Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
This is all about bikes.
I had a good summer of riding—probably my best ever, to be honest. After struggling with a bad back for so much last year I was more than ready for it. While everyone else struggled through rain and mud in the UK I took myself off to rural Massachusetts for most of July and August. The idea was to use the solitude to write. And that’s what I did, taking advantage of the quiet to produce 51000 words and finish a couple of the big chapters that make up my next book. But the idea was also to take advantage of the chance to ride in the stunning hills and valleys of the Berkshires. I did that too, getting out on the road bike for a couple of hours every day to explore the back roads of Massachusetts, Vermont and New York. It was exactly the kind of riding I get so little chance to do around Oxford: quiet roads and big mountain passes in glorious searing sunshine. In eight weeks I did 1300 miles. After I got back on this side of the Atlantic the summer of riding got even better. Road bike and Lycra were swapped for the touring bike, panniers and respectably baggy shorts as we headed down the Danube from Ulm to Vienna. The sun still shone, but this was a complete change of pace—taking in the sights and relishing the constantly changing scenery that accompanies the Danube as it flows down through Bavaria and Austria—nine days and 450-odd miles this time.
I had a good summer of riding. And now as I’m back in Oxford and the routine of teaching has started all over again I can feel the wheels turning in a very different way. The seasons have changed. The blue skies and sun of a New England and continental summer have become the pervasive grey fog and turning leaves of a British autumn. I feel the passing of the summer in the encroaching damp and cold. More than this, I look at my photographs and Garmin tracks and feel the passing of the summer in the growing distance between now and then. I can sense it in the way that the miles slowly drain from my legs and the snap and energy that comes with for once being in decent shape recedes inexorably. I can see it as my tan lines—razor sharp on arms and thighs just a few weeks ago—gradually fade. It won’t be long now until I return to the all over pallor of the winter cyclist. I can almost measure the distance between then and now as the long scar on my arm—product of a close encounter with the Boars Hill brambles way back in June—also gradually vanishes. For sure, the cycles of the seasons are something that happens out there in the world. But they also register in and on me in ways that prompt both wistful nostalgia and a real sense of satisfaction.
Yes, I had a good summer of riding.