I'm not sure why I like cycling so much. It's not the most gracious mode of progression for a sixty year old. Not the way we cyclists dress for it these days. Plus-fours and Deer-stalker caps used to be the go, but now they couldn't be further from it. Skin-tight lycra does bugger-all for a paunch, though. Bugger-all that's good, anyhow. And it's nowhere as safe on a bicycle as it was when I was a youngster and there were vastly fewer cars around.
Not that we wore plus-fours then. Sixty's not that old. But it is old enough for the old bones to have stiffened up a bit from what they were fifty-five years ago, during the war. Then any bike at all, second hand (or third or fourth more likely) and hand painted it might be, was a magical thing to a five year old lusting to get off the scorned 'trike' and be one of the big boys.
Back in the present, on a modern hybrid racer (not that I go all that fast), the first five or ten minutes of peddling has eased the stiffness a bit. You stop noticing your body and begin to take an interest in your surroundings. The modern zillion speed derailleur makes the hills easy if slow going, and you can muse on other things, once you get into the rhythm.
A rubbish truck grinds past up the hill, squeezed full of garbage. The ears get the first notice of its coming, then the nose gets its turn. Funny about smells. Suddenly you're five again, out the back of the fruit shop next door in the brick terraces on a hot summer afternoon. The air heavy with the aroma of the cabbage stems and other trimmings now totally limp in the heat.
The truck passes, briefly leaving behind now a different odour. The time warp hits again. This time you're twelve, by the incinerator at school. Not a fancy structure. Just a square brick chimney with a big iron door. In goes all the waste from the classrooms. Paper, lunch wraps, apple cores and all. And a match thrown in, for the heap to burn or smoulder as it will till the next day when more will be added. Once a month the unburnt build-up is raked out and put on the compost. The rotten apple core smell of the thing, round the back of the football stand, by the bike sheds and the toilets.
An ugly service area. Smelly. Hidden away. Where the bullies and bullied do their daily dance of aggression and fear, out of sight and hearing. A chain of lookouts insures freedom from surprise discovery. Chancy, you might think, but in my five year sentence none of what went on in that corner was ever discovered. None of it. Year after year. No closed circuit TV then.
I'm still pumping slowly up the hill, the rubbish truck long since well away to the tip. But now the passing parade has lost my interest, has faded to unseen grey and the colours I see are those of an another bike, fifty years ago. "It's my bike and I'll paint it any colour I want to!"
"It looks ridiculous, it looks stupid. You're stupid. Get him away from it. Let down his tyres."
"Leave me alone, you rotters. Leave my bike alone."
"Is the poor wee thing going to cry again? Wants its Mummy, does it? Twist its arm harder."
"You won't get away with this. I'll get even with you."
"Fat chance you've got, First Year kid. You haven't got a hope against me."
"Well anyhow I'm going to make you stop. You're just a coward."
"You're going to suffer for that piece of monumental cheek. Hold him still for me."
"Coward, coward, can't fight for himself. Coward, coward, has to have someone else hold me while he fights. Coward, coward coward."
"Don't you call me a coward, you snivelling, snot-faced little excuse for a human being."
"I will so, too. Coward, coward, has to have someone hold them while he fights. Fights! You couldn't fight your way out of a paper bag if you were forced to do it on your own. I dare you to fight me fair. You haven't got the guts."
"I'll make mincemeat out of you, you little twerp. You hardly come up to my shoulder."
"You'll hurt me a lot, but I don't care any more. And I'll hurt you too. And I don't care if you're bigger. I'll hurt you some, anyhow. And I'll scratch and I'll bite and I don't care if it's not fair fighting 'cos you're bigger than me and that makes it fair. And I'll mark you so they'll ask what happened and let's see how you'll explain that!"
"Come on, you lot. Throw the little shit over the wall and let's go and do something else. He's no fun any more." - and so ends a year of fear and misery. Brought to a close so easily. I couldn't believe how easily. Just as Dad said it would. He was obviously smarter than I thought. I wished then that I'd asked him months earlier, what to do about the torments I had so easily ended.
All this from one or two whiffs of a passing rubbish truck!
You get to think a lot, while you're peddling. The mind wanders much greater distance than the body, peddled by an introspection that goes dormant until the wheels start to turn, and then carries you off like Julie Andrews with her umbrella among the chimney tops. Or E.T. against the moon. A pedal operated time machine.
I read that the body pumps out endorphins for a natural high, when you exercise hard and long. Well, I'm not doing it hard, not at all. So it can't be the endorphins. And Walter Mitty was a sedentary, so it couldn't be endorphins for him, either.
I'd like to try the endorphin effect, but I'm not sure I could achieve the level of effort. Not for the time it's supposed to take. I only cycle to keep my weight in check. That's my claim. I like my food too much. But I can't say that cycling is a penance for that excess. I get too much, albeit weird, satisfaction from it for that to be true.
Over the crest and down the other side. No time for dreaming now. Ears filled with the rush of the wind. Bifocals straining to pick the carelessly driven car as well as the dangerous little lumps and cracks in the paving. Hands curled around the brake levers. Arms and legs tensed, holding the full weight of the body up off the seat. That seat, narrow to prevent chafing, a lethal weapon when the speed gets up. The pencil-thin tyres make the whole frame jounce like a jack-hammer on the uneven road, and woe betide your sensitive bits if you let that bounding, knife-edge saddle get anywhere near them.
The road seems smooth in a car. Fiction. Illusion. A great con, worked with huge fat tyres, long soft springs and the miracles of modern hydraulics. Road quality would be immeasurably better if those who do the design and maintenance had to ride bikes over their product. At speed. Downhill. They would learn the difference between rough and smooth in three seconds flat. That and how to concentrate on what you're doing, surviving, to the exclusion of all else.
So, there will never be any great philosophical insights reached on a downhill bicycle. On the flat, perhaps, depending on the road and the traffic. Uphill, certainly. But downhill - never.
Earlier, I rode down near the beach, along the footpath above the sand, slowly, not to alarm or risk the walkers and joggers who shared the narrow way with me in the half light of dawn. The sun first put a nail paring above the sea and then, like a huge ponderous blood-red creature climbing from a swimming pool, the great glowing orb appeared. Huge beyond belief against the dark grey night-haze it was chasing away. One minute, nothing. The next, a gigantic full sun. It slid out of the horizon so fast you could see it moving, and dim enough, for all its rich glow, that you could watch it without going blind. I know it's all an optical illusion, but it really does look many many times bigger when it's down on the horizon. The moon does too. Well, for me, anyhow.
But that's got nothing to do with cycling. And that's what this is all about.
Cycling and philosophy. Zen and the art of bicycle maintenance. Oriental fatalism. Are the inscrutable Orientals that way because they all ride bicycles? Philosophy again. I must be going uphill once more. Where am I now? Ah, I'm on the last hill climb before home. Soon it will be back to the real world, and the time machine will be locked up ready for its next trip. That will be in a few days, provided it's not raining, of course. Scotty might have been great on beaming up, but he never got the warp drive to work when it's raining.
You've watched Star Wars too, so you would have noticed. When they kick in the Warp Drive, it's never raining. I've watched all the reruns, and that's how it always is. Watch all you like. They never Warp in the rain. I don't know why. It just is.
Well, I'm over the last rise now. Back home. Back to the present. Back to the responsibilities.
I'll be going out again in a couple of days, though, for sure.
We'll talk again then.
Copyright © 1998 Peter Leon Collins