A soothing alarm gently forces me out of my dream and triggers an automatic reflex as my arm glides out from beneath the sheets to hit the ‘off’ button. By now I’m so programmed by routine that I spring into action like clockwork and pull on my cycling clothes. My brain won’t fully engage until I’ve eaten something and the portion that’s controlling me now only has one simple objective; find the kitchen and consume honey and peanut butter on toast. Though full of people, the house is deadly silent, my family are sleeping and my neighbours won’t be awake until after I’m gone – these next few minutes are mine alone. I can’t hang around, I must move quickly, efficiently and quietly. I have a cold dark ride ahead and I don’t want to be disturbed. This is my favorite time of the day.
My bike sits waiting for me in the garage, she’s ready to go, I can almost feel it. I can see the thin coating of frost on the garage door and I know when I grab the bike’s frame its painted aluminium surface will suck the warmth from my hands making me hurry. The next ten minutes pass by unnoticed as I go through the motions of a predictable and safe routine. But as I glance at the clock I see that time is running out. My body as well as my mind knows what comes next and I feel excitement growing.
I can imagine myself cycling and envisage every turn, hill and camber in the imminent ride. As I boil the kettle my mind wanders forwards, I see myself climbing up the hill out of my village, lit by dim orange street lamps. My heart is fooled by the daydream and responds, it beats faster in my chest and I feel restless. I wolf down the last round of toast, finish off my tea and head for the door.
I almost run across the drive to the garage, cleats clicking on the frozen ground and the cold biting into my legs. The fox runs out from behind the garage and slinks off towards the neighbouring fields – he’s there most mornings, but recently he doesn’t run away from me as fast as he used to. I grab the bike, the frame is cold as I imagined and my hands ache. I slide my arms into my rucksack that I prepared the previous night, clip into my pedals and tentatively ride out onto the street. It’s the middle of winter and the roads are icy. I ride under the street lamp to get a good look at the road, my street is one of the worst. If it’s safe to go fast here then today will be a sprint, if it’s too icy then I should cycle slowly.
The road looks pretty frozen, I can’t tell if it’s safe or not so I take the next corner cautiously. I free-wheel down into the dip and, just before the hill, decide that it’s safe. I take a breath, dig deep and cruise up the other side. I feel fresh and lively in the cold air and immediately imagine that today will be faster than usual. I get up out of the saddle, weave around the co-op delivery van, sprint past the new housing estate and I’m out of the village.
I turn my head torch to full brightness, the village glows dimly behind me but the country road I’m on now is pitch black, the light flickers off the hedgerows and shakes as I career down the hill towards the brook. As I approach the bottom I can feel the moisture in the air, I know from experience that it’s a warning of what’s to come and seconds later, predictably, I’m engulfed in a freezing mist. The light from my head torch is reflected off tiny water droplets and back into my eyes. I can’t see well but I know the road exactly and hold a steady line around the sweeping bend. The icy air feels sharp against the back of my hands as I grip the handlebars and tuck down into race position. My forehead begins to ache as the cold induces a kind of brain freeze and though I can’t see the end of the mist I know it’s close, I can hear the water running under the road and know in a few seconds the tarmac will rear up elevating me above the low lying mist. The air will feel warmer, my visibility will return and I can focus on the next obstacle; a long steep hill to the crossroads.
I always enjoy hills, but after pushing through thick, damp freezing mist I’ll especially relish the chance to build up some warmth. By now I’ve been riding for 5 minutes and I can just begin to feel heat building up in my legs and torso. I stay in my saddle and settle in for the climb. I push to keep my cadence high, spinning my legs as fast as they will go, gradually I change up through the gears as the road flattens out and I’m away, on the straight and flat for the next few miles.
This is the section where my mind wanders, the dim orange street-lights have returned gently buzzing overhead as my bike whirs away below. I weave around a manhole without really registering it’s there and chase the glow of lights in the distance. As I turn left onto a busier road I see the first cars of my journey, I also see the smear of light in the sky showing me where the sun will rise later in the day. I race along, rattling on the bumpy road. I feel frustrated at the poor cycling infrastructure as I watch cars cutting the corner up ahead. I watch them meandering into the shoulder that I’m about to ride on and the frustration is vented as I redouble my efforts and force the bike to go faster. My lungs feel strong but they’re struggling with the cold as I suck in huge quantities of frigid air, I cough and ease off for a second before putting my head down and pushing on again.
I hug the inside of a long corner and grin as the road becomes silky smooth, I change up through my gears and jump a couple of red lights that I know from experience are safe. The long straight ahead runs slightly downhill and I pass a few more cars as we all head towards the city. The street lights become more frequent, as do the cars. As I glance through their windows I see tired drivers with vacant expressions. Some are applying make-up, others are trying to eat something and as I pass them by I begin to resent their selfishness for putting my safety at risk. I watch the traffic closely, expecting the worst and adopt a more aggressive riding posture.
I’m nearly at my destination and this close to the city the traffic beside me is almost at a standstill, I signal right, check over my shoulder and push out into the middle of the road, check the other way and exit onto a private side road. I’m riding in the pitch dark for a second time and, this time, competing with huge potholes caused by icy weather and neglect. Again, I see light up ahead and emerge onto a smooth surface, I zip across the car park, lock my bike up and stride through the door. I have arrived at work, just like the countless times before. I see the familiar sleepy faces of colleges and night staff and greet them a cheery “good morning” before slipping into a shirt and trousers and starting my working day.
That commute to work (a job I left to cycle to New Zealand) was my way of guaranteeing I’d be fresh and alert for my shift. It also made me bullet-proof as far as work politics are concerned. Anything that happened at work was always immediately put into perspective; nothing was as important as cycling and I was only a few short hours from a great ride home. Unlike a car, work doesn’t pay for my bike and when I cycle I feel fully independent of employment. It’s that subversive quality of bicycles that empowers people by making them less dependant on others and less interested in the typical status symbols of society. Strange as it may seem; that commute is one of my all time favorite rides.