When I rode out at nine it was still minus two and there were sheets of ice on the road. In these situations your bicycle sticks to the road the way a toddler sticks to a plan. Thank goodness a road bike has four wheels, so you can’t actually fall off.
With sub-zero temperatures and an airflow of twenty miles per hour, the wind chill is shocking. Clearly the appropriate clothing is a set of Wild Weststyle thermal underjohns, worn under a thick neoprene wetsuit, worn under a spacesuit with a preheated air supply. Unfortunately that wouldn’t be very aerodynamic, so instead I rode out in a thin skin-tight jacket and black Lycra tights.
God only knows why it is necessary for a novelist, alone on an insignificant ride in deepest midwinter, to optimise his aerodynamic drag coefficient. The reality is that if I wore a duffel coat and scarf on these jaunts – no, dammit – if I wore a complete set of Davy Crockett furs with a drogue parachute attached to the raccoon tail of the hat – I could still go for a bike ride and finish last, or first, depending on one’s outlook and level of positivity re: the mission.
Instead, I rode out in the kind of clothing the pros wear. It cuts out the worst of the wind chill but features almost no insulation. This is fine, so long as you ride hard enough for your body heat to warm you from the inside. This equates to a heart rate of around 130, until you start to perspire and your clothes get wet, at which point the stakes are raised. Once you’ve started sweating, if your heart rate drops below 150 then your survival time is measured in minutes. Every spring when it thaws, scattered along Britain’s grass verges, I imagine that highway officials find the perfectly preserved bodies of suburban dads in millimetre-thickness spandex outfits festooned with the logos of the pro cycling teams for which they did not, in fact, ride. The only way the outfit could be made to look kinkier, truly, would be to top it off with a Mexican wrestler’s mask and superhero cape. I’m thinking of a scene where one of my characters does that. Jack, I suppose.
There I was, this morning, on the frozen roads, desperately keeping my heart rate up in my own low-budget remake of Speed, when something good happened: I realised I was enjoying myself. This happens nearly every time and there is no philosophical mystery to it: it’s the endorphins kicking in. All this on-the-bike research has made me into a kind of smack head without a dealer. If only I knew someone who could hook me up, I would cheerfully save a lot of energy by simply injecting heroin after a healthy breakfast of muesli and fruit. I would have no objection to doing this while dressed head-to-toe in pro-team replica Lycra.
With the sun now as high as it was likely to get and the temperature touching a balmy zero degrees, I decided to extend the twenty-mile loop I’d originally planned. I know the Surrey lanes well enough by now to connect the dots as the mood takes me, without needing a map. I get quite a lot of actual joy from this ability to range freely over the landscape. Like a beaming J. R. Hartley with a tin of Werther’s Originals in the glovebox of my bike, I greet each pastoral vista and each pretty village like an old friend.
When I say an old friend, I suppose I mean an old white friend who votes Conservative. My itinerary for these bike rides is pretty much the same list that I imagine the party chairman has pinned to his wall, entitled ‘The Heartland’. Cobham, Ockham, East Horsley, Shere, Peaslake, Ranmore Common, Westhumble, Box Hill, Headley, Epsom: none of these places has ever been troubled by bolshevism. Their inhabitants know how to breed a boot scraper and clean their wellies on a Labrador. They reproduce asexually, in the comfort of their own homes, using devices that they purchase mail order from adverts in the back of the Daily Telegraph, where they are euphemistically promoted as items of specialist gardening equipment.
In Shere, a discreet dealership sells 4×4 vehicles of the type that people use to navigate actual muddy fields on a daily basis. One gets the impression that if one were to mistakenly order such a conveyance in a colour other than dark green, the dealer would thoughtfully correct one’s indiscretion before sending the paperwork on to the manufacturer.
In classy parts of Britain, the McDonald’s outlets are characterised by a green and cream livery which respects the historic environs. In Shere and Westhumble, the McDonald’s outlets are characterised by not existing.
All these villages – as you ride through them with your teeth chattering and your numb hands fumbling the handlebars – have a tendency to resemble one another. Occasionally, though, one or other of them will push the boat out by offering – via the medium of a roadside sign – a point of difference from the vicinal hamlets. Box Hill, it tells us, is Surrey’s highest village – which is a little like being France’s best rock band. Headley welcomes careful drivers. (As opposed to neighbouring Ashtead, which presumably tells careful drivers to get stuffed).
I reached Peaslake with around thirty miles ridden and – for strictly sports science reasons – stopped to buy an enormous slice of pork and pickle pie. Absolutely everything about these Surrey villages is forgiven the moment you step inside one of their pie shops. I get quite emotional on a long ride, and the transition from the icy cold to the warm shop almost made me well up. This is something wonderful about cycling: it accentuates the senses, including the common sense. Cycling occasionally makes you stop cycling and realise that there is something transcendent about standing in an old-fashioned pie shop, dreamily ogling the sage and onion pasties.
