Today’s guest post is from Victoria Cadman, who has completed several solo, long-distance bike journeys across Europe as part of an extremely ill-defined idea to explore the history of the continent. I asked her to write about the perception of cycling as a sporting endeavour, why transferring the goal-oriented mentality to travel is missing the point, and why cycle touring need have nothing to do with sport whatsoever. Take it away, Victoria…
A couple of years ago, I was cycling across France, en route to Italy. I was about to begin a second long tour in Europe, but was not in particularly good shape.
As a consequence I was ‘late’ – well, taking longer than I wanted to get there. I was bad-tempered and frustrated. My legs hurt. A lot. And as I whirred up the last hairpin, a man emerged from a huge black 4x4 by the roadside. Looking at my laboured breathing, he nodded sagely, tapped his temple and said,
‘C’est tous dans la tête.’
It’s all in the head.
Now, this man was pretty hefty — one of the few fat Frenchmen I’ve ever encountered — and he’d clearly done nothing more energetic than drive up that hill in a very long time. Meeting his eye, my over-riding feeling was that it was pretty easy for him to say. I grimaced in acknowledgement, and carried on upwards, muttering unprintable retorts under my breath.
Three days later, I recalled the encounter as I approached the Col du Grand St Bernard, 8,000 odd feet up in the Alps. And, grinding out the last truly hideous 4 km of hairpins (with panniers), it still felt pretty much like it was all in the legs. But once I was coasting down the other side, and my thighs were no longer screaming, I thought back to my fat French friend, and of course, concurred.
It is all in the head. But marshalling my stubborn pride and determination to climb the hill wasn’t the issue. The issue was the fact that I’d become so obsessed with meeting my daily ‘target’ that I’d forgotten to enjoy the journey.
Maybe it’s me, or my group of friends, but the ‘Rise to the Challenge!’ mentality suddenly seems to be everywhere. Charity bike rides, triathlons, marathons. I regularly see people with heart-rate monitors on, sprinting as they push their kid’s prams through London streets. People in their own world in the gym, grimacing on the treadmill, not kicking a football about with friends in the park, or messing about on bikes.
Of course, I don’t want to knock setting goals or taking up personal challenges – far be it from me to judge what motivates or inspires others to get on their real or metaphorical bike. But I can’t help wondering if, with all this competitive pressure to do the Trans-America Cycle Race or the Marathon des Sables, we haven’t lost at least part of the plot. Alumni, staff and students from my old college recently embarked on a cycle ride from the Bridge of Sighs in Oxford to the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. Although it’s great they raised £300,000 to support students, they seem to have got so focused on racing 750 miles in 11 days that they forgot to actually ride from Oxford to Venice, let alone having time to see what there was on the route.
Such endeavours are frequently sold as ‘inspiring’, part of the mission to make us more active, lose weight and tackle the obesity crisis; to get children cycling and develop grassroots sport. But I wonder how successful they really are, or whether they can actually be counter-productive? Do they make having adventures or exploration seem like the province of über-athletic ‘other folk’? Quite apart from the time and expense required, not to mention the back-up team, a person like Maria Leijerstam, physically and mentally tough enough to cycle across Antarctica to the South Pole, is pretty remote from your average Joe or Josephine. Does something like that really allay the fears of the woman down my road who’s not cycled in ten years, and is concerned she’ll crash or have a heart attack if she gets on her bike? Does it reassure someone worried about joining a cycle group, imagining that everyone else will look like Laura Trott in their frighteningly professional — and tight — lycra cycling kit, whilst she’ll be labouring, out-of-breath and on her own at the back?
High-octane adventures are impressive, even awe-inspiring in some cases, but I can’t help wondering if the ‘delusions of hardship’ or adrenalin-fuelled ‘duels against one’s own psyche’ don’t end up demoralizing the very people they are supposed to inspire. Mano a mano confrontations on a Pyrenean col or ‘leaving it all on the road’ in the Étape du Tour can make smaller scale, less ‘glamorous’ achievements diminish by comparison. Cycling even very long distances – unless you’re seriously racing — isn’t that difficult. It isn’t necessarily helpful to make it sound like it is.
Truth be told, despite my desire to see more women cycling and embracing adventure, I was much more inspired by the three blokes who climbed Mont Ventoux on a Boris bike. That kind of marvellously arbitrary ‘pub-challenge’ inspires me simply because it is so daft. It doesn’t take itself too seriously; no one is investing vast amounts of time and money to make it happen. It is as likely to be enjoyed whether the chaps actually reached the top or didn’t. No doubt it also made everyone who saw them up there smile at the sheer stupidity of the whole exercise. Who wouldn’t be tempted, if their friends suggested doing it? The stakes aren’t high. It would probably be even funnier if you all turned out to be crap.
But then, I like leisure, doing things because I enjoy them, without the need for a faster, higher, stronger (or worthier) goal. Personally, I have had enough setting so-called ‘SMART’ objectives in my work life. I really do not need to strain to achieve any more. At forty-four, the time has long gone for me to ‘optimize my performance’. Even having a ‘PB’ – personal best – at my age seems, frankly, absurd. There’s no need for a power meter to tell me I never was nor ever will be a Victoria Pendleton manqué. Fact is, I like stopping, staring at the landscape and having coffee and café liégeois far too much.
In fact, getting away from this ‘achievement’ mentality is exactly why I got on my bike in the first place. When I set out for France the first time, eight years ago, it was probably the only time in my life I had no clear idea what I was doing. My goal was simply to set off with no plan and enjoy the journey. I had the vague idea of exploring the history of Europe by bicycle, but the only commitment I made to doing so was that if I wasn’t enjoying it, I’d stop and do something else.
It was immensely liberating to acknowledge that nobody else would notice, let alone care, whether or not I cycled one hundred miles in one day or eleven. That it really didn’t matter if I climbed the Alps with the power and grace of Alberto Contador or if I hitched a lift, got on a bus, or got off and pushed all the way up. My work-focused, goal-orientated drive had been vanquished. This wasn’t a race. ‘Achieving’ wasn’t the point.
And, of course, because I wasn’t staring at my stem and trying to achieve anything, it all became so much easier; there was no strain at all. I revelled in the freedom and enjoyed the possibilities. Questions that in other circumstances might have made me anxious – What if something happens? – suddenly became exciting — What might be around the next corner? Who might I meet on the road? I became much more confident, not only in myself, but in the world around me. I began to notice things – the changing geography as I cycled southward; the change in the architecture from half-timbering to stone; the different dialects and place-names in different regions; the shift in the seasons and the change in the stars. And in spite of the fears I initially harboured – which is the question women most frequently ask me about my cycle trips – it turned out people are almost universally nicer, more interesting and more generous than I even hoped. I lost count of the dinner invitations, the Bonne Routes!, the people stopping to ask me what I was doing. Loneliness was the least of my problems travelling alone across Europe on my bike.
But if I learnt one thing — and it is the thing I wish I could really communicate — it is that taking your time, and taking risks – not adrenalin-junkie craziness, but day-to-day chances on the unplanned and spontaneous – bring far fewer dangers or disappointments than rewards. There’s no need to strain if you don’t want to; it’s great to potter, to respond to the environment, to ride the road, not the map.
‘Going for gold’ is all very well, but when it comes down to it, it isn’t the miles, or even where you’re going that matters.
It is about what happens, and who you meet, on the way.
Thanks, Victoria! At some point, no doubt, she’ll probably self-publish a book, but until then a couple of blogs from her trips in Germany and Italy are available on the BySpoke blogspot and Omnes Via Romam Perducunt.