It’s not the kind of issue that normally preoccupies me while I’m cycling. But, glancing down at my bike computer, I could see my pace had dropped. Where shortly before the average speed figure had been showing 16.5mph, it was now showing 15.1. The dip gave me fresh determination. “Speed up!” I ordered myself. “Reach the top of the hill without dipping below 15!” A few seconds later, I crested the hill in
Park, near my house in Brooklyn, with my computer still showing a 15mph average
speed. Slipping my chain onto the biggest chainring, I sped up off down the
hill towards . Grand
|Prospect Park in the snow: however badly I ride round it,|
it's a breathtaking backdrop for my humiliation
This wasn’t my normal kind of bike riding, however. I’d seen earlier in the day the forecast for yet more snow for
New York City – it’s already the city’s
seventh-snowiest winter on record – and I thought my chances of commuting by bike
in the next few days were limited. I consequently decided, although I didn't have anywhere to go, to use a break in the weather to get some exercise. Checking that I had no immediate domestic
responsibilities, I slipped off after church for a very brief bout of cycling
purely for the physical activity.
I’ve found myself, when I’ve been undertaking these rides, involved in an activity that’s both entirely familiar to me and rather alien. I’m used, of course, to riding my bicycle (even if this winter has made that hard-going at times). I’m accustomed, however, to focusing on getting where I’m going in one piece – which can be demanding in a city full of angry drivers and bad road surfaces. I’m not used to focusing on the cycling – or its effect on my body – for its own sake.
I’ve been interested to discover how negative many of the associations in my mind of taking pure exercise are. As my pulse rises and my breath grows wheezier, I’m back amid the humiliations of a secondary school playing field. I feel the scorn of the teachers and my fellow, marginally less inept pupils for my uselessness at playing rugby union. As steely-faced weekend road warriors pass me, their wheels making the distinctive rumble of expensive carbon-fibre, I feel fat, lethargic and more than a little silly.
And, yet, I have to remind myself, it is this alien activity – rather than my daily transport cycling – that many people regard as the most authentic way to ride a bicycle.
This isn’t to say I’ve never cycled just for the sake of it before. My love for cycling developed substantially during my years at
, when I’d ride off some
Saturdays or Sundays towards Crail, Anstruther or one of the other nearby
fishing villages. The whipping coastal winds would propel me one way. Then,
after I started heading back, I’d have to dip my head down into the wind and speed along the quiet, undulating country roads across the moors. St Andrews University
That early, carefree exploration culminated in the summer of 1990, when I alternated between working at clearing out my recently-deceased grandfather’s house and spending days exploring Scotland. I’d head off in the morning for a ride that took me up the shore of the Gareloch – a ride made spookier by the area’s hosting the tightly-secured base for the
nuclear missile submarines. I’d head back to Glasgow
via the shores of Loch Lomond. I’d ride,
pushed by the prevailing winds, from Glasgow to Dunfermline in the morning. Then I’d push down hard on
the pedals and hunch down for a long ride back – via the Forth Road Bridge and into the wind - west.
I didn’t find things too complicated back then. I wore no helmet, carried no supplies, rode a very basic
Raleigh bike and worried about pretty much
nothing. Caught in a tropical-style West-of-Scotland summer downpour? Dry
yourself off under the hand dryers in the lavatories at lunchtime. Bit off more
than you could chew with this 100-mile ride? Stop in every other village for a
pint of milk to glug down.
I’ve had occasional bouts of just-for-the-sake-of-it riding since then, albeit the time constraints and obligations of adult life have curtailed them. When I lived in
London, I’d occasionally
make it to Richmond Park – the vast royal park in south-west London - where rides are enlivened by the possibility of a collision with a big, wandering deer. Last
summer, with the family absent, I took two long rides over New
York City’s boundaries, over into New Jersey
and up into Westchester.
But there’s something about riding in circles in
– Brooklyn’s smaller equivalent of Central Park,
non-New Yorkers – that feels far more self-consciously like Exercise - or Training, as it's now been rebranded - than any
long trip to the different scenery out of town. The other riders in mostly wear the set, grim
expression of a person battling to wrest back top spot on some Strava segment.
Most seem to form a spooky unity of body, bike and clothing. Shoes merge into
pedals, gloves into handlebars. The helmet might as well be some final,
elaborate cap on top of the whole bike, rider, clothes ensemble, rather than a
separate piece of clothing. Prospect Park
No-one would make that mistake with me. I arrived in
last Sunday wearing woollen
trousers, a cotton shirt and leather shoes. My waterproof jacket, trouser
straps, helmet and gloves were my only cycling-specific clothing. And, of
course, I was not wearing my clothes over a body honed by constant training for
some forthcoming triathlon. I carry about in my body the evidence of thousands
of late nights at work, followed by dashes home and swallowings of hurried
dinners with wine. My clothes and body were both as floppy and
aerodynamically-inefficient as many other riders’ were taut and tight-fitting. I look what I am - like a cyclist whose rides are nearly all, in sports cyclists' dismissive term, "junk miles". Prospect Park
That self-consciousness only rose as I started to ride, heading down the hill towards Flatbush, and sped along the road between the lake and the parade grounds at the park’s lower end. It became clear as I started climbing the hill – the ridge over which British and American forces fought the battle of
in 1776 – that I was making an effort. I started to breathe hard and wondered why I
always seem to have a cold. I briefly felt myself once again 15 and on a
mud-spattered, rain-soaked cross-country run.
But much of the reward of this exercise is that I’m avoiding not doing it. In weeks when it’s been hard or impossible to ride, I’ve built up a deep twitchiness at my lack of activity, the shortage of time spent outside, a feeling of being trapped when commuting, sedentary, on the subway. Even a short, fast ride starts to scratch that itch.
And, as I powered up the hill, I remembered that I was no longer entirely the unfit, unco-ordinated teenager. While my flabby torso isn’t much of an advert for commuter cycling, it sits atop a pair of legs that have spent years propelling me to 4,000 miles or more a year of riding first through South London and, now, daily between Brooklyn and lower Manhattan. Even if some of the weekend warriors overtake me on a climb, I generally gain the occasional, minor victory, pumping my legs up the hill past one of them.
I started to feel the pleasure of how a bicycle magnifies one’s effort. Pumping my legs, I climbed the hill smoothly by my standards, at around a steady 14mph. Down the hill, my biggest gears propel me to close to the park’s 25mph limit and I felt the childish sense of joy that always comes with giving oneself over to gravity’s acceleration. I started to feel a deep sense of contentment - the result, I imagine, of the release of endorphins, the exercise-related high that people keener on exercise for its own sake chase so hard.
I realised after a while that that feeling of contentment wasn't unfamiliar. I recognised how much of the time when I’m riding I’m running late, pushing myself to reach the next lights before they turn red, powering up the Manhattan Bridge to avoid being late for a meeting, switching to the big chainring to get uptown faster, accelerating away from traffic lights to get out of the way of that badly-driven taxi.
There’s no immediate danger of commuter cycling’s turning me into a lean, efficient cycling machine like the ones whirling efficiently round Prospect Park each weekend. But, as I turned out of the park again and prepare once again to tackle the indifferent conditions of
New York City’s streets, there was no
doubting that I was feeling better.
I appreciate with my higher brain centres the many more and practical reasons why more and safer cycling would make the city a better place. But the deep satisfaction that I felt flooding through my body reminded me that, no matter how deep my embarrassment, I retain a childish joy at the simple act of riding a bicycle. The day it starts to fade will be the day I feel as old as I look.