This is Part Three of an account of touring the Netherlands and the UK by recumbent bike. Start at the beginning.
In pitch darkness I pedalled away from the port, waving goodbye to the three Londoners I’d met on the ferry.
Decked out in woefully inappropriate attire — tweed, a trilby, a tie-dyed T‑shirt — they had been cycling around the Netherlands on clapped-out old bikes piled high with cheap supermarket-bought camping equipment. Not a Brooks or Ortlieb logo could be seen among them as they wobbled off, and I felt suddenly jealous of them for reasons that I could not identify until later, riding alone through the dark and misty streets of Harwich.
Because for those three, ‘cycle touring’ did not exist as it did for me. They had no context for what they were doing. They had simply set forth one day in whatever manner worked: borrow a crappy old bike, buy a tent from Tesco, pack a spare set of underwear, set off in the clothes they stood up in, and figure the rest out later — which they had done, just as anyone else would if they had no other choice.
Their trip, in fact, was adventure at its most pure. Not only were they travelling light, but they carried no institutional baggage either. What bike should I be riding? How should I pack my panniers? Which clothes should I wear?
In other words — what should a bicycle adventure be like?
These questions were irrelevant to my Brick Lane-dwelling compadrés. And anyway — should? According to whom?
I envied them, I realised, both for their naivety and for their getting away with it. So if you have within you the burning desire to travel by bicycle: do it. Now. Stop reading this and do everything within your power to leave without any further delay, before your journey becomes about ‘cycle touring’ instead of about you and the allure of adventure — for then it is already too late.
Though there was barely a car to be seen on this quiet Monday evening, I was acutely aware of the novelty of the bicycle I rode. After two days of Dutch cycle paths this would be the first time I had shared a British road with motorised traffic on a recumbent bike. The makeshift flag and reflective patches, I hoped, would be sufficient to pick me out in the headlights.
I rolled past suburbs and cul-de-sacs and into the night, scanning the hedgerows, remembering how stressful it used to be to find a spot to sleep rough. Inevitably the day would always come when I would misjudge the time of day or mistakenly pass up a good spot in search of a better one, and I’d be struggling to locate a place of sufficient seclusion in pitch darkness, head torch switched off in an effort to conceal my whereabouts.
But with the passing of time and an accumulation of experience, the idea now worried me less. And so as I left Harwich behind, riding West along a deserted country road towards Manningtree, it was not with trepidation but with a kind of childish thrill: where am I going to end up sleeping tonight?
The place I eventually found was perfect. I slept soundly. I lay in my hammock alongside souls who’d lain there for years, decades, even centuries, and come to no harm. Yes, I could have been discovered easily, and at any moment — but who in their right mind goes wandering around graveyards at night, let alone poking at motionless bodies discovered therein?
It was also coup against thirty years of tyranny. On the ferry I’d been reading an early draft of a book manuscript for a friend when it was suggested that — just for the hell of it — the reader spend the night in a cemetery. I’d already continued reading for a few seconds when I became aware that the suggestion had provoked some kind of emotional response, and that my first instinct had been to suppress the response and discard the suggestion out of hand.
As I thought it through, I realised that this one innocuous suggestion had unearthed a deeply buried aversion towards graveyards that had never undergone proper inspection. It had been planted there as a child during too many sombre Sunday services in bleak stone buildings situated in fields full of dead people, whizzed up later with a cultural horror-movie diet of zombies and ghouls and other undead figments of the imagination. (I’m certainly not alone on this!)
Having identified it, I decided to put this irrational fear to bed — excuse the pun — and force myself to see the place for what it really was: a convenient and concealed piece of roadside grassland, dotted with stones and fertilised by buried organic matter, featuring a number of stout trees ideally positioned for hammock-rigging, and in which the chances of being disturbed by a mortal were extravagantly low.
I slept soundly and departed before dawn. And in doing so I scored a small victory over the tyranny of irrational fear.
This anecdote may seem trite. But I recount it because — despite this trip being a mere four days — it is the culmination of these small experiences that defines what it means to undertake a journey of months or years, too.
You will never foresee the moment when you are given the opportunity to confront some aspect of yourself. But at the speed of a pushbike — far slower than that of a rat race — it is far more likely that you’ll notice it when it happens. And it is only gradually that the road reveals to you these tiny discoveries, so you’d better have your eyes peeled, because there is no distant point at which some pristine nugget of enlightenment will be found, and certainly no prize for crossing the finish line: it is in the here and now that the reward resides.
Britain’s drivers did not know what to make of my vehicle, slowing to a crawl behind me to take a closer look. I supposed that their first impression would be of a wheelchair user with a missing wheel and an orange flag flying six feet above their head, occupying the full width of the lane.
I would casually manoeuvre in this way upon hearing the approach of an engine, rather than cycle apologetically through gutter detritus as many cyclists feel obliged to do, and this meant that I was given a wide berth by all drivers of all vehicles, not just particularly considerate or bicycle-owning ones.
It had only been three days since I’d left Menno’s house on the other side of the Netherlands, but I’d already discovered that many of the typically voiced concerns over riding recumbent bikes were misplaced. There was no doubt that I would continue to ride this bike long after my short Dutch microadventure was over. So it’s a shame that the uphill battle faced by any evangelist to popularise recumbent cycling is one I fear will never be won.
Speaking of uphill battles…
The other great bugbear of the recumbent-suspicious cyclist.
Now, it is true that pedalling uphill is significantly more difficult on a recumbent bike. If it is not obvious why, let me explain:
When a steep incline is encountered on a traditional bike, the rider has the option to get ‘out of the saddle’ and employ his or her entire bodyweight in the act of depressing a pedal located directly beneath the rider, and so gravity is a welcome and effective addition to the forces at work in this routine.
The recumbent rider has no such luck. With his or her feet generally above the level of the rest of the body during a climb, it is muscle alone that must propel the bicycle forwards. So, given an average bodyweight and touring load on a steep and slow incline, each pedal stroke might require propelling uphill a weight of 100+ kilogrammes with the strength of a single quadricep.
It’s impossible to deny that riding a recumbent bike uphill is more difficult without making significant modifications to the basic laws of physics, which I am afraid you are not allowed to do. Which leaves only the question of whether or not you consider difficulty a bad thing.
(I don’t. “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty”, said Roosevelt — which doesn’t mean I agree with anything else he said.)
Let’s face it: everybody who takes up bicycle travel will encounter a greater or lesser degree of hardship while adapting to the routine of riding a fully-loaded bike, all day, every day. The adaptation required for a recumbent bike may well be a more painful one, but it’s still just an adaptation. We exist today as a species because of our forebears’ ability to adapt. This means that we are very good at it. And so the phrase “recumbent bikes are more difficult to ride uphill” should always be followed by “…to begin with.”
I rode 130km that day with 48 hours’ experience on a recumbent and no physical training. And the day was a casual one.
Seems adaptation happens fast.
Convinced to give recumbent cycling a try yet?