I love few things in life more than the seaside. The ever-changing shapes of the waves, the promise of fish and chips and the incessant sound of 2p machines. I love the feeling of jauntily walking a promenade with the sea breeze in my hair. And I love a pier (even though I always feel a little bit scared walking along them). I feel incredibly lucky to live fairly near the sea these days, and a couple of piers, and the other day I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be nice to go from one to the other? So I caught the train to Worthing and slowly rode my way to Brighton.
It took me an hour an a half of riding and two more hours for various stops, to travel the epic distance of 12.4 miles. On one of the windiest days in memory it didn’t initially seem like the best idea I’ve ever had, but once the smell of salt hit the back of my nostrils and the crashing of the waves tickled the back of my ear drums I knew my instincts were serving me well and today was going to be a good day. The sun was shining, and whatever rain had been forecast seemed far, far away.
I cycled incredibly slowly. Not because of the wind in my face or my tired legs, but because I wanted to be purposeful about every pedal stroke. I wanted to take in all the details of my surroundings. From each pebble and wave, to each beach hut and boat. I wanted to contemplate what it meant to me that in three months I had gone from stressed out analyst to elated farm worker. I wanted to ponder what I’d learned from the last few interviews I’d done with cyclists who had either retired from the professional scene or were just about to. But above all, I just wanted to take the time to appreciate the bike and all the joys it brought me.
I was filled with gratitude that my body would allow me this small but mighty pleasure of being able to turn these pedals and look out to the sea with awe and wonder.
Not long after, I stopped off in Shoreham at Port Kitchen for a beer to take a moment to reflect on how much life had changed recently, and was continuing to change. I wrote a few things down. I wanted to remember this feeling of utter freedom and wonderful possibility that I had somehow created and put it on paper before it got lost to the multitude of emotions that were bound to be heading my way on days where I had more to do than this.
As I sipped my beer and laughed to myself that I’d finally found a view of the dry dock at Shoreham Harbor, a place that featured memorably in one of my favourite books but I’d never been able to access before, I took in the joy of how bikes really can take you to places you never thought possible, be it beautiful, or bizarre.
I sat and pondered how I always ask riders who are retiring how much they think they’ll ride when they’re done competing. Or if they’ve retired, how much they do now and I’m amazed and saddened by those who have put the bike down post racing to never pick it up again, when the sport they loved as a child had somehow morphed into something they hated.
I just can’t imagine hating these two wheels that have taken me so far. But then I’ve never been a professional rider. I do this for love.
But what’s interesting is how my relationship with the wheels has changed. And in fact any physical activity. Everything I used to plan, be it a walk or run or cycle, would be to test my limits, pushing my boundaries, seeing how much I could suffer.
In many ways, that was great. It hurt and I loved it. I learned about myself, I achieved something, and I was usually so tired at the end of the day I couldn’t think about anything but eating and sleeping. That served me well for years and years.
These days though I seem to be increasingly planning things that are well within my capabilities. It’s been interesting to potter along and do things just because….no reason really. It’s such a switch from doing things because I’m trying to prove something to myself. Usually that I am capable to some unknown figure in the ether.
I guess now I’m realising I don’t care what that imaginary figure thinks anymore. I’ve stopped setting so many targets and doing everything with the view that it somehow has to contribute to moving me forwards in some way.
I’ve always wanted to be learning and developing at speed at all times. With everything contributing to something. There’s rarely a moment in the day where I’ve not been doing something; working, writing, studying. All of which is great, but not particularly relaxing. This is the first time I’ve slowed down a bit in a long time.
I’m reading more fiction, I’m riding at 8 miles an hour, I’m not 100% sure what the path in front of me looks like. I’m loosening my grip on myself and day by day feeling a little bit more free.
I finished my beer and packed away my thoughts about life as I felt the buzz of alcohol hitting an empty stomach and rode on, vaguely aware that the atmosphere was distinctly more stormy than when I first sat down.
As I rode into Hove with the sky darkening and the winds picking up further, I found a group of gulls playing in the air. I rode through them and for a brief moment felt as if I was one of them. My wheels were my wings and I was playing too. I smiled from ear to ear as the rain drops started to fall and my body became part of the elements.
I rode on into Brighton and for a minute felt sad I wasn’t riding on further. The lure of what possibilities lay beyond the city was strong and I found myself doing the quick mental calculations of how far I could go and where I could get a train home from. I looked around at the various famous landmarks thinking I could do this all day.
And then I thought, hang on, stop trying to make it hard again! Just enjoy it for what it is; a lovely, short, none punishing ride. I smiled again ear to ear as the rain suddenly became biblical and I thought about all the times in the years gone by when I’d have forced myself to keep going, pushing on into the void.
But it was not going to be one of those days. On that day I was different. I was cold and wet and going to do something about it.
I was going to go to sit in a lovely cafe, have a hot chocolate and read my book.
It was a day of glorious sunshine, epic wind and a deluge of rain. It was a ride to remember. A short journey on the pedals, but a long one in the mind. A letting go and finding the joy in doing something just because, and stopping before things got tough.