Riding through the countryside, on quiet roads in the forests and mountains, provides a singular experience. Nature is like a comforting blanket, soothing, giving relief to the senses. It is like a departure from the real world that most of us inhabit, a fantasy world devoid of traffic and noise and smog and the detritus of the city. Just tyres quietly hissing on the road; and ideal often elusive that it must be savoured is small bites and then tucked away in one’s memory.
Urban riding is a plurality of experiences. The senses become finely honed, concentrating on holding a narrow line down a bike lane or road shoulder, listening for every warning noise from encroaching traffic that signals danger, a hyper-awareness of every object and obstacle in one’s immediate area. As the cars, trucks, buses and vans flash past, it can at times feel like a battle for survival: cyclist against an unfair world that privileges four (or more) wheels over two. A cruel injustice.
But with one’s senses alive, urban riding often reveals hidden insights. When one is riding in the groove, there are still opportunities to observe and ponder, to catch glimpses of new vistas, of hidden pockets of interest amongst the urban sprawl. Seeking out hidden climbs: short, monster gradients, requiring a surge in effort, a ratcheting-up of workload, but still ever-mindful of holding a line and staying steady.
This urban exploration also surprises. A side road leads to a nearly-forgotten park, or lookout point, or unfrequented side roads that offer a relief from the traffic. A particular dwelling, or empty field, or stand of trees can suddenly stand out, at odds with its surroundings. What stories might lie behind such an anomaly? What stories might a flight of the imagination fill in?
A quiet bridleway can provide a short relief from the traffic; a sudden wrong turn onto a different road can bring sudden quietness, a reminder that cars are not omnipresent and that the natural state of travelling by bike is one of quiet simplicity.
And the urban sprawl is never uniform. Unlike air in a vacuum, all spaces are not filled: the pockets remain, and cyclists seem curiously adept at finding the pockets. Our efficiency allows us to range far and wide in a single ride, yet still feel like we’re moving at a relaxed pace. There is time to pause and ponder and observe.
There is also every opportunity to use the inherent mobility of the bike. Wide highways (safely, one hopes, tucked into the shoulder or, ideally, a bike lane), narrow back roads, byways, off-road walking tracks along the side of a river or railway line, are all the domain of the cyclist, without, it would seem, much limitation.
What cannot be forgotten, though, is the cost of such efforts. The winter bike feels impervious to the elements, the rider bundled against the cold in a multitude of layers. But early-season fatigue can soon take its toll, ambitious plans for conquering urban climbs – come what may – need to be revised, the bike protests against grit and grime and rain and reason.
The restlessness of the ride, the mental toll of the required concentration, soon starts to ebb when the ride is concluded. The coffee is hot and the cold of the outside is soon forgotten. Ride stats are dutifully recorded in the training log, maps folded away. But it’s not long before the restlessness returns, and the maps come out again – planning the next urban excursion, the next search for new secret routes, forgotten gradients, and under-used paths. Shaking off that comforting blanket for another urban climbing adventure.