Every morning, rain or shine, winter, spring, summer, and fall, I go for a ride on my bicycle, up at sparrows and out the door for a thirty-mile slice of fresh-cut Sussex countryside before breakfast, double or even triple that on lazy summer Sundays.
I do this purely for pleasure; there’s nothing here of the dedicated wannabe, out there putting in his long, lonely pre-dawn miles, training for the next big race or time trial. I’ve never raced a bicycle in my life. I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to do such a thing. Cycling for me has never been about competition and pressure, the structured regime of training or the intensity of a race; it’s always been my escape from that sort of hustle and bustle, a chance to slip away for a while into a gentler, slower, pedal-powered world, one that is still rich in detail and ripe for discovery.
These morning rides are my quiet time, pleasurable hours spent exercising my imagination as much as my legs. I like to be on the road by four-thirty, if I can so I’ll have plenty of time to go long. Four-thirty is a beautiful hour of day to be abroad on a bicycle, spinning along an English country lane, entirely on your own, free, clear and beholden to no one, while all the rest of the world is asleep. In the summer the sky is aglow with a creamy pink light, the sun making ready to rise and a dawn chorus of birds chattering in the hedgerows; in winter its cold starlight, the moon shimmering through bare branches, ice in the puddles and snowflakes swirling in the beam of my headlamp.
Either way, it’s exhilarating. By the time I roll up to the house again two hours later, put the bike away and get the kettle on for coffee, I feel like I’ve been somewhere, had an adventure. And being a writer by profession and by habit, I want to write about these things, share them with others. Alas, the magazines for which I usually write have only limited needs for cycling stories, whereas I have ten thousand miles a year worth of cycling-inspired thoughts and imaginings I want to put to print. And so this blog.
My Bicycle (s)
My oldest is a black-and-cream Thorn eXp expedition tourer with about 80,000 miles on the frame and with whom I’ve shared many an adventure. It was built in Somerset in 1999 and over the years it has carried me to a lot of interesting places, from the spice markets in Zanzibar to the grand bazaar in Istanbul to the outermost of the Orkney Islands.
In between these jaunts it has been a reliable transport and winter bike, out on the road nearly every morning, racking up many thousands of miles on the lanes in Sussex and Kent, often in the cold and dark and the misty English rain. It is strong, beautifully stable under load and utterly reliable.
My road bike, on the other hand, is a little more flighty and temperamental, but then it’s supposed to be. It’s a Pegoretti Luigino, a classic Italian road bike hand made by one of the world’s most revered frame-makers, Dario Pegoretti, at his workshop in Caldonazzo, Italy. You don’t see many of these around. I am very, very lucky to have one. I ordered it in 2008-just before Dario achieved the near-rock-star fame he enjoys among bicycle cognoscenti today, and also before the sharp rise in the Euro, two factors that have since put Pegoretti frames well out of reach of lowly scribes such as I.
The retro-styled Luigino is Pegoretti’s tribute to the great Italian racing bikes and frame-builders of the 1960s. It has a lugged steel frame, with an exquisite lugged stem, original Campagnolo drop outs and the chrome-plated double-box crown on the fork. It is no lightweight as far as modern racing bicycles go, but being a Pegoretti it is astonishingly swift and responsive. It loves hills. I love hills too when I am riding it.
Last but not least is the classic randonneur-style tourer made by Mark Reilly at Enigma, a small family-run firm of artisan bicycle makers just over in Pevensey, a small village along the Sussex coast not far from where I live. This is my dream bike, and I followed every step of it it’s creation from the first rough hacksaw cut to the final spit and polish. (for more see the essay: My (New) Bicycle and I. With its polished lugs and fleurs-de-lis, and a livery of sable and Parisian pink, is hands-down the most beautiful bicycle I have ever seen.
I’ve had a love affair with bicycles and cycling since I was a kid roaming the backroads of Carroll County, New Hampshire aboard a secondhand Schwinn Varsity. I emigrated to Australia when I was in my early twenties, attended the University of Sydney, bought myself a sturdy tourer and entertained all kinds of visions of trotting the globe on my bicycle once I graduated. As so often happens with life’s grand ambitions, this one never came about. I did the sensible thing, landed a job instead and settled into a pleasant but dull suburban continuum writing for newspapers in Sydney and then in Melbourne.
And so things might have remained but for a wildcat tram driver’s strike in Melbourne twenty years ago. Stuck for a way into work I remembered my old tourer, which by then had long been gathering cobwebs in the shed. (*See Wheels of Chance) and pedalled into the office the day of the strike. And the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that.
What started out as a bit of a lark became one of life’s sea changes, reawakening the old ambitions and that jaunty schoolboy sense of optimism, expectancy and self-belief that naturally comes with steering your own course. Things began to happen. Nice things. I quit that dull newspaper job and in pursuit of an old dream went off to Antarctica, and on my return found myself a better job, as a writer with Time Magazine, and bought myself a better bicycle too, another tourer on which I went for long lyrical rides in the South Australian countryside. Still restless, a couple of years later I quit that job and with my final pay-cheque as a road stake set out on a 10,000 mile solo trek through the Australian outback. It was the toughest thing I have ever done, and the best. I was gone nine months, and finished up nearly penniless. But with the buccaneering good fortune that I will always associate with being out and about on a bicycle, captaining body and soul, National Geographic took an interest in my story, which they eventually published as a three-part series – the first in the magazine’s history – and later in book form, Cold Beer & Crocodiles. I have been writing for them ever since, as well as a host of other magazines – Time, Nature, Conde Nast, Islands, National Geographic Traveler, National Geographic Adventure and Lonely Planet Magazine.
Over the years I have cycled on every continent – even Antarctica, riding ‘around the world’ once in under ten seconds while I was at the South Pole on an assignment (*see Pole Position). These days, though, I mostly ride the leafy country lanes here in Sussex, England where I live with my wife and two little girls and three jaunty bicycles.