interacting with, and in a big, big way, whenever you fly. There is no way to avoid it. When you fly these days you enter a rather sinister, Orwellian world of paper trails, passport numbers, and customs-and-immigration forms; an impersonal world where your travel and payment data is shared automatically with various of the world’s law-enforcement and security apparatuses; a world where you are required to present your bona fides at every turn for inspection and monitoring, and submit to body scans, pat-down searches, electronic finger-printing and smile (or not) for cameras equipped with facial recognition technology.
I hate it. I’m guilty of nothing, and therefore ostensibly have nothing to fret about, but I hate it on principle, and I can think of no more satisfying way of giving those jealous authorities a two-fingered salute than going on a bicycle ride. Once aboard my bicycle I am free to travel as I please, go where I like;I’m invisible, off the grid, a man without a number, gleefully slipping beneath everybody’s radar – even that of the speed cameras monitoring traffic along the street. I’m king of the road. Okay, so I couldn’t get to Africa and back as swiftly as I could on a plane, but I could still get there, my tourer would carry me that far, and what’s more appealing still, it would be a journey worth taking, a taste of travel in the grand old style as it were, instead of simply shipping myself as eighty-kilos of live cargo.
Sure, it mightn’t be practical in the workaday sense to do such a thing for real, not when we all have such busy schedules and deadlines to meet, but the very idea that I could do it is a form of escape in itself. To pedal along on my own, invisible to all forms of authority, alive with the smug realization that the globe really is (or could be) mine for the trotting, free, clear and beholden to no one, is for me the perfect restorative to a world made small and mean, and overfamiliar by too many frequent flier miles and too much jackboot security. Skipping school was never so sweet.
I’m back from the wilds – well, not actually back in England yet and aboard my bicycle, but back within the cosy sphere of the Internet, able once again to post on my blog, respond to e-mails and generally rejoin the workaday fray.
I left camp early yesterday morning and arrived here last night after a long and tiring day in a Land Rover, bouncing and lurching for hours along a series of remote and dusty tracks, and sometimes no track at all. I am now sitting on the veranda of a cinder block house, near a bush airstrip in what would still by most reckonings be the middle of nowhere, staying as the guest of a wildlife biologist. There may be no toilets or running water here, and a large spitting cobra lurking in the tool shed nearby, but by golly there is a solar-powered internet connection and a decent signal.
It feels a little weird to be sitting here like this, in the African heat and dust, with a tsetse fly buzzing around my head and my MacBook open on my lap, communicating with the world at large. While part of me is delighted to be doing so, catching up with friends and work and writing this post for my blog, another part of me – the travel romantic – finds all this a little depressing too. Where on Earth do you have to go these days to be truly out of touch and incommunicado? Is it even possible? I know as a fact you can send e-mails from the South Pole; I’ve done it. Distance and obscurity, once the yardstick for romance, has become irrelevant.
To be sure, I couldn’t send e-mails or post anything on the blog from our remote bush camp, but that was simply because the dongle the photographer and I tried to use with our laptops wasn’t very simpatico with the signals used by national telecommunications company here and so no joy. But that was the only reason. Had I a different, more local-friendly dongle, I could have blithely carried on my workaday world just as though I were home. And being good citizens of the 21st century, we naturally enough had generators, laptops and that (alas) useless dongle with us. I wonder why we do such things? We just can’t leave it alone.
By tomorrow morning I will be. In another hour’s time I start the long and complicated (and miraculous when you think about it) series of flights that will begin aboard a single-engine Cessna and this desolate bush airstrip and conclude many hours later amongst the mid-morning crowds and bustle and noise of Heathrow, bleary eyed and facing the prospect of a tedious ride home along the traffic-clogged M25 back towards Hastings and wondering where I’ve been. Physical distance too has well and truly been conquered. No place is far away anymore – except of course, and pleasantly so – when you go by bicycle.
As anyone who has read many of my posts would gathered by now, I am hardly a weight weenie when it comes to my bicycles, and while I naturally prefer to travel light when I am touring – or travelling on business for that matter – that doesn’t mean I want to do without what I consider to be life’s daily essentials. I am thinking now of books.
Wherever I am going, and however I am getting there – be it bicycle, train hot air balloon or plane, I have to have something handy to read, preferably a selection of things because I am a capricious reader and never really know all that far in advance what is going to take my fancy. I might think I’d like to read, say, a Raymond Chandler mystery when I first set out the door, but by the time I am actually sitting on the plane I might well find myself more in a P.G. Wodehouse frame of mind, and wishing I’d brought one of his books instead.
