Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
This is why I ride.
A mid-life crisis becomes an annual event, and a trip to Mallorca becomes a chance to escape. Like history, life looks different over the bars of a bicycle.
Whether it is into the hills of mid-Wales or the big mountains of the Serra de Tramuntana there is nothing like the sensation of riding up and out of the everyday to lift you out of yourself. In the drop over your right shoulder on the Col de sa Batalla and the alternating glimpses of the Mediterranean and Soller – both equally distant below – as you grind up Puig Major are reminders that some things are much less important than you thought they were. The smell of the sea in the rain that falls and the feel of the sun through the holes in your gloves call your attention.
Sometimes it is good to be scared. These times are usually after the time when you really were scared, of course. But once you are down through those mountain switchbacks, once you have dried out and stopped shivering, then you can recount those stories of roads slick with rain and brakes that no longer work and just how fucking cold you were up on that mountain. And in the time you really were scared, you realise that you had to think of nothing more of how it felt to be wet, cold, and bonking.
That is always what it is like to ride, though. How can you think of anything other than the bike and the place and the people you are with when you are in the saddle? The road that twists and ramps and turns back on itself demands all your attention. Fix your gaze on the wheel or tarmac ahead and dig deep. Sink into the burning feeling that builds in your legs, and ignore those other aches that come from your back and shoulders and arms.
Pedal. That is all there is to do. Pedal to the cadence of the song in your head. Pedal as you count down the distance to the next bend, the next rider, the top of the hill. Always pedal, even as you can taste salt and iron and your chest is tight and your breathing rattles deep in your chest.
A Rapha cliché: in the suffering of a cyclist there is escape and redemption.
But this is the illusion and delusion of the man getting older. I am not Bernard Hinault suffering through the snow of Liege-Bastogne-Liege. I am 40, my head is necessarily shaved and my beard is white, and if I do not stretch regularly my back is prone to seize. Comically inflexible, I struggle onto the bike and stumble off it.
I ride for and in the numbers, though I do not know why or what they mean. Counting the miles I clock each week, month, year gives me something to measure and something to aim for. Missing 5000 in a year means I have failed somehow. Making 5000 in a year means I have made it.
Where have I made it to? Fuck knows.
Some numbers from a trip to Mallorca:
22 hours 48 minutes in the saddle
6541 metres of climbing
As the miles add up they track the progress of my own life. To count the miles up is also to count the years up – and, perhaps, also to count the years down. Perhaps the numbers are the mark of my ageing – which is, after all, what this mid-life crisis is about. Perhaps they contain and carry my desperate attempt to stave off the passing years. There is reassurance in getting to the top of Puig Major six minutes quicker than last year; there is embarrassing pleasure in taking time off my previous best on the Col d’Orient. This cannot continue year on year, however.
I’m not sure what I will do when the numbers start going the other way.
Is this what Hemingway was up to when he scribbled his weight on the wall of his bathroom each day?
This is also why I ride: for the conversations you can have in the saddle (and out of it), for the stories of suffering and excitement you can share, for a fourfold disquisition on the benefits of shaving your legs. For beers in a bar with a display cabinet full of fake meat.
This is why I ride, and this is why I will be back in Mallorca next spring. All being well.
As always, thanks to Adam, Dave, and Nathan for the company, the photographs, and the wheels to hang onto.