Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Poetry of Cycling

Facebook did something interesting for me today. It pointed out that I'd posted the above photograph 3 years ago today in the album "Reasons For Cycling In Malaysia".

That means it's 3 years since I had my epiphany with cycling that started a journey which brought me to where I am now. In that 3 years I have set up a cycling touring operation, run a lot of tours and excursions, ridden bikes a lot, spent hours every day setting up new adventures, poring over routes and hotel options etc, I've gone through a lot of tubes, tyres, chains, cassettes, saddles, shoes and other bits of bicycles and all the related gear that wears out fairly quickly when you're riding this much.

I have also shifted the focus of my energies massively, which has been tough in many ways, but that's the only way to make such a seismic shift happen: put all your eggs into one basket!

We're still nowhere near a point where I could sit back and enjoy my achievements. However, this poignant little reminder from Facebook prompted some reflections on the journey so far.

Around 3 years back I started taking photographs during my rides around Kuala Lumpur as I rediscovered the joy in being alive in such beautiful surroundings, with the fitness and freedom to propel myself anywhere I wanted. I felt I had to share this stuff with others - that it was too good to keep to myself - and so i started posting the pictures on Facebook. Many people reacted. Even many living in the area had never seen these roads and hillsides. I felt that we had as much to celebrate, as cyclists in our humble little environment here in Malaysia, as the cycling residents of the Alpine and Pyrenean regions did, albeit in a completely different climate - and with no winter! From there ideas formed that would lead me to where I am now.

At the core of my epiphany, of course, is the humble bicycle, and my relationship with it. So here are some reflections on what I believe are the universal underpinnings of a passion for 2-wheeled self-propulsion.


To love cycling is to relish the act of self propelled travel, to find expression in the giddy speed of the downhill, and to extract meaning from surmounting the obstacle of the uphill.

Maybe an essential part of it, is in the early discovery. As a child, a bike meant freedom. It was a ticket to the wide outdoors. I think for those of us who continue into adulthood with our fascination for cycling still intact, despite the fact that we may now have a wide array of easier, motorized options, that sense of freedom never really leaves us. The next adventure is at the mercy of our next whim, with our strength and motivation being the only required forces to get us wherever we want to go.

There is joy too in the knowledge that overcoming everything that challenges us makes us stronger. Thanks to our physiological inheritance, the more stress we throw at our bodies, the better they adapt to deal with it next time. It's a kind of poetic justice.

The solo cyclist is a lone traveler in intimate communion with the natural environment. An inquisitive child of the earth, a Don Quixote in search of a worthy opponent. Like all really worthy things in life, there’s a certain madness to it. In a group we become part of a fraternity of challenge, where the social and competitive agenda can elicit effort from us beyond our expectations.

We are fiercely competitive beings in our essence. We should embrace these instincts with good humour and tolerance. I think it’s only when we develop issues with this that things start to get ugly. Too much intellectual interference. If we deny our base instincts with misguided aspirations to lofty ideals, we usually end up amplifying the worst of them (think of our experiments with communism!).

Racing is still the ultimate expression of this competitive instinct, and provides a healthy focus to our training, giving us peaks to strive for, which are then followed by natural moments of respite for recovery and reflection. These days however, I don't meet many cyclists who join races. Many seem to find their entire ethos in the new order of GPS-tracker-cum-social-network programs like Strava that open every aspect of your rides to public scrutiny. and have created a constant-achievement-agenda that seems to have imprisoned a large contingent of roadies into a kind of mental hamster wheel.

I’m a happy Strava user myself. It’s a very useful monitor of training volume and progress, with many features that other training systems would do well to copy, but I know that if I fall into the trap of feeling like I have something to prove on every ride it will seriously undermine A) my ability to improve as a cyclist, and B) my enjoyment. These 2 facets may seem mutually exclusive, but they coexist quite happily on most of my rides. However, I'd say that my rides generally fall into one or the other: I'm either following some structured plan (training), or I'm going with the flow (group or longer solo rides).

For me though, the real joy surfaces when I’m on a quiet road in the hills, with nothing but the sound of my breathing and the conversation of nature around me. When I am in no hurry to get anywhere in particular, nor to return home. This sense of oneness with the world is my mantra, where the rhythm of my legs spinning is a meditation on the meaning of life; a prayer to the forces of nature that combined to put me here on this piece of precision engineering among these gigantic geological protrusions from the earth.

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