The nice old woman behind the counter broke my reverie. ‘Don’t an awful lot of you die?’ she said brightly. Distracted, I didn’t know what she meant. My first thought was: What, novelists? Then I remembered I was standing in a helmet, cleated shoes and full black Lycra body stocking with the manufacturer’s logo – a large, red scorpion – emblazoned on the chest and the arse cheeks.
I have a quick response to the dead-on-the-roads question, my confidence in which belies the trepidation I feel every time I set out on my bike. I told the pie shop woman: ‘Oh, it’s not as dangerous as people think’. The logic goes that cycling is less dangerous than not cycling. I’m 37, I have a talent for getting fat if I don’t exercise, and my very writerly tendency towards the blues is moderated by exercise. I know it’s risky to share the road with cars but my bike saves my life every day, at the risk of extinguishing it one day. I know this is true and I try to hang on to it, even in those moments when I hear the roar of an aggressively driven car in the lane behind me, and my body cringes towards the very edge of the road and makes itself as small as it can while I whisper to myself: I’m not scared, I’m not scared, until the danger has passed. I feel close to my characters in these moments.
I rode out of Peaslake, thinking about life and death. This is the thing with a long ride. As soon as you go long, every ride is an epic. Every mundane thing finds its deeper meaning. After about fifty miles, especially if you’re riding hard, and especially if it’s cold or rainy, you enter a trancelike state. The process of focused concentration – of bike handling, of breathing right, of pedalling perfect circles, of managing your fluid intake and nutrition – drives all the everyday clutter from your mind. Your bodily reserves begin to be depleted, and there are weird psychological effects. You feel fear and euphoria disproportionate to the events that trigger them. Dreamlike images come to mind. Lines of dialogue, or plot solutions for the novel, arrive fully formed. Less usefully, snatches of songs repeat themselves. Today I got Phil Collins. For hours. Singing ‘In The Air Tonight’. And little phrases pop up and transmute themselves endlessly, as you pedal alone through the cold while the bright low sunlight flashes a strobe pattern onto your eyes through the gaps in the frosted hedgerows. The words mutate. This is the information age. The inchoate stage. The iridescent edge.
Fifty miles in, I stopped at the café on top of Box Hill. The puddles at the roadside were still frozen, and I was starting to feel cold and confused. I bought a hot tea and a banana, which helped a lot, and sat on a bench for a moment in the pale sunlight. A couple were walking their dog, a mad-eyed Alsatian that strained against its choke chain until its breath came in awful highpitched wheezes. The man said: ‘It’s a bit cold for cycling, isn’t it?’
I like such people and find them comforting. If they had their own TV show it would be called The Confirmers. These are the same people who, in summer, will say: ‘It’s a bit hot for cycling, isn’t it?’ Sometimes, overtaking you on a hill, they will wind down their car window and let you know – in case your own inclinometer is miscalibrated or otherwise malfunctioning – that it’s a bit steep for cycling. They say this stuff to be kind, and it is. Three hours into a solo ride, any wellmeaning human contact is welcome. I smiled back at the couple and said something to the effect that I wished I had a nice fur coat like their Alsatian, which I think was the correct response. Knowing when to stop is key to these social interactions. I didn’t add that I wished I could be restrained on a choke chain like their Alsatian – you have to be careful which jokes you crack when you are effectively wearing a black Lycra gimp suit.
I rode on through the seventy mile mark, pleased to be headed home. I’d thought through some dialogue and worked out a good scene for Jack. I reached home on the eighty mile mark, stopped with my key in the door, then got back on my bike and headed to Richmond Park to bring the day up to a clean hundred miles.
This turned out to be a mistake. I ran out of blood sugar, slowed almost to a crawl, and felt a wave of such primal, antediluvian fear that I didn’t know what to do with myself. It was like peeping over the edge of a cliff at all the demons that wait for us, far below. I think people become athletes because they are drawn to the view from this edge.
I rode through the fear, and as the sun set in a huge wash of crimson my happiness came back. I remembered why I ride: because I’m happy on a bike. For most of my youth, my bike was inseparable from me. With my brother, I practiced stunts and rode around the back garden and up and down our street. With my friends, we rode to the woods to make rope swings. Later, I rode to school and I rode to visit my girlfriend. On sunny days I rode just for the joy of it.
So, today I rode a hundred miles on the coldest day of the year so far. I didn’t get any writing done, but I got a long way with my book. On the coldest of days there is something warm encoded deep in the muscular memory of pedalling simple circles.