It’s been eye-opening for me, going around by bike again after so many years. Since I moved to France in 1996, I’ve experienced the lanes around our home only in a car or on foot. In a car, you’re insulated from the outside temperature, noise and smells – hermetically sealed in your own little world. On foot, you experience all those things, but only over a relatively short distance of perhaps 4-5km at a time.
But a bike is a wonderful hybrid of the two different worlds. Coasting downhill on some our steeper hills, I’m reaching 40kmph and am exhilarated by the speed, but I’m still getting the wind in my face, and all the attendant smells that you get when walking: right now, late summer flowers, ripe maize, freshly cut grass and fallen apples. From time to time, as I pass a farm, there is the scent of the cider press, or the unmistakable faint whiff of the lambic, which makes its silent way from house to house in the dead of night, distilling illegal calvados.
Cycling is sensorially rich because you are inside the environment, not insulated from it.
But it’s rich also because you’re in a constant state of awareness. Cycling means monitoring your grip on the handlebars and the degree of relaxation of your body so you don’t end your ride a knotted, snarled-up mess. You have to work to maintain your balance and be aware of the feel of the bike. You use your hearing to listen out for other vehicles, and your vision to check out every field gate or opening that might hide a tractor or other vehicle (it’s priorité à droit here, so even on a main road, there may be 20 side roads that all have priority over the main drag).
You need to constantly check your mirror for following traffic and scan the road in front for hazards – I’ve learned that you can ride over acorns, for instance, but not over chestnuts. A trail of mud across the road might indicate a combine hidden behind a hedge, or as you get closer you may realise it’s manure, which is dangerously slippery under the tyres.
Inclines and descents that are nothing in a car are screamingly obvious on a bike, where your body is the engine, and with a derailleur your use of gears needs to be precise and anticipatory.
This requirement to be fully aware and present as you ride means that both past and future become strangely irrelevant, and that in turn produces a feeling similar to meditation – I am beginning to understand why cycling is so addictive, simply because it is so all-absorbing.
I took up cycling to get a bit fitter, be outside a bit more and go a bit further. But Zen? Well that, I didn’t expect to find.