For The Sake Of It?

The roads are foul – debris strewn, wet, and filthy with both human and nature’s rubbish. If it’s not raining it will be shortly. If it’s not blowing a gale it will be shortly. True, around here – Berkshire and South Oxfordshire – we’re getting away with it relatively lightly (so far at least); there are plenty of places struggling far more with the consequences of all this bad weather. Nevertheless, it’s not as much fun as it could be if you’re out riding a bike this winter.

That all raises a question: what is it a measure of that I still went out today? What does it indicate that I’ve two friends (who are like me, cyclists for pleasure rather than necessity) who’ve been telling me that they’re either going out in the lousy conditions anyway, or are genuinely feeling the worse for not getting out?

Perhaps there’s something about the science of it – the pleasure-related chemicals released into the brain through exercise; perhaps you can get addicted to them. Perhaps that’s tied-in with our ancient ancestors and the fact that at root we aren’t made to live and work indoors. What I do know is that the desire to get out and ride is real – and it’s recommended. Leaving the obviously dangerous times aside, and as I’ve said before, it’s very rare indeed for a ride to be a mistake.

So the next time you see a cyclist out in bad weather, don’t think they’re out riding for the sake of it. Don’t think they’re daft. Think, instead, about joining in.

Winter tree line

And the light at this time of year has a unique quality too

No Surprises / New Thrills

One night during the week I woke up sometime around three, the house was cold … and it was very quiet; everywhere felt very still. Sleep-befuddled, I briefly wondered if it was cold enough for snow.

Of course it wasn’t – as I knew from the forecasts. Despite the iffy nature of British weather forecasting, it’s rare that weather will be surprising. By and large, the errors are within safe margins.

Mid-week, I had to go Buckingham way for a business meeting, to somewhere I’d never been before. I plotted a route in some detail and printed it out. (As is my wont, if I can find a back-roads kind of way I normally will. SatNavs just don’t give you the flexibility.) I looked up the place I was going on Google’s Street View and fixed that in my mind before leaving. I checked for road works and other problems before I left.

I had a totally uneventful trip and found the place with ease, recognising it from Street View. Hassle free! Stress free!

And I had pretty well no sense of adventure, and no sense of discovery. As with the weather, it seems there are fewer and fewer opportunities for surprises these days.

My first reaction to that thought was that it’s a shame. Of course, there’s the option to wilfully remain in the dark but that seems, well, just stupid – and realising that made me think that having all this knowledge to hand isn’t a shame: it just moves the focus. Whereas once there might have been a thrill in finding something out for yourself and now that’s easy … the thrill, surely, now lies in what you do with whatever it is you’ve been able to find out about.

As for cycling, this week has seen a 40+ mile ride on Monday, a routine circumnavigation of Reading and a shorter one in South Oxon’s mucky lanes today. However, whichever way you tackle it, riding at this time of year doesn’t have a great deal of sparkle.

If you’re trying to keep the miles up and your legs in good shape then you can take the approach I was adopting on Monday and go for longer rides – do the weekly distance, but have to make yourself go out less frequently. The trouble is, that gets a bit of a grind after a cold and grey couple of hours …

So, instead, you can take the ‘several short trips’ option – but then you’re having to muster up the initial will power more often.

You could just stay in of course – but “winter miles equals summer smiles” and all that …

Just merging-in naturally

Just merging-in naturally

Summer Fixed Wheel Revelation (Just For Cyclists)

‘Ride a fixed wheel in winter’ is – I’m told – the old British approach to training and I guess I’m traditional enough to do just that. I don’t ride to train, I ride because I enjoy riding, I enjoy riding a fixed wheel and because they’re such simple bikes, they take the winter battering very well. I tend to do 15-20 milers, and do fewer geared road and off-road miles.

However, this summer I’ve been doing one or two short (10 mile or so) fixed wheel rides a week on top of longer geared road rides and I’ve been surprised at how beneficial it’s proving. The improved fluidity in pedalling is marked; there’s something about how your legs ‘learn’ to keep turning regardless that I find they don’t unlearn when on another bike. The result’s very positive – particularly so when you’re faced with a bit of a slog like I was today – the last 10 of 40 miles were into a stiffening headwind.

It might not work for everyone, but if you’ve a fixed wheel that you can get out on, try it in summer and see.

Be Thankful

Both rides yesterday and the day before were of the ‘good to be out’ but ‘boy, is it yukky out there’ variety.

