Wander no. 10

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.

Wander no. 6

My parents went to considerable lengths to get my £30 bicycle up to Scotland for me. I sat in the kitchen on the morning of my departure, head still spinning from the jaegerbombs pawned off on me by my brother the night before, while they spent a good while outside in the cold November air, trying to figure out how to rig a bike rack to the back of their car. And two months after they’d dragged it up the length of the M6 for me, I wheeled it into Recyke-a-Bike and left with another. So long, sweet pal. We’d been together for just over four months. It was a good ride.

I’ve had my new wheels for about five weeks now, and in that time, I’ve learned how to take it apart and put it back together again, how to fix a flat, how to ride with my hands idly catching wind at my sides. I remember, not long before I left, I went on a bike ride around Preston with a fella that I’d been seeing at the time, and he told me that riding hands-free was one of the great milestones in the life of a casual cyclist, and I remember never once being able to do it as a child. But I can do it now, and it came to me so effortlessly that I wonder if it was ever really any great feat at all.

The first thing that I did when I moved to Stirling was ride to Dunblane. I’d been here for perhaps three days. It was mid-autumn. Everything was ablaze in deep orange. The distance was comparable to that travelled whenever I rode into work in England, over fields of pale green and down along the industrial canal. It was a breeze, but I never did it again. I cycle in and out of work every day here and I’ve cycled many times down past the abattoir and through the farmlands at the bottom of my road. I’ve cycled through the university campus. But it’s been three months and I haven’t been anywhere! I get such a buzz on the bike, and how desperate I’ve been to get out and ride!

So I gazed out of my kitchen window on Monday morning, staring despondently at the mist descending down over the foothills immediately behind the flat opposite; at the puddles of water in the parking lot, rippling in sudden uptakes of wind. It was my day off, it was the day!, and I stood in my kitchen, deliberating postponing the ride yet again. Not only was the weather questionable, but the ride that I’d been planning all this time took me down a road that had, that very morning, been closed for maintenance. For five weeks! I was too damn late.

But sack that, right? I grabbed my helmet and hit the road anyway.

I set off towards Stirling as I always do, and it was a battle to get my legs to cooperate and take me down the cycle path that runs along the railway tracks. But once we reached the end, near the pedestrian crossing that I dash across every morning, I turned left where I would’ve typically turned right, and suddenly they were up for the game.

I rode the entire eastern outskirts of town, from the bottom of the university to Bannockburn in the south; through industrial farmland, past the short smoke stacks that I can see from the dead centre of town every morning when they push steam out against a burning sunrise. I found myself underneath a railway bridge so short that I had to touch my chest to my handlebars to get beneath it, on a path so close to the stream that the cycle map pinned to my bedroom wall advises me to avoid it completely in the rain. I turned down off a busy A-road and onto the descent of a vast, suburban hill on the way back into town, and I saw the Ochils for the first time in all their glory to the north. Living far too close to them to really comprehend their size, I realised just how high we’d climbed when my cousin and I had scrambled to the top of Dumyat, their eastern-most peak, last month. I got lost for a while in Bannockburn, and when I finally made my way back into Stirling, I ditched my bike outside the Thistles and stumbled directly into Our Place, where I ate the best goddamn bowl of soup that I’ve ever had and flicked through the final pages of Ways of Seeing on my e-reader.

I slept for hours that night. I pushed through a nine-hour shift on Tuesday with so much energy, with such totally high spirits. The sensation that you get when you stare down at the road rushing underneath your feet is everlasting.

It was 18.9 kilometres in total. It was just precisely one-quarter of the distance of the race that I’ve signed up to do in September. It was nothing, but it was so goddamn fun, like cycling hands-free, half-asleep, to work under the rising sun.