Straight on at roundabout


What happens when you stop?
January 18, 2014, 1:41 pm
Filed under: Rambling nonsense, Why

Sometimes, when I am on a plane, I try to imagine what is going on down on the ground below me.  At the moment of passing overhead people are living their lives while I skid by overhead at 35,000 feet en route to somewhere.

Underneath me people are standing in thier gardens, tending vegetable beds, arguing, laughing or even making love.  For some reason I always picture people living their lives outdoors but they are standing around being in the ‘now’.

And sometimes I stand in mu own garden and look at the jets flying high overhead and I slightly envy the people on those flights.  But it is not the destinations that intrigue me.  It is the envy of being enveloped in the artificial snug of  the airline.

Being in transit somewhere somehow seems more valuable to me than actualy being somewhere in particular.

Riding a bike somewhere is a similar sensation for me.

I’ll happily spend many hours eating up the miles progressing towards a control point on an audax ride.  Hour after hour, mile after mile, daydream after daydream I can turn the pedals.  I’ll pass through all sorts of unremarked terrains – and, especially at night, I might not feel deprived as I roll along.  The fact that I can’t see the surrounding countryside won’t necessarily bother me.

But then I’ll have to stop.

A puncture will make me halt.  Or maybe I have to double check my directions.  And I am suddenly tipped out of my transit into the terrain.  I will stop moving and it will fee very odd.

Some years ago, in the dead of night I stopped in the woods near Sonning Common close to Henley.  My companion was lost ahead of me and I was waiting at a turning he’d missed hoping that he’d retrace once he had realised his mistake.

I had a pee while I was waiting and then I stood listening and trying to see his lights returning up the road.

And then I was struck by the enveloping quiet and peace of the moment.  I won’t call this a noiseless silence because that might imply a Dylan Thomas-esq inky blackness.  It wasn’t really deadly silent – there just wasn’t any noise that you would have noticed.  Rather it was a refreshing calm – like clear cool water slaking a thirst.

No cars, no pedal turning and no breeze shaking the trees.  Just a hush.  Couples with a few moments of rest.

At that moment I stepped out of the constant quest of becoming or moving and I was here.  In those minutes of stillness I was present in a place I don’t think I have been to before and no one knew I was there.  My existence was not contingent on making progress nor did it depend on any action on my part.  And despite my unwitnessed state I continued to be.

Just as I realised this, I saw the white glimmer of my friend Martin’s headlights and shortly heard him resuming the anecdote he had been telling me before we separated.  The moment disappeared.

Life can feel like riding a bike.  If we don’t keep moving forward we fall off.  But when you do unclip and put both feet down… I ride because of moments like that.



The Owl
January 14, 2014, 10:18 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

The week before last I rode one of my favourite 200k rides –The Poor Student and as it passed near to Adelstrop in Oxfordshire I started trying to remember why I knew the name of this small village.

And then I remembered, Adelstrop is a poem by Edward Thomas, a famous poem that turns up in most anthologies of well-loved English poems.

The poem talks about a moment of surprising stillness in the English countryside.  A passenger on an express train is reflecting on an unscheduled stop at a rural station and in the quiet hears birdsong:

And for that minute a blackbird sang

Close by, and round him, mistier,

Farther and farther, all the birds

Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

 It’s a verse that could have been written for an audaxer.

There’s a ride that I have done a few times that climbs up Cleve Hill near Cheltenham and,  if you can look away from the road in front for a second you see the rolling hills stretching back to Oxfordshire.  On a still, quiet day, if you dare to stop you can appreciate Thomas’ words.

However, I feel that Thomas wrote another poem that speaks more directly to an audaxer.  Anyone who has arrived, at night at the finish of a long ride will connect with his verse The Owl.

DOWNHILL I came, hungry, and yet not starved,

Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof

Against the north wind; tired, yet so that rest

Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.

Thomas wrote about walking in a landscape before the First World War; I understand that the war was one of the things that changed him from a writer of prose to a poet.  However anyone who has been out all day will recognise that feeling of arrival.  Finishing not yet exhausted but ready for the relief of sitting with cup of tea or a bowl of soup.

Last May, I organised a 400K ride and worked through the night welcoming back riders who had struggled with a headwind through the day.  The memory of them sinking into the chairs in the village hall and peeling off their gloves and rubbing heir heads after removeing their helmets is brought back by these lines

Promoted by the cry of a solitary owl, the poet goes on to reflect on the people who are still out in the night:

Shaken out long and clear upon the hill

No merry note, nor cause of merriment,

But one telling me plain what I escaped

And others could not, that night, as in I went.

Sometimes when I can’t ride, or am sitting at home on a Saturday night I Look at the Audax website before I go to bed.  I look to see if there are rides on somewhere and imagine the riders pushing into the night.  They may not be soldiers lying in sodden trenches (as Thomas imagines in the last verse) but the message resonates all the same.