one man and his bike. mike carter. ebury press 343pp paperback £11.99

one man and his bike

'you can't rely on the attainment of goals and journeys, no matter how big or small, for your happiness, because the attainment of that goal will only bring a temporary gratification. if you want to be happy, then you must enjoy it all, at whatever point you are at, from the beginning to the end. because ultimately happiness is the acceptance of the journey as it is now, not the promise of the other shore.'

shortly after i arrived on islay, in my previous period of carless-ness, if ever the opportunity arrived to visit the mainland, i'd go by bicycle. the cycle i had arrived with on islay was a muddy fox courier, one of the first popular mountain bikes to find a niche in the uk market. it won't surprise you in the least to learn that i had no real handle on mountain biking, and it was not long before the standard wheels had been replaced with a pair of handbuilts (lovely campag croce d'aune hubs; wouldn't we all be so much happier if vicenza revived that groupset?), and the quill stem cast aside for a high-rise, short reach stainless steel version grasping a pair of randonneur bars.

a touring bike.

any books one may have come across on the topic of cycle-touring were often concerned with those intent on circumnavigation of the globe, kitted out with front and rear panniers and the ubiquitous bar bag. since this was obviously how things were done, the muddy fox acquired a blackburn rear rack and one of those really cool low rider front efforts. members of the ctc and those better versed in the art of going to faraway places by bicycle will be currently giving tangible witness to the acronym rotfl; i was only cycling from bowmore to prestwick via arran. the same distance could have been easily accessorised with the original rapha backpack, had it been on offer at the time.

of course, prestwick was only intended to be the beginning of an illustrious cycle-touring career, one that would see me confidently passing the melbourne city limits a few years from that point. the very fact that i have been writing thewashingmachinepost for the last fifteen years from the same armchair in twmp cottage rather gives the game away, that things did not quite work out as tentatively planned.

many a cyclist harbours thoughts of traversing hitherto untrammeled pathways, taking advantage of the individual freedom that the bicycle confers. members of the velo club have loosely discussed the possibility of circumnavigating the isle of arran, a possibility that has held court for at least four years. despite the fact that the manager at arran distillery is a good friend, perhaps well-disposed to allowing us to leave any heavy items at lochranza while we cut loose and free, the trip is no nearer to taking place than it was at first point of mobile discussion.

maybe next year.

mike carter is far less predisposed towards such procrastination. not for him the mere dipping of toes in the water with a paltry amble around a scottish island. in his case, the island in question was that of britain itself. as the back cover is keen to tell us, mike need a change, one that even had him contemplating a move to buenos aires, amidst half-hearted attempts to learn spanish from a tape course. the move and the spanish lessons came to nought; instead mr carter decided not to commute to the office, but to ride past and around the coast of britain on an overloaded ridgeback bicycle, proceeding in an anticlockwise direction.

'a woman crossed the road, giving me the look reserved in london for people talking to themselves on bicycles in bad spanish: fear, contempt.'

the theory was, as it presented itself, that if he kept the sea on his right-hand field of vision, what could possibly go wrong? cycling must be something that afflicts writers and editors working at the observer and the guardian, for erstwhile london resident, matt seaton, currently on loan to new york, did not miss an opportunity to regale us with tales from the racetrack and country lane. mike carter freelanced at the same organ of the press, and was/is eminently qualified to disseminate the resulting five month ride around britain's rugged coast in the 343 pages of one man and his bike.

the bookshelves of waterstones, and the pixels of amazon are well stocked with books on the subject of cycle touring, many concerning locations and routes of a more exotic nature. however, the relating of any cycle trip depends greatly on the perspicacity and descriptive abilities of the documentor, and at this mike carter excels. mostly camping and occasionally bed and breakfasting along the way, the current state of the nation (for little has changed economically in the years since the trip was undertaken) gave credence to man's so-called inhumanity to man; that british society was less than welcoming to the solo traveller.

not only is it of great credit to mike carter that he undertook the trip with the possibility that this may be true, but it is of even greater delight that he proved this supposition to be untrue. encouraging and open-armed welcomes were received almost unequivocally throughout the thousands of miles travelled, with regular invites to share the bricks and mortar type of accommodation when it was most needed. at varying points along the way, the inexperienced traveller in him realised that he was carrying far too much unnecessary weight in those panniers, necessitating frequent clearouts to ease the burden of cycling uphill.

