Thursday, 15 September 2011

But is it worth it?

And then suddenly I started to take a downer on cycling. I had chosen to ride round Strangford Lough again on a sunny day in September.
I'd woken up to sunlight and a whole free day. I should have set off early and not bothered checking e-mails or Facebook for just dealing with a few queries took time, enough time for a little cloud cover to gather.
I joked in my Facebook status that I was getting my gel pants on in anticipation of a good ride and even before I was properly changed the comments were coming in and I was tempted to read them and respond.
The wind was stronger than I'd expected but I was soon through the city traffic and onto the Comber Greenway where the dog walkers still don't carry poop bags and some of them have nasty looking beasts, not even on a lead. At the end of the path I was tempted to just turn back, not because I was tired but because I was bored. I was distracted from cycling by thoughts of the other things I could be doing, not just work.
I took and returned calls in a field, sheltering from the traffic noise behind a high hedge; it helped a little.
Perhaps I should have had a tablet computer with me. I could read my e-mails on my phone but not manage long replies. And I could also check up on the witticisms inspired by my reference to gel pants.
I managed to write a little update. My gel pants had not been as comfortable as I had hoped. A man has bits that need to spread or gather themselves comfortably, otherwise he takes a buffeting where he can least endure it. But no amount of readjustment seemed to effect the arrangement I needed. I summed up that dilemma as distinctly as I could for my Facebook friends, a tad bawdily too. But in time I would stop thinking about where my balls were and they would stop bothering me.
The other problem was that I had chosen the less scenic route around the lough. The cycle network takes you meandering along the water's edge, up and down hills. The last time I had tried that I had been exhausted at Strangford and in agony before I got home. This time I rode through Lisbane and Killyleagh, a little tempted to stop for lunch at Balloo. If I had done that I would just have turned for home afterwards. But the smell of food from the restaurant -- yummy. Instead I had a Snickers at a garage and ploughed on.
I was beginning to ache on the road towards Castleward and Strangford but worse, to my mind, was an annoying sense that this was all a pointless diversion from my real life.
Why was I 30 miles from my computer? What was I getting out of this? The surroundings were lovely but I could have come and looked at the fields in my car and been home to do some work. Well it was all great exercise. Maybe, but no one goes to a gym and sits for 3, 4 or five hours on the cycling machine.
I was supposed to be tootling and enjoying nature, whistling to myself in perfect contentment, on the cusp of autumn, without a care in the world. But I did have cares and cycling was not solving them.

