Book & Video: All aboard the cyclists’ special (15m27s)

And as I rose up and knew I was tired and I continued my journey. (Edward Thomas)

Two contrasting pieces about cycling:  a short film on the joys of cycling for pleasure as part of a group and a book on cycling for a living as a courier in London which touches on cycling’s darker, obssessive side.  

We go cycling for pleasure, not penance.

Cyclists Special is a 1955 British Transport Film promoting the virtues of weekend cycling for pleasure using special Sunday train services, with their dedicated carriages for storing cycles and buffet cars supplying packed lunches.  

Starting in Willesden Junction, London (a station close to my heart), cyclists take the train to Rugby where they begin a tour of parts of Warwickshire, Northamptonshire and Leicesterhire, exploring the countryside and taking in places of historical interest like Kenilworth Castle.

Once outside the town each group spins away on its own particular route, away from the main road into the peaceful countryside where tree lined lanes welcome these friendly positions that bring their exhaust smoke, no petrol fumes, no record or blaring horn.  Only the humming of tires and the talk that arises between solicitor and carpenter, teacher and typesetter electrician and radiographer; between people of all ages ranks and station, who rediscover their common humanity in finding countryside, exercise and companionship all-in-one.

As well as bikes, Cyclists Special has ties, jackets, cloth caps, plus fours, pipes, Brylcreem, quifs and trouser ankles as clipped as the accents.  Cheery and informative this enjoyable film celebrates the resorative effects of cycling in the country, spending time with people of different backgrounds and occupations, gaining different perspectives and breaking the routine.

There’s always a certain excitement about coming to a strange place.  Over the years you may have trained yourself to arrive anywhere looking as bored as a bactrian camel but if you’re honest with yourself a new place sets you simmering as your home town never could…every place like every person has its own unique history and character.

Containing wisdom such as “a cycle tour without a map is like new potatoes without the smell of mint”, it is unmistakably a film of its time.  

However, I love its inclusive sentiment and it reminded me of Alastair Humphries’ ‘anyone can do it’ attitude to adventure and his notion that adventure doesn’t have to be ultimate, epic or awesome.  A bit like Al Humphries’ Fred Whitton challenge and The Office #microadventure videos, Cyclists Special is an antidote to “hype and hyperbole” and, as Al Humphries might say:  “Everyone is invited – and that’s part of the magic of cycling.”

Jon Day’s book, Cyclogeography, on the other hand, emphasises a darker, though no less spell-binding, side of cycling and its focus is firmly on urban rather than rural cycling.  
 

Day is a lectuer in English at King’s College London and spent several years as a cycle courier in London.  Based on his experiences, Cyclogeography mixes memoir with pyschogeography, philosophy, history and literary diversions.  

The title is a play on the term psychogeography which, according to Joseph Hart, “encourages us to buck the rut, to follow some new logic that lets us experience our landscape anew, that forces us to truly see what we’d otherwise ignore.”  

Day reflects on Baudelaire and the flâneurs‘ roles in understanding and portraying the urban environment by exploring it on foot, and joins Valeria Luiselli and Paul Fournel in speculating on the bicycle’s underrepresentation in travel writing and wondering why there is no cycleur equivalent to the flâneur. 

Drawing on his cycle courier experiences, Day takes us on a journey through London to experience the city anew, and from the saddle.  Weaving through gaps in trafffic, passageways, spaces beneath buildings and other unseen parts of the city, Day portrays the cycle courier as an outsider and someone who exists on the fringes of the city’s economic activity, practically inhabiting a parallel city to the one the rest of us live in. 

Day’s writing is infectious and it is difficult not to be caught up in his excellent descriptions of how cycle couriers learn the city’s abstract properties, its rhythms, smells, signs and textures so that they eventually come “to feel part of the city’s secret networks, at one with its hidden rivers and its dead-letter drops, at one remove from its anonymous crowds of commuters.”  

Day examines the cyclist’s relationship with his machine, a life measured in revolutions and also describes the physical and mental impacts of cycling.  One minute he is revelling in the “the sheer joy of being physically tired at the end of a day’s work”, “the exhilaration of pedalling quickly through the city” and “the mindlessness of the job, the absolute focus on the body in movement”, and the next he is discretely vomitting by the side of the road after pushing himself in a street race and recounting stories about early competition cyclists whose obsession led to bodies ravaged by drugs and overexertion.  

