This turned into an even longer essay than expected, and whilst it’s a personal narrative about cycling, the important part is: I’m riding RideLondon 100 for charity, you can find a link to the details – and the fundraising – at the end. But first, an essay about riding bikes.
Since moving to London, I had kept cycling down to the odd hirebike ride. The roads all seemed a bit hectic; the idea of commuting on a bike, half-awake, never appealed; when I didn’t drive, getting a mountain bike somewhere mountain-bike-worthy was challenging. And I liked walking anyway.
That first 2020 lockdown, barely leaving the radius of our house on foot, suggested that perhaps I could revisit that decision. So I grabbed my old bike from home – bought from eBay back in the very early 2000s. The tyres were flat, the grips had perished, and I didn’t really trust any of the cables.
I set about refurbishing it, learning how to cable a bike, re-index gears, and so forth. That was pretty satisfying. Then I took it for some rides. What I learned was:
- I rather enjoyed riding bikes
- this bike was definitely too small
- and, whilst we’re at it, the wrong kind of bike
I bought a different bike that winter. Something more suitable for the road, drop handlebars, appropriate tyres, sensible price. And I started riding it.
I started riding circles: 11 or 12km down the back roads to Greenwich, out to see the river, and back through Lewisham; out to nearby parks. I had not ridden in years, never in this area of London, never mind on drop bars. Lots to get used to. And I did, so the circle got larger: I found a 20-something kilometre circuit out through Greenwich, through the tunnel, and over to the cablecar, before heading back along the Thames path. And then I started heading south.
South takes you out to Kent – to The Lanes, as a south London cyclist might say. First, out to Keston and back through Bromley, beginning to see glimpses of green, other cyclists waving as they pass. I started doing 30-35km loops, coming home quite tired. I described the bike as “the bike that £20 built” – every now and then, a canny £20 in the classifieds would adjust or add to it – a new saddle, a longer stem, some pedals from a friend, some cleated shoes from a chap down the road selling up, a old winter jacket from an audaxer. I keep turning the pedals.
(I am doing this in the cold: I have managed to scrabble together enough kit (thank you, leg-warmers, thank you, thick winter jacket) that it’s not too noticeable, but later on, people would express surprise that I really started getting into cycling over a cold winter. What can I say: rain is rubbish, but cold I can put up with. It was just good to be out.)
Not entirely expectedly, I discover I am really enjoying riding – even more than I thought I would, when I decided it was time for a bike that fitted. It is time away from screens, away from work, and requires enough of my brain that I can’t daydream. I pedal, I breathe, I look around me. I keep wanting to go further. At this point, I wonder about cycling with other people. Everybody I know who cycles is much fitter, rides much further, but maybe I could chip away at this. I know of a local club that seems friendly; their low-end ride is around 60k. Maybe I could build up to that? If I can get myself to 50k, it’s time to sign up, I tell myself.
I keep pedalling.
There’s a moment I really remember, from spring 2021, when I’m on something like a 40k route I’ve plotted out. It’s my first time really heading for the Kentish lanes, out up Layham’s and up to Skid Hill. The further up Layham’s you ride, the greener it gets. I love that within an hour from home, under my own steam, I’m hitting something I’d recognisably call “countryside”. Cross the Croydon Road, pedal up Skid Hill Lane, dodging the flytipping, and you get to a right-angled corner. Everyone who’s ridden it knows the 90º right-hander. It looks out over a valley, a dip between two hills. Later, I will learn to love the combination of Hesier’s and Beddlestead lanes that joins the hills more directly, a fast, sharp descent into a just-right climb. But for now, I’m looking through a gap in the hedge, and I’m not in London. Rolling fields, lines of trees at the top, open skies. Nothing but Outdoors. And it’s invigorating: I came here on my own steam, this is the reward. My heart leapt a little.
I’ve now ridden that corner umpteen times, and not much leaps any more, but I always enjoy the view; I always enjoy the sensation that I am Somewhere Else, and I will return home later. Similar views still lead to similar heartleaps, though: east Kent lanes surrounded by rapeseed; flying down through rows of heather; sweeping down Star Hill, the mist sitting on fields full of haybales; a first glimpse of the sea; and always, the end of a long ride coming into sight.