At Strangford I stopped to see Kevin Og at the shop. He invited me to the house for a cup of tea but I said I needed nutrition and suggested we go across to the Cuan, a bar restaurant.
Kevin was not one of nature's cyclists and I think he was a little surprised to find that I might be. He ordered his pint of cider and my water and we discussed the menu. I fancied the seafood crepe. We talked about life and the summer and how the world was treating us. When my crepe arrived, Kevin, a man with experience of eating heavily, said, 'are you not afraid that will weigh heavily on you with 30 miles to go on the bike still?'
I hadn't thought about that.
'Maybe I shouldn't have said that', he said with a big grin. 'You will only worry now.'
But we gave each other a manly hug in the square and I got back on the bike and rolled down to the ferry where, on reflection, I decided that my crepe was both heavy and restless, undergoing powerful chemical effervescence in my stomach and uncertain yet about how much inconvenience it would choose to inflict on me.
Is there a toilet on the ferry? I 'd want to position myself close to it.
But I managed the coast road out of Portaferry without this turbulence translating into desperation. Yet every time I passed a farm gate I offered myself the option of deferring till the next one the decision to stop and find a quiet corner of a hedgerow and be as natural as a man can be. One concern was that even on a rolling hill, without a sound but the birds, a farm boy might emerge from behind a hayroll. Or those boats on the lough might be full of people scanning the fields with their binoculars.
There are farm gates along the road from Portaferry at regular intervals and at every single one of them I said to myself, 'do you need to go now or can you hold out longer?'
And in time my gut, thus defied, settled itself, just like the bits in the gel pants that had pinched and ached till I took my mind off them.
The road out of Newtownards is horrific, a long steep hill. I knew that from before but on the last occasion I had hurt so much in my thighs that the struggle was intermittent and agonising. The reward had been a sense of achievement, survival beyond inconceivable extremity. This time I was fitter and it was merely tedious. The only reward was that I was closer to home, but I could have been closer still if I had not bothered coming out on the bike at all.
So why had I?
Months earlier, when I had turned 60, it had seemed important and potentially exciting to prove that I could cycle the way I had done at 30. Now I was doing that. Grand. But perhaps I hadn't properly asked myself why I had stopped cycling in my 30s. I had assumed that it was just that I had lost contact with my old cycling partner Toby and a routine with him. Then I had got busier in my work and used a car more. Then I had got fat.
Well now I wasn't fat any more and I was able to cycle again, but I still had the other deterrents in my life. I had work and a marriage. There would always be something more important to do than traipsing along some country road for hours on end.
And I didn't have a social structure around me of other cyclists who'd turn up on my doorstep and say, 'are you coming out on the bike?'
I could understand now why cyclists devote themselves to more than the pleasure of tootling. Tootling is something you can only enjoy when you have no targets to meet, no other claim on your time. Tootling on your bike is never more urgent than pottering about the garden or soaking in a bath. The joy is in the being free to do it. When you're that free, it hardly matters what you do.
When I spent afternoons and evenings cycling with Toby years ago my girlfriend, Celine, lived in Switzerland so she wasn't expecting me to come to tea and pick up a bottle of wine and some fresh basil on the way. She took up no time at all, really.
Indeed, maybe I had just been busting a gut on the roads round Strangford Lough to keep my mind off the sexlessness of my life.
Now I'm married.
Why have I not been cycling for most of the last 20 years? Well, partly because I have been sharing my life with another person who does not cycle much.
Maureen sits very nicely on a bike. She likes to go out for a wee ride the odd time.
We took the bikes on the car to Donegal and caroused around Rosnowlagh on them. But this was different.
She said: 'I don't mind going for a cycle ride, so long as I know that there is a capuccino at the end of it.'
What she really meant was that she didn't mind cycling to the nearest available cappucino, so long as she could then sit down and enjoy it and read the Irish Times.
On the beach we slalomed round the dead jellyfish, seeing that other cyclists before us had ridden right over some of them, risking the skid.
She got her coffee at a restaurant overlooking Creevy Pier and the astonishing sweep of Donegal bay. A a lone fisherman was dipping his line for mackerel into the edge of the still grey sea fringed by distant hazy blue mountains. In the restaurant, the incessant perky pop music seemed to declare that the proprieters were oblivious to the placid grandeur of the setting.
On the way back I was able to synchronise my pace with Maureen's and work out that her lowest gear was equivalent to my own middle one and that I could go down a lot further. And her saddle was too low. Yet even with the struggle her enthusiasm seemed to be growing, perhaps in anticipation of the next cappucino.There was no way I was going to persuade her to join me on a 50 mile excursion which would guarantee we would suffer afterwards.
I wonder why cyclists and sportspeople generally work for exhaustion. Maybe part of the attraction is a little despicable, a bit like the drug user's need to burn up time that would otherwise be too painful to endure. At the end of a long struggle, when you are lying stretched out and groaning as your muscles try to unwind, you have the perfect excuse for letting someone else make the tea or for not going upstairs to your study right now and fill in your tax returns.
Maybe we invent these challenges for ourselves to make up for the lack of heart for real endeavour, or maybe we are carrying in our genes the expectation that we will fight and the reward programmed into us is sensuous exhaustion.
A cyclist may indulge the pain of sore muscle the way a certain kind of narcissistic alcoholic relishes his hangover.
The groaning body is somehow recognised by our minds as proof of achievement but maybe cycling or running or doing pushups is the grasp for a phoney high, more like masturbation than copulation.
Go out and batter yourself against the hills and you may come home feeling like a hunter or warrior but you can not expect your wife to share in your sense of heroism when there is no material advance in your collective domestic comfort to show for it.
'And don't leave your gel pants lying on the bathroom floor!'
And sometimes she'll say. 'If it's exercise you want, go and hoover the stairs.'
But we cycle because we enjoy it.
Of course it is good to be fit, isn't it? But if fitness is only a by product of cycling then there must be some other value in spending hours on a bike travelling to somewhere you don't need to go to.
I think the paradox is that cycling is leisure and yet it is exhausting. For most people, leisure is what you take when you are tired already.
I thought I would reach a level of fitness that would make long-distance cycling easy and enjoyable. This had not happened. There would always be pain. So there had to be another reason to bother.
Other cyclists created those reasons as time trials, races, group excursions. They set themselves targets and these served to keep them lashed to the routine of cycling.
I had made a breakthrough in finding freedom on a bike but I didn't really know yet what to use that freedom for.
But if I was to retract a little, stop exerting myself and just integrate the bike into my life as a vehicle for getting about the city or dawdling along the river, then I might find a balanced relationship with my bike. I would become one of those cyclists whose machine is as ordinary and uninteresting to them as their shoes. You might like your shoes when you buy them, you don't want them taking up any of your attention while you are going about in them. You don't go out for a walk to indulge the pleasure of wearing them, you go because you like walking anyway and would go in wellies if they were all you had.
Then another question would be whether I had the right bike for that routine and for urban short distance cycling life. My Panorama is a bike you ride stooped. It is a distance bike. It is not a very sociable bike.
I found that with Maureen in Rosnowlagh. If I want to cycle slowly and chat to the person beside me then I would like to sit up and look at her.
Or maybe I was just making too much of a dull day?
The challenge is to accept that cycling is sometimes a joy and sometimes not, a bit like going to the pub in that respect. You can have bad evenings there too.
But I began to wonder if the thrill was wearing off me and cycling was losing its hold on me and even if that wasn't a state more natural to my temperament. After all, I had been content not to cycle for years.
Then a late Autumn day arrived with hardly a breeze and an almost warm sun. And I had things to do, none of them crucial to happiness and comfort let alone continued survival, but still they had to be done. And I'd need the car. And parking had got so expensive in Belfast that there would now be no trouble finding a place to leave it for an hour while I went from one shop and office to another. But as I passed the bike propped by the hall wall, I felt an itch to take it. With the front door open and the freshness of the day in my face I was filled with an urgency to be out on a country road, not necessarily belting down a steep hill, and preferably not strugggling up one either, but tootling along, with my feet locked to the pedals, my hands gripping the bars and the saddle propped snugly under my arse, absorbed in the tension of movement and the challenge of wrestling with a machine that complemented my body and carried it. I knew all about how painful and bloody awkward this whole-body lock-on could be, how nothing else demands all the limbs and attention too. It's not as if you can cycle and spare a hand or foot for anything else, whether squeezing a ball or kicking a can; every bit of you is spoken for. But I wanted it. I was thinking, is any of this shopping and office tripping worth giving up a good ride for? And it didn't feel to me then as if it was.

Maureen and her bike in Donegal

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Wednesday, 7 September 2011