Along the way Day takes a number of diversions and examines cycling in a variety of forms including escape, observation, exploration and art.  He meets artist Richard Long and writer Iain Sinclair, who voices his concerns about the changing nature of cycling, its politicisation and its shift from being subversive to becoming a colonising force in the city. 

He also takes us on a literary journey, drawing on the work of writers like Jonathan Raban, Iain Sinclair, Will Self, Rebecca Solnit, Samuel Beckett, Robert Macfarlane, Edward Thomas, Hilaire Belloc and HG Wells as well as Guy Debord and Roland Barthes.  Drawing a parallel between writing and cycling, Day notes that:  

The rhythms of movement provided by cycling seem perfectly suited to the writer’s need to notice. At bicycle-speed your eyes focus on a single scene as you glide past, and for a few seconds you can isolate one incident before you’re rolled onward. Then on to the next. The saccades of the eye’s snatch-and-focus synchronise with your velocity, flicking from rubbish bin to lamppost, from bus swerving out in front of you to pedestrian about to cross the road in front. The bicycle provides a road’s-eye view midway between the ponderous bus-gaze and the start/stop stress of the car.  Driving, in the city at any rate, is binary, reverential distancing.  Cycling flows, converting static and isolated glimpses of the city into a moving, zoetropic flicker of life.

Valeria Luiselli also noted this ‘cinemtaic’ quality of cycling in her Manifesto a Velo (from which Day quotes) noting that “the bicycle is not only noble in relation to body rhythms” but “is also generous to thought”.  Contrasting the cyclist with the pedestrian, motorist and users of public transport, Luiselli concluded that, “skimming along on two wheels, the rider finds just the right pace for observing the city and being at once its accomplice and its witness.”  I am reminded of the truth of this every time I go out on my bike in London. 

Despite the exhilaration and infectious energy of the book, Day highlights a darker side of cycling, revealing the loneliness of the job, human contact reduced to voices over the radio and the margins of urban life, suicides, the obsessive nature of cyclists and their acceptance and deliberate running of physical risks from knackered knees to the ‘alleycat’ street races.  However, even in its darker moments, Cyclogeography is a compulsive read. 

For more about Cyclogeography see the reviews in The Guardian here and here, The Independent, The Times Literary Supplement and The Financial Times

To read more by Jon Day and for biographical information, see here and also his contributions to n+1 and The London Review of Books blog.

Video: The Road from Karakol

I chose a bike instead of a partner, the road instead of a basecamp.  I chose Krygyzstan.  Its intriguing network of old Soviet roads and endless peaks.  I had no expectations other than what the guidebook said: Kyrgyzstan, the Switzerland of Central Asia.

Kyle Dempster is one of the world’s most accomplished alpine climbers who has trips to Pakistan, China, south America and the Canadian Arctic under his belt.  The Road from Karakol follows Dempster on a climbing trip to Kyrgyzstan in the summer of 2011.

Dempster explored Kyrgyzstan by mountain bike, while pulling a trailer full of climbing kit.  In a country where 90% of the territory is above 1,500m and 40% is above 3,000m, that alone is no mean feet.

He had originally intended to make the trip with his girlfriend but after she had to pull out owing to a skiing accident, Dempster decided to make the trip alone.

We use the word suffering way too much.  Every adventure has both the light, the dark, the toil, the reward. To experience that alone is to become absorbed by an activity, by a place, by its people.  The wall of daily noise, the modern trappings that define our identities give way.  Our mental defenses grow thin.  You no longer know where you end and the world begins.  We become raw.  This is why we take the trip.  That is what we’ve come for.

For two months, Dempster cycled nearly 1,200 km on roads of varying quality through spectacular mountain scenery, crossing rivers, soloing peaks, passing through abandoned Soviet-era towns and drinking vodka, lots of vodka.  

He recorded his journey using a mixture of GoPro and point-and-shoot, filming nearly 25 hours of footage.  On his return, what was intended to be a four-minute climbing film was turned, with the assistance of Duct Tape then Beer and an editing process that took about a year, into the 25 minute The Road from Karakol.

The Road to Karakol is an extraordinary journey.  It is not a self-aggrandizing video or sponsorship film but a personal record of an adventure where things do not go as planned and  where Dempster is prepared to appear naked before the camera (emotionally as well as physically).

