What possible link is there between philosophy and cycling? Philosophy is for bods with beards who sit in dusty rooms talking to sleepy students. Cycling is for people who want to get out into the world and burn off some calories. But the more you think about the link between cycling and philosophy the more sense it makes.
Think about the last time you raced up a hill midsummer. Your legs ached like they were about to fall off and your lungs felt they were about to pop. So why do it? If it was just about the endorphin high then why not just go to the gym. If it was just about the challenge why not take up fell running? For every rider the answer will be different. And yet the question remains. Why? And this, essentially, is what philosophy is for. To wake us up to what we do and why we do it and help us to lead healthier and happier lives.
I cycled, with my girlfriend Jen, four thousand miles from the UK to India through France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran and, after a hop on a container ship, onto India (we couldn’t get a visa for Pakistan.) We then rode another thousand miles down the west coast of the India to the southernmost point of the country.
When I came back it wasn’t enough to just explain the journey. I wanted to explain why anyone would want to ride that far and what made cycling such an exciting way to do it. Philosophy, like a good multi tool, was the secret to unlocking these ideas and putting them back together again.
Mind and the body have long been considered separate in the West; mind is what we use at the office and the body is we what we use to pedal up hills to get there. But some Eastern philosophies say otherwise; mind and body are different parts of the same thing. You can’t separate them. Which is why cycling up hills in the summertime doesn’t just change the shape of our muscles, but also the way in which we think.
This is why when we say, “that was a good ride” we are also saying something much more complex and interesting about the way that we can change and extend ourselves through what we do. Cycling takes us to the extremes of stamina, psychology and geography, in a way other transport can only dream of. It stretches not just our bodies but our minds.
And you don’t need a PhD in philosophy to understand that. Just a well-oiled drivetrain.
Jet McDonald is crowdfunding his book “Mind is the Ride” on Cycling and Philosophy, based on his bike ride to India and a tour round the parts of bicycle, with Unbound publishers. You can learn more about the project and pledge for an advance copy here