A La Recherche Du Cycliste Perdu: Not Being Proust

The cyclist and writer Rob Ainsley emailed me last week with a few thoughts about cycling places from ‘end-to-end’ (Land’s End to John O’Groats, Tarifa to Nordkapp, Cape Sōya to Cape Sata etc…) and also about cycling in Yorkshire. I’ll write more about those two topics in the next few posts. However, he mentioned in passing that he had referred to me and the latest book, Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie, in one of his Cycling Plus columns a few months ago. It’s an interesting reflection on cycling and writing about cycling…

downloadAn old college friend has just got into cycling. Road bike costing more than I earn, jersey costing more than my bike, daily Facebook brags about how he’s KOM for his age range on some Strava segment. As an everyday cyclist, I prefer well-pocketed M&S shorts to lycra ones: I’m more marsupial than MAMIL. And I’m still the fastest for my age on several segments, if I restrict the range to my precise birthdate.

Another FB friend is a different sort of cycling ingénue. She posted a picture of her new town bike, and asked her social media cohort what she should call it. Two hundred people replied. Evidently bike names are more interesting than frame geometry.

Suggestions came in two distinct types: ‘cage fighter name’, usually by men (‘The Beast’, ‘The Green Goddess’ etc); and ‘Ealing Comedy maiden aunt name’, usually by women (‘Mabel’, ‘Flossie’ etc). She settled on ‘Matilda’, after a great-grandparent.

Christening bikes is not my style. Just as well – I don’t know who most of my great-grandparents were. (The men usually didn’t leave their name.) But travelogue writer Andrew Sykes has made a series out of it, most recently his amiable Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie. Writing a decent bike travel book like this is hard work. So’s a bad one, as I know myself. It’s hard to escape the cliches: life in rut, crazy plan in pub, setting off, early doubts, remote-country hospitality, final exhausted triumph.

One problem is that the more enjoyable the adventure, the less there is to write about. I’ve done more big trips than you could shake a selfie stick at, and once cycled to all the places in the world called ‘Bath’. (Twenty-three of them, there were.) But there was never a book, because they were a predictable succession of comfy accommodation, good people, interesting food, absorbing culture, thrilling scenery and soul-nourishing contemplation. No hilarious tales of mechanical failure, armed conflict or near-fatal illness.

No: like a derailleur, a page-turner needs the right amount of tension, or it doesn’t work. The readable writer contrives a challenge, like the Iron Curtain on a shopper in winter (Tim Moore) or taking a cricket bat to the Ashes in Australia (Oli Broom). Or perhaps there’s an all-consuming search for something, and I don’t just mean enough sockets to charge all your devices. Like riding to, literally, recover your sanity (Bernie Friend).

Me, I just want a nice holiday. I don’t need to find myself. It’s clear where I am. Usually a Wetherspoon, with a post-ride pint.

Some travel literature can be intimidating, with ferociously driven individuals doing dangerous things. By Kayak to Rockall, Afghanistan on a Skateboard, Around the World Tediously Quickly. Good reads, maybe. But give me a slow-bike travelogue for Christmas any time. Andrew Sykes may not be Proust, but A la Recherche du Temps Perdu never made me want to cycle France.

Even give me the cliched, self-published account of a first-time End-to-Ender, or clumsy web page of a naive charity rider. Such unpretentious – but yes, inspiring – tales remind us all that we can create our own stories. All we need is a bike and a plan, and perhaps a multiway adaptor. We’re not scowling, focused professionals. We’re amateurs, in the true sense: doing it because we love it. We probably couldn’t get a book from it, just a blog for friends and family and the odd serendipitous Googler, or simply a dinner-party yarn. But it’ll be life-enhancing.

Similarly, I won’t snigger at my old college chum for being the caricature all-the-gear arriviste, or roll my eyes at people who name their bike like a pet duck. It’s great to have them both joining us. Maybe soon we’ll be discussing cycle things, compacts versus triples or Cycle Superhighways or the best cafes on the Way of the Roses and so on. (Possibly Woodie’s, at Crook o’Lune.)

Despite ranting media columnists, terrible infrastructure and car-centric culture, people are still coming to cycling in different ways. Let’s welcome them all. Be their mentor and you never know, you might see yourself mentioned approvingly in a bike travelogue soon…

© Rob Ainsley / Cycling Plus

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