At 3:41am on Thursday 7th May 2015, the rear wheel of our tandem passed over the drain that marked the end point at John O’Groats 45 hours and 11 minutes and 842 miles after leaving Lands End. In so doing, we had broken the 49 year old End to End record that had stood since Swinden and Withers rode the route in 1966 in a time of 50 hours 14 minutes and 25 seconds.
There are all sorts of reasons to go for a ride. Sometimes you want to explore, and to mark the world with your tires like your bike is a cat and the road is someone’s pant leg. Sometimes you want to challenge yourself on that big climb–or, even more pathetically, to challenge complete strangers via some social networking app like Strava. And sometimes you just wanna get naked.
The centennial commemorations of the First World War remind us of the origins of the phrase ‘over the top’, now widely used to describe anything extreme or outrageous. The stuttering newsreel shots show young men clambering out of their trenches (‘over the top’) and walking briskly into machine gun fire, barbed wire and almost certain death. With the war not yet a year over, using such a charged phrase ‘over the top’ to describe a bike ride must have been a very deliberate act and that is exactly what Walter MacGregor Robinson did in his celebrated account of a ride across the Berwyn range in north Wales, published in Cycling in May 1919.
When you’re a responsible (or at least not criminally negligent) adult it can be tough to make time to ride. That’s why the secret to maintaining a healthy cycling life is sneaking in those rides when you can–which in turn means knowing when to dispense with the formalities.
Sure, it’s nice to wear the special clothes and brew the special coffee and apply the special unguents to your crotch and limbs in preparation for your time in the saddle, but sometimes doing so can be the difference between taking advantage of an open riding window and having the sash come crashing down on your head while you’re still applying your chamois cream.
On a recent afternoon I had just such a window. Birds were singing, the sun was shining, and a pie was cooling on the windowsill. I knew I had to get out there while I had the chance. So I skipped the riding attire, hastily stuffed a vegan man-purse from Rivendell with some essentials, and decided to take a spin out to City Island, which bills itself as the “Seaport of the Bronx.”
“Photography as a fad is well-nigh on its last legs, thanks principally to the bicycle craze.”
So wrote the great Alfred Stieglitz, one of the pioneers of photography, back in 1893. He was wrong of course. Both these novel technologies of the late nineteenth century are still very much with us. And more than that, they seem to go hand in hand.
Throughout that decade cyclists were earlier adopters of Kodak’s new ‘hand camera’. Kodak boss George Eastman himself rode a bike to work and made long sight-seeing cycle tours of Europe. He knew that the last thing cyclists wanted to carry was a hefty tripod and a saddle bag full of heavy glass plates. His company sponsored round-the-world cyclists Thomas Allen and William Sachtleben, who sent back more than 1,200 circular images on 3.5-inch nitrate negatives, a selection of which are currently on display at an exhibition in the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles.
Photographs by Thomas Allen and William Sachtleben
Every once in a while the cycle industry re-invents itself to follow fashions which come and go. Meanwhile, the ancient spirits of quality and style sit on the fence and watch, lending a helping hand to those who allow them through their doors. The recent resurgence in the hand-built British bicycle is a fashion that was once an epidemic. Almost every town had a cycle shop, with an often rudimentary building attached where a skilled craftsman would be building frames for local cyclists.
After returning from a 59 day tour of mainland Europe, I never envisioned taking on the world on two wheels. But 13 months and 2,000 miles later, I found myself in Istanbul, Turkey far from my home in Ireland once again. With the right support behind me I continued on through 41 countries, covering 30,000 miles on bicycle, and 20,000 by boat. Relying on the kindness of strangers, I lived for two and a half years on the finer things in life, while raising over £5,000 pounds for Depaul Ireland, a charity tackling homelessness on the Emerald Isle.
In the spring of 2013 I set off from California carrying my father’s ashes to his hometown in China. By the end of the year I had cycled across the United States, flown to Norway from Florida and cycled Scandinavia, the Baltics, Central Europe and most of the Balkans. It was early 2014 when I decided to escape the winter doldrums of Europe and fly to the warm and exotic land of Egypt.