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This is the eleventh in a series, “History En Vélo,” about cycling and thinking historically, shared with Active History.
I used to ride.
I used to ride, a lot.
I rode as a kid, cherishing the possibility of exploring on my own. I rode for fun, just because I could.
I rode as a teenager to escape the limits of my world. To become an autonomous person, making my own decisions, in charge of my own destinations. I used to ride for pleasure, just to be outside. I rode so I could meet friends in the dispersed rural community where few were in walking distance.
I used to ride. I rode so I could hang out in the city where the music scene was. I toured to see the wider world, first day trips then multi-day tours.
I rode in my 20s. A series of bikes of dubious origins came and went, a constant round of thefts and acquisitions.
I used to ride. I rode to race, training for international amateur competitions. Listening to the pain as I pushed myself to my limits. Watching the data recorder to monitor the wattage, the heart rate, the speed. Building the bikes to race on, changing designs to maximise efficiency.
1998: On Meadowbank Velodrome (Glasgow) about to race with my first self-designed low racer (the Lune).
2002: My next design, the Wyre (two built: one for me one for my brother). Picture taken at the World Human Powered Vehicle Championships, Lelystad, NL, where we had ridden to race.
2008: Racing at the world championships.
I used to ride. I rode to campaign. Riding proudly in company to make statements about the right to the road, the right to the city.
I used to ride. I rode for work. Rebuilding bikes to carry cargo. I made my living from fixing, customising, selling and doing all those things that the standard bike trade wouldn’t take on. I taught adults to ride, walking alongside them as they learned. I’d ride slowly and carefully with them as they built skills and confidence. I watched them go through stages of frustration and joy, overcoming barriers of fear and discovering their own capacities.
I used to ride. I rode long distances for pleasure – 200, 300, 400, 600 kilometres. Exploring the boundaries to find the limits of my own capabilities. I delighted in the achievement, but more than that, the amazing feelings that come when finishing is the only goal, facing the demons of yet another hour in the rain and wind. Cold, fatigued and hungry but willing myself to finish. Exhilarated beyond word when I complete the event.
I used to ride. Not for any utilitarian purpose but simply to play. To have fun again. To immerse myself in the experience of landscape. Reading the roads and the routing on maps and then in real space, listening to the ghosts of times past and the wealth of narrative every vista might serve up. Cycle touring, obsessively devouring guidebooks and local histories to weave a storied landscape as I travel.
I smashed my ankle up, not even while on the bike. I couldn’t walk, let alone ride. Even once the crutches were gone, the cast was off, I dared not ride far. How do I get home if my body gives out on me? I reflect that my body has become a stranger to me, an outsider that cannot be trusted. Slowly, I get back to mundane travel.
I have a bike accident. 17 stitches for facial injury, knocked off on the dedicated cycle route. Fear, lack of trust in others, in my ability to control and react appropriately. I don’t want to ride.
I get a research post to study how people ride. I film daily journeys. Edit, code, analyse. Riding becomes work. It’s hard not become self-conscious all the time. One last long tour and then back to the everyday grind of university teaching.
I almost stopped riding. I rode the short distance to work in the morning, I rode home at night. Utility riding: nothing else. I’d still obsessively build and restore old bikes, but each is just a project to be completed, test ridden and then hung in the garage. I admire the technology, the craftsmanship, the design. But mostly it’s about the bike, not the riding.
I write about cycling. All the time, as an academic. This is my research field, this is my life, yet the more I write, the less I ride. Irony.
Covid. I stop riding altogether, deprived of the daily commute. Too much pressure to revise and rewrite everything for online delivery to be able take time out to ride.
I remembered riding, I remembered that it could be more than utilitarian transport. That even the ride to work could summon a strange magic. Just a few kilometres repeated daily. Over and over through the seasons. A constant repetition of space as it changed through winter’s rain to spring’s blossoming. I order my dream machine – a recumbent trike – and wait the required 6 months, which passes rapidly in this strange compression timespace of repeated lockdown. Anticipation of riding.
I get out and I ride again, surrounded by memories, recollections. I listen to my legs, lungs, heart. Experience the embarrassment of chronic cramp as I push myself too far, too quick. But this is pain with a smile. Knowing that it’s just a way of an unfit body telling me to have patience. Build slowly. Take time – it’s not a race. Listen to the birdsong and see if I can find a route not dominated by the background sounds of motor traffic. Take in the smells of the changing seasons and spaces. The rain depresses me, but I know I will appreciate changing into dry clothes.
I ride. Each journey a memory. Each journey a connection to my past. Each journey an experience of accumulated pasts written on to a palimpsest landscape. Each ride lays down a future memory good or bad. Each journey a witness to other ways of moving. Each ride a challenge to the cars that pass me. This is zero emission transport with a smile.
I ride. Not as much as I used to, but I ride. I will ride, and each ride will become another memory.
In a letter to Martin Buber, July 1916 (#178 in Letters of Martin Buber, Schocken 2011) Walter Benjamin decries writing as simply a utilitarian process to convey fixed understanding or meaning. Rather than bully the reader into comprehension, Benjamin wants to evoke ideas and understandings. Today, the task of much writing, especially academic, has become the deliberate manipulation of the reader; in Benjamin’s terms it has become propaganda. Where does this lead the act of writing? As an act of self-expression or self-projection? Is the requirement that the writing should be an act of “making vulnerable”, rather than erecting a carapace of invulnerability around the writer?
Writing to mediate memory and experience is always done at a remove. It performs an exercise declaring control over its destiny, that it somehow reflects truly what is known through prior experience. Yet, the lesson of the textual turn is that the intentionality of the author is always mediated by the agency of the reader. So, is not this also melodramatic and manipulative? I have no answers, just a necessary and reflexive intervention into my own writing practices.