article by Jet McDonald
What possible use could philosophy have in cycling? Riding a bike is a supremely physical experience, not the cerebral world of academics and philosophers. But it is precisely cycling’s physicality, it’s sense of immediacy, it’s life affirming zing, that makes philosophy such a good fit. In an increasingly deskbound world we are in danger of feeling disconnected and separate from this ‘zing’ and ‘zip.’ We need to understand what it is about cycling that can make us feel so alive, this “joie de vivre,” that reconnects us with the world. And if philosophy is about anything, it is about understanding the world and our place within it.
Western philosophers are as guilty as anyone of disappearing behind their desks and lecturing to the converted, becoming entirely cerebral, and disconnecting from the physical, everyday realities, of being alive. It was not always so. The ancient Greek philosophers saw philosophy very much as part of day to day existence. And Eastern philosophy remains rooted in physical practices that are an essential part of living.
Jet McDonald cycled four thousand miles from Bristol to India. But he didn’t just want to write a travel book. He wanted to write about the experience of the journey by examining these aspects of Western and Eastern philosophy. Each chapter in “Mind is the Ride” deals with a different part of the journey, a different philosophy and a different part of the bike. By the end of the book, the ride to India has been completed, a journey from Western to Eastern philosophy completed, and a bicycle built from all the parts that make it.
I cycled four thousand miles from Bristol to India but I didn’t want to write another travel book. I didn’t just want to write about the experience of cycling, but about the experience that went on in my head. How I travelled imaginatively, not just on two wheels.
The book is far more than the story of a bicycle trip from Bristol in the UK to the southern tip of India, it is also a journey from Western to Eastern philosophy and how this informs the everyday experience of riding a bike.
Mind is the Ride takes the reader on a physical and intellectual adventure by bicycle, interweaving philosophy into the cyclist’s experience, using the components of a bike as a metaphor for that experience. It comes with the backing of Boneshaker magazine, a perfect-bound, design-led publication celebrating the human side of cycling, distributed in twenty seven countries.
Each chapter is based around a single bicycle component. As each part is added, the story of the trip from west to east is furthered and a philosophy of mind from west to east is developed. By the end of the book the bike is “built”, the ride to India completed, and an understanding of the relationship between mind, body and bicycle made explicit. Each stage will be realised with an illustration of the component and the growing bike using the same hand crafted attention to detail and love of design that Boneshaker is famous for.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has been mentioned in comparison but “Mind is the Ride” has its own unique character. It is the pedal powered antidote to the petrol driven philosophies of the past. The age of the “travelogue” is over. We have travelled to the furthest limits of the world and hit the buffers. “Travel” and “Culture” are cast aside like supplements in the Sunday papers. We need to travel inwardly to see the world afresh. Mind is the Ride is that journey, on a bicycle.
The Seat Tube
We were knackered. We’d cycled twenty kilometres from the French coast and it felt like we’d already done the trip. All the expectation, packing and house clearing had knocked us out. We just wanted to sleep. We didn’t want to cycle to India.
It was the day after the British elections. Blighty was dangling on the end of a string like a yo yo that’s lost its “yo” and we were happy to wait in abeyance amidst the bluebells of Normandy. In the cool of the green forests the bluebells are like a shallow sea, approach the edge from the road and you feel as if you might go paddling in them. And at a certain angle the colour of the bluebells multiplies, makes such an intense blue violet it feels like you can see the red in the palette.
The Seat Tube is the large diameter frame tube between the Bottom Bracket and Saddle. The Seat Tube’s role in the geometry of the bicycle is in defining the height of the rider above the crankset, i.e. those parts of the bike that engage the rider in movement (see Pedal, Crank, Chain). Also the position of the rider fore and aft along the length of the bike is partly determined by the Seat Tube angle, i.e. the angle between the back of the Seat Tube and the horizontal. If this angle is shallow the rider is placed further back along the bike, increasing the load on the back wheel and making it easier for the rider to touch the ground without getting off the seat. This makes for a more relaxed or touring style, versus the aggressive style of riding, with the rider to the fore, leaning over the handlebars. The average angle of a road racing bike is seventy three degrees, ours were considerably less. In that first campsite in France it felt like the angle of the Seat Tubes was zero degrees. We just couldn’t find the momentum to get riding.
One of the delights and challenges of bike touring is that you’re in charge. There’s no coach waiting at 9am for you to sling the luggage into the hold. But the price of control is motivation. And how do you motivate yourself out of the bluebells? The chalk roads of Normandy were singing to us but the bluebell forests had their own mermaid songs; “picnics, croissants, sleep, sleep, sleep.”
The cafes and tabacs have a different message. The posture here is certainly less than seventy three degrees, elbows over chair backs, but Espresso keeps the brain lurching forward. This, I like to think, is how Parisian existentialism was engineered. Mr Sartre realised that someone had to get the groceries and it wasn’t going to be Simone de Beauvoir.
Existentialism is built on something called Phenomenology. Another big word in a small coffee cup, but basically the study of how we perceive the world. Phenomenology asserts that there is no definitive object “out there” and that we all interpret the world with our own, very personal, perceptive traits. Existentialism claims (unlike Plato and the idealists) that there is no universal and eternal realm, that there is and never has been an “ideal” concept of the world and the objects it contains. That there is, in fact, no preordained “essence”. That there is, in fact, no god. We are material objects first. We exist first and then we develop a conscious understanding of the world by our individual perception of it, our essence. Existence precedes essence, like coffee granules precede coffee.
