If I had to give everyone on the planet an inessential material gift, I would give them a set of wheels. Do not underestimate wheels. Anything that cannot be reinvented is fundamental. Civilised life thrives on wheels. Prams. Cars. Wheelchairs. Bikes.
When I started cycling, some years ago, I was living in a simple draughty cottage on a weatherful island in the extreme north. In my mid-thirties, I’d had a broken-hearted, broken-minded kind of life I often thought of writing about, though the sheer scale of the task – not to mention its potential egotism – defeated me. In fact, in Shetland as a writer in residence, I hadn’t, for a long time, been able to write anything. Pressed down by the weight of my own flaws, I had felt blank and hopeless. Until the bike.
I bought it on a whim. It was new, a sleek black machine that fascinated me. An artist once said that the bike is a “surrealist invention”, that cycling is “a surreal way of walking”. The bike was a work of art. It symbolised freedom. Here was art with a commensurate practical value, like a novel that cheers you up, taking you up and away out of yourself…
I went swooping through Shetland’s windscoured contours, with its schizophrenic sea views and enormous wheeling sky, and the elements united in rhythm: my heart and the bike and my legs and the road and my lungs and the wind. The very cadence of things actual and things perceived melded. Cycling was like a drug. But a nourishing, healing one.
I pared my crestfallen life down to essences – eating drinking sleeping reading writing cycling meditating. My ennui slowly lifted. I began to feel more confident, more connected, more joyful. And my creativity returned. I found myself not only fulfilling my current writing projects, but attracting new commissions too.I now live in London and cycle three or four times around Richmond Park most days to maintain my equilibrium. And to help me write. Wheels love the imagination. Bike-riding hypnotises you, even while demanding a Zen-like mindfulness. The landscape blurs past and the movement seems to give a more adventurous shape to thought patterns. Cycling – itself a solitary pursuit – has helped me to feel engaged with the world, a sense that can often elude writers, typing away in their insular bubbles. On my bike, I feel part of something bigger.
I’ve harnessed that awareness into trying to help others by cycling for charity. In 2009, I rode 1300km of the Danube, from the source to Budapest, to raise money for cancer charities, and last year I cycled from the north of the Isle of Lewis to the south of the Isle of Harris, in my native Outer Hebrides, for the hospice where my mother spent her final weeks. Always on a fixed-gear.
The rise in cycling’s popularity makes me happy. I quietly gladden when I see others cycling: giddy toddlers on trikes, eager teens on mountain bikes, cosmopolitan renegades on fashionable fixies, senior citizens on tandems sharing rich memories and late-life heartbeats. They all understand cycling’s open secret – that it encourages us to get more out of life, to be healthier in body and mind.
Kevin MacNeil is an award-winning poet and novelist from the Outer Hebrides. He’s at the Edinburgh Festival this Thursday 15th, at 9pm, and is teaching an Art of Adaptation course at Kingston University this autumn. For information on his books, album, workshops and bike rides, visit his website or find him on Twitter @Kevin_MacNeil