One woman, one gear, one year!
Last year, on December 27th my van died. By January 3rd it had been sold to a Mercedes Sprinter campervan collector as a project. I decided not to replace it, but to travel everywhere by Fixed Gear bicycle instead. Now, 1 year later, the challenge is completed.
I ended the year with a crash. A few days ago I had a gig in Moretonhampsted, 16miles from where I’m living. I knew it would be a tough route but a few things conspired towards making cycling there the most feasible option. Boy was there a lot of uphill, and I was carrying a guitar on my back too. Fortunately, since getting a bike frame that fits me I can finally wear a helmet and a guitar at the same time – something about the angle I sit at with the new frame makes that possible.
Anyway, I was feeling quite proud to be fit enough to make it through the solid hour of climb that the short route presented. It was as though everything I’d been working towards in the past year had come together for this last big trip of the year – I was on my way to a gig that was inaccessible by public transport, and wasn’t daunted by a tough ride. It was the sort of trip that proved that I really could go anywhere by bike if I wanted to, and that was what I’d been aiming for all along.
It was all going well. I was fit and I had all the right kit. I was happy with my two sets of front lights that showed me the road sufficiently even under tree cover. My winter tires thought nothing of the rain, and my full set of lycra kept me warm and comfortable. I was really starting to think I’d done it, and was feeling rather smug as I hit the downhill into Moretonhampsted.
It was a long downhill and I took it slowly since it was wet, and was grateful for the fixed gear, which allowed me to brake with my feet so my hands didn’t get tired on the brake levers. It was lucky that I was going slow, because it was around about this time that I saw a huge pothole which encompassed the whole of my side of the road. It was so big that there was no way I could have seen it in time, and before I knew it I was lying in the road in front of my bike.
It happened so fast that I was shocked to find myself on the ground looking upwards at the sky, when I was so sure that just moments ago I was on a bicycle looking down at the ground. I checked that my arms and legs moved ok. I looked over and thankfully my guitar was lying beside me, not under me.
I got up and out of the road before any cars came by. I opened the guitar case before looking at the bike. Yes, the body was intact – I ran my hands all the way around it to make sure. Then I heard a knocking sound…what was it? Ah, the distinctive sound of the guitar’s headstock knocking against its neck as it hung dangling by it’s strings.
Ouch! The head of the guitar must have been the first thing to hit the ground instead of my head!
After that I didn’t want to look at the bike. I tried to flag down passing cars, convinced that if I looked I’d fine the front wheel buckled and the bike un-rideable. When nobody stopped I finally went over and picked it up, spun both wheels…miraculously they were fine. I got back on and shakily cycled the last mile to the venue, where they gave me ice and arnicare for my bruises, and ginger beer for my ongoing addiction to ginger beer. Someone lent me a guitar for the evening and the gig went fine.
I haven’t crashed a bike for 10 years and it felt odd. Fortunately I tend to feel elated after exercise, so the previous hour’s climb had somewhat cushioned the emotional effects of the accident. I only had minor injuries.
I tried to feel stupid, but the fact was there wasn’t anything to feel stupid about – I’d been doing everything right. I’d been going slowly and carefully, was well lit, and I’m a good bike handler. Some might say that I shouldn’t have been cycling around after dark, with a guitar that I could break, but that’s what it means to be a cyclist. My bike is my vehicle. What if someone said they wouldn’t drive their car after dark, or take their work stuff around by car in case they crashed the car? That would seem ridiculous.
I didn’t feel that shaken by the experience either, for some reason. Obviously I’ll keep cycling, and obviously I’ll do everything I can to avoid accidents, but there are always some accidents you can’t do anything to avoid, and for some reason I’m ok with that. It’s life.
I don’t know if I have the money to fix the guitar, which is something of a difficulty because it’s my only acoustic guitar and I use it all the time… but something will work out. I have been advised to contact the council to ask about compensation, because of the pothole nature of the accident, and I will.
So at the end of my Fixed Gear Year I find myself in an unexpected place. My main motivations for starting this challenge were to enjoy the health, environmental and financial benefits of cycling rather than driving. Now, all in all I don’t care as much about those 3 things as I thought I would.
As to health, yes I’m the fittest I’ve ever been as a result of riding a Fixie, but I’m no longer trying to get fitter (even though I probably could), because I just want to enjoy the ride. The environmental benefits probably stand, but I think of them less often than I did. As to the financial benefits, well I haven’t done the maths, because it’s probably something of a massive joke. At a guess, I imagine I’ve spent more than a couple of grand this year on the bike, locks, clothes, repairs, lights, luggage, upgrades and a cycle holiday (and now I’ve got to fix my guitar). Of course, one could argue that the physical stuff I’ve bought will last me the next 5 years, so maybe there are still some financial benefits.
So if my 3 main motivating factors have gone somewhat out of the window, what have I got out of my Fixed Gear Year?
A philosophy and a way of being that now permeate the rest of my life: It’s about simplicity, focus and achievement. The thing is that riding fixed gear is such a simple form of cycling that it just locks me into a zone where I’m totally connected to my body. In this place, I gain the physical and mental strength to climb hills I never knew I could climb, and be stronger and more focused than I ever knew I could be. I feel aligned. Yes there’s only 1 gear, but I always feel “in gear”, right in the center of myself.
I’m at peace riding my bike, and I feel real. I find out who I am and what I can really achieve, and go to whole new levels of experience. Learning this on the bike, I’ve taken those ideas, and weaved them into my whole life. I’ve changed things, made life simpler, cutting down on unnecessary possessions and distractions and focusing on what’s really important to me. On a very practical level, Fixed Gear cycling has become part of my spirituality. We are taught that less means lack. What my fixed gear year has taught me is that less means clarity, and that having too much is a distraction from that clarity. Distraction is the worst kind of enemy because it robs us of happiness and contentment so quietly that we may not notice until it’s too late.
The funny thing is, I’m not saying everyone should go out and get a Fixed Gear bike. Yes, that’s been my route to understanding this principle in a very physical way, but it’s not the only way. It’s through my cycle tour that I made the decision to live in a Yurt, and that’s not something that’s going to be right for most people either.
I’m not even sure if I’ll continue to ride exclusively Fixed Gear, but I’ll take what I’ve learned from this year into my body permanently. It has and it will change my life.