As Team GB’s cycling squad scoops up the Olympic medals, we look at how exploring the world by bike can reap real rewards for travellers
I love bikes. I love the simplicity of them; the sinuous curves, the elegant lines, the proportions of them. I love them for their sense of history, the fact that I’m not as fat as I would be if I didn’t ride them, and for the adrenaline I get when I ride them on something new or difficult. But mostly I love them because they make me feel free.
I can’t remember the first time I got on a bike, but I can remember my first real ride. I was around five, and my parents had removed the stabilisers from my bike – a little red number with cream balloon tyres. Then came a pivotal event – my parents let me ride down the road on it. It was a scant 200 metres but the feeling of freedom was astonishing, and through the fog of memory feels more than mere distance. It was a mental gap between my frantically pedalling self and the safety of my home and my parents; 200 metres are a very long way when you’re five. I like to think I can still remember that hot Sunday, the gentle rumble of the fat tyres on the road, the slight squeak from the wheels… the hilariously ineffective brakes.
Other bikes have come and gone, of course – an embarrassingly large number – but the sensation of freedom has always stayed with me. And travelling by bike still brings me a sense of exoticism and alien excitement, which only increases the further I go. Too often these days I find myself on planes, which in my more cynical moments seem to be just metal tubes which transport me to (admittedly new and exciting) places without really giving me the sensation of having travelled at all. But on a bike I can almost – sometimes literally – taste the exoticism of my environment: the delicate odours, densities and temperatures that tell me of a new experience around the corner. The cumulative assurances that things here aren’t the same as the things over there – that this ain’t Kansas any more.
Maybe it’s because we all make boxes around ourselves; we surround ourselves with comfortable things, with easy expectation and minimum hassle. Maybe it’s because I’m subconsciously rebelling against something intangible in modern culture; that it all feels a bit suspiciously easy. But travelling by bike comes with an implicit air of uncertainty – even if it usually ends up being entertainingly straightforward. The worry that you’ve forgotten something, that you’ve not given yourself enough time to reach the ferry; that there’s an enormous mountain range between you and wherever you might be staying the night. But for all that there’s something deeply liberating about putting a few possessions into a bag, strapping it to a bike, and setting off.
While I love the thrub and keen of a good city (best explored, of course, on foot), after a while I need to stretch my legs away from the noisy claustrophobia, and my preferred method is bicycular. And once away from the metropolises, the sight of someone on a bike brings out the friendly curiosity in people. Westerners on bicycles are a novelty in many places, and it’s often easy to turn people’s resultant friendly curiosity into friendships that can last a lifetime.
The feeling of being in the middle of nowhere with nothing but your legs to get you to wherever you need to be (and you’re low on crisps) can be pretty daunting – but even at these low times, the air of satisfaction afterwards is pretty heady. Of course, traffic can be an issue, but it’s surprisingly easy to negotiate with a bit of practice. Top tip – often the worst places are the suburbs; city centres are pretty easy to cycle through, as often you’re travelling at the same speeds as, if not faster than, the rest of the traffic.
Granted, travelling any distance beyond the commute isn’t perhaps for everyone. But I still have yet to find a better way of getting to know a place, its customs and its people than by travelling behind bars.
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