Cycling Smells

There’s more to cycling than all the sights you see, the terrain, the weather, traffic and the nation’s rotting infrastructure and its institutionalized neglect. Smells are just as much part of your environment, your context.

The other day I had the misfortune to ride through some residential streets in Sonning Common on a hot day just after a street sweeper had been through them, ‘washing’ them with what smelt like sour milk. It wasn’t quite stomach churning but it wasn’t great. On Friday I rode past a barbecue going on at the village hall in Checkendon and it smelt gorgeous.

Ride the lanes near Reading golf course at weekends and you’ll often catch a strong smell of bacon from what I guess is a refreshment hut half way around. It’s all too easy to find yourself riding behind a rubbish cart if you’re out cycling during the week and, in summer particularly, there’s a uniformly unpleasant – but, again, not sickening – smell to them that’s much the same as you’ll experience at a tip. I guess if you work with it you just get used to it.

You’ll occasionally catch a whiff of a coal fire and that’s very distinctive; wood fires vary a lot depending on the wood being burned. The smell of cigarettes is very strong and relatively rare now; the smell of pipe tobacco even more so. (I have to confess, as an ex-smoker, fresh tobacco smoke smells lovely.)

Stinking diesels aside, traffic doesn’t smell much – something you realise if overtaken by a vintage vehicle still running on leaded petrol.

Pig farms can be pretty noxious and I’ll turn and go another way rather than ride through crop spraying, and when I have caught it in my nostrils you know it’s not a good smell, whatever it is. For that matter, ‘natural’ fertilisers can be pretty whiffy too.

And sometimes you’ll smell death – I can’t say I’ve analysed it closely, but rotting mammals seem to have much the same smell about them whatever the animal that’s died. If it’s a strong stench that can be stomach churning, which I guess makes sense seeing as we’re mammals.