The Rhythm of the Road

It’s one thing to spend an hour on a bike trainer or in a spin class. It proves quite something else to sit in a saddle for five, six or seven hours. The last time I did anything like that was 38 years ago when a friend and I, on a lark, decided to ride our wonky three-gear urban run-arounds to a cottage a 160 kilometers away. It took us over ten hours, we were badly sunburnt and grateful to have a car to transport us back to the city. Now, all these years later, I was facing many days in succession of 150-plus kilometers.

Yes, the bicycles are much more fit for purpose, but the body is less so, carrying with it all the aches and creaks of age. Yet there is a quality of that long-distant summer day that returns to me as I pedal along the tarmac receding into the far horizon: it is a kind of meditative trance.

You are aware of place, the barren desert landscape, the distant glitter of the sea, the crescent of a roadside mosque, the shape and contour of the road with its cracks, debris and bumps. You are acutely attuned to sounds: the whoosh of the traffic and the symphony of toots, honks and blasts, a short-hand of the road. Sustained, repeated honking—“watch out, I’m coming on fast”. A long, deep blast: “I’m big, heavy and king of the road”. Best of all, the rapid trills: “Welcome, way to go, keep it up”. You have your destination in mind and an internal odometer tracks the kilometers flying by. You keep an ear cocked to signals of body and bike. Is the brake brushing against the rotor? Is the chain squeaking? Is that twinge momentary or a sign to ease up?

You are aware of all these things but you are also in another dimension of space-time; the two dimensions, the here and now and the other, interpenetrating each other as ghosts moving through solid walls. The rhythm of the road has conjured up the worm hole that allows the simultaneous existence of very different states of consciousness.

I ask my fellow riders what they think about on those long days in the saddle. They are startled by the question, as if I were talking to them in a foreign language. “What are you thinking about” is a question of the everyday world: I must remember to add bread to the grocery list, to tell so and so at work that the deadline has shifted, I must call my mother, I am pissed off that she could say that. On and on our brains circulate a ceaseless flow of chatter, the inner rudder that keeps us on course through our daily life. On the road we have removed ourselves from the daily, whether it’s for an hour, a day or a month. We remove ourselves from thought. When I press the riders for an answer, they finally say in a somewhat quizzical way: we don’t think of anything.

It is our last night on the Red Sea coast. Along the coastal road resorts are springing up like mirages. Last night we camped at El Gouna.

Tonight, we’re at Safaga. We’ve taken over a hotel to set up tents on their beach. Tallis, our tour leader, warns us at our daily briefing that this is the last of the “luxury camping”.

Tomorrow we turn inland to face hills and scrub land for camping. But we are heading to Luxor, which we should reach after two tough cycling days.