Both were short-ish, partially off-road excursions in the territory between Caversham and Henley. Both times, I came back mud be-splattered with a bike caked in the particularly finely textured gloop you seem to only get after it’s been frozen. I don’t know if the freezing and thawing process somehow breaks mud down more.

After today’s excursion I did wash the bike down and as I was sprucing it up it crossed my mind how well it had kept working despite all the abuse it was enduring, and how little I appreciated its reliability.

Mud-covered bike parts

Somehow, it just keeps working

It’s like a lot of things – when they’re working they’re ignored: things mechanical, things electrical, things biological – not least your body. Now, 50+, it’s getting harder to ignore my body. I’d be lying if I denied having more aches and pains – niggles, but frequent niggles where there once weren’t any.

Presumably, things will continue to deteriorate. Possibly, there comes a point when the deterioration is so bad that it’s unpleasant enough to want it all to cease. Prior to that, be thankful for what does work.

Unalloyed Pleasure

A bike ride – a real, out of doors bike ride; the first for over a week. The roads are in an appalling state; the rain and melting snow means flood waters are rising again; off-road the mud is deep and there are puddles everywhere with who-knows-what for potholes lurking beneath the dirty water. There was some evil slippery grey-black slush on some of the shady parts of the route. And I loved every minute of it.

You can't have enough firewood

If cold weather’s due, it’s good to have a few logs in stock.

It’s just the being outside that’s so simply, purely pleasurable. You don’t have to be riding a bike. It is the fact that the weather’s just that little bit better to make being out reasonable – not so cold you have to be wrapped up just that bit too much to be comfortable; not so slippery that you’d justly call yourself daft if you fell over and broke something.

Talking it over with Charli, she says she feels the same and reckons being outside has some deep appeal to the animal in us. If that’s true, I suppose it’s probably not a good thing that we’re still responsive to the instinctive. If civilization is about anything, it’s surely about the triumph of intellect over instinct.

Watching Life And Death

There’s not a huge amount of inspiration to be found on a ‘turbo-trainer’, and snow’s been keeping me off the bike for a few days. (I suspect if I never saw another snow flake I’d be quite happy about it.)

What is interesting to watch is what goes on outside the window in harsher weather – the bird life.

Birds in the snow

‘This too must pass’

At the various feeders and bird tables:

  • There’s one super-aggressive male Blackbird who’s willing to have a go at almost anything else – the other two male Blackbirds who are visiting, and any other nearby smaller bird.
  • The plumped-up female Blackbird more-or-less does her own thing but studiously avoids the males.
  • There are a few Starlings who descend as a group whenever there’s any fresh food that’s not mixed grain out. These aren’t afraid of the aggressive Blackbird – in fact the reverse is true, even though Starlings are smaller.
  • Unusually, I’ve had two Jays visiting simultaneously, but they’ll only barely tolerate each other and most of the other birds flee when they arrive. Any that stay keep their distance.
  • Magpies don’t tolerate anything else, and, as with the Jays, nothing else wants to be anywhere near them.
  • The Collared Doves have just kept on doing what they always do: hanging around, seemingly a tad gormless but always attentive, and carefully picking their time to feed.
  • There’s one Pied Wagtail who just does what he or she wants, neatly side-stepping the other birds as necessary and – it appears – getting the food it wants and needs.
  • The Blue Tits and Great Tits are like the Wagtail – canny feeders who can look after themselves.
  • There are pair of Bullfinches, relatively recent visitors, and they also seem self-contained, not fussed by any of the other birds except, occasionally, the Greenfinches who’ll have a bad-tempered go at them if they’re close enough.
  • There are more Wood Pigeons than normal – which is to be expected as they come in to the suburbs looking for food.
  • The solo Song Thrush I’ve seen is, I guess, doing the same as the Wood Pigeons, but he or she’s often chased-off by the stroppy Blackbird.
  • There are two Robins who fight as much as they feed but only seem interested in each other.
  • Greenfinches appear as contentedly greedy once they’ve settled on the feeders as they are all year round. They’ll squabble amongst themselves but, seemingly, without consequence.

And all of the ‘interest’ I’m seeing outside my window, one way or another, is about survival – no more and no less.

If I were describing starving humans fighting for scraps there would be an outcry. The same would be true if I were talking about domesticated mammals that people feel some affinity with, dogs perhaps.

Watching birds struggling to live though, that’s OK. I don’t think that I’m putting food out makes it any better or changes anything. They’re still struggling. As always, everything is relative.