A paradox lies at the heart of cycling over great distances: some stretches of road you want to go on forever, but that feeling can be generated only because they do come to an end. That is, eternity can be eternity because it always ends, inevitably too soon. How does that work? The best way to gain a sense of the paradox is to tell the stories of a few of those roads. Some of them you experience once; others call you back, a call you try to answer.
The Netherlands: Thick