Since I do not want to take the chance of being without something absorbing to read, I used to pack myself a small travelling library whenever I went anywhere – tucking perhaps three or four paperbacks in my panniers or saddlebag if I was touring by bicycle, and taking along a good many more than that if I was setting off on an assignment involving a lot of long-haul flights. My record in that regard was an assignment in the Cook Islands, which involved my flying out there and back (from England) in just over a week – eighty-hours in planes and airports; for that I packed something like a dozen books. It wasn’t so much the weight of all these books that became a nuisance, it’s the bulk as well. A dozen books fills up a sizeable portion of your suitcase.
Enter the Amazon Kindle. My wife bought me one for Christmas the year before last, after my Cook Islands trip, and it has been a revelation. Being in general the sort of classicist who prefers flat pedals and friction shifting, I’d been a bit dubious about this radical new-fangled idea of e-books and reading on a computer screen. I’m not any more. It works just fine. Better than fine, it’s great. When you put a cover on the thing, you have an open-book-shaped object in your hands that feels like the real thing instead of a tablet. You quickly forget it is an electronic reader, and clicking the button to turn a page becomes second nature. The screen, too, is as easy on the eyes as the written page, and is readable in bright sunlight as well. What’s more, a single charge will last you up to a month, so unless you’re going to be on the road a while you can get away leaving the cord at home.
It is perfect for cycling. I went on a tour of Orkney last August with something like three hundred novels in my handlebar bag and I could have taken far more – a full-sized Kindle like mine will hold 3500 books in all. And if you suddenly have a hankering for a book you don’t have, as I did this morning in my hotel when an felt an urge to read The Snows of Kilimanjaro, you can always snap it up on the hotel’s Wifi.
And the weight weenies among you who drill holes in your toothbrush handles when you go touring will be delighted to hear Amazon has brought out a newer, smaller, lighter Kindle that will still carry a featherweight 1500 books.
What a glorious spring day it is here in Sussex, all hazy blue skies, daffodils in bloom, the air soft and balmy with the soporific drone of a neighbour’s lawn mower coming to me through the open window – just the sort of morning to be out on your bike, cruising the lanes, with your cap set for distant places.
Instead here I sit at my desk, square-eyed before the computer, trying to get all my tangled affairs in order before I hit the road again tonight on another assignment – one that will take me to a very different part of the globe than I was in last week, and to a place in which, yet again, there will be no chance of early morning bike rides, or any time bike rides for that matter, for reasons strongly hinted at in these vintage advertisements for Raleigh Bicycles.
There was no time to go out on my bike here in Sussex this morning either, although it was conscientiousness rather than sloth or wild beasts that kept me inside and at home. I was up at my usual pre-dawn hour, pecking away at my laptop, putting a few final touches to a tightly written story that I had hoped to have finished a few days ago. It is a short piece, ostensibly a doddle to write, but writing brief magazine features is a bit like writing Haiku – nowhere near as easy as it looks. Aside from finishing that, I still need to pack, fill my anti-malarial prescription, and chase up a lot of loose ends.
As with my Haiku-like and yet-unfinished magazine feature, I had hoped to have several blog posts pre-written and set up for timed release while I am away, as I understand I may not have such ready access to the internet where I am going. Alas I have not been able to accomplish anywhere near as much as I had hoped in the time available to me, and so I shall have to ask your forbearance if posts do not come out very regularly over the next ten days. Do check in. I will post as and when I can – and in any event I will be back on deck Friday the 23rd of March.
I set off down the road on my bicycle this morning at just on a quarter to five, spinning down to the seafront beneath a luminous cream-coloured gibbous moon floating dreamily in the southwestern sky. It was a waning moon, about two-thirds full, and the halo around it, formed by a gauzy layer of cloud, had a peculiar iridescent quality that pleased me and set me to thinking not only about how nice it was to be out and about and noticing such things as these every day, but also about the easy connectedness with the landscape and the natural world that seems to go hand-in-glove with riding a bike.
On a bicycle you are not merely seeing the scenery, as though at arm’s length, you become a part of it – and it becomes a part of you. For example I knew, without even thinking, that the moon this morning was waning rather than waxing, for having ridden nearly every day over these long dark winter months I’ve come to know the lunar phases by heart, just as I know off the top of my head which of the planets are taking their turns as ‘morning stars’, and can tell you to within a minute or so what time the sun will rise, then point, accurately, to the spot out at sea where it’s rim will break the horizon.
And I knew too, even as I carved my usual turn onto the seafront and glanced off to my right, that the tide would be out at this hour on this particular morning. You can’t ride every morning along the seaside, hear the wash of waves over shingle and the cries of gulls, and not come to know the rhythm of the tides. Ditto the wind. As I pedalled along the promenade my brain subconsciously and automatically registered the fact that the breeze this morning was out of the north-northwest – not that it was a headwind or tailwind, but the precise cardinal direction.
I like this heightened sensitivity to the natural world that cycling brings me. So much of our lives these days – most of us anyway – are spent disengaged from Nature. I may not be a farmer or fisherman who needs to know the lunar phases or tides to earn my living, but my life is made all the richer for knowing them.