The wind at my back
Cyclists can be either introverts or extroverts. Some prefer to ride in groups, others alone. I fall into the latter category. It’s only when I’m alone and free of distraction that I can study the landscape and feel refreshed by it. So as soon as I secured my driving licence, and negotiated the loan of my mother’s red Vauxhall Nova, I returned to the Downs with my bike stowed in the boot.
For walkers, the Downs are about old roads, trackways into the past. For the road cyclist the attraction is different. While the old roads run along the ridges, periodically sending paths off down the hillside towards villages, the new roads that Jefferies referred to criss-cross the land. Some stay low, connecting the settlements at the foot of the hills, others curl themselves around the hills, like the dragon that tempted Saint George. The most impertinent of these new roads launch themselves straight up a hill, over the top and down the other side, bisecting the ancient ridge road and cutting a break in the chalk.
Stop at the top of one of these hills and you will hear only birdsong, the distant drone of tractors, the wind riffling through copses of hawthorn and whitebeam. In summer, the expanses of barley and corn will shimmer and move; in winter, the same fields will be ploughed and studded white with chalk.
The openness is invigorating rather than intimidating; one doesn’t feel exposed. One’s eyes are always drawn upwards into the expansive skies, to swallows and starlings and the traffic heading to and from London’s airports.
The Downs don’t hide much from the cyclist. The landscape is easy to read, so it’s easy to plan a ride, gauge an effort. The roads allow you to get into a rhythm. When there is one long ridge of hills, you choose how many times to go up over it. And you know whether you’re on the steeper scarp or the more gradual dip slope, so you know what kind of climbing to expect. No nasty steepness will be sprung on you. Therefore it is a more meditative experience, simpler, serene. There is a pleasure in zipping back and forth across the ancient ridge road. By doing so the cyclist is saying that while he is in touch with the landscape of the distant past, he has the technology to bypass it: he is no longer enslaved to the land.
And there is a more mischievous aspect to being a cyclist too. For the road underneath my tyres, which may be old in its course but can only be a few years old in its surface, will cut straight through the ancient Ridgeway track. Walkers have to stop for the road’s traffic, one can imagine their winces at having to encounter cars and garishly dressed cyclists. While the heritage industry would have you walk the Ridgeway and imagine yourself back in the Bronze Age, it’s much more fun to subvert the prescribed ways to consume history. Don’t follow any routes, cut straight across them, get lost.
Once, aged 18, I told a non-cycling friend that my plans for the weekend included a trip to a place called Letcombe Regis, a tiny village in Berkshire, from where I was going to do a 50-mile bike ride. He looked at me, uncertain how to respond. He knew I was a cyclist, so the ride wasn’t causing him confusion, it was more the idea of driving for an hour to get to somewhere to ride, when we were surrounded by perfectly good roads in Henley. I was racing at the time, doing daily training rides on my home roads, and though I may not have realised it at the time, I was getting bored – cycling should always feel like an adventure, an exploration. Racing was fun, thrilling even. But I missed the sense of discovery I got from those long meandering rides a few years before.
West Ilsley, Berkshire. The quintessential Downland village; a jumble of red-brick cottages, bungalows, whitewashed walls and cul-de-sacs encircled by houses that once looked modern. The road that runs through the village is called Main Street, but the only saloon bar is in the snug interior of the Harrow Inn, whose drinkers look out onto a cricket pitch rather than cowboy gunfights. A little further along is the 14th-century church, humble in its architecture, built of flint and ashlar stone. Two horse chestnuts tower over the steepled gate.
I’m looking for a place to park. It’s midday, midweek, and I have a day clear of work and childcare. The general administration of life has been swept into tomorrow; an afternoon of cycling lies ahead. On the roof-rack my bike is poised and ready. Beside me on the passenger seat is a rucksack full of high-carbohydrate, high-fat and high-sugar snacks. But my cycling kit is also in the rucksack; I need to get changed in the car.
Twenty minutes later, I click my helmet buckle, slide my sunglasses on and throw my leg over my saddle. Its engine ticking, like the heartbeat of an animal resting after a chase, the car is perched on a wide grass verge at the top of a set of rollers. I’m dimly aware, as I push off, that at the end of the ride I’ll have to climb to this point, and that this will cause me more than a little pain.
At 43 I feel that I still possess some power, some speed. Given a bit more training and a bit less eating, couldn’t I still hold my own in a race? Perhaps, or perhaps I’m kidding myself. One objective truth of getting older as a cyclist is that it takes longer to warm up. No one feels good at the very start of a ride but when you are young and fit you’ll probably get into your rhythm within 10 minutes or so. The process is mysterious – at least to someone like me without any sense of scientific inquiry. While one’s upper body settles into a familiar position, getting a feel for the bike and the road, one’s legs turn stiffly. Pedalling is a conscious action, a little unnatural, and the aches from yesterday’s ride have to slowly dissolve. Body melds to machine, machine to road. Souplesse – the cyclist’s mantra that translates literally as flexibility but in this context is closer to fluidity – is regained. In the older cyclist this process takes longer, the initial aches more pronounced, and sometimes one thinks of simply turning round and going home. But eventually my body becomes that of a cyclist rather than a man on a bike. I’m in my element and everything is flowing in the right direction, albeit a little slower than I would like.
