Perhaps it’s just part of the ageing process, but I’m finding myself increasingly tempted to ride an Audax event – the long distance cycling discipline favoured by cheerfully eccentric men with beards and sandals – for not only is there a minimum speed that their rides are required to be completed in, but there’s also a maximum speed too. Racing is quite clearly frowned upon.
Living in a city like London, the pace of life can sometimes seem unrelentingly hectic. Commuting by bike should provide a chance to escape the shoulder-to-shoulder rat race of an over crowded tube, train or bus, yet instead it so often degenerates into just another race to or from work.
A common reason given by commuters why they choose the bike over more sedentary forms of transport are the health benefits – cycling helps keep you fit, it saves on gym membership, a way of squeezing a workout into a busy day. I’m not denying these things might be true, but it sort of misses the point. Commuting by bike should be about pleasure – not speed, time, fitness or training. There could be no other more infuriating environment to choose for your daily exercise than the rush hour streets of London – clogged with traffic, crammed with junctions, crossings, roadworks, u-turning taxis, snaking bendy busses – as soon as you’ve got your heart rate into that target training zone you’ll be grabbing the brakes as the lights turn to red.
What’s more, as the pulse rate rises and the adrenalin starts to pump, and the brain switches to race mode, all sense of rational sense ebbs away. The harder we push those pedals the harder it gets to stop. Impatience clouds our judgement, the competitive spirit impedes our consideration for those around us. We may as well be back on the tube elbowing our way through a crowded train in the sprint for the last remaining free seat.
Fed up with the frustrations (and dangers) of trying to ride fast in the city I recently embraced slowness. It’s a joy. I watch in bemusement as shoals of cyclists race past me everyday, only to catch them up metres down the road as they encounter another jam. I hear their heavy breathing and see their flushed faces. Surrounded by such haste it’s not always easy to maintain a sense of serenity, and at times it’s an effort in itself to do so, but the rewards are worth it. There are sights to enjoy, patches of quiet road to savour, day dreams to indulge in. And somehow I still seem to arrive at work on time.
Boris Bikes have had a positive effect on London’s cycling traffic – it’s becoming increasingly acceptable to ride slowly, and as anyone knows who has plodded along on those bright blue tanks, it’s impossible to do otherwise. Motorists are becoming accustomed to making allowances for slow moving cyclists – negotiating right turns and multiple lanes of junctions or traffic systems can be intimidating for any cyclist. The tendency is to increase your pace to keep up with the speed of traffic. But on a Boris Bike you have no choice but to stick out your arm and signal your lumbering path across the road – it proves you can assert your right to the roads without having to ride fast.
Riding slowly is made even easier by the unabashed wheel-suck. By having no concern for speed it suddenly makes sense to draft anything that moves. Why put your nose in the wind when you’re in no hurry to get anywhere? When you can sit back and let someone else do all the work? Anything will do; a Brompton, a hybrid mounted by an eager high vis novice, even a Boris Bike can provide welcome shelter from a headwind. On a particularly fortuitous day it’s probably possible to wheel suck your entire journey, almost never needing to turn the pedals at all.
Perhaps all this laziness is a reaction to the summer racing season, training and competing week after week – a leisurely commute provides a welcome change of pace. Plus it’s a chance to spin the legs and keep them supple between harder rides. Similarly, after the accumulated stresses of racing, it’s a relief to join a laid back club run on a sunny day, to linger at the tea stop and spin steadily up the inclines. Sometimes it’s easy to forget the simple pleasures of riding a bike, without urgency or pressure.
So next month I’m dipping my toe for the first time into Audax with The Ditchling Devil – a 200km ride from London to Brighton and back again. So far my training is going well, and my recent average speeds indicate I’ve never managed to ride quite so slowly.