The Slow Cycling Movement

What's the obsession with speed? Rouleur takes a close look at the joys of slow (and often happy) cycling

“No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, or happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than man could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace.” John Ruskin

What is this endless fascination with going fast? The need for speed may have been an asset in days of yore when catching prey – or escaping predators – were prerequisites for staying alive, but now? It’s mainly for thrills and spills in our cossetted modern Western lifestyles. There is no pressing need for all this rushing around, is there? 

Related – The Wanderer: In praise of the Randonée

If the past year of pandemic and lockdown has taught us anything, it is to appreciate what we have. And, possibly, what we had lost without even realising it. Birdsong, previously unheard in the city beneath the constant drone of descending airliners delivering endless streams of tourists and business people to our cities, has returned to within earshot. Our roads have been emptied of traffic for the first time in decades, making cycling an enjoyable experience again, whether in town or countryside. It is, most likely, a once in a lifetime opportunity to get a feeling for what riding a bike in the 1950s must have felt like before the motor car’s inexorable march took over our lives.

That said, there is little more galling than some old giffer banging on about how much better everything was ‘back in our day’. That is not the aim here. Turning back the clock is not an option. But maybe there is another way of going about our bike riding that does not involve thrashing ourselves senseless.

I’ve been a bike racer all my life, off and on. A poor one, admittedly, but competition framed my cycling life. Riding with club-mates and pals was always a big part of it, but racing was where it was at. Some athletes enjoy the training process, I gather. Not this one. A necessary evil, to be endured, not enjoyed. Get it done and bring on the competition. (This may explain my spectacular mediocrity in all racing disciplines, but we’ll leave that for another day.)

Cyclo-cross was my passion for two decades. Cold, muddy, miserable mud-plugging. It’s not for everyone and there lies its appeal, personally speaking. Crossers are outliers. Weirdos. Going against the grain because... who wants to go with the herd?

Somewhere down the line, the appeal started to fade. Maybe it was the feeling of being stuck in a cycling rut after 20 years of the same routine every weekend. Perhaps it was the inexorable fade from the pointy end of affairs to the middle of the pack and further back. 

But my feeling is that driving several hours for an hour of self-gratification that no longer felt particularly gratifying – not to mention standing in a cold, dark mid-winter’s garden cleaning bikes ready for the following weekend – no longer made sense. This was not cycling as we know and love it. Why persist, other than out of habit?

Lockdown life and riding empty roads reminded me of a notion we’d discussed here at Rouleur many years back then put on the back burner, like many of our bright ideas that never see the light of day: form the Slow Cycling Movement.

Inspiration came from the Slow Food movement founded in Italy in 1989 to “prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, counteract the rise of fast life and combat people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from and how our food choices affect the world around us”.

Translated to the world of two wheels, the thinking behind Rouleur’s radical reappraisal reads as follows:

#1 Thou shalt not rush for the sake of it. Sloweth the f**k down and enjoy the ride.

#2 Fine hostelries and beverage emporiums shall be visited as and when the rider sees fit and refreshments taken.

#3 Cars are not to be utilised under any circumstances (trains, however, are permissible).

#4 Photographing scenery and fellow SCM members is encouraged. Filming whilst actually riding a bicycle and posting on Instagram is, however, déclassé and therefore strictly forbidden. 

#5 Handlebar-mounted gadgets recording speed and distance shalt not adorn your bicycle. Bars are a resting place for hands and possibly a bell – nothing more, nothing less. The aforementioned bars in #2 are, of course, exempt from this ruling.

Here is where the manifesto falls flat. It’s far too prescriptive. You’ll probably remember The Rules: The Way of the Cycling Disciple, the book published some years back, dictating sock height, number of bikes desired (n+1 is the answer), shorts colour (black or black), tan lines – you name it, they had a rule for it. It was supposed to be humorous. Some found it deeply offensive, snobbish and exclusionary. I’m ambivalent, frankly. It was mildly amusing.

This is a massive can of cycling worms and I’m already realising a UN special envoy may be required. So I call Jack Thurston.

Jack is the author of the Lost Lanes series of books, wonderful guides to the lesser-known highways and byways of England and Wales. As he eloquently puts it: “Some people collect stamps, others collect fine wines or cigars. I collect lanes.” His first of four in the series came about from planning country rides within easy striking distance of London. Since then, he has covered Wales, the English border counties and the West Country, with the Midlands currently in production.

Surely I’ll have an ally in Jack for the notion of slowing down and taking in the scenery, ditching the Garmin, Strava and the rest of it for a purer riding experience. 

“It’s easy to become a bit of a slave to the little screen on your handlebars,” he confesses. Uh-oh... “If my average speed is 13.8 for a ride, I will nudge up the effort just to get it to 14. For what purpose? It’s just my own ego!”

This is disappointing. Does anyone have Angelina Jolie’s phone number?

