A Journey into Scotland … Part 15
“If the bicycle had been invented by an engineer it wouldn’t work. But it wasn’t. It was designed by a blacksmith. It shouldn’t work. But it bloody well does. It takes us further than any other machine.” So says my cycle building friend and I see no reason to doubt it. He’s cleverer than I am, and he may be talking historically or he may be talking metaphorically. One way or the other I don’t just follow him, I actually understand him and connect with the wiser thing he is saying. There is no other contraption that has this magical effect. To cycle more than ten miles at a time is to become a philosopher. Cycling is far more about how you use your mind than about how you use your body and, on this journey into Scotland, I was only just starting to learn this.
He’s the best bicycle engineer in Derbyshire. Has built frames since he was a boy. Served his apprenticeship at Carlton on bicycles that Tom Simpson and Barry Hoban took back with them across the channel. Built bikes first with his dad and then for thirty years on his own. Always out of steel. Always beautifully made and finished. And yet his own bike looked like mine. No self-respecting thief with an eye to the market in stolen bicycles would loosen our bikes from where we left them locked.
I admit shamefacedly, “I have never cleaned my bicycle.”
“That’s alright. When you’re cleaning it you’re not riding it.”
He put the miles in though. When not brazing forks or turning wheels he turned his own. Had two ways of pedalling. One, head up and soaking up the view; the air. The other eyeballs out with the scenery a blur. All skilled craftsmen are worth listening to. They know stuff that the rest of us don’t know. This one knew more than most and most of what he knew had come to him while riding his bike or working at his forge.
I don’t know if it happens when you sprint around a track or a velodrome. I’ve never done that. Never had any great desire either to do it nor to watch anybody else doing it. I’d happily admit that it makes more sense to sit in a seat and watch a whole race unfold in front of you than to stand for hours on the side of a road in order to watch 150 cyclists flash past so quickly you can’t even make out the riders you know. The sound is remarkable and elevating but the visual is little more than a blur.
In the old days they had track cycle races that went on for over twenty four hours. I think I might have paid to watch those. Certainly it is in the physical endurance that the mental mystery starts to kick in. But even then, that isn’t enough. The environment has to be part of it for me. There has to be a journey, a travelling from one place to another. And the journey must be, to a greater or lesser degree, difficult. It should, as far as possible, avoid towns other than as points of departure or arrival. It should spend a fair bit of time heading towards the hills and the ups and the downs. It should pass through changing geography, have an awareness of history and put up with the full range of weather conditions. I could be describing the Tour de France or the Giro d’Italia. I could be describing this pedal of mine into Scotland and to all the places I have ever lived. What I am describing are the ingredients necessary to put you into the state of mind where thinking becomes a physical activity. Where you have thoughts you could not otherwise have had. Sometimes they are of a banal nature, sometimes you plot elaborate revenges on those who have wronged you, sometimes you simply forgive them and sometimes you are able to solve fundamental problems of philosophy.
I tend to go on long cycle rides when my life comes to a fork. It is no coincidence that two of the longest rides I have undertaken have been while I considered entering and leaving the teaching profession. I could write down the different sides to the arguments (for both occasions) on a sheet of A4 paper. It isn’t a simple discursive exercise. It’s as much about clearing your mind. It’s about preparing yourself. These are my forty days and nights in the desert and it is along stretches of road like the one between Crocketford and New Galloway that the process works the best.
I wrote earlier about there being no equivalent English landscape yet it begins to feel an awful lot like my own south lakeland childhood. Here the hills are not formidable to look at but they take some riding. The fields are for sheep and cows. You tell your elevation from it being one or the other. The miles of grey stone walls the result of thousands and thousands of hours of skilled contemplation: they must have their share of philosophers where the walls are this well made.
Any country walker will tell you that you only begin to notice things when you stop and let them come to you. If you plunge headlong into the country at four and five miles an hour with two ski sticks and a map bouncing in its plastic folder off your chest you’ll pass many a mile of hedgerows free of birds, many a field without a rabbit or hare. Stop for ten minutes and the same grassland comes alive, the same bushes fill with song and you begin to see what is there.
The contemplative cyclist doesn’t think new thoughts. What is in my head is pretty much what was there before. But it gets sifted first, then sorted. The wise person can tell the difference between an important thing and an unimportant thing. (One of my reasons for moving out of teaching was the profession’s growing confusion over this). You play through things that seem important enough to cause you concern. You work them forward in your mind. You work them round and round with the pedals and then you let them go. Let them fly free from you. They simply don’t matter anymore. And so the sifting goes on. If these things really don’t matter that much when riding your bicycle up a Scottish hill then the chances are that they really don’t matter at all.
It isn’t just taking the time to think things through. The very act of cycling is a part of it. The physical exertion is essential to the process. You never ever find this state of mind in the first ten miles of a ride; rarely find it in the first twenty five. You can overdo it. You don’t find it on those trips when you pitch yourself contre-la-montre and cover your journey in record time. Though you do often experience uplifting thoughts that can touch euphoria when you do that. You can encourage it but you can’t chase it. Like sleep it will arrive when it arrives and you are transported into someone who just thinks and rides. It tends to happen on solitary rides but that could just be me. I know that it often involves a great deal of quietly talking to myself and often attracts a knowing look from a cow a sheep or a horse. There aren’t too many horses up on these hills.
There aren’t too many houses either. The road between Troutbeck and Caldbeck had been as rural as any I know of in England yet was built up in comparison to here. There is an occasional farm but farms don’t interfere with the mind at work. For the first time on the journey I’m in that place where thinking and the physical act of turning the wheels have become one and the same action. It only happens on a bicycle. The engineer is right. This machine takes you further than any other. Certainly any other that I have experienced. And being in a landscape like this helps.