Illustration: Sam Brewster
With its long ears and powerful hind legs, the animal ahead of me is unmistakably a hare – an elusive and magical creature I’d spent years longing to see in the wild. Easing my bike to a halt, I watch in awe as the long-limbed mammal sniffs the ground, seemingly oblivious to my presence a few metres away, before continuing its passage along the narrow lane. Our journeys heading in the same direction, I quietly clip back into my pedals and follow discreetly behind as it lollops along. A few moments later it disappears into a field and I’m left mesmerised by this rare encounter.
Witnessing wildlife in their natural habitat – often undisturbed as I slowly pass them by, my tyres silently rolling along the ground – is one of the joys of travelling slowly by bicycle. A majestic buzzard perched on a fence post warily watching me, our eyes connecting for a matter of seconds. A statuesque heron launching its head underwater before reappearing with a flailing fish in its long beak. Or, one of my favourite moments, spotting a skulk of fox cubs playing in the corner of a field, their antics hidden from passing vehicles but visible to a slow-moving, observant cyclist.
Unconstrained by time – no train to catch, no meeting to rush to, no pressure of being late for work – my bike rides are about taking the time to truly see my surroundings. I relish pootling along an unexplored stretch of towpath, unsure what I’ll discover but confident that I won’t get lost on the path’s linear route. Or lingering at the top of a particularly steep local climb, not only to catch my breath but also to view the ever-changing landscape stretching out before me. At this time of year, it’s here that I often pause to pick blackberries in a secret spot that’s always bursting with plump fruit.
I haven’t always been a slow cyclist. Rewind ten years and I was a Lycra-clad triathlete who spent hours every weekend on training rides getting fitter and faster on my lightweight racing bike. Looking back I remember so little about the landscape, the people, the places and the wildlife that I passed on those long group rides – engulfed, as I was, in a speeding peloton, my eyes fixed on either the wheel in front of me or the all-important stats on my bike computer. I missed so much, and that I regret.
During the twists and turns of my late 20s I was forced to sell my racing bike and all my “weight-weeny” cycling paraphernalia to replace a defunct, but much-needed laptop. By the time I’d saved enough money to buy a new steed I had become enthralled by the writings of intrepid Irish cyclist Dervla Murphy and dreamed of going on my own two-wheeled adventure to exotic lands. Instead of an expensive carbon-framed racing machine, I opted for a hefty touring bicycle, complete with pannier racks, leather saddle and robust tyres.
Relocating to the countryside, my touring bike – its steel frame and wide tyres designed to withstand off-road trails as well as smoother country roads – gave me the freedom to discover the diverse landscape of my new home. I set out to explore the dramatic coastline, the wild moors, the hidden waterways and sleepy rural villages. Stripping my bike of any gadgets meant I was no longer fixated on how far or how fast I’d cycled. Cycling became something new for me; it was about exploring and observing, as well as giving myself the time and the space to think.
There’s something about the rhythmic motion of cycling – the steady cadence of each pedal rotation propelling the bike forward – that allows the mind to focus. This blend of movement and meditation tends to leave my mind completely blank, in a true meditative state, or sets it buzzing with thoughts, ideas and plans. In this latter state, I find myself reflecting on the past, considering my future and observing the present.
Cycling has always played a significant role in my life. But twelve months ago I faced an uncertain future following the diagnosis of a degenerative spinal condition that affected my ability to control my limbs and stopped me from cycling. At my worst, I feared not being able to walk unaided again, let alone ride a bike. Prompt surgery halted the progress of the condition and eased my hidden but debilitating symptoms. Nonetheless, I’m still dealing with the physical and mental adjustment of learning the limits of what my body is now able to do – or, more frustratingly, not able to do.
If before my diagnosis I was starting to embrace a slower pace of cycling, then post-surgery you could consider me a fully signed up member. With a few adjustments to my bike set-up, I’m grateful to be back in my well-worn leather saddle. Although, nowadays, I’m mindful that the freedom and joy that I get from cycling could so easily be taken away from me again.
On that note, I’m off out on my bicycle. My favourite waterside café is enticing me with a creamy coffee and a large slice of homemade cake that I’ll enjoy while watching the comings and goings of canal life – just another pleasure that comes from being a slow cyclist.
Enjoy life in the slow lane
With our towpaths fast becoming one of the nation’s favourite places to relax, we are urging people to slow down to ensure they remain the special places millions of people enjoy visiting every year. Read more about our Share the Space, Drop your Pace campaign and watch our short film No Place for Personal Bests on our website.