When I was a teenager I got serious about cycling, I always raced against my best times. When I broke a world record of 18,000 miles for a round-the-world cycle, I knew my daily mile goal every morning; the first leg of the journey took me from France to Shanghai.
When I cycled through Palestine, to write a roadside view of the Israeli military occupation, the journey began in the basement of London’s largest card store, Stanfords. Here I pulled out the maps that would eventually help me plan my way.
And so it was different, albeit in a good way, when a recent trip through Portugal and Spain started in an alley next to an old tram track in Lisbon. I was in front of a bicycle shop where I had bought a second-hand bicycle for a little over 100 €, then I started to cycle the thousand kilometers to Barcelona.
The journey started between the closures, inspired mostly by a reluctance to take a flight back to London which – unbeknownst to me – was about to close once again. I wanted the outdoors, and I reasoned with myself that this – by bike and camping – was also surely the most socially distanced ride I could have taken to get home.
I cycled east on a functional but far from great bike, through scenes that – just like in the world beyond – often seemed frozen in time. The menu for the opening of the last day was still on the restaurant’s slate (sardines), the firm patting of the hand on his merchant’s breastbone forgave me for the few pennies missing on my bill, which I stood there rummaging in my poached.
Instead, he sent me with a blessing more worthy of a priest – not quite to go in peace, but in good health; two qualities that a pandemic exhibits as one and the same in a way we all perhaps took for granted.
The vision of the world from a bicycle
Cycling has always been my perspective on the world. As a London courier, I handed Lehman Brothers a receivership, winning £ 7.50 to help formalize his $ 600 billion debt (this was only £ 7.50 as the delivery involved three opinion of three separate banks).
I cycled through the Uyghur region of northwest China, during a state crackdown that saw the army stationed and the Internet cut for the entire 3,000 kilometers.
I went through the checkpoints and under the nine-meter wall that the Israeli authorities built across Palestine, and stayed with trailer families in Louisiana who were fixing flat tires and picking pecans to win. their life ; punitive poverty, but eager – as is humble and common among those from whom the rich take so much – to share all they had with a stranger.
Riding on Iberia during the pandemic seemed to bring all of those trips together. Thoughts ranging from economics to foreign policy and how we organize society filled the notepad with which I spent afternoons in front of cafes and restaurants.
The simple act of riding a bicycle allowed for a reflection on travel at a time when traveling seemed strangely illicit. The now usual instinct to share our experiences was overtaken by an instinct to hide them instead, out of a sense of decorum, especially while others I knew were at home.
It’s also hard not to consider my bike (older, heavier) and my pace (slower) as something for a metaphor in a world where container ships could run aground and block the Suez Canal, and the ranching encroaches on the wild forest. During those weeks riding Iberia, all this and much more, felt – with as few twists as possible – as signs, if we wanted to, that we might be going too fast, or that we are crossing limits that were not meant to be tested.
There are formal and political versions of these vague ideas that are found waiting for a brief break from ordinary life, on a bicycle or otherwise. The concept of limits to economic growth, or four-day work weeks, is well documented. There is an intensifying debate about degrowth – that the rich claim to hurt the poor, although it would be difficult to do more than a system that ultimately gave six men half the wealth of the earth. billionaires.
The simple pleasure of the road ahead
In Iberia, the side of the road is more than ever an antidote to these fictions and myopias; the cults of wealth creators and their economic voodoo prophecies, all housed within a system that clearly knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing.
When traveling by bike, the pleasures we find are often very simple and long-lasting. An orange, picked from a tree outside Valencia. An older couple was picking pomegranates on a sunny afternoon. The scenes of rural Spain finally meet industry and world trade on the docks of Tarragona and then on the coast of Barcelona.
Everyone is moving in front of you, but with the steady roll of the bicycle giving that precious truth that modern life under capitalism often refuses to talk about, or offers substitutes instead. That you are sufficient, and things may be different.
Julian Sayarer’s new book Iberia is available now, for £ 8.99 (Fox, Finch & Tepper)