Running secretly, silently, almost unseen through the suburbs of southern commuterland is the fifty kilometre by five metre strip of tranquility which is the restored Basingtoke Canal. Canals in the North of England can a brutal
affair; blasted through hillsides, bounded by industry, an early battle between man and the landscape but this is a more sedate rural meander through gentle country, more of a compromise than a conflict between us and nature. That isn’t to say this arcadian scene hasn’t seen friction. The eighteenth century constructors ran up against unenthusiastic landowners, had the german army landed on the south coast in 1940 this would have been the site of our last stand, the volunteers who restored the canal in the nineteen eighties with the dream of reinstating a working waterway found their intentions hampered by public authorities who declared the canal a nature reserve and today, as in many places, I expect the towpath doesn’t always easily accomodate the wheeled and non-wheeled users of it’s narrow track. Fortunately easy-to-squeeze-by drop handlebars, a tourist’s slow pace and concern not to upset the natives and looking even less like the characters who adorn the covers of cycling magazines than normal meant I never exchanged any words other than good afternoon
with folks out for a stroll except for when I stopped some distance short of a lady pushing an old fella in a wheelchair who, after a grinning mexican stand-off worthy only of the lamest spaghretti western you ever saw insisted I come on through promising faithfully she wouldn’t push me in the water. Who knows, maybe there is still a chance we can all get along with one another after all.
I suppose I've never really got the idea of a holiday by the sea. The coast is where you go to travel somewhere else so a holiday at a seaside town is the vacation equivalent of spending a week in a flghtless airport terminal or silent and rusting disused railway siding. There isn’t anything very much to do or look at and in fact the sea is the opposite of a view; it is, as the permanent neighbour of our temporary residence put it, a blank canvas. There is sound of course, smell; salt, seaweed and seagull shit, and the touch of shingle on bare toes but it’s still a kind of sensory deprivation. For someone who has, as have many, experienced that non-specific feeling of having missed the boat, or several boats, or if truth be told more like a whole f****g navy, a source of great regret for someone who counts on the sparse positive side of a list of personal strengths and weaknesses a complete imperviousness to any form of motion sickness, in fact it’s standing still for too long on dry land which doesn’t feel right to my wrong-way-around constitution, this is not the ideal environment for rest and recuperation. The sensation of having been left behind is only heightened by the twinkling lights of the cross channel ferries heading for the horizon by night and the tide rising over then uncovering the Mulberry caisson which never made it to Normandy back in 1944 by day. At the seaside you can sleep of course but I’m not the world’s greatest at that, you can read but I read a book once and didn't really enjoy it, and you can think but thinking without any problem or purpose is like riding a bike indoors on rollers, to add a tenous cycling reference to what is supposed after all to be a bike blog, which is to say an ultimately unsatisfying affair which misses the point of doing it completely and can only end by falling off and bruising your psyche against the metaphysical kitchen cupboard with all the sharp and pointy stuff of the sunbconcious in it. I get dry land, I get the sea, it’s just the bit in between the appeal of which somehow, like so much else, passes me by. Still, as Nelson, whose flagship lies just up the road, announced to his crews, and I’m paraphrasing here, everyone is expected to do their duty and holidays are about what other people want, not you, so shut up, smile and think of home.
Despite the disappointment that twenty kilometres and the only two hills on the route had been taken out of the course by the organisers due to the wet weather inevitably felt by many, especially by those who don’t fully grasp the concept of not riding over a small hill just because it’s raining and who drove a five hundred mile round trip to take part in what turned out to be a diminished version of the billed event, I suppose it is kind of possible to understand the decision after seeing how many accidents there were yesterday, the first one witnessed by myself being a rider in front of me at traffic lights on the way to the start who fell from his stationery bike taking out the lass next to him in the process, and so it is perhaps important to accentuate the positive when it comes to Sunday’s RideLondon bikesportiveride, that curious and rather marvellous fusion of charity fundraisers and weekend warriors, of the newbies and the seasoned, of the eccentric and the takingitmuchtooseriously, the unique experiences that came from this pootle around what even non-Londoners would have to recognise as one of the most important towns in the South East of England.
After all, on what other weekend can you stay in an East London hotel where it is the guests not wearing bike gear who feel a bit conspicuous and self concious, where else do you get the chance to receive free Haribos (and Tangfastics at that, not the usual boring Supermix) from a real live person by buying a t-shirt from the Wiggle shop at the sign-on expo even if the logo does need altering now from RideLondon100 to RideLondon87, what other time can you up close and personal with the Rapha H-van as it doesn’t look like it would get this far north in a human lifetime under it’s own steam, on which other day can you ride the Hammersmith Flyover, the Blackwall Tunnel and scary looking six lane highways which if bikes aren’t banned from them completely you’d need to be much braver than I am to ride them, on what other occasion can you pedal a bike at quite an unfeasible number of kilometres per hour on the wrong side of the road and past every red light through the Monopoly Board place names of the centre of town and push your biggest gear past the Palace of Westmister and the National Gallery to recreate your fading memory of finishing the London Marathon on the Mall all those years ago then drift back to the City along a silent and traffic free Victoria Embankment, so lost in your thoughts and in the views of the river and in the sheer peacefulness of it all that you are overtaken by a young lad weaving precariously on a Boris bike?
The failure of Mayor Boris’s charm and persuasion to ensure the large Atlantic depression formerly known as Hurricane Bertha didn’t dump 50mm of precipitation on his jurisdiction yesterday may be the reason he is going back into parliament to get more powers. Not being from down that way I don’t know what his legacy to London in the non-cycling field will be, other than perhaps planning permission for lots of very tall glass-sided buildings, but I hope this celebration of all things two-wheeled and human-powered continues, if only so I can come back and ride it on a sunny day, finally go up Box Hill, and find out what I was missing.