6 April 2009
An Evening Spin
One evening last September, my bike ride was oddly transformed. I cycle for pleasure as well as exercise, normally covering about fifteen or twenty miles. The most I can do before getting knackered is about twenty-three. My ride is solitary: I use it for day-dreaming. If I ride in company that's impossible, so I don't at all mind cycling on my own.
Except for the occasional White Van Man and the execrable state of the tarmac, the lanes round here are ideal. Narrow and lined by hedgerows, farmland, copses, woods, small settlements, they are in many places quite steep, which provides a handy bit of interval-training as well as some exhilarating descents. I have worked out a series of routes which require me at worst to cross a busy road.
One of my favourites takes me to the village of A. I was four miles out when I came upon another cyclist, a man in his thirties, standing astride his machine and puzzling over a map. The scale was inadequate and showed only the largest lanes. He was looking for B, which hardly even rates the name "hamlet". I told him it was near A, which itself was not marked, said that that was my destination, and did he want me to show him the way?
Except when cars prevented it, for the next four miles we rode abreast. Cyclists belong to a sort of fraternity, helping one another out with punctures and the like: before long we were chatting away. He turned out to be an interesting guy, a professional diver hired by archaeologists working on wrecks and inundated cities. His hobby is to take his car, and his bike on a rack, to some unfamiliar part of the English countryside, then pedal around absorbing its character. He is fascinated by our complex geology and our even more complex land-use. Human influences, going back even beyond the Neolithic, blend with the natural to produce a unique sense of place which varies almost by the half-mile. A bike is the next-best way to sample it; I suppose he hasn't the time to go on foot.
We came to the turnoff for B, where he was parked, and amiably diverged, no doubt for ever.
In my whole life I had never before met a stranger in this particular way.
The sun was setting by the time I got back to the village of C, two miles from home. Preceding me I saw another cyclist. I caught up, said a passing "Good evening!" and was still overtaking when he asked whether I knew of anywhere local to eat. I slowed down and told him he was heading in the right direction, for D, and suggested that he should at all costs avoid the Red Lion and use the other pub instead.
His bicycle was a silver-grey Raleigh, vintage 1996 or so, with a Sturmey-Archer three-speed hub: the sort of boneshaker I might nip down to the shops on, but wouldn't want to ride all day. He himself was also silver-grey, a lean sixty-something in glasses, and looked like a professional type -- an architect or engineer, perhaps. At first I thought his accent was Dutch, but he said he was Danish. He was staying at the bed-and-breakfast in C. I know the owner and have seen the accommodation, and surmised that he could have done a lot worse.
He was clearly well educated and spoke perfect English. "I am very hungry," he said, "for I have cycled today from Gravesend." Seventy miles, maybe more. "I have just had a shower and now I wish for something to eat and perhaps a beer."
"Indeed. Um ... what brings you to C?"
"I am touring. It is how I like to spend my holiday. Tomorrow I am going on to Reading." Forty miles. At least. I thought of the way there -- the dual carriageways, the towns, the thundering lorries -- and wondered whether this conversation was really happening. I dared not ask him the next incongruous point on his tour: Birmingham?
He had no lights on his bike, no panniers, just a parcel-rack. He was wearing a polo shirt and slacks, loafers, no socks. I mentioned the fact that it would soon be dark; it did not concern him.
By this time we had reached the turnoff for my own village, and once again I diverged, permanently, from a newfound acquaintance on a bicycle. He went sailing on towards his supper: and I never heard any local talk of a Danish tourist being squashed.
I have no reason to suppose he was lying. I accepted the bizarre events of the evening as yet another serving of the strangeness of this world. Really, truly, one has not the faintest idea what is out there.
But, of course, to find it you have to get on your bike.