Not that I am obsessed with cycling. But in the past year I have ridden 10,000 km, have climbed mountains, plunged into valleys, entered races, lost races, ridden in rain and fog, in burning heat and numbing cold, have been chased by dogs and swooped by magpies and screamed at by psychotic motorists, have crashed and lost my memory and got it back again, have ridden in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Perth, in northern New South Wales, in northern and southern Queensland, in the country and in the city and by the sea, lugging my bicycle around on planes and trains and automobiles, and, all in all, having a pretty good time of it.
You will scarcely believe this, reader, but I even went so far as to watch something called the Tour de France – a sporting event! – on television, and, if I am not mistaken, enjoyed it too.
2. Why men need bicycles
I know of a gentleman who, on the day of his sixtieth birthday, went out and bought himself a $250,000 Porsche. He kept the car parked at work, he never brought it home. He didn’t tell his wife because he knew she wouldn’t understand. She learned about it later, by accident, when she happened to answer a phone call about the insurance policy on the car. The poor chap had been right: she didn’t understand.
Other men I know have kept a new woman at work, though in the long run this is even more expensive than a Porsche. They would like to bring her home, but again they worry that their wives won’t understand. Still other men have worked for half a lifetime to accumulate wealth and then gambled it all away in one night.
You see the kind of troubles a fellow can get himself into if he does not keep his arse firmly planted where it belongs, on the saddle of a bicycle?
At a certain age and at certain times in life a man feels instinctively the need to revenge himself upon his own life. As Freud got older he turned his thoughts from the familiar homely instincts of pleasure and pain to darker ruminations about the Todestrieb, the sinister “death drive.” Descending a steep winding road at 80 km/hr on a racing bike, knowing that any small error will be my last, is a very gratifying – and, compared to the alternatives, very safe – form of sublimated revenge. If ever I crash and die, the first thing I will say to myself afterwards will be: “Ha! Now we're even!”
3. The mailman
Once when I was wheeling my bicycle out on to the street, the postman, who was making his rounds, stopped and addressed me warmly: “Nice bike! Carbon, eh? They didn’t look like that back in my day, I can tell you! Cycling saved my life, did you know that? In my late twenties I was in a bad way. I was steadily drinking myself to death. I don’t think I ever would have lived to see my thirtieth birthday, and I didn't care either. Until I met this girl. She had cropped blonde hair and blue eyes and the firmest cycling thighs you ever dreamed of. She was an athlete, she did triathlons and bike races and marathons. I never thought I could stop drinking but I got a bike and started riding with her and, before I knew it, I had given up the drink by accident. Not because I ever tried but just because I found something I liked even better. I wanted to marry that woman, I wanted to have children with her, but it didn’t work out, you know how these things go. It doesn't matter though because after we’d said goodbye I got straight back on the bike and kept riding. It turned my life around. I don’t ride much anymore but if there’s one thing I learned from cycling it’s the value of water. Ah, now there's a thing for you! Water! I never really understood it, never really appreciated it properly, until I was on the bike. Even now, I always drink four litres of water every day. It’s the secret of my eternal youthfulness,” said the grizzled old fellow. “I’ve always had a powerful thirst, ever since I was born I suppose. But I never went back to liquor after I learned the value of water.” And here he produced a plastic drink bottle from the saddle bag on his postman’s motorbike, and said, “You see! I carry one of these around with me everywhere!” And I took the bottle from the bottle cage on my bicycle and toasted his health, and there in the morning sunlight we drank a mouthful of water with the profoundest brotherly contentment in the world. Then he handed me my mail – all bills, the bastard – and went on his way, and I went mine.
4. The Frenchman
The first bicycle I ever owned was built for me by a Frenchman by the name of Jean Le Roux. He was a friend of the family, a kindly good old man, who was always tinkering with one machine or another in his garage and, one Christmas, decided to build me a bicycle. I was eight years old; I had always wanted my own bicycle; my parents told me they could not afford to purchase things like bicycles; I did not believe that I would ever own one. Then, on that blessed Christmas morn, Jean Le Roux appeared on our doorstep and presented me with the most magnificent pair of wheels I had ever seen. It was red with a top tube curved like a rolling wave. It had fixed gears and sweeping chrome cruiser handlebars and a plush black saddle mounted over two wide bright springs with steel studs along the back. The spokes glittered in the sunlight. I rubbed my eyes for fear that I was dreaming. The Frenchman had built it himself, assembling it out of spare parts and even painting it himself. He painted it red, he told me with a wink, so that it would go faster. It was amazing, it was as if he knew the secrets of my heart, for of every kind of bicycle that there is, I loved the red ones best.
For three weeks I pedalled that machine around the streets as proud as any king. I was the luckiest boy alive, and I knew it.
On the first day back at school I mounted my lovely bicycle and made my way to school, as slowly and majestically as if I had been in a parade. I wanted all my friends, the whole world, to behold the glory of my bicycle. I had nearly reached the school when Terry Nicholls, a big grown-up boy from Year 5, went whizzing past me on his brand new store-bought BMX. As he passed me he spoke the fateful words: “That’s a funny-looking bike.”
His words entered my heart as quick as snakebite.
At first I was merely confused. I thought he had misunderstood the brilliance of my bicycle. Then I arrived at school and saw all the other bikes, every one of them a store-bought BMX exactly like the bike of Terry Nicholls. It was then that my confusion turned to shame. Deep in my sinful heart I buried my love for the handmade bicycle of Jean Le Roux. When anybody mentioned my bike I pretended that I did not love it, that it was just a funny old bicycle, that I was only riding it until – oh, until! – I got a BMX.
