Just Do It
by Les Woodland
I have a friend. I haven't seen him for years. In fact, realising I hadn't seen him, I wrote to his last address and -- to mutual surprise -- he received my letter. Why surprise? Because for years he's been cycling round the world. He just happened to be in England.
'How? Why?' I asked, remembering a lad who could easily forget his shoes.
'Plan, you mean?' he said. 'I don't plan. I was riding and I decided that was what I liked, so I carried on doing it.'
He had no idea where he was going that first night and his only thought was to be back for Christmas to see his parents. I pictured him getting to the Andes at the end of June and turning back and riding off the other way.
'So how do you survive?'
'You know what I realised?' he said with his habit of answering one question with another. 'Away from Europe you hardly need any money. And when you're in Europe, you think "Well, the roads are crowded," and that everywhere they're selling cars and that cars get dirty in the rain. So I go to garages and say I'm cycling round the world and can I have a morning's work shining their cars? It's not every day they get a round-the-world cyclist so I get the work and then I ride on until the money runs out and I find another garage. Easy, really.'
And that, surely, is the point. You make it up as you go. Because cycling is an uncomplicated game we love to make complex. It's as if we can't justify it to ourselves and everyone else unless we've got expensive gear and planning that would have done D-Day credit. Do you remember when you were a kid and you could walk on narrow walls and not worry about falling off, because you didn't know what it was like to fall off? Well, you never fell. Now you don't do it even consider it, fun though it is, because you're all grown up and you Have To Plan, Have To Be Sensible....
You didn't worry about your first bike rides. You didn't fret over equipment and gear sizes and whether you had the maps. You just went. And I bet that to this day you remember every one of those childhood expeditions.
Sometimes you can plan too much. Bob Kynaston of the Edgware CTC in north London told me: 'Years ago there was a chap near us who said he was going to ride round the world. He even went to Tenerife and slept under the stars and experimented with cycling all day on a Mars bar, that sort of thing. And when he'd convinced himself, he put his house up for rent. But before he could rent it he had to do some work on it and he started repairing the windows. Then he did all the other things and by the time he'd done them it had taken years and the window frames needed doing again and so far as I know he never did get to ride round the world.'
Planning killed the excitement. Maybe for some people the planning is even an excuse not to do it. Moral: don't plan. Or, at least, don't fret. You don't even have to be a techno-whizz. The other day I went to see Anne Mustoe in Norwich. I don't suppose her bike's falling to bits but she wouldn't know what to do if it did. Did it stop her? No it didn't.
'I don't even know how to mend a puncture,' she admitted. 'Maybe I'm just lucky but right round the world I only got three and every time there was somebody there happy to do it for me.'
In her book Lone Traveller she talks of people 'who would dearly love to go on an adventure, but teeter on the brink, full of self-doubt'. They talk themselves out of it. They forget the fun is in the adventure, the who-knows-what-nextness of casual travel. 'You don't have to be twenty, male and an ace mechanic,' she says. 'I've cycled around the world twice now. I'm not young, I'm not sporty, I never train, I appreciate good food and wine, and I still can't tell a sprocket from a chain ring or mend a puncture!'
Does she wipe up the miles? I shouldn't think so. You don't have to be a speed-fascist. That's what you get from thinking what you do is linked to the Tour de France, like the fat old jogger who gives up because he can't run a four-minute mile. Forget speed. In fact, to be a successful pootler you should go very slowly indeed, says the arch-priest of pootling, Gareth Lovett Jones.
'Pootle has emerged as an inspired combination of pedal and footle,' he says. 'But the pejorative overtones -- the notion of scurrilous time-wasting and aimlessness -- implicit in the latter are entirely absent. The pootlist is never shamefaced or apologetic --indeed he is quite the opposite -- in discussing the fact that he has done nothing very much and, what is more, has done it randomly and taken rather a lot of time over it.'
And for 'he' read 'she', he says. 'Truth to tell some of my best friends are female pootlists.' And what is the pootlist's philosophy? That 'while as the days pass he may well find himself growing fitter than he has been for many a month, his first concern is not physical exercise... but to live life as fully as life will allow.'
That's the key. You know that Nike slogan, 'Just do it'? Well, you can't, you won't, if you sit and worry about it first. It's caution that kills. I have friends who ride with half a bike shop of tools... for 30 miles. Thirty miles? Come on, you'll never be beyond walking distance. You'll never be more than 15 miles from home, and then only if you ride in a straight line. We're talking inconvenience, not shipwreck. This is one of the world's most densely populated countries. You don't need maroons to call for help.
No, all you need is enough to mend a puncture. There's not much worse than that that you can still mend on the road, at least not without tools you'll carry for years as you wait for the right mishap. It's a rare mishap you can't at least scoot the bike along to a garage. Oh and another point. The tools may be neurotic deadweight but that doesn't mean you have to go without everything else. You know the best gear I had cycling across Holland? It wasn't the lightweight tent or the cooking gear, although I'd have been less comfortable without them. No, the thing I remember with complete happiness was a paperback. Can't even remember what it was but I do remember pleasant half-hours in the sun reading it whenever I fancied. Just getting off and idling was as much fun as riding. In fact it probably made the riding even better.
If you want to do the same with a bottle of wine, a sketch book, the works of a French philosopher or a string puppet, well who's to stop you? If you fancy buying a packet of fig rolls and scoffing the lot, who cares? It's your ride, nobody else's. Forget the rules. Just do it. Get on your bike and ride somewhere. When it suits you, turn round and come back. The best rides start at your own front door. Easy as that.
Think of Walter Stolle.
