Back in the saddle

Cycling again after ten years

Yesterday I went on my first long cycle in ten years. That seems a crazy thing to write, when cycling used to be one of my favourite things. Why did I abandon it for so long?

A bit of history

Before I moved away to London in 2007, I’d been a keen cyclist in and around Brighton. It kept me fit and got me out in the fresh air, but above all it satisfied my explorer nature: there was nothing more enjoyable than heading off over the South Downs and discovering a new little village, a great view, or a secluded beauty spot. I had spent a good 15 years or so cycling — both to work and for fun — and it had been a big part of my life.

When I moved to London I sold my bike. I was moving into a shared house and knew there would be no space to keep the bike. But more importantly, I knew that I wasn’t going to cycle around London. It’s a ridiculously dangerous city for cyclists, and I had no interest in getting around it on two wheels.

I spent the next 6 years living and working in London and enjoying it via public transport. The cycling went out of the window and became a distant memory, and I didn’t replace it with anything. I stopped exercising completely, and with my work life sat in front of computers, my health and fitness became abysmal.

In 2012 I had keyhole surgery on my knees to fix old problems with my kneecaps moving out of position while walking. It was quite a novel experience having my kneecaps pop in and out and it was overdue some surgical assistance. I was out of action for a couple of weeks initially, and the only exercise I did during that time was the recovery work given to me by the physiotherapist. It took a few months to get back up to speed, but even then I didn’t really heed the warnings about my general fitness and rapidly stopped exercising.

After moving to Gravesend in 2013 to be with my partner, I had decided to get a bike, but with the next few years being mostly about renovating our house, I never got around to it. By the end of 2016 my general fitness was so bad, and my knees so weak, I couldn’t leave it any longer. I had to do something, and I bought a new bike in the Christmas sales, a basic hybrid Voodoo Marasa. I knew initially that I didn’t want to do much off-roading while I got used to cycling again, so a hybrid seemed the better option.

The bike sat in the garage until May this year when I did one short local trip to the in-laws and I promptly pulled a muscle in my thigh. Brilliant.

The first day of many

A couple more months passed, the bike went unused and my overall fitness was still at an all-time low. It was time to stop farting about and just get on with it. Finally this weekend I got out for my first proper cycle. It was a perfect day: sunny but not too hot, with a light breeze.

There is a disused canal that joins Gravesend with nearby Higham and I’ve walked along it a few times since living here. A path runs alongside and although only some of it is a public right of way, the charity Sustrans have negotiated with the landowner to allow walkers and cyclists to travel its full length. I decided to just do a short cycle along this canal path and return by the same way. It would be enough to stretch my legs and test the bike.

Canal Path Rest Point
The canal path follows open fields and eventually becomes enclosed by trees. Some of the old canal has been cleared and benches installed for pretty little rest points.

The initial ride was easy. The first part of the path is a proper road, and when it switches to gravel that was fine too. Nothing troubling for the new bike, although I did briefly think I should have got a bike with springs. I took a few pictures as I went and eventually got out at the other end. It had been an easy and relatively quick ride and at this point I should have come home. But I was having fun and decided to go on and explore a little — I don’t really know this area and checking Google maps showed plenty of small country lanes that might be worth a quick visit.

As I cycled down Canal Road towards Higham, I stopped to check my bearings near a small stone bridge where a train line passes overhead. It was sunny and peaceful and no-one else to be seen. It felt almost like a secret spot, and I was overcome with a sense of nostalgia and contentment. I felt like I used to when I cycled around the South Downs in the past. It’s hard to explain but feeling like the only person in the middle of nowhere gives me a small thrill. In reality this spot is probably quite busy during the week, being a feeder road for various industrial small-holdings, but right then at that moment, I felt like the only person to see it in decades. There’s a sense of times past that can’t be recaptured and I wanted to feel more of it.

I cycled on and up towards Church Street, looking out across ripe corn fields and took some pictures. At the end of the lane there was a pretty church and a very tiny village. It was old England, the country-side I remembered from child-hood walks. I sat by the road for a while and soaked up the past.

I checked the map and saw that Cliffe Pools, an RSPB nature reserve wasn’t far away and decided to visit. I was feeling fine and didn’t think it would take long, so I travelled along Buckland Road and briefly stopped at the smaller Buckland Lake Reserve on the way. Eventually when I got to Cliffe Pools, I was aware that my knees were aching and I had probably come far enough. But a security guard saw me looking at the map on my phone and said I could cycle round the entire reserve and gave me directions. I decided to explore a little and eventually found myself riding along a path between two lakes where I took a couple of pictures. Bizarrely, one of them was of the remains of a burnt out car and it reminded me of scenes from Dear Esther. Life imitating art, or the flip-side?

Time was moving on. I’d said I’d be out for just an hour, but two hours had already passed.

Cliff Pools Burnt Out Car
A dead car on the edge of the lake.

I turned round and started home. But my knees were now extremely tired and what I hadn’t realised earlier is that the wind had been behind me all the way here. I was now cycling into a light headwind. Nothing tricky, but with my low fitness and aching knees I knew it was going to be a bit tougher to get home. I stopped many times to rest. Eventually I got home by mostly the same route, but my knees had turned to jelly and I was totally knackered. I’d not had lunch and by now it was nearly four o’clock.

I made some silly decisions on that ride. I should not have gone so far on my first trip, and should definitely have come home sooner. But the sense of freedom I’d tasted and all the reminders of why I loved cycling had come flooding back. It may only be the first step, but it was an important one: it had been the first day of finding my old self again, and I’m looking forward to more.