It’s not all about the speed, as Louise Denham recollects in her Brake the Cycle experience. Slowing down and (re)connecting is as much a part of the adventure as is the finishing line.
Carl Honoré’s book, ‘In Praise of Slow’, explores the virtues of Slow Living. In it he considers concepts ranging from the popular Slow Food Movement to Slow Education, Slow Sex, Slow Work and Slow Cities. After cycling more than 1000 km over two weeks from Milan to Barcelona in 2017 I would like to add another concept to the list: Slow Cycling.
I am not suggesting that cycling such distances in such an amount of time is in any way underachieving or ‘slow’ in the traditional, and often pejorative, sense of the word. In fact, for me, this was an incredible feat of human ability which pushed me – just the right amount – to my limits in many ways. Rather, I would like to talk about applying the concept of Slow to cycling, and how I found this on my bike ride to Barcelona.
This concept of Slow goes beyond simple descriptions of the speed at which an activity is performed to a philosophical review of how we live our lives, going against the widespread belief that faster is always better, and instead advocating a cultural shift toward slowing down life's pace. The movement was born out of the general consensus that our fast-paced lives have caused many of us to loose connection with the things that matter: to people, to family, our community, our friends, to food and place, the natural world and the rhythms around us, as well as to ourselves. The Slow philosophy seeks to address this, changing our pace and approach to life, by re-connecting to these things.
And this is just what Brake The Cycle’s Milan to Barcelona tour offered. From the very beginning, the ride was centred around building connections. By chance, we had begun our tour in Italy – the birthplace of the Slow Movement where many people explicitly pursue Slow Living in their everyday lives.
We connected between ourselves, from our very first indulgent and drawn-out meal shared between us in a pizzeria on the outskirts of Milan to the chatty, ambling bike gang that we would later become, cycling in peloton formations that would make even the most synchronised swarm envious. I cannot stress enough the absolute value of having supportive and patient people around you for such an adventure.
We connected with nature, cycling past lakes that tempted even the hardiest cyclist to jump into its cooling blue waters; through forests echoing with wild boars’ distant squeals, and over impossibly awe-inducing mountains. Swaddled in our sleeping bags, we slept under stars with the cool night air on our faces.
We connected to places and to our food, stepping lightly through the gardens and polytunnels of pioneering permaculture projects, eating gratefully at the end of each day as a wonderful meal had been prepared with love by our fellow cyclists or our hosts, and sampling some of the finest delicacies from each region we passed through.
We connected with the wonderful eco-community hosts themselves who welcomed us into their homes with open hearts and shared with us their stories of success and failure, their hopes and ambitions. Unsurprisingly, this kind of Slow philosophy goes hand-in-hand with more ecologically friendly ways of living, and through connecting with these projects and people, we were able to learn from their experiences and experiments into sustainable living.
We connected with locals, waddling into cafés for second breakfasts in our padded ‘nappy’ shorts using our modest collective linguistic skills to converse with those around us; stopping off at small Italian bars with the owner insisting generous measures of local herbal liquors onto us (halfway up our Alpine ascent!) and then proceeding to share photos of his daughter’s recent wedding.
We connected with the mystical in the underground temples that would inspire the likes of Indiana Jones, to the quiet contemplation of our own spirituality gently encouraged by many of the eco community spaces along the way.
And we connected with ourselves reflecting on our own memories, values, hopes and troubles during the quieter moments of the day with nothing but the sound of our own pedals revolving beneath us, or after the cathartic collapse into campsites at the end of each challenging day.
The fact that you are small and insignificant and propelled by your own unfaltering leg-power across thousands of kilometres simultaneously induces both a wonderful sense of liberation and resilience, as well as a paralysing fear of incapacity and the unknown. And there is something about this impossibly contradictory feeling that stimulates a profound unpicking of your own values and life, exploring aspects of yourself that you might never have given a second thought.
For me, as the slowest member of the group (slow, in the traditional ‘non-speedy’ sense of the word), this exploration meant I encountered the obstacle of overcoming my ego which equated being ‘last’ as being inferior and interpreted ‘slow’ in its pejorative sense. By connecting with myself in this way, I realised that I was playing a game of comparison which sought to undermine my achievements and make me feel inadequate. Through this connection, I was able to step away from the ego-driven race and embrace my own pace with the satisfaction of who I was and what I was doing in that moment.
Cycling tends to have a reputation for being all about the need for speed — the race to be the first or to beat your own personal best. This constant competition can be off-putting to many people, including myself, and can cause many people to overlook the potential of cycling to reconnect us to all the valuable things I have already mentioned. However, as I found on my adventure with Brake The Cycle, with more consideration of our connections to the people, the world around us and ourselves, the value of such a bike ride can skyrocket.
I am not at all suggesting that everything should be done in slow motion. Indeed, as Honoré emphasises in his book, it is not necessarily about doing everything at a snail’s pace, but “seeking to do everything at the right speed…savouring the hours and minutes rather than just counting them…It’s about quality over quantity."
Of course, on my way to Barcelona, there were moments when it was appropriate to go as fast as possible. As the freak storm swept across the French countryside, swallowing up the poplar trees one by one, we hurtled along those country lanes as fast as our little legs could thrust us. We soared down the flies-in-your-teeth, grin-inducing slopes of the Pyrenees, snapping down switchbacks and along the ranges’ smooth contours. And on the one day when, me and my cycling chum for the day, had managed to arrive at the campsite before the other group, I cannot lie that I wasn’t beaming with pride inside. But it is about striking that balance, and realigning your values so that the bottom line of each ride isn’t just about how fast you’ve cycled and in how much time.
I am taking away a variety of valuable prizes from my ride with Brake The Cycle - the friendships I made along the way, the learning of alternative ways of living more lightly on this planet and the deep satisfaction from my own accomplishments. But the most important lesson that I will be taking away is to live a more connected life. When I now head out on my weekend bike rides I make it my mission to connect to the things around me and take the time to really enjoy the moment, stopping in cafés for a drink or a second (or third) breakfast; pausing on the crests of hills to take in the view and watch the red kites soar above me, taking the time to visit landmarks nearby; to learn about the places and people around me, and laying down my bike to take a wander in nearby woodlands which I am excited to soon see blanketed in bluebells.
Brake The Cycle offers those who take on the challenge of exploring the world from the saddle a one-of-a-kind experience to connect and engage with much more than you might expect. And the result: a fitter, more enlightened and satisfied self. I would definitely recommend it to people of all kinds — you never know what you might connect with along the way.
Love the sound of this adventure? Check out our Bilbao to Barcelona tour for a fortnights epic riding through the Pyrenees staying incredible ecovillages.