He set off in January 1959 and he was still at it two decades later. I remember
in 1974 reading that just that year he'd ridden 22,060 miles through Nigeria,
Niger, Dahomey, Tojo, Upper Volta, Ghana, Sierre Leone, the Ivory Coast, Liberia
and Guinea. He paid his way with slide shows in seven languages. He'd given
more than 2,500 by then and worked his way through 11 bikes.
Does that sound like a man who repaired all his windows before he went?
Of course things will go wrong. Sometimes you'll pick something too big. Take Graham Webb for instance.
'As a kid, I used to keep riding from Birmingham to Gloucester and back to see if I could do it. And for a long time I couldn't and I'd lie in a ditch in exhaustion. No other reason. I just did it to see if I could do it. And when I couldn't, I carried on until I could.'
'I just enjoyed it. I enjoyed suffering, I suppose. I still do.'
Well, it's not pootling and it may not even be fun. Not by my standards and maybe not by yours. But it was fun for him, and that's all that matters. If he'd asked advice, he'd have been told not to do it. But he didn't, and he loved it. It shows nothing much will come of even the hardest rides. And it couldn't have done Webb any harm because a few years later he became world road race champion, the last man in Britain ever to do it.
Oh yes, yes, you need a bike that won't fall to bits before you do. You can't do it on tyres that show the inner tube or gears that haven't worked in years. I know all that. The point is that you don't need a super-techno, Dayglo, mega-geared spaceshot of a bike just to go for a ride. People worry about their bike worry too much. Does it work? Will it get you to the shops? Will it get you beyond the shops? Fine. Bikes don't break down, not unless they've been neglected for years.
People used to have a whale of a time on penny-farthings; I'm sure you don't have to worry whether your bike would raise eyebrows in a world championship. If it'll last as long as you do, it's fine.
I met some lads at Ewhurst Green youth hostel once. Still at school they were, so the break from regimentation suited them. Plus they wouldn't have known good equipment even if they'd been able to afford it. Terry, the one from the Isle of Wight, had a saddle with a hole in it. Or rather, a gash. It had grown old and dry and the leather had split along the three holes in the top, like a coupon half-torn from a magazine.
He followed my eyes and grinned. 'Your bum gets used to it,' he said. If he'd been a worrier, he'd never have left home. He'd have saved for a new saddle and before he'd bought it he'd have got interested in something else, or lost interest in everything, and he'd never have got to Ewhurst Green or anywhere else in two weeks of happy travelling.
Look, here's an idea. One weekend this summer, have a doze on Saturday afternoon and set off at 10 and ride through the night. Don't worry where. Just choose a direction and ride off with a packet of sandwiches and a flask of coffee. Why? Well, have you ever done it before? No? Good reason to do it, then.
I did that once. I remember every mile decades later. I remember being stopped in the Ashdown Forest by police who hoped I'd escaped from a borstal and gave me coffee when they realised I hadn't. I remember owls near Gatwick airport and midnight people who waved and smiled, detached from the straight-faced glumness of ordinary life. They too were doing something odd. They recognised a fellow spirit.
I remember sitting in a telephone box with a roadworks lamp when it got cold before dawn. I smiled when I remembered my friend John Harding. 'I slept in a telephone box before early-morning time-trials sometimes,' he used to say. 'It was fine if you got in first and pulled the bike, wheels and bags in after you... and if you didn't turn the light on by leaning on the door.' In those days the inside light operated on a time switch connected to the door. In those days, too, private phones were rare and once his sojourn was interrupted by a man who wanted a midwife. The image of them pulling out all the bits of bike so the husband could cope with his emergency came to me then as I sat with the paraffin lamp under my cape for warmth.
I hadn't planned, I hadn't worn enough. Did I die? No I didn't. I have marvellous memories. I remember a giant breakfast on the sea front at Eastbourne. And I remember Alfriston youth hostel being full but getting a bed in an attic where the window was covered with dead but preserved butterflies.
Next day I had cream tea at Abinger Hammer and a good talking-to from my parents. Did I care? No. Had I planned it? No. That was what upset my them. I hadn't planned it. But planning... that's what Sensible Parents do. You don't have to. You can't head into the Sahara with two litres of water. You have to know your limits, but mostly it's common sense.
Much more you need a sense of fun, the willingness to do something for the novelty. Here's a thought. Pick five places on the map that start with the first letter of your name. Build them into a loop and ride it. Or -- an idea I got from the cartoonist Johnny Helms -- dot in the coloured roads you ride on your Ordnance Survey map. The more you ride, the more you'll twist, turn and go in eccentric directions you'd never considered, just to get to roads you missed. And you'll see every village, every view from every direction.
It can get you to unusual places, too. Alan Helsdon set out to ride all the lanes and main roads of Norfolk. The project gave him a fresh view of cycling and he ended up promising himself a 100-miler at least once a month. It took him eight years and by the time he'd finished he'd crossed a battlefield. He looked at the giant military training ground at Thetford and all the roads he was kept from riding and wrote to the army and told them he wanted to see them.
'It annoys me intensely that the Stanta battle-training ground it is still there and takes up so much beautiful countryside,' he said. 'They were very helpful and said I could go anywhere provided I watched a safety video that told me not to pick up anything metal coloured orange or black and yellow.'
Is that something you'd do if you stuck to just the same old roads, same old routes? I doubt it. Somewhere in your heart, do you worry that you worry, that worrying -- or 'planning', to give it the word that hides the truth -- is simply an excuse not to do it? Do you remember when you were a kid and you looked at everything with fresh eyes, when you discovered things for the first time and remembered them for ever? Those were the days when smells would stay with you for life and memories would be the best you'd ever had. You didn't organise yourself out of existence then, did you? You just went and did it.
So go on, do it. Now.
© Les Woodland
Bycycle, June/July 2000
other stories by L Woodland
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