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26 November 2014 No comments

Looking for the Perfect Ride

Correspondence Friends Bicycles Monthly highlights Travel & Adventure Cycling Stories
By Jack Thurston
Looking for the Perfect Ride
[caption id="attachment_13784" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="November murk in the Black Mountains"][/caption] If there’s a month for armchair cycling it’s November. Emily Dickinson described it as ‘the Norway of the year’, which is a bit hard on Norway. November really is the gloomiest month. Dreary skies above, mud below - and not much in between. As an embalmer removes the blood from a corpse, the landscape is drained of its autumn colour. Spring seems inconceivable and we’ve not yet reached the frost-spangled glamour of midwinter. November promises little and delivers less. Even professional bike racers - men and women whose job it is to ride their bikes - take the month off. So as the rain blows in from the darkening sky and rattles my windows, I sit by the fire with a a bottle of wine patching a year’s worth of punctured inner tubes. Breathing deeply the rubbery vapours I recall some of the memorable rides of a year spent exploring the byways of Wales and the border counties, having not long ago moved from London to the Black Mountains and working on a second volume of Lost Lanes. I think back to the acid green of Radnorshire in spring, an almost magical land all the more thrilling as it was somewhere I’d never even heard of - let alone visited. [caption id="attachment_13759" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="The Radnorshire hills in spring"][/caption] A late summer afternoon, the sun warm on my back as I rode the Great Orme’s Head, the short coastal road that winds up and up around the limestone cliffs that tower above the Irish Sea. If this road were in the south of France rather it'd be called the corniche de something or other, and would be widely celebrated. [caption id="attachment_13754" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Great Orme's Head"][/caption] A chilly late September morning on the Long Mynd in Shropshire, mist rising from the valleys and a view for miles and miles. [caption id="attachment_13755" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="On the Long Mynd in Shropshire"][/caption] Perfect rides. But what is it that makes a perfect ride? Beautiful landscapes and fine weather helps, but neither holds the key. Could it be what you do along the way? A refreshing dip in a river, a lazy picnic under a spreading oak tree, exploring an eerie ruin or gathering a bagful of chestnuts or a mess of wild garlic. A pint in a pub garden bathed in late afternoon sun, or, in winter, the feeling of gently defrosting in a crowded greasy spoon, all steamed-up windows, cheerful chatter, the clatter of teacups and bacon sizzling on the grill. Nothing beats the moment a cyclist’s hunger meets a large plate of food, whether it’s a four-course midday menu du jour on the sunny terrace of a French café, sluiced down with a half litre of rose, or the salt and vinegar tang of fish and chips on the beach at the end of a long day in the saddle. I've always found there's something very special about the first day of a multi-day bike tour. There's a feeling of liberation as you leave behind the complexities and commitments of home and work for a simpler, pared-down life on the open road. All the planning and preparation is done, everything’s packed and the roads traced so carefully on the map are now a blur beneath your wheels. The again, some of my most memorable rides were totally unplanned. A sudden impulse, a late invitation, a journey into the unknown. In his book In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist, American cyclist Pete Jordan recalls the many apparently aimless rides exploring his adopted city with his young toddler perched on the handlebars. At each junction father asked son which way the pair should turn. Childcare on two wheels meets the situationist’s dérive. These kinds of urban explorations are proof that perfect ride is never a matter of speed of distance. For me, goal-focussed riding has always detracted from the simple pleasure of riding a bike. Sure, going fast or going far is rewarding but it’s a delayed gratification. It's all in the feeling of mission accomplished that you get at the end, rather than the intoxicating ecstasy of the moment. There’s a BBC wildlife documentary in which a pod of dolphins surfs the breakers on an beach in South Africa. In his narration, David Attenborough observes that “humans and dolphins are almost the only species who continue to play into adulthood”. There’s nothing more playful, more delightful to the senses, than riding a bike. For me, a perfect ride is one when I ride with the same carefree exuberance as a dolphin surfing a wave. There’s no point to it, it’s mind and body at play. And as George Bernard Shaw, a lifelong cyclist, reminds us, “we don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” So what’s your idea of a perfect ride? Photos: Jack Thurston