The past week here in Devon has been sublime. Warm spring sunshine has bathed the whole county from dawn to dusk on most days, helping those of us who live here to feel alive and inspired. I have noticed over the years that regular sunshine makes a difference for me, especially the first rays of the year when we have often spent around six months deflecting the storms and gloom that lurks on west coast and then drags its feet slowly eastwards across the country.
I did my first half-century this weekend. To clarify that, it my first real one. By that I mean a typical Devonshire hilly outing where it’s best not to contemplate the difficulty of the ride, or count the number of epic ascents, until after you complete it. Of course, there are as many downhills as up hills but given the disproportionate time it takes to climb up in comparison to descending you can easily end up feeling as though all you have done all day long is crawl ever upwards.
And this is the cyclist’ dilemma. You actually do spend most of your time climbing, so you have to reorganise your cognitions so you don’t remember it that way. When I’m engaged in a long and arduous climb I hum tunes, (depending on the gradient) or get lost in thoughts other than the effort. This is called disassociation, removing your thoughts from the thing that’s causing you pain. Recently, I been doing the opposite (association) where I concentrate on the muscles that are hurting from working and trying to relax them so I’m using the minimum of effort to meet my objective. Regardless of what I choose to do, the only joy in hills for a well-built chap like me is that felt upon reaching the top.
I’ve never been what you might describe as lithe, not since I past my teenage years anyway. I’m built for comfort, not speed. I always watch with a little envy as those with the same body shape as a whippet on a diet dance lightly and seemingly effortlessly up hills. It’s hard to believe they are the same ones that I plod up like a snail carrying a large rucksack. But I get there in the end and I console myself in always having had good endurance. At least hills have an end, unlike those horrible windy days that pin you back as though you have the brakes on permanently.
There is no escape from headwinds other than giving in, backing off and pretending you had every intention of riding that slowly all along. With a trike, the wind isn’t always the culprit. I have to admit that on more than a few occasions I’ve been perplexed as to why pedalling is so hard, only to find I’ve forgotten to let one of the hand brakes off after stopping to take a photo. A certain Christopher Froome used to train like this when he didn’t have access to alpine climbs on which to hurt himself sufficiently.
Now downhills, they’re something quite different. Part of the reason uphill seems so slow on a trike is the pace at which you descend. From crawling like a snail to flat-out takes just a few metres and the same applies visa-versa. I’m not sure trikes are actually quicker than bikes down hills but they are incredibly stable descending platforms that place you just a few inches above the tarmac. At speed that tarmac seems to tear past, like it does you are driving a low-slung sports car. You pilot it as much through the seat of your pants as you do with the under seat handlebars. A touch of brake as you lean into the corner, shifting bodyweight to prevent the inside wheel lifting, you can place him on a sixpence, such is the handling. Kermit feels as though he is on rails, skimming the road and feeling as though he might take-off at any moment. It’s exhilarating.
Elsewhere, I can roll quietly along, one hand dragging in the grasses and flowers that help to form then verge. I’m down at the level of small animals, not perched atop a bicycle, eyes welded to the road up ahead. I have less need to search out gravel and potholes, no need at all to crane my neck for anything. My thoughts and actions wander as I relax and enjoy the scenery that’s laid out in front of me as though it was like it was put there especially for me to peruse. Occasionally, I get pulled back to reality as a car approaches or the road demands more of my attention. Leant back in my chair, suspended in absolute comfort, I look out and up. It’s a giant I-max screen of rolling joy that changes constantly, as long as I keep moving. I’ve already forgotten that last rise, the one that left me huffing and puffing until I found the kind of rhythm that saw me battle to its summit. My mind is awash with the beauty of nature and hills are only temporary barriers to the enjoyment of seeing it.
Most of all I’m out, away from my home and well and truly ensconced in reality. People I meet are all fascinated with my odd machine and even more so in why I choose to ride it. Is there a secret that they don’t yet know about? Could it be easier than cycling on an upright bike? When I answer to the negative there is always a slightly quizzical look that appears on their faces. If it isn’t easier, why would you bother?
I try for the umpteenth time to explain how different it is. I explain how truly comfortable it is over any distance. I exhort relaxation that occurs from being held and properly supported, not perched up high like a budgie on a swing. I try to relate how much better I get treated when riding the roads than when I ride my diamond frame bike. I extoll how much less the wind bothers me down here, hugging the ground. But it all falls to a deaf stare as they try to contemplate how odd these machines look in comparison to everything they have known since their childhood. In the end, for most people, they just don’t look right, not compared to all those fixed and filed away images of Bradley Wiggins, Eddie Merckx and thousands of other racing cyclists who we all wanted to emulate in our youth. What a bike should be is something that’s indelibly imprinted somewhere deep in our psyche, and something that colours our choices forever with regards to what we choose to ride.
Getting back to the hills, they are never far away, not if you live in Devon. As I age I understand that I won’t be able to manage them at some point in the future, a point that getting closer by the year. I love Kermit, but every silver lining has a cloud, so I put up with his foibles. I take great pleasure in travelling around this lovely island in abject comfort, stopping my mobile armchair to look at the view when the climbs get to be a little too much for my ageing legs. I often sit and stare at something unexpected that has popped up on the cinematic viewing screen that Kermit has provided me with. The hills of Devon are such that my legs insist that I move slowly and in doing so I notice more. And having noticed something I seem to stop more often. When I’m good and ready I continue on my way, and that is the essence of touring. What could be better than that?
Until next time…………