Bastille Day has come and gone. It’s mid July and cycling aficionados the world over are having to adjust their much-varied, geographical time clocks. For people who follow this sort of thing, it is the height of the professional season, and daily schedules are reworked in an attempt to watch the Tour de France: 21 days of racing spread out over three weeks, and some 3200 kilometers of French countryside. It is the time made famous by the bastions of the sport: Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault, Indurain, Armstrong, and now, Contador.
But, for me, the colour, pageantry, and rabid crowds that turn cycling’s marquee event; the travelling circus that affords the most nondescript of wayside French towns their own Warholian fantasy, is not necessarily the true essence of the sport.
I know of no other human-powered pursuit that affords one the combination of speed to cover a significant distance, while offering the opportunity to truly absorb the surroundings. Bicycling can be as competitive as a Grand Tour, as social as a granfondo, and as solitary and deeply personal as you wish.
I never feel alone when I ride. Whether doing circuits close to home, or expedition length trips half a world away in South or Central Asia, I am in constant communication – with my bicycle, the terroir, and myself.
I feel the wind, both around me and self-generated. I hear my surroundings with an amplified ability, ready to react, while at the same time being lulled into a trance by the sound of tires on pavement afforded by a generous tailwind. I see the world with a certain focus, and peripheral perspective whose intimacy is dictated by speed. I smell the earth, the flora, and the approaching rain.
Spinning down the road, the slightest increase in grade translates into more force going to my pedals, a tensioning of hands, arms and shoulders as I grip the handlebars or brake hoods tighter, and the burning sensation of air as my breathing ramps up to the point where it forcefully mimics my pedalling cadence.
Once crested, a climb rewards me with a levelling out, or a brief pause before the inevitable, gravity-induced adrenaline rush of the downhill. All the while, the back and forth swagger, and up and down nature of the terrain supply the rhythm for my pedalling, my breathing, and my thoughts.
As the pro peloton snakes its way through the Pyrenees, the Massif Central, and now the Alps, I watch the almost super human efforts of the sprinters, the puncheurs, and the rouleurs as they connect with the environment of the parcours in their own way.
I am not a competitive athlete. But, after a relatively late start in life, cycling has provided me with a means of healthy transport, some fulfilling work, adventurous travel, challenging workouts, and ample opportunity to think, and ponder my surroundings, as well as my place in them. It transcends the basic role of recreation, and sport in my life. It provides a connection to the world around me, while forcing me to delve deep within myself. For me, it embodies, and represents a pursuit of the soul.