Actually, this thread got me seriously bugging about something I’d written eleven years ago or so. I’d not long finished university and I was waiting to hit the airport for two months’ worth of riding in the US (between San Fran and Santa Fe). It wasn’t really written for anyone or anything – I was just trying to convey, uhh, something. Needless to say, I loved the writing in Bike magazine – but unfortunately, I could only manage cringe-worthy platitudes and a sort of woeful romanticism… reproduced exactly for your reading displeasure:
“Deprive a man of his life lie and you rob him of his happiness”
Going for a ride. Try to articulate the importance of what it means – try to put it into words – and already it’s drifting beyond reach. Woodsmoke on the trail. Something to remember and hold close in times of need – or think about in the bath (or the bar) afterwards… And then enter Ibsen, like a literary smart bomb, zeroing in on the sheer, silly fragility of what it means to be human. All clinging to the arbitrary flotsam and jetsam that we hope signifies something special. Vital things, forged by passion and necessity: to depend upon and believe in. Not for a moment do the largely hairless apes want to contemplate the possibility that happiness is a house built of straw, just waiting for the big bad existential wolf to come blow it down. But sometimes, and often in the wake of inexplicable punctures, the doubt creeps in…
However, there are some things which even great playwrights cannot argue with. Noble things, in other words, which possess a certain kind of truth. Like a battered pair of Deore XT thumbshifters (n.b. mine have been stolen), for example, or the A-Team, or finishing a book so good you don’t want it to actually finish (hello Cold Mountain) or (if you get it right) falling in love. And, even if you don’t quite get it right, going for a ride.
Because, above all else, the Trail will never lie. It is honest and sometimes brutally so. People, political parties, kitchen appliances – at some point, all of these will let you down. But if you leave blood on the wet roots, the fault is entirely your own. The Trail just is - you get back what you put in (that’s riding and building, both). Within the generally fluid discourse that is rider and dirt, some commentators inevitably attempt to bust hip new post-modern moves. Catching ill-judged philosophical air, they make critical (but ultimately futile) claims that no single truth is to be found. For even the ever-changing variables of geology, climate and season cannot disguise the underlining certainty of the Trail. It may – and probably will – hurt you, but it will always listen. On days when pedal strokes are fuelled by anger and pain, there is always the promise of wheels going somewhere (anywhere) other than here. Round a corner, a new way of looking at a problem. Other days, too, when all you can do is smile, and know – really know – that this is something close to as good as it gets.
And somewhere in there, running like a sacred thread through the endless trail lore, the mythology and secret knowledge that builds up ride upon ride, is the singular truth: you may haul the climbs, rail the downs, but the Trail remains something far larger. It might (almost) be called a cosmological belief - singletrack for the soul. Archaeology and riding bikes (two driving passions of this particular fool since childhood, activities as separate as turning pedals and painstaking work with trowels should be), out on favourite trails, these pursuits somehow converge. Falling over themselves with enthusiasm, they collide like they are on some kind of super-crazed blind date. The profound spookiness (I get goosebumps) of knowing that Other People Were Once Here In This Place becomes juxtaposed with a far more personal sense of history. On the hills and in the woods, trails hold memories. And riding them again evokes the strange sadness of formative things now lost – gooseneck stems, lycra helmet covers and ill-fitting, hastily appropriated clothing.
And just maybe, as a dim-witted citizen of a world that is too big and fast and convenient, I am a little more aware of the wisdom of those who have always valued an intimate connection with their surroundings. For trails surely call for songlines: a eulogy for every rock and tree, each slick root and drifting corner. And lost in sublime rapture somewhere on the hill, racing the last embers of the setting sun, I wonder how anybody could possibly call this feeling a lie.
Feel free to slate me hard for such pretentious waffle (I was young, after all), but I believed it then - and I still believe it now!