The Dark Miles

Before we start, let’s address the elephant in the blog. I am well aware that I have previously offered that I do not find that winter miles offer me much inspiration, and I lay the blame for some relatively blog-free silences last winter at precisely this. The handful that follow this blog will know that I’ve been silent for quite a long time, across the ‘inspirational’ summer… this has been nothing to do with the content of the seasons, weather or cycling, I’ve just been busy with life!

Earlier this year, I remarked how summer didn’t turn up until late this year. On reflection, and being brutally honest it didn’t bloody well turn up at all. Already, we’re full speed back into long dark nights, and it’s only 6 weeks until an unreasonably large man tries to land a herd of reindeer on the narrow ridge tiles of my neighbours roof before slipping down the chimney that they haven’t got (a quite remarkable feat). But this also means that it is only 7 weeks until we can say goodbye to 2021. A year that held so much promise in our emergence from the disaster that was 2020, and yet has delivered so many things that no-one asked for. A painful reminder of our dependance on fossil fuels, with a poke in the ribs by Vladimir to remind us that we really do have to have Russia in our lives. Football once again demonstrated that both hooliganism and racism have not left the ‘beautiful game’, they were merely being contained inside a pressure cooker of bias and boredom, that released in devastating style at and after the big event of the year. Meanwhile COVID lingers on like anti-biotic resistant campylobacter, dividing the country through statistics, lies, truths and all fulled by the menace that is social media and mis-information.

Are we all feeling positive now? Or remotely interested in what’s left of the year?

As I have also remarked before (which is partially responsible for my silence) unless I have something interesting to say (at least as I see it – you can be the judge of that), I won’t bother. While at that time I recalled that someone gave me that specific advice (instruction) as a child, with a significantly negative context, I actually received a more positive steer (real advice) in the mid-2000’s in this regard, by John Inverdale from BBC Sport. I have recently learned that my late father began passing this off to others as his own advice, and I have assured those now reciting it that it he took it from me, and I took it from John. John’s insight was simple – to ‘be interested, and be interesting’. John was kind enough to provide this guidance as I was considering moving into sports journalism, and my local BBC radio station had just informally offered me 3 days a week (for free of course!) covering the local sport in my town, which included tier 2 football and ice hockey along with top tier speedway – so as far as I was concerned, it was a pretty good gig! (though my knowledge of football may have been a banana skin!) However with a mortgage, and a life to live outside of work, I plugged away with a full time job instead, declaring that journalism wasn’t for me. It’s a decision where I’ll never know if I made the right choice or not… but I will certainly always regret.

For many reasons, I will not remember 2021 with any fondness.

However, one thing that has remained a constant, and a significant positive (you’ll not be surprised to hear) is my cycling. While I saw my cycling achievements of 2020 as extraordinary due to the pandemic, I’ve continued where I left off, and pedalled my way through our glorious countryside and already covered enough miles this year to cycle from my house to Jakarta. I’m pleased I haven’t actually cycled to Jakarta, as the bits across the sea would be tricky, and I’ve been there once and did not love it. The security just to get into my hotel, along with fear of the water and food, and the hours spent sat in taxi’s going nowhere was mind-bendingly awful. Perhaps my experience is unique, and Jakarta may be right up your metaphorical street, but it is really not up mine.

And this brings me to a watershed… as our lives are (at the moment, let’s see how the winter goes!) returning to something that resembles normal, so the expectation is growing to actually meet people. And this means that once again, airports, planes, trains and hotels will become a more frequent work and rest place for me once again. I can’t deny that sitting at the same desk in my house for the last twenty months has, at times, made me close to certifiable… however, I now have a new affinity for ‘staying local’. While I doubt my travel will ever reach the glacier melting footprint of the mid 2010’s, it is returning, and I will certainly be expected to ‘go there’. Aside from getting very wet crossing the sea on my bicycle, riding to Jakarta this year has taken me 422 hours, therefore I certainly won’t be ‘going there’ by bicycle when I have to go. I think it’s fair to be more than a little anxious about the prospect of 12 hours within a pressurised tube / petri-dish, sat four inches from someone I’ve never met before, won’t meet again, though could leave a lasting negative impression on my life. Moreover though, and perhaps selfishly, I am very aware and equally concerned that my saddle time is going to reduce significantly, and my windows to ride are going to become less sociable and require more gumption to ‘get out there’!

I know that many people are negatively accused of being ‘fair weather’ cyclists, and I have significant sympathy, nay even support for those who are. After all, it’s simply not ‘nice’ to adorn all of the equipment required to ride in bad weather, never mind the process of actually completing the ride itself, and cleaning up afterwards. Rain drops on your face feel like you’re being shot blasted, as your fingers go through a warm – cold – pain – numb cycle, and your feet tell you that a case of trench foot is the only likely outcome of the ride. This is never ‘fun’ and if you cycle for fun, why do it? You are absolutely excused.

Riding at night is also not everyone’s cup of tea, and while I understand fair weather cycling, I have equal sympathy for those who do not want to ride at night. However, there are many who dismiss it out of hand without giving it a go. I don’t think the ‘key’ to riding at night is any secret… you need to be able to see, and equally be seen. Therefore, perhaps obviously, lighting and clothing are the most important components of being ready to ride at night. Modern bicycle lights are so good that there is no excuse for you to not be able to see where you are going, and people / motorists can see you from any angle. Also modern lights are so effective that close passes are really VERY rare at night. As far as clothing is concerned, clearly black isn’t a great idea, however, the effectiveness of modern lights may actually mean that clothing choice is truly secondary. But while there are so many great ‘hi-viz’ options out there, you should not need to be wearing anything ‘low-viz’ when cycling at night.

The benefits of embracing night riding are really significant. I don’t particularly enjoy my turbo, but see it as a necessary evil when Mother Nature has declared it so. Otherwise, I’d always rather be on the road, with my lungs full of fresh air, and not relying on the fan and an open window to aspirate with. And as someone once said to me, ‘Winter Miles, Summer Smiles’ – I can only agree! When the warm weather arrives, and you are already ‘bike-fit’, it makes a huge difference.

Further, the diminishment of one of your critical senses changes the whole experience of riding your bicycle. You hear things you’ve not heard before, and the hum of the tyres and mechanisms of your bicycle seem louder. You can feel the bike like you’ve not felt it before, with your contact points (feet, hands and bum) telling you everything you’re entitled to know about what’s going on underneath you. You need to know your way around the bike by feel rather than looking… looking down for your bottle in the dark doesn’t help, you need to know where it is. Equally, there’s no point in looking at your cassette to see what gear you are in… learn to let your legs tell you what you need to know. These are all good things that will benefit your bicycle handling and on bicycle experience in the summer too.

Riding at night also brings a unique connection with nature that you don’t find in the day… a quiet running bike allows you to creep up really quite easily on nature that in the day is fast asleep, or certainly not hanging around busy roads. Badgers, Foxes and Deer going about their nocturnal business are frequent… but the most impressive experience that I have had are Barn Owls flying along side me as I ride. I know some find this hard to believe, and you don’t have to believe me, but why would I lie? It’s an incredible experience, and lasts only 20 seconds or so, but I’ve had this 4 times in the last couple of years, and it is as astonishing as it is beautiful.

My advice, get some good lights, some visible clothing, take a deep breath and give it a go…

The Dark Miles will not disappoint.

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