This is not about cyclists and cycling, it’s about me and cycling. To all my cycling friends, who I really don’t want or mean to offend, I’d like to take you by the hand, sit you down, and say softly and sincerely – “it’s not you, it’s me… honestly. I just don’t get cycling.”
I want to, I really do, but it’s an outdoor activity which has never clicked. Even as a lad seeking summer holiday adventures, our little gang would walk rather than cycle. You couldn’t get to the newt-filled, bomb-crater pond located on a hilltop on two wheels. Because of the hourglass shape of the Isle of Bute it was nearly as easy, and more fun, to walk across the hills from Rothesay to the sands at Ettrick Bay. One of the only times I remember us having a cycling outing ended in a fistfight between me and the Mac brothers when I accused one of them of bottling it and braking too hard when going down a hill, so that I nearly came a cropper after almost careening into the back of the older Mac brother. That fight cracked a tooth which snapped off five years later. Maybe that’s where the root of my uneasy relationship with cycling lies.
I like the idea of cycling. But of a kind that involves wearing normal clothes and no insect-shell helmet. I like the thought of cycling that involves effortless pedalling along flat country lanes passing rows of vines, or alongside a gently rolling river – the warm sun kissing my face; a soft breeze caressing glowing skin; a bottle of wine, loaf of fresh bread, and a round of cheese in the wicker basket above the front tyre; and me on the look-out for a scenic spot to have a picnic and a wee snooze in the shade of a willow tree before I make the easy journey homeward to some dreamy Tuscan/Provençal villa.
My infrequent dipping of toes into the cycling universe never quite pan out like that vision.
First, there’s the gear. In Normal People, Marianne and Connell cycling in Tuscany looked fabulous, exactly like locals we saw cycling in Tuscany; wafting summer dresses for the women and smart polo shirts, or even exquisitely tailored jackets, for the men. There’s none of those misguided attempts at trying to fool anybody you’re part of the INEOS cycling team. I understand that clothes which fit like a second skin combined with an aerodynamic helmet might shave seconds in a high speed tour de wherever competition. But most of us aren’t participating in a race, so why are there so many MAMILs (middle-aged men in Lycra) on the roads? Is there anybody who doesn’t have a physique that makes a whippet look chubby who truly believes it’s a good look?
I have a bugbear about outdoor fashion in general. Why is so much of it so bad? By bad I mean geeky. When the fashion jobs are being handed out, is it the graduates who really should have taken up accounting who get relegated to designing sports fashion for the ordinary punter? For pottering around country lanes in an old-fashioned Enid Blyton way, there’s absolutely no need to look like Chris Froome. It doesn’t have to be like this. It isn’t like this in many places. In sports shops in Italy there are ‘chic cycling’ sections with clothes that make you look as good on a bike as at the counter of a wine bar. I just made that last bit up, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were.
For a five-day cycling trip in the north of Portugal we had to buy some of the ‘gear’. I’ll be brutally honest here, I was shocked. I was horrified at having to go out in public with that bulge in my Lycra shorts. Before anyone sniggers, I’m referring to the one caused by the rear-end padding. I had no idea there was a nappy-like element to cycling shorts. After day one I appreciated it, really appreciated it – there’s no way to put this delicately, scrotums and cycle saddles are not meant to be friends – but it’s not a flattering look, and it’s only partly effective anyway. God knows what the excruciating pain would have been like after a couple of days cycling without them. I tried to tone the look down by pairing the shorts with a walking shirt, but it was like mixing the worst of both worlds; I ended up as a badly dressed mutant – a fashion disaster of a cycler, or maybe that should be hikist.
Then there’s the cycling itself. I admit it, I enjoy the actual cycling part when the going is flat and even; those times when I can roll along, sort of enjoying the scenery as it whizzes past and the trail is eaten up far quicker than it is on Shanks’s Pony. Being a novice though, I find too much of my time can be spent focussed on the path ahead, keeping an eye out for evil tree roots or sadistic potholes that mean to cause me harm. Bespoke cycle paths, however, are great. In my very limited experience they’re what has come closest to helping me understand why cycling is so popular.
Ultimately, the main reason I’ll never become a fully signed-up member of the cycling club is because it’s not as immersive an experience as walking. I hadn’t fully realised to what extent until we cycled a couple of routes we’d also previously walked. The experience was completely different. We didn’t see many of the things we’d spotted when walking – kingfishers on the riverbank, half-hidden fountains in the ferns, information boards in the shade of willowy trees, ruins of ancient bridges peaking above the water, and so on – little details which had helped us build a more rounded picture of the area when we were compiling a guide to it.
In the end, it’s all those things I missed when cycling that made me really miss walking.