long-distance cycling on whichever continent or island, encourages improved fitness, a fitness that is oft-times at odds with the health of the bicycle on which travel is being undertaken. i recall several years ago having to re-build a cyclo-tourist's rear wheel on which the hub had totally collapsed. on enquiring whether he was carrying a substantial amount in the panniers, he replied "yes, but it may be the accordion that has pushed it over the edge". in mike carter's case, his self-acknowledged less than sylph-like figure, and a shade too much content in the rear panniers, caused him on more than one occasion to search out a bike shop for repair to a recalcitrant back wheel.

but the aspect of one man and his bike that separates it from its bookshelf brethren and raises it to the shelf above is carter's frequent self-deprecating humour, keenly observed and leading to more than a few unrestrained outbursts of laughter from yours truly. mrs twmp was not amused during several evenings' episodes of coronation street. after meeting armesto, a lithuanian crop picker at holbeach marsh, he bids him farewell. "'ardievas", i said, for that was goodbye in lithuanian. "sudi" he said, for that was really goodbye in lithuanian.'

on reaching st andrews on the east coast of scotland, he bumped into frank footheringham jnr. who 'had flown halfway around the world to play a round of golf. more specifically, he was going to play the famous old course links at the royal and ancient... frank jnr said the words 'royal' and 'ancient', in his midwestern drawl, as if they were invocations to the gods. he had dressed up as rupert the bear for the occasion.'

carter pays testament to the gradual indifference toward weather conditions that subsumes the cyclist. i arose this morning, after spending many a long kilometre yesterday riding in glorious sunshine, to be met with all but gale-force winds and heavy drizzle, but rather than pull the covers over my head, i took the cielo out the bike shed and went out for the traditional sunday morning ride. however, any stopping points along the way tend to have strong associations with coffee and/or carrot cake; camping in the summer months is not something to which i am attuned.

for those resident south of the border, idyllic thoughts of camping out under clear skies in the scottish countryside should be tempered with the gaelic equivalent of buyer beware. as mr carter describes it: 'the next time i looked up, i was encircled by a black cloud. within seconds they were upon me, completely enveloping all my exposed flesh, going up my nose, down my throat and in my ears; my arms and legs were just a seething black mess of 'culicoides impunctatus', latin for blood-sucking little biting bastards, which in english we pronounce midges.'

it would, however, be pushing the bounds of incredulity to expect 343 pages of nothing but humour and unbridled enjoyment. while a daily cycling regime doubtless brings its own rewards, it features its own share of disappointment and hardship, not least the continuous rolling steepness of the welsh hills and further south in cornwall. some of this 'hardship' can be ameliorated, however, when the intrepid explorer has the ability to make up the rules and route as he goes along. strictly speaking, the scottish isles do not form a part of the mainland coast, but loose interpretation of the rules can willingly accommodate both inner and outer hebrides.

disappointingly, though having ridden the outer hebrides, cycled across skye and onto mull, it is a shame that on reaching tarbert at the head of the kintyre peninsula, mike carter ommitted the isles of islay and jura. rules should surely not be quite so arbitrary?

one man and his bike is superbly paced, excellently written and easily the sort of book that has to be read incessantly until our hero reaches home. it works so well on so many different levels; geography has never been one of my stronger suits, but carter's (almost) logical circumnavigation, aided comprehension of not only the country in which i was born, but of the two south of its border. ensconced on such an insular isle, exposed only to the media's interpretation of uk social and political matters, i too shared the impression that the people of britain are of a predominantly antagonistic nature, given to ignoring their co-habitees at the drop of an eyelid.

mike carter's extended journey is both self-affirming and an important sociological statement; perhaps the nation is, on the whole, better adjusted than we are given to believe. it may also underline the common apprehension that arriving by bicycle is one of the more inoffensive modes of travel, that innocent bystanders are more willing to welcome with open arms those travelling by just such a method. this is one of those cycling books that transcends its categorisation; even the most reluctant of cyclists would enjoy this highly entertaining ride.

and whoever came up with the idea of moving a little graphic of a bicycle along the top, down the side and along the bottom of the page as the narrative progresses, ought to be given a pay rise. however, should it perhaps not have done so in an anti-clockwise direction?

in a word, 'joy'

one man and his bike is also available in kindle edition and on the itunes book store.

posted sunday 31 july 2011


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