I keep pedalling. I hit a 51k route, and sign up for a social ride with London Velo. (I found them via Tobias, and much of what follows comes, perhaps, down to someone I know once deciding to ride with such a nice bunch of folks.)
Riding in a group is, as expected, fun: less for the aerodynamic benefits, more for the company, people whose main thing in common is that they want to be out on a bike on a Sunday morning. There’s chatter, about what we’re doing, what we’re seeing; notes of support as we rifle down gears to grind up hills; the chatter dims as the climbs rack up; but always, there’s friendly faces waiting at the top.
(“Where do you go?” people often ask when we’re out, and I tend to say: “in a circle!” “What do you mean?” “Well, we’re coming back here. It’s just the circle is 60km long.” I am still riding circles.)
My first ride, I find myself beginning to bonk on a hill I will later come to dislike – steep, ugly, in the way of getting home – near St Mary Cray. Another rider is near the back, and they drop down to my pace, grinding up with me. I feel useless, and yet I feel supported. Nobody cares; the point is we all get home together, that we did the thing together. That afternoon, I am a wreck: I spend it on the sofa, overwhelmed with tiredness.
I learn that I need to manage nutrition better through rides. Keep eating, that’s the main trick.
Another week, another hill, and I’m grinding up at the back. There is something I begin to refer to as a Pushing Incident. I get to the top, and apologise profusely, and am reminded that nobody minds.
Our rides are “no-drop”: that means, if we get spread out, because some people are faster than others, we wait for everybody. Usually, this is the top of a hill. Staying together on the flat is fine, descents aren’t an effort to catch up on, or to take a little slower if you’re outpacing others, but it’s hard to climb slower than you’d like; you have to do a hill at your own pace. And so we wait, because we’ve agreed we will.
This aspect of group sport – doing a thing together, collaboratively – is new for me. I reach the top, and apologise, and nobody minds, but something in me doesn’t believe them. It takes me a little while to realise this is an idea rooted in my head: I am not an athlete; I am the out-of-breath kid at the back of cross-country.
(Cross-country is a muddy, outdoors kind of running. In more adventurous terrains, it is something like fell-running. But when you’re 11, it’s a thing to be done in PE class, that takes a winding path around the school grounds and often outside, requires no equipment, no track, no indoors. We do it in the winter and spring months, and I only ever remember it in the damp. It is awful. I dislike running, I dislike the stitch I get. I am certainly not fit, and at that point in my life, I am highly disinterested in the physical. I am at the back, I don’t see how to get nearer the front, and I’d rather talk to my friends, because I’m definitely, definitely bored.)
No. I am not at the back of cross-country, nor am I bored. I am a man, almost in his forties, out doing something for fun with like-minded adults. When we say “no-drop”, we mean it. Everyone was at the back at some point. When you go up a ride tier, you will be at the back of a faster ride.
It will take me many rides to fully internalise this, that there is no Back, that some of us are slower up hills because we’re heavier, some because we’re recovering from injury, some because we’re taking it easy. The point, for me at least, is getting there – and getting there together.
(I will also begin to change my perspective on what it means to Be Athletic. Or rather, what I’m slowly changing my perspective on is Having A Body. My mental image of myself is so often a “brain in a jar” – I think, I type, I’m good at being smart, I have some dangly arms and legs attached. What will happen in the next eighteen months is that I begin to like having a body, as well. I begin to extend beyond the jar.)
“After two rides, we ask that you join the club“, but it’s a no-brainer, of course I’ll join the club. Every other week, new company, new routes, new people to meet, a way out of the house and lockdown.
The club have a day ride one weekend to Whitstable. A hundred kilometres. Far too far. I decline. Stick to the 60s.
Slowly, I get faster. The data says so. The secondhand cycle computer is saving my data, and I’m throwing it all into Strava (because That’s What You Do). Not for the likes, for the socials; just to see how I’m doing. It’s for me. Besides, everyone else I know on it is so much faster, going so much further. Months later, a friend will share a long ride in Scotland, and I will cheer them on; they point out – and I paraphrase – that whilst nobody wants to hear your Strava Boasts, Strava Pride is different. Sharing pride is important. Look at this, you say, I did this, me.
