Just in case you haven’t been paying attention during the 5 years that I have been writing about cycling and mental health, being on my bike lifts my mood. Actually, simply looking at other people cycling along does that. I find myself looking at bicycles locked up against lamp posts, railings and the now ubiquitous bespoke bicycle parking that seem to multiply by the week in the city where I live. When there is little of interest in my life, bicycles of all shapes and sizes, in all states of repair, just for the briefest of moments, put their arms round my shoulders.
Does this count as my low mood lifting, improving? You would think so, wouldn’t you? It would make sense because cycling has improved my life immeasurably since I was challenged to take part in a charity bike ride back in the summer of 2000.
But it is not ever thus. The fact of the matter is, that for someone who writes about cycling, extols its virtues, and credits it with my (reasonably) good mental health, I spend precious little time actually turning the pedals. Yes, yes, yes, I know – I do ride my bike most days. Today it was 6 miles, tomorrow it will be 3. Last Thursday it was 30+. But I don’t set aside enough time to ride the sort of miles that make a lasting impression.
But, more often than I would like to admit, the sight of bicycles locked up against railings, lampposts and in clusters at bike parking sites, can make me feel chained up and, well, abandoned, too. I find myself looking at the name of the make on the frame, the handlebars, the tyres, the saddle as I walk past. It feels just like it does when I am in a crowd of people – maybe in the supermarket, maybe on a train or a bus; usually on a busy street. Everyone is going somewhere; everyone has a purpose – except me. Yes, I do know that there will be other people pushing a supermarket trolley with little sense of purpose, and that other people passing their tickets through the barriers at the train station in the mornings and evenings, are also feeling detached, hopeless and, well, adrift. But I cannot see any evidence of that. Which is ever so slightly ironic when you consider that that I am well – versed in the ways of disguise, the arrangement of the face, the taking an interest in others, so that they won’t ask me about myself.
It is like this that we betray each other. It is like this that we shun one another. It is like this that we remain alone, ensuring that no one knows.
Bicycles are not like that. Bicycles, immobile, unencumbered by their riders, describe themselves by their cheap chain locks, their slightly deflated tyres, their dry, rusty chains and the way they tilt, ever so slightly as they wait – for how long? – for their owner to return. I look at them to recognise myself in their variety of frames and handlebars, the range of saddles. I see my better self, I see the person I once was, I see the person I will never be, and worst of all I see the person I am.
My November Guest
My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.
Her pleasure will not let me stay.
She talks and I am fain to list:
She’s glad the birds are gone away,
She’s glad her simple worsted grey
Is silver now with clinging mist.
The desolate, deserted trees,
The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
And vexes me for reason why.
Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise
Robert Frost (1874 – 1963)