mundane adventures in running
I came across an interesting film the other day. It was linked from Sidetracked magazine, a beautiful outdoors lifestyle-y type mag. The kind of magazine you buy in a book shop rather than a newsagent, one full of long form journalism and photo essays, not product reviews, top ten lists and other regurgitated press releases.
The video in question was of one woman, Lael Wilcox, talking about her experience cycling the Arizona trail. She was racing it, trying to get the best time, but on her own in a self supported attempt.
It stood out because it was the first time I’ve found myself getting excited by cycling for some time. Something about the braveness of it, the risk, the crazy epic mentalness of it. Watch it, it’s short and wonderful.
I’ve always liked bikes and cycling. Over the years, some of my favourite moments have been spent on bike: going the distance, getting lost, finding myself in unexpected and beautiful places. Cycling can be so adventurous. I always found something ramshackle and joyful in it. It’s a quick way to get about, but one where you feel entirely part of the environment you’re travelling through. You’re fast enough to see stuff, to not get bored of the same view and to get places, but slow enough to chat to anyone you’re with, to stop and say hi to people, to admire what’s around you.
A couple of things have spoilt it for me.
One is, I hope, temporary: having children. It’s not to say I can’t cycle now I’m a dad, it’s just that either I have to take time away from my family to do it (and I’d rather be running if i’m doing that, i can get a much better work out in the same time) or take them with me (which is great, but doesn’t lend itself to the exciting and unplanned types of adventure I used to enjoy). I have found as they’ve got older it’s easier and I’m seriously entertaining short tours with them now. So, temporary. I’m looking forward to sillly and slghtly reckless trips en famille.
The second is, probably, more permanent: a significant shift in the culture. Cycling in the UK has changed massively in the past few years. Mostly for the better. Cycling as a mode of transport has really taken off in London. It’s amazing. There are so many more bicycles on the roads, it feels far less marginalised than it used to. The infrastructure is improving beyond recognition. It’s incredible to see that cycling has become a normal, unquestioned part of so many people’s lives.
Unfortunately, as vehicular cycling has been positively and wonderfully transformed, the other side of cycling seems to have been ruined. Ten years ago I would have been proud to describe myself as a cyclist. Identifying yourself with cycling was a slightly odd, marginal thing to do. It was a world of peculiar achievement, of anoraks and curly cheese sandwiches eaten on forgotten b-road lay-bys. It was a world of Sheldon Brown, and tails of Sustrans cycle paths. You could be a serious cyclist and go out in denim shorts, stop for a spliff and a thermos of tea on the top of Ditchling Beacon, try cycling to Southampton on a 3 speed Pashley. All these things were fine, and fun, and if you talked to other cyclists about them there would be moments of recognition and joy at shared love and shared experience.
All the touring I’ve done, all the cyclists I’ve met, we never used to talk about pro cycling. Chatting about gear was about other stuff, slow and beautiful stuff, the comfort of steel, Brooks saddles (when they still cost £40, before they became sleak, slick, branded and £100). The physicality was an important part of it, these people were wirey, fit, slow climbers in low gears, capable of heroic achievements on rusting bikes, carrying too much camping gear, stashing too much wine for the evening’s pitch. Physicality but without explicit competition.
Tour de france, doping, insane competition were there, but they were distant. Cycling in the UK was about something else. Sure, the road cyclists were there, but they were subsumed by a bigger culture. They were just one sub culture of several which got along well with each other.
Now it’s different. Road cycling has become the orthodoxy, the centre of the culture. Tedious, competitive, sports cycling has taken over. With that Cycling has become the new golf. It’s what men of a certain age, men with money and power chat about after meetings. The guys can get together and go for a ride rather than a trek round the links.
The focus has moved to sportives, to carbon fibre frames, to Rapha Sky branded kits, to gels, training techniques, times, pace and cadence. People seriously compare themselves and their experience to Tour de France. The aspiration is no longer to get lost, to enjoy and to explore: the aspiration is to do parts of the tour, to watch races, to catch a glimpse of Sir Bradley Wiggins passing a finishing line, to spend more money, to own the best stuff, be the quickest. And it bores the shit out of me.
So pervasive is this trend that it seems to be sucking the life out of other parts of cycling. It’s hard to find the hippies and the explorers any more. It’s all about the competition and the conformity of commercialised, commoditised pseudo-sport. A classic south London training run (over Crystal Palace, out to Oxted) has become a miserable slog of unsmiling, un nodding pink and black lycra clad sports cyclists. There’s no bonhomie or camaraderie, just wrap around glasses and steely determination to overtake.
And the chat is like golf. Men talk about their bikes and their times, the races they’ve completed, Strava segments, listing the achievements of pro- cyclists with that autism spectrum fervour dull men use to talk about football teams. People are less and less likely to talk about experiences, the things the’ve seen, the places they’ve been, the fun and epic hardship they’ve experienced. They’re less and less likely to talk about the joy of cycling. Again, it bores the shit out of me.
This sounds like a reactionary rant, and that’s because it is. I should be able to just let these people get on with it and live and let live, or even just take joy in the fact that there are so many more people who love cycling in any way they like. But I can’t, and I have my reasons. First, I don’t like being looked down on. I don’t like being characterised by these people as less of a cyclist because I’m not part of their culture. In the majority of cases, I was there first and it’s BSkyB and Rapha who are the pretenders. I hate to be thought of as the lesser cyclist because I can’t be arsed with Sportives and would rather get lost than go hard. Or because I love Sheldon and loath Bradley*. I was here first, fuck off.
Second, I think it pollutes the rest of the culture. This pernicious strand of macho sport orthodoxy is creeping into all parts of cycling. It’s starting to be the norm. Bike shops are geared towards it, bike blogs are geared towards it, conversations around cycling are geared towards it. You mention you like cycling, now that comes with an expectation that you are a certain type of person; alpha male, serious, competitive, buyer of bikes, regurgitator of facts. Moreover, I worry that this fake professionalisation in leisure cycling hides the joy of cycling from people who might otherwise have gotten involved. I find this association of cycling in general with professional cycling incredibly off putting. This must be true for other people too.
Third, it’s just another example of something lovely, free and non corporate being turned into a mega industry. And that makes me sad. Can’t we have some things which don’t get packaged up, branded and marketed? Isn’t there any part of life where I can experience a freedom from corporatism without have my experience re-packaged and sold back to me? Seriously, I see people I know and like buying Sky branded kit. Since when did cycling support Rupert fucking Murdoch?
Anyway back to Lael Wilcox. It is beautiful to see someone cycling competitively, cycling seriously, but with the passion for adventure, for challenge, for experience which has been lost from so many other parts of the culture. It’s hard not to feel jealous of her hardship, of her joy, of the challenge she’s facing. She inspires me to think about cycling in the old way again. There’s something adventurous, and crazy, and silly about what she’s doing. I would hope that some of her spirit comes back into cycling, some of the madness, some of the diversity, and while I hope that the road cyclists stick around, I also hope they become less the dominant force in cycling, and more just one voice amongst many others.
*Bradley Wiggins: mod and victim blamer. I’m allowed to dislike him on those grounds.
** None of these photos are mine. I only use them in the assumption that no one will ever read this anyway 🙂