Somewhere G. K. Chesterton has said that to pretend to like something is a sin, but to pretend not to like a thing is the sin against the Holy Spirit. I do not know if I will ever be forgiven for the way my treacherous heart turned against my own first bicycle, for the way I pretended to hate it when I loved it better than anything else this world had ever given me.
Sometimes I think all the troubles of my life began that day. It was the day the sin of Adam, lying latent in my little heart, took possession of me and turned me into a blasphemer against the good and holy handmade bicycle of Jean Le Roux and an idolator for the cheap and tawdry store-bought bicycle of Terry Nicholls. Mother of God, pray for us!
5. Why the bicycle is so beautiful to behold
Of all machines the bicycle is the most beautiful. The shape of the frame, the curves and the lines, the wheels, the saddle, the handlebars, the shining spokes: you would think it had been designed purely for aesthetic effect. But the beauty of the bicycle derives wholly from utility. The bicycle is a perfect unity of function and form. It is the beauty of nature translated into the medium of the machine.
The bicycle is the most energy-efficient mode of transportation in the world. It uses energy even more efficiently than walking. Nature is perfected by grace, and the human body is perfected when it becomes a cycling machine, when those imperfect appendages, the legs, are united to pedals that turn the crank that turns the chain that turns the cog that turns the blessed wheel.
To see a human body moving on a bicycle is to see nature: and more than nature: grace.
Please remember this, reader, next time you open your mouth to pass judgment on a sweaty fat man dressed in lycra heaving himself up a hill. If you cannot see his beauty, that is not his fault: you must pray for better eyes.
My career in club riding had inauspicious beginnings. I had been out and about on my bicycle a great deal, but always alone, or at most with one or two friends. Several times I crossed paths with the local cycling group, several times they invited me to join them. I have never been much of a joiner, but one of these neighbourly gentlemen explained to me that I would learn more about cycling if I rode in a group. I liked the way he said the word, learn. I liked the prospect of initiation into the deeper mysteries of the bicycle.
So it was that, early one Saturday, not without trepidation, I embarked on my first bunch ride. After ten minutes I felt that I was getting the hang of it – staying close to the wheel in front of me, adjusting my speed to the speed of the group, pointing out the holes and hazards on the road and all the rest of it. After fifteen minutes I was confident. I was, as they say, riding like a Pro.
That was when we got to our first red light. We stopped, and things would have turned out fine if the light had never changed to green.
But, reader, it changed.
Everybody started moving. I mounted the saddle. I looked down to clip my shoe into the pedal. I drove my foot down hard and the bike surged forwards – straight into the wheel of the bike in front of me. It is, you see, a tricky business to clip your shoe into a bicycle pedal. I had been watching my shoe instead of watching the wheel in front of me. I crashed right into him. I fell. I sprawled. Little pieces of my bicycle and its rider clattered across the road.
I was in a state of shock as I peeled myself off the asphalt. My clothes were torn. The chain had come off. The water bottle had rolled into the gutter. My knee was bleeding. I don't need to tell you that it took a manly and heroic effort to resist the impulse to cry, to faint, to call my mother.
I am no stranger to humiliation. An acute capacity for self-disgust is, if I may say so, one of the strongest points of my emotional repertoire. So, all things considered, I was feeling pretty lousy as I mounted the battered bicycle. I thought: I am a laughing-stock. I thought: I will never be invited to ride with them again. I thought: I will renounce the world and retreat into a life of solitude.
Yet as I wobbled my bleeding way across the intersection I discovered that my fellow cyclists, all waiting for me, were as indifferent as lizards. When, shamefaced, I came alongside these dear good citizens, I merely heard the matter-of-fact question, “Ready to roll?” – and I have rolled with them ever since.
7. Ezekiel’s vision
When Ezekiel saw a vision of the glory of the Lord, he saw four living beings mounted upon intersecting wheels that can move in all directions. What is remarkable about this vision is that the four beings also have wings, but they use them only for display. When it comes to moving around, they prefer to roll. The rims of their mighty wheels are “so high that they were dreadful,” and are covered all round in eyes. On earth the wheel is a piece of machinery, in heaven it is organic, eternally seeing, eternally rolling. A little boy once asked me if he would still get to ride his bicycle in heaven. I told him no: in heaven you will be a bicycle. Our eyes will be wheels and our wheels will be eyes and wherever we look we will go.
There are days, let's face it, when things don’t turn out right. But it is OK. The day was good before it ever started because I was up before dawn, riding in the cool dark with my friends. If everything else goes wrong, it will still have been worthwhile, and I will still be able to say, with the Psalmist, “this is the day that the Lord hath made, etc and so on.”
Even righteous Job, for all I know, might have felt that his day had not been a total loss if he had gone out that fateful morning and rolled a hundred kilometres on a bicycle before coming home to find that all his flocks and servants had been destroyed by fire that fell from heaven, and that all his sons and daughters had been struck dead by the Lord. He might have torn his garments and put ash on his head and cursed the womb that bore him and then added, “Ah but did you see the sun coming up this morning at the top of Bobbin Head!”
And sometimes, when I am gliding over the hills in the sunlight, the birds look down from their great height upon my whirling wheels, their little feathered faces flushed with envy.