“I need it for the routing and distances,” Jack qualifies. “I more or less follow them but also have a map. Paper maps are quite fun, especially when you are riding with other people and want to show them where you are going. I suppose I could set it so I can’t see the speed. Maybe that is a good idea...”

Gino Bartali

Jack can still be saved from himself. Considering he puts in a 25-mile loop where he lives in Wales just to collect raw milk from a local farm, putting on a turn of speed is understandable. But he is taking in the surroundings as well, of course. “It’s constantly changing at different times of the year.”

But we all have a need for speed, even slow coaches. Going fast has its place, doesn’t it? “Of course, it’s thrilling to slam it in the big ring. But if you’re on a descent, gravity is doing the overwhelming majority of the work.”

Tell us more. “There’s a really good graph showing the coefficients of drag and the marginal benefits of expenditure of energy at different speeds due to wind resistance. Once you get above around 20mph, you may as well freewheel to conserve your energy. It’s not worth pedalling downhill, better to save your energy.”

Take that, WorldTour racers. We definitely converge when it comes to the appeal of a bike ride. Long or short, fast or slow, there is something new to be found on every trip with a little bit of planning. 

“It’s the immersive quality of riding a bicycle, rather than the athletic potential of it,” Jack explains. “The bicycle is a paradoxical machine, in that you can use it as a multiplier of human effort and travel a hundred miles in a similar time to a marathon, but if you cycle at the equivalent speed of a stroll, you can still cover 40 miles. It’s still longer than a marathon. It is how you choose to spend that efficiency dividend – apply maximum effort and go really far, or apply less effort, idle along, but enough for it still to be interesting.”

Exactly this. Pootling and perambulating is what I’m selling here. Being a dedicated city boy, the previously unappealing traffic-clogged routes of central London have proved alluring in the past year, more so than the usual lanes of Kent. A whole new landscape has become visible due to lack of tourists, office workers and drivers. Sightseeing and coffee shops are the order of the day, not miles and grind. 

“You could make a tour of the brutalist buildings of London,” Jack suggests, after which I show him a Christmas present from my wife: four maps of London showing locations of brutalist architecture, notable trees, the best London Underground stations and art deco buildings – a treasure trove of marvellous landmarks to be ticked off.

Jack recently recorded a series of documentaries for GCN, taking dedicated speed freaks and adrenaline junkies, like freeride MTB rider Blake Samson, and putting them on touring bikes, camping out and taking in the sights – ideal Slow Cycling Movement candidates. The route Jack chose was to trace the source of the River Usk in the Brecon Beacons until it reaches the sea at the Severn estuary – the antithesis of downhill mountain biking; a descent, but not as we know it. 

“We are attracted to landscape features naturally, that’s why roadies love to ride up mountains,” says Jack. “It’s exciting and you get a different viewpoint. But following the course of a river makes it a bit more mindful. Or tracing the outline of your county – setting yourself a route that is not just to achieve. You’re actually thinking about how the land fits together, or some historical connection. You’re not in Watopia, you’re actually in the real world and not just following the others.”

We are in broad accord on the manifesto, except the very word ‘manifesto’ has to go. Instead, Jack has jotted down a recipe for happy cycling – all the ingredients needed for a mindful riding experience. I’d add my own recommendation: follow former UCI president Brian Cookson on Twitter. For a man whose cycling career revolved around bike racing, he sure knows his trees and posts a fine example on a daily basis. I now know a silver birch from an alnus glutinosa – that’s alder to you – and that’s all thanks to Brian and his comprehensive knowledge of all things wood-related, coupled with my own broadened horizons when it comes to viewing our surroundings.

Whilst I’m not quite ready for Jack’s suggestion of hugging a tree quite yet and remain perfectly content to buy mushrooms from a shop, the rest I can get on board with. And if the mood suits and the fancy takes me, I’ll slam it in the big ring and give it some welly. The Slow Cycling Movement is a broad church. Step inside, brothers and sisters.

Broom wagon 

 Jack Thurston's recipe for happy cycling 

– Look at a map of a 25- mile radius of where you  live. Colour in the places  you've not been to. Go there

– Identify  birdsong. The free Birdnet app on my  phone is brilliant. Record a  snippet and it identifies the species

– Visit  a  churchyard  and  look  around  at  the gravestones. Think upon your  own mortality and what it means to be alive

– Find a very old tree – some yews are up to three or four thousand years old – or an ancient  woodland. Hug a tree, go forest bathing

– Lie on the ground and look up at the sky. Next level: have a snooze

– Buy  some  produce  from  an  actual  farm  or smallholding

– Pack a Thermos of your favourite hot drink and stop somewhere to enjoy a  beverage

– Ride a singlespeed bike and embrace the walk up any hill that's too steep to ride

– Stop at a village shop and buy a postcard and a stamp. Write and send it to  someone you know

– Devise routes with meaning. Trace a river from source to sea, or ride from the highest point in your county to the lowest, trace the boundary.  Follow an old wayTrace a prominent geological feature

Jack Thurston:

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