Months later, another ride. I chat to someone who’s coming out for the first time, grinding up a hill. As I pull away a bit later, I point out that there is no Back, we’ll be waiting, and there’s nothing to apologise about. I should know. I remember the friendly faces who pushed me on when I had no idea what has happening, and I am pleased that I can offer support to someone I recognise.
(Next year, she will pull away from me at the end of a long ride, having been more dutiful on the turbo than I. And: we are both going far faster than on the ride I am describing in the previous sentences.)
I keep pedalling, and pedalling further. The summer ‘22 season hits and I’m on regular 80km+ rides with the club… and it feels fine. I’m at the back of a slightly faster group. Each week, I can’t wait to get out: to feel the wind, to feel the snicker-snack of the drivetrain, to see new sights, to see how far my body can take me. I’m enjoying getting a little faster, but I enjoy going new places, going further, much more. Distance, places, are the things beginning to appeal.
One day, I decide to ride 100km to the sea; it is no longer too far. It is slower than planned owing to a brutal headwind, but I roll through Rochester, out to the marshes, past Sheppey and up to Thanet, and there’s a tickle of adventure.
After 12 months on the starter bike, I buy a new one, ending up with something both more capable and flexible. It’s taken me on off-road trails in the New Forest – a real delight – and, with a quick change of wheels, back on to the lanes and roads of the south east. It is magical: a spot-on drivetrain, brakes with remarkable modulation, a frame that supports and cushions. I regularly wonder if it is “too good” for me, as if there is an upper bound on the quality of sporting goods I am allowed – as if I am not ‘good enough’ for it. I wonder where this peculiar kind of guilt comes from. I have already ridden it nearly as far in five months as I did in a year on the starter bike.
The first bike, that I fixed up that lockdown summer, is given a new home. I take it to the Bike Project, a charity based up the road in Deptford. They give bikes to refugees new to the UK: getting around a new country, when you have very little money, and a lot of places to be, is hard. A bike (and lock and helmet) makes that easier. So Bike Project give people bikes; they also refurbish and sell used bikes, in order to raise money for charity.
A week later, they email to tell me they have sold my bike for exactly what I paid for it on eBay, in 2002. Good. Someone else can use it, enjoy it, and maybe more people can benefit from the funds it raises.
In about three weeks from now, I’m going to take part in the longest ride I’ll have ever done: RideLondon 100, covering 100 miles – 162km – from central London, out to Essex, and back. (Really, that’s why I rode to the coast: part of the training plan). I am largely, but not entirely, looking forward to it. This is the deeply, deeply buried lede of the essay.
A lot of friends and clubmembers are riding; I’ll be in good company, and am looking forward to seeing everyone out there. I chose to do it as both a challenge – further than I’ve ever ridden by a good deal – but also as a bit of a luxury: a day out on entirely closed roads, in the summer! When I signed up, 160km still felt a long way off. It still feels a long way; I am hoping that company and adrenalin will carry me over the line.
I’m going to be 40 this year, and whilst I’m glad I’ve made peace with my corporality at this point in life… I’m also aware that the time in my life to embrace that physicality is probably shrinking rather than growing. My knees certainly remind me of this.
So in the meantime, I will ride. There has been something like a training plan – some longer rides, some interval work – and I’m hoping it pays off. I certainly am fitter than I’ve been in my life. It feels a long way from 11k loops to Greenwich.
London Velo – my club – is a Deptford club, and so we’re raising money for a Deptford charity: The Bike Project. The club as a whole has a fundraising page, and, if you feel like supporting us on our ride, you can do so there. Bike Project would appreciate it, especially in a time when it’s harder than ever to be a refugee in this country. I will appreciate your support for them, when I’m somewhere in Essex, and the thing I need to do is keep turning the pedals.
I’m excited for it, though. It turns out, that November, that buying a bike was a very good idea. Not just for my body – though I’m enjoying that new relationship – but also for my brain. Well done, past me.