The camera is his companion and he shares his thoughts and fears, including a video letter to his family and loved ones, as well as his triumphs.  His journey through the deserted valleys and mountains of Kyrgyzstan to rejoin civilisation is a testament to his determination and perseverance.  Inspiring and impressive stuff.

Here’s what I believe. Real adventure is not polished. It’s not the result of some marketing budget.  There’s no hashtag for it.  It burns brightest on the map’s edges but it exists in all of us.  It exists at the intersection of imagination and the ridiculous.  You have to have faith.  It will find you there and when it does, remember there’s just one question.  In this life when the road comes to an end, will you keep pedalling? 

For more background to this story, read Kyle Dempster’s interview with The Bicycle Story, here, Kyle Dempster’s interview with Alastair Humphreys, here, or visit the film’s website, at www.theroadfromkarakol.com.

 

Article: Dream to reality – motorcycle odyssey from Scotland to Cape Town

Camping in the desert is one of the most incredible experiences you can have. We set up under this solitary tree with the most perfect night sky imaginable, knowing there was not a soul for miles besides the desert foxes. You have to check your boots for scorpions in the morning but other than that it’s the most peaceful experience in the world.

I have been a sucker for a motorbike adventure ever since reading Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance during my first trip to south-east Asia after finishing school.  What finally inspired me to get my licence though was watching Long Way Round and later reading the book that had inspired Ewan MacGregor and Charlie Boorman, Jupiter’s Travels by Ted Simon.  I have yet to make a longer trip but, until I do, I’m always happy to read about someone else’s.

This article from TravelStories follows Archie Leeming and two friends as they journey from Edinburgh to Cape Town by motorbike.  The article is a breathless account of their 10 month trip but describes enough of the rides through snow, deserts and across mountains, nights spent camping, border and river crossings and encounters to convey a real sense of the excitement of the journey and the physical exertion of riding in tough conditions.  The text is accompanied by some great images.  

The climate proved to be as turbulent as our bowels for the first few months in Africa.

A lads’ own adventure, this trip is reminiscent of Ewan MacGregor and Charlie Boorman’s second venture, Long Way Down.  The difference is that Leeming and his friends had little money, no particular mechanical skill or specialist kit and one of the group even lacked riding experience.  

They made up for this with a mix of naivety, optimism and enthusiasm, almost unexpectedly finding themselves on their bikes in Africa, demonstrating that John Steinbeck may have been onto something when he observed, “we do not take a trip, a trip takes us”.

For some reason the story ends unexpectedly in Namibia but, if this article isn’t inspiration enough, be sure to have a look at the images of Archie Leeming’s other motorcycle adventures on Instagram or at www.archieleeming.com.  

Article: Alastair Humphreys on respecting the bothy

When I’m stuck in the city, chasing deadlines and dollars and other men’s dreams, I often wish I could escape to something different…I say to myself, imagine this: I could jump on the sleeper train tonight, fall asleep in London and wake up in the massive silence of the mountains. Imagine that. I really could do it. And so I do.

This is a great article and video from Alastair Humphreys and the excellent Sidetracked magazine about the joys of ‘bothying’. 

In Mountain Bike and Bothy Nights, Humphreys (of expedition and microadventures fame) takes us on a mountain bike tour of Scotland, extolling the delights of bothying along the way.

Bothies are essentially small, basic and often remote huts, cottages or shelters.  There are no mod cons but the 100 or so bothies maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association provide wind and waterproof accommodation.  No charge is made for their use but visitors are asked to respect a simple set of rules: The Bothy Code. 

The best bothies are the remote ones  They are hard to access, hard to find and all the better for that. Its the way there that matters; the harder it is the more worthwhile the journey. 

The article is nicely written and is enticing and vivid in its descriptions of the scenery and solitude.  The video is the perfect accompaniment, giving more background as to what bothies are about and with beautiful video of the  Scottish scenery.  Both make it easy to see why Humphreys feels the way he does about bothies:

I hope to keep making journeys to the wilderness throughout my life. I don’t need to head to the ends of the earth these days. I don’t need to be gone for months on end. Something as small as returning, again and again, to a favourite bothy is all I need. 

After reading and watching these, it is almost impossible not to start to plotting your own bothying get away.