I recently bought a new bicycle. Apparently it’s a road bike, but to me it’s a racer. That’s what they were called last time I had a bike anyway, way back in the 80′s. Back then I had a girl’s Raleigh Coco. An all terrain bike that saw me cycling no handed through suburbia, in the days before we all got too cool for bikes. So it’s been a good twenty years since I’ve owned a bicycle and judging by the ‘new’ one I’m riding now, it’s been a good twenty years since it’s been ridden too. I woke up one morning as the proud new owner of a bike I’d never seen, thanks to an overnight ebay swipe in which I won a vintage 1970′s Raleigh, for the bargain price of £77. Let me backpedal a little. My reason for having to buy a bicycle, after twenty years of not cycling, was that I’d just moved to central Bristol. My work’s a five minute drive away, but in rush hour that became 25 minutes. The five minute journey to my son’s school (in the opposite direction to work) became a twenty minute ordeal. So instead of a 45 minute commuter’s nightmare, we were going to go by bike. Ten minutes to school. Fifteen back to work. Time saved, money saved. Cycling was a no-brainer. Little did I know however, that my brain would soon have very little to do with it – I was about to fall in love.
Three months later and I’m still totally smitten. I’m having a whirlwind romance with a velocipede … and not just mine. The whole damn lot of them. I love my son’s bike. My workmates’ bikes. The whole kit and caboodle. I, am a cyclist. Please believe me when I say this is an extraordinary statement for me. Six months ago I scoffed at people who rode bikes for fun. I was baffled as to why people would choose to go on a cycling holiday. To me the words ‘cycling’ and ‘holiday’ categorically did not belong in the same sentence. Those people were mad. And yet, here I am just months after ‘having’ to buy a bike, with a cycling holiday to France under my padded lycra and new bar tape. I know. It’s astonishing. I’m mad. Or am I?
Actually I feel healthier than I have for a long time. The holiday was a complete revelation. Me and my semi-pro-cycling friend (to whom I owe the majority of my limited experience) drove to Plymouth, left the van in the car park and cycled onto the ferry. We were actually encouraged to jump the queues. No waiting in lines for us cyclists! The terminal staff in high-vis jackets – that you’d normally see through steamed-up car windows as they grimly waved you on board – became real human beings. They spoke. They smiled. I was ecstatic. I know it was only cycling onboard but to me it was the best experience I’d had getting onto a ferry. In fact the whole week was one ‘best experience’ after another. Ok, so there was one experience which I don’t ever want to repeat. Having spent the morning cycling south from Roscoff, we decided to hop on a train to the beaches and menhirs of South Brittany. We arrived late and in the dark. Buoyed by our first day’s adventures, we switched on our flashing LED lights and headed out of town to find the nearest campsite. ‘TOUTES DIRECTIONS’ said the sign. It said nothing about all directions leading to the motorway. By which point, we’d gone all the way down a one way slip road onto the hard shoulder. Turning back was not an option. I’ll admit that during those next 2.5k I prayed. Very Hard. The truck drivers were generous, giving us plenty of space. Somehow we made it safely to the next junction, pulled into the first garden we could find and pitched the tent. Not surprisingly, due to the amount of adrenalin I had still pumping round my system, I slept badly. But that really was the only hiccup. And best to get it out of the way on my first day’s cycling.
After that baptism of tarmac, the rest of the holiday was a wonderful adventure. It was sociable – people wanted to ask us where we’d been and where we were going. It was connected – I saw bees on flowers that I could actually smell as I passed them. Each day I grew stronger and started to see hills as fun instead of fearing them. I began to develop a sense of distance, understanding in my body (not just in my mind) that travel requires energy. Up until now I just had to put my foot down on the accelerator to get somewhere. Now I needed calories. I had a huge appetite and was blissfully enjoying being able to eat whatever I liked, whenever I liked, guilt free. In fact, since I’ve been cycling my eating habits have relaxed. Whereas I used to get bloated if I ate wheat, now I don’t. I would get tired if I ate too many carbs, now they don’t seem to affect me. And it’s not just my digestive health that’s improved either, my heart is stronger too. I suffered from daily palpitations, but since cycling regularly I’ve not had any. So when I said that cycling would become an affair of the heart, I meant it in more ways than one!
Cycling has become a way of life. A panacea for all ills. It’s ironic that our move from the rural countryside to the city has made us healthier – usually it’s the other way around. Our ‘commute’ involves wide cycle paths along the river, dotted with nods and smiles to the strangers we see each morning on their bikes, smiles that acknowledge our good fortune. We’re the lucky ones. We have bodies, bicycles and bells … and we’re going to use them.