The net outcome of this is that our lives are not pre-ordained. There is no deity making up the rules for us. We map our own paths through life, even if we kid ourselves that we don’t, and it is fate that is in charge, pulling at our handlebars.
Sartre explained we are “born free” but that this freedom comes with a responsibility, a responsibility for our actions. Everything that happens to us and will happen to us is decreed by what we choose to do. Even if we choose to do nothing, that is still a decision. “Not to choose is, in fact, to choose not to choose,” Jean Paul Sartre said. Our lives, our very being is defined not by what opportunity offers or denies us but by what we do, by how we act. “To be is to do,” he says.
Lying around in a French campsite is a decision. A decision to do nothing. And the argument that I am worn out and duff and not fit for riding would not hold true for Sartre. “I cannot be crippled without choosing myself as crippled,” he says. This is not an appropriation of disability but rather “This means I chose the way in which I constitute my disability.” I could sit around thinking “blimey I’m knackered and we’ve only done a few hundred miles. How are we going to get to Bombay?” Or I can get on my bike and ride. To be is to do.
In fact the existentialist would see the daunting bike journey ahead as something that allows me to function, as something which gives purpose to my life. The actual facts of the road, the potholes it throws up, creates the action that defines who we are. “The resistance of the thing (facticity) sustains the action of man (freedom) as air sustains the flight of the dove.
Sartre was a fan of the German philosopher Heidegger, born some hundred years before. Heidegger, happy go lucky as he was, framed life by the death that awaits it. Every decision in life, he argued, should be made with the finite nature of life in mind. Thus every decision should be an affirmation of that life, its zing and presentness. On the other hand, a life lived on the basis of avoiding death was a series of tiny deaths in itself.
It’s a hard life being Mr. or Ms. Existentialist, but an honest one lived in the moment. In fact Existentialism has many similarities to philosophies of the East (see Freewheel); its focus on the present and its understanding of the nature of consciousness.
It is because man is defined only by what he does, that he is always passing through a moment, rather than in a moment, that the past is always behind him and the future never arrives. And so the Existentialist recognises consciousness as a stream of thought rather than a thought itself. Consciousness or mind is movement, it is something that is always coming into being and passing away (see Bottom Bracket). So even sat in a campsite doing nothing my mind is still hurtling onwards. We move even if our legs aren’t going round and round.
The second morning in France I had the squits, possibly from sucking the cooker fuel off my fingers the night before. We listened to the election results on a hissing transistor radio. England seemed so far away, hung in the balance of its history, as we started our own adventure. And this was the final kick up the arse that got us going again and back on the road. To escape that hissing Radio 4 history, a middle class consensus falling like rain.
We were on the B roads that track across the country like delicate wrinkles; along a winding chalk path over Normandy farms and through a wild pasture humming with the first full hot day of Spring, a dusk journey past the battlegrounds of World War I with wooden Christs emerging out of the mist like mystics and an endless downhill through green forests that seemed to be steaming like rainforests. We remarked, in a pompous cyclist kind of way, how delightful it was that the shops weren’t open on Sundays, how English culture comparatively was so “twenty four hours” and the continent knew how to kick off its shoes and relax. And then we found ourselves in a series of villages where nothing was open. Nothing. In rural France Sunday extends into Monday and then Monday extends into Tuesday and two hungry cyclists with a dirty petrol stove trying to eat the remains of yesterday’s pot noodle do not make for a happy couple. “I don’t give a shit,” Jen eloquently put it when I told her that I’d filled the stove up with barbecue fuel and it was no longer working, and there was no shop open for fifty miles.
We invented a character called “Mr Moped” whose job it was to putter across rural France closing all the cafes and tabacs and restaurants just as we arrived. He was like those guys on motorcycles in the Tour de France swooping ahead of the peloton for the best camera shot. Except “Mr Moped” was expressly employed to close all the food establishments just as we rested our fully loaded touring bikes against a wall…
Jet McDonald is a writer, musician and psychiatrist. He spent a year cycling from Bristol in the UK to Trivandrum in India with his girlfriend Jen. He is a lead writer for “Boneshaker Magazine”, a perfect-bound, design led publication celebrating the human side of cycling, distributed in twenty seven countries. His non-fiction work has been published in “The Idler”, a collection of radical essays. He is a member of the Royal College of Psychiatrist’s Special Interest Group in Philosophy.
Jet learnt to ride on a red Raleigh roadster age four. He got a Chopper when he was seven and a Claude Butler racer in kingfisher green for his first paper round. He has always been part of the thriving alternative bicycle scene in Bristol, performing with Bristol Bike Festival and Sustrans, the organisation behind the national bicycle network. It was through these associations that he started to write for Boneshaker magazine. Jet is the author of two novels, the first of which was nominated for a BFS best newcomer award. His short fiction has been published in numerous anthologies and reviewed in The Guardian. When not writing Jet is a performer of short stories with Bristol’s “Folk Tales,” a group of musicians and storytellers, performing at Glastonbury and End of the Road Festivals and also with the award winning “Liars League” and “Heads and Tales” live fiction collectives. In 2008 he won the The Missouri Review Audio Fiction Award. He is an accomplished songwriter who has released six albums and toured nationally. His album “Soft Soft Soft the Sparrow Sings”, composed on his bike trip to India, received widespread airplay, including BBC 6 Music and Jack Thurston’s “The Bike Show.”
My book “Mind is the Ride” in association with Boneshaker Magazine is crowdfunding now!
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