There is a psychological loosening too that happens at the start of every ride. In the first few miles one’s mind is working on the same beat as before the ride, analysing, planning, plotting, worrying. Messages recently received are being processed and stored. Expected messages not received are being missed. One’s internal monologue is a constant stream of exhortations to oneself – do this, call him, look into that. The usual modus operandi of the busy person, but it gently frays your nerves, leaves you frazzled. Sleep can be a relief from the chatter in your brain, at least in the sense that the subconscious mind transmutes it into dream images. But a much superior solution is sleep plus cycling.
On the bike, just as physical stiffness melts through pedalling, so one’s thinking breaks down. With only the landscape and the weather around you, and at least a portion of your mind occupied with the act of making these two wheels travel forward safely, rational businesslike thought is curtailed, then switched off altogether.
Writing in 2016 in The Paris Review about the natural world and our age of anxiety, American writer and academic Megan Mayhew Bergman revisited the work of Alan Watts. A British philosopher and writer, Watts was born in Chislehurst, Kent, in 1915 and died in 1973 at Druid Heights, a bohemian community in Marin County, California, which tells you something of the journey his life took. Heavily influenced by Eastern philosophy, in particular Zen Buddhism, one of Watts’ seminal works was The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety, published in 1951.
Mayhew Bergman wrote, ‘Watts feared, in 1951, that we had already left the body behind and entered into a more impotent existence centered in the mind. The human fascination with the past and future, and our “cerebral fantasies,” was the sign of a maladaptive organ: the human brain. He believed that hyper-rationalizing our desires creates a vicious and taxing cycle, a habitual state of tension and abstraction that is actually a mental disorder. The “writhing and whirling” of the human mind, to Watts, is unnecessary and actually threatens man’s happiness and survival by removing him from a physical existence, one more at home and peace in the natural world… The split between the brain and the body, Watts believed, is not unlike the split between man and nature. Both result in insecurity and anxiety’.
As a writer I often feel guilty about spending too much energy on planning, scheduling, ticking off actions, and too little time on daydreaming. The novelist Hanif Kureishi came to talk to a creative writing group I was part of a few years ago and the only thing I can remember from his talk was that he considered his job to be principally about lying on the sofa during the daytime, eating peanuts. He was having a tricky time convincing his children this was a worthy or viable full-time job. I find myself unable to head to the sofa during the middle of the day, there’s always so much other stuff to be getting on with (90 per cent of which, of course, is procrastination to avoid the hard work of writing).
So I ride my bike, and the chatter disintegrates. When you are out in the hills, riding hard, feeling the sun on your face and the wind at your back, the hardest thing to do is compose a to-do list in your head. You may start, get two or three items clear, then notice a squirrel darting along a fence, or you might have to flick your wheel around some gravel on a bend. You duck a low-hanging branch, spring out of the saddle on a short rise. Take a drink. Now, what was I thinking about?
This is why I like riding alone. Not out of misanthropy, but because it is true solitude. Speech is not necessary, nor is conscious articulate thought. ‘Other people’ becomes one of two things – either memories, perhaps only an hour old, but memories all the same, or car drivers, encased in glass and steel. The car driver can never seem entirely real to a cyclist. They are not wholly visible, and the presence of their vehicle – however lovely the driver may be as an individual – is always an implicit threat.
So the lone cyclist moves through the landscape, a detached observer, with no social obligations. His mind can drift like the wind, it can focus on the next bend in the road or on the unfurling clouds. All the toxic ephemera of life can drain away to leave space for … what?
It’s early March and a feather wind ushers thin streaks of white across an otherwise blue sky. Spring is already pushing through, green buds dot the hedgerows like confetti. Heading north towards Wantage, I spin through a wood. On one side of the straight flat road are beech, whitebeam, ash. On the other are rows of planted pine – cold, impersonal, dark. The sunshine now is only a pale yellow glow behind branches. At this time of year the cyclist knows to dress for cold weather, the sky cannot be trusted.
Out of the wood and the landscape opens before me, a wide vista of sand-coloured fields, bright green angles and the black scribbles of hedge and copse. The road drops and rolls, a gleaming mark on the hillside. There is nothing beside it other than a grass verge then field. No fence, no hedge, no buildings. A small absence but one that adds to the sense of openness. The aesthetic of the Downs is one of simplicity: field, sky, road, lone cyclist.
The Wind at my Back, a Cycling Life by Paul Maunder is published by Bloomsbury and available now. bloomsbury.com
If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 19 where it was first printed.