Sunday, September 15, 2013

Things I Can't Think About While I Cycle

There are a number of things that, for different reasons, I cannot think about while riding a bike. Many people say they are able to think more clearly, reason more deeply, find better solutions, have better ideas, when they’re walking, running or riding. I find it difficult, because I don’t use the bike as an aid to specific thought. One of the pleasures of walking or cycling is to allow the mind to react as it wishes to what it experiences, without forcing it into any particular path. For this and other reasons, I cannot think about the following:


In summer I spend most of the morning walking or cycling around the lakes, the hills, the villages, and it would be great if I could plan the writing I was working on during these walks, and then in the afternoon I could just write down what I had already created in my head. It would be a very efficient way of writing, but my mind will not do it. I could force it, perhaps, but then I would enjoy neither the riding nor the writing, and they are both, for me, pleasure, not duty.

At times my mind will produce stories as I ride, spontaneously creating characters and finding worlds for them to live in and events for them to experience and satisfying coherent climaxes for those events to reach. And I nod to myself as I recognise the merit of what my mind has produced and then after lunch I try to write the story down and it’s like the stories you sometimes write in dreams, where you can’t wait to get up and jot down the outline of the epic that has been formed within your sleeping brain. And there is nothing there. You realize it was just colourful, dramatic, incoherent nonsense, party streamers floating on the wind, entangling everything they touch, including you, but meaning nothing. Dalí might possibly have painted it, but not even Coleridge could have written it.

So I do not compose stories as I ride.


The seat of a bicycle is an oddly sexless place. I am still young enough and male enough that the first thing I notice about an attractive woman is the fact that she is attractive. But when riding a bike I am more likely to notice whether her handbag matches her shoes. Perhaps all the testosterone is being used to keep the wheels turning.

People who are wrong-

In this context I simply mean people who don’t agree with me about something, or who don’t understand things I think they should understand, and is a purely subjective category into which most people of whose existence I have ever become aware could be placed at one time or another. It includes most politicians, journalists, quite a few of my friends and family, random people on the internet, in bars, government offices and shops. You get the idea. Most of the time it doesn’t matter. You read or hear something you know or believe to be wrong and most of the time you shrug your shoulders. Possibly you indulge in a moment of exasperation, or you mentally form the bones of a rebuttal, but then you dismiss it from your mind. (Either that or you write a blog post about it). After all, every time I open my mouth, someone is sure to mentally place me in their own version of that category. The freedom to be wrong is one of the great privileges.

But once I get on the bike, if a memory of someone who is wrong gets into my head I have to squash it immediately. I can’t just dismiss it, I have to actively replace with something about kittens or winning the Ashes or the colours of the landscape. Otherwise it can cause my shoulders to tighten uncomfortably and my grip to the handlebars to lock so hard that I can no longer control the bike properly. Perhaps that testosterone again.

So I cannot mentally correct the perceived errors of my fellow man from the saddle. Which is no great loss to either of us, I am happy to say.

The space elevator-

This is a thing so mind-boggling that it quite literally makes me giddy to think about it. There are many more complex creations of the human mind- in fact the space elevator is a remarkably simple idea- but I think it is true that nothing that approaches its breathtaking scale has ever been seriously imagined. Imagine a cord so strong that it can resist the tension over tens of thousands of miles. Imagine a vast block of concrete flouting in the ocean somewhere with this cord attached to it. Just imagine what it would look like for a moment. Imagine climbing up that cord, hand over hand for tens of miles, out of the Earth's atmosphere, then for thousands more miles into orbit, and then some part of the way to the Moon. At the end of that cord is a giant counterweight, circling the Earth exactly once a day, a man-made moon fixed in the sky, 60,000 miles above the equator. Imagine feeling your weight pulling away from the Earth and towards that great block of metal. I defy anyone not to feel vertigo at contemplating this. My head spins, and I have to hold onto something. When what you are holding onto is a bicycle, this is a problem, so I only think about it when I'm sitting safely in a comfortable armchair.


I never use the bike to actually go anywhere. I don’t take it to work, I don’t pay visits on it, I don’t run errands on it. It is very strictly for pleasure. And it is so much associated in my mind with enjoyment and relaxation that it is impossible to care about anything other than the beauty of the countryside and not getting hit by a lorry. I cannot think about work, or worry about any problem that might have arisen, because real life ceases to exist once I start pedalling. Which is one of the reasons I enjoy it and do so much of it.

Oddly enough, one of the things I can think about while cycling is the things I can’t think about while cycling, so the other morning as I laboured along the paths through the hills I mentally composed this post.


Vincent said...

Interesting in itself and also to compare with my own experience - of walking, not cycling, I've long given up the latter. When walking I take a voice recorder, so one thing I don't have to do is remember anything I've thought about. And the dangers of walking are less than those of cycling. The worst hazard is probably to be hit by a cyclist silently overtaking me on the sidewalk. I don't know how they dare pass within two inches, when I might erratically move to one side. The only consolation is that they would suffer more. I say that not from vindictiveness but consideration of the risk assessment that they must necessarily undertake.

There is certainly a difference between going somewhere and just going for pleasure. If I walk for a particular purpose, my thoughts might be tethered to that purpose, but if I just go, I'm thinking of nothing. As Nature abhors a vacuum, the Muse of imaginative ideas takes possession of an empty cranium as a squatter to an empty house. Result - my blog posts.

But an alter ego wants to live in Holland, Volendam perhaps, and ride one of those Dutch bikes, where you sit up straight on the saddle and proceed majestically.

CIngram said...

I would find a recorder extremely distracting, but a lot of people seem to listen to music or the radio, which I also find distracting and unnecessary. Sometimes I find I can build some kind of coherent argument or complete narrative in my head, and reproduce it when I get back, but it's never deliberate. My mind just wanders here and there and most of what passes through it is lost. As it mostly deserves to be, my Muse being more likely to convert my cranium into a crack den inhabited by paranoid schizophrenics rather than the orderly and uplifting commune that yours seems able to create.

Mrs Hickory now rides a customized bike which looks very much like the ones maiden ladies rode to evensong in the 1950's (or so I understand). The reason is precisely so that she can up perfectly straight and just rest her hands on the handlebars, without requiring her hands, arms or shoulders to do any work. (Bit of disc trouble).

Don't imagine, by the way, that I am the kind of cyclist universally abhorred by English pedestrians. I am considerate to others whenever I ride near them and I ride purely because I enjoy it. I do not try to project an aura of supreme importance as though by making slightly ridiculous movements while mounted on garish metal tubes I am somehow saving the world.