Watch a few edits, read a few features and even check the reviews and you’ll notice there’s a lot of emphasis on group riding. With real life, just as in our online lives, there’s a belief that nothing’s really been experienced unless it’s been shared, witnessed and filtered.
In road cycling it’s all about forming your own TdF-alike peleton and whirring as one towards zero-percent body fat. In mountain biking it’s more likely to involve something akin to a classroom 20 minutes after the teacher inexplicably hasn’t turned up.
Either way, there’s a big element of our sport that thrives on camaraderie, on being sociable, and of course on taking road trips where everyone constantly does pranks and it’s so, so hilarious.
You know what? Nuts to being sociable. Hell is other people. If you’re escaping into the hills on a bicycle made for one, why take your own hell with you? There’s a lot to be said for solo rides up and away into the green. They’re good for the soul.
It was Jean Paul Sartre who said that other people are hell — it’s a line from his play No Exit, a play very few schools choose to put on at Christmas — so don’t blame me. And it’s not as misanthropic as you might assume, but don’t blame me for that either.
He didn’t simply mean that everyone else is awful: you don’t read French philosophers to discover that. What he was saying was more subtle.
What Sartre meant was that you can’t be free of the fear of being judged unless you’re truly, completely alone. He was talking about that hard-to-ditch feeling of being watched and criticised by some vague ‘other’, a feeling we variously put down to paranoia, God, family, aliens among us, speed cameras, GCHQ, that guy with the really new carbon bike and Mark Zuckerberg. Sartre’s point was that you’re only truly free to be yourself, and free of anxiety about your own being, if there’s no-one else around.
In No Exit, the three characters are trapped in a room forever and they’re each the other’s hell. Probably one of them thinks pranks are actually funny and keeps loosening the top of the salt shaker. I don’t know, I haven’t read it.
Here’s the thing. Bicycles are the perfect machine for getting truly away from other people. They’re the ideal way of escaping other people’s terrible judgementalism and their stupid, stupid haircuts. Bicycles are the best. Think about it. Cars are too coddling and have radios and mobile phones to reconnect you to society. Lorries are the same but bigger and smellier, plus you can add CB radios to the distractions.
Even motorcycles cut you off from where you’re going — person-free nature — with their noise and enveloping helmets and restricted access to land. Horses are fine until they decide they’re going somewhere else, throw you into a ditch and kick you in the head.
Some might argue that air travel has bicycles beaten. Not commercial air travel, of course, because that accounts for at least three of the Circles of Hell in Dante’s Inferno (four if you’re flying to America). It’s true that a glider or hot air balloon can really get you away from everyone and in relative peace. Yet these advocates (all boosting your anxiety by judging you in their stupid, stupid trousers) are wrong. Gliders have to be towed into the sky like broken-down cars, only to circle the invisible roundabouts of thermals or else fall down, while hot air balloons are simply a pleasant form of suicide for the unadventurous.
Bicycles may have suffered some dodgy geometry and poor design decisions in the past, but at least they never put you in a basket made of kindling along with a gas bottle and fire. Sure, hot air balloons scoop you silently aloft — bar the roar of the burner, the creak of the wicker and the panicky shouts of the man working on the powerlines — but you’ll probably end up surrounded by emergency services. And let me tell you, those people are not restful. They will watch your burning canopy set the nursing home alight and they will judge you.
Bicycles are the greatest form of transport for escaping civilisation without missing out on either the destination or the journey. Fact. They’re near-silent, go almost anywhere, don’t pollute, cover miles with ease and pretty much never explode.
They’re a ticket to a freedom that encompasses both exterior and interior worlds — they’re so great they even made Sartre smile, and that guy’s one-liners were all like, “Every existing thing is born without reason,” and “Nothingness lies coiled at the heart of being, like a worm.” Note that the second line actually predicted the replacement of coil springs with air shocks. People don’t realise he was a real shredder.
So bikes have a very special, powerful ability. But it’s an ability that reaches its ultimate form solo. Why spoil this beautiful thing by being, you know, sociable? With others? With so-called ‘people’? Those judgemental ‘other people’ with their stupid, stupid cheekbones.
So if you usually ride in groups, try giving a less fashionable (or at least, less socially acceptable) solo ride a go. Find the quiet places on the map, switch off the Strava and head out on your truly lonely-only to a place of genuine calm, peace and happiness. Just don’t do it near me, eh? Because if I see you, I will totally judge you.
I mean, those socks. What were you thinking?