It astounds me and frustrates me in equal measure how much writing – and I use that term in the widest sense of the word – I can do while I sit astride my bicycle. Cycling has changed for me in recent weeks, rapidly transitioning from something to be done out of necessity to something to be done out of pure and senseless joy. But even more than this, it’s become a meditative action that begins as soon as I step onto the peddles. I no longer listen to music when I ride, ever, and my mind contracts immediately and I think of nothing but the road and the sensation of riding and how the sound of my tyres on the asphalt changes with speed; and what poetic language I am able to craft about it all while racing through the streets! And what a shame it is that I can’t ride and transcribe to paper at the same time. When I step off, the words vanish long before I’ve managed to flex my cramped up hands and locate the pencil in the bottom of my bag. Goddamn.
But whatever. The words that I constructed during my afternoon ride on Tuesday are long gone now, but I feel compelled to talk about it regardless, because it was a damn good ride. As a rule, although I wonder now why such a rule exists at all, I don’t ride very far out on work days, but I’d been gifted that which is as rare for me as the shining blue moon: an early finish. I was out of there before noon. To celebrate, I strolled home under the beating sun and gorged myself on the reduced-price onion bhajis and sausage rolls that I’d picked up from Tesco. I lounged around the house listening to LBC’s rolling commentary on Theresa May’s surprise announcement for a snap election. I read a little bit. I polished off the dishes in the sink. Hours seemed to have passed since I was set free from work and I was certain that the sun was plunging towards the horizon, but when I checked the time, it read 14.33, and I’d run out of things to do.
So! A ride to Dunblane, perhaps? It isn’t so far out – in fact, I’d ridden there and back three days after moving to Stirling, and surely I’d progressed so far in my cycling that it ought to be a breeze now. A nice afternoon stroll there and back, right? Sounds good, so I hit the road.
But in all fairness, I’ve only recently moved to Stirling proper; I’d been living in Bridge of Allan previously (known elsewhere here as the burbs), so the first few miles of this jaunt ran over the route that once carried me home from work in the depths of winter. I was surprised to find that I missed this ride – the path that sweeps around the Forth, the bizarre gated pedestrian level crossing at Cornton, the vast playing fields that I used to traverse by foot in down-time such as this.
But soon, all of this was behind me and I found myself climbing up the 765 on Glen Road, past the hillside mansions of the upper class. I struggled up this incline, my state of mind jumping at once from whimsical to resentful, wondering why I’d even left my house in the first place and forgetting entirely that I’d walked this hill last time. Soon though, the ground levelled out, and with it, my angst. I was now surrounded by the woods, last seen back in November, ablaze with orange. Now, on a nondescript overcast afternoon in spring, not far enough into the year for the trees to have been re-sheathed in green, they stood bare and grey and altogether lifeless. I pedalled on, wondering if I’d have to get the train back from Dunblane when I got there.
So up and up I went, winding along the 765. As it takes you deeper into Kippenrait Glen, the road through becomes restricted to vehicular traffic as it turns up around a tiny waterfall. I stopped on a bridge to stare at the water and ponder why rushing water makes the sound that it does. Some ways up the road, I passed a turning that I’d ambitiously taken on my way back to Bridge of Allan in November, up towards Sheriffmuir, where I’d learned the hard way how to read elevation on a map. And suddenly, much sooner that I remembered, I found myself coming down into Dunblane, racing over a road so smooth, so devoid of all traffic, that I was reminded instantly of those California longboarders, drifting effortlessly down the wide residential streets of the American West. This was perhaps the first place that I’d seen in the British Isles where such a thing might have ever been a possibility, had the road not dumped me out onto a busy roundabout at the bottom.
And there I was, all too suddenly: Dunblane. An insidiously dull town. Home to the Murray brothers and the only school shooting in British history, I came here in November to eat a steak pie by the river and take a leak in the community loo, only to get back on my bike fifteen minutes later and head back home with lack of all else to do. This time, disappointed now at how quickly I’d arrived here and eager – after my mild torment on the way up – to keep going, I swung my bike around the Cathedral and carried on along the 765. It took me up through the houses, again on an incline, past the high school, and out onto a rural path that was so long and unwaveringly straight, lined on both sides with tall trees, that I began to wonder if I was riding through Scotland’s answer to the Tunnel of Love. I turned off and the 765 came to an end, spitting me out in the middle of Doune.
The National Cycle Network is a thing of beauty, but as soon as it ends – or, more often, as soon as I take a wrong turn and fall off of it – I’m entirely useless at finding my way. Doune is a village (read: not a town) that boasts a famous castle. I’d been meaning to ride up here for some time now to check it out, but even though the route ended in the middle of Main Street, I still lost my way. I found myself heading down an A-road back towards Stirling, legs in need of a break now, and got stuck going the wrong way up a one-way street, but soon, finally, I’d managed to locate the castle, shrouded by trees some hundred metres off the main stretch.
I hung out here for some time, surprised to find that Winterfell (as it was before Northern Ireland’s Castle Ward had taken over the role) was surrounded by a river. I live a stone’s throw now from the Forth and waterways have become a casual feature in my life, but I found myself altogether disinterested in the castle, drawn instead to the banks of the Teith, where I crashed down onto the grass and sat a while, crunching on shortbread (also reduced from Tesco) and gazing at a fisherman on the other side until I began to feel the chill.
I stood. There was still the minor issue of getting back. Doune is too far removed and far too small to be serviced by a train station, so perhaps the most direct route back home would be to head back through the Tunnel of Love and jump on the train in Dunblane. And yet, my mind wandered to the wider Stirling cycle map tacked to my bedroom wall. I’d stared at it so often in the months past that its routes had been burned onto the backs of my eyes, and I knew that there was a path nearby that would take me back down into Bridge of Allan, dropping me off down by the abattoir on the short circular route that I used to ride on my days off before I realised that my legs had the ability to go much further.
And so I went. I wrote a post once about being unable to reach the top of a hill, and now, after climbing many more, I found myself coming down it. I flew past a bank of trees that I’d once photographed as the autumn sun set it alight from its perch on top of the horizon. The Trossachs rose in the distance behind me as I raced home, back down through the old burbs, now invigorated by how far I’d come and how close I was to the finish line.
I stumbled inside. I stood in the kitchen, alive to the tips of every nerve ending. For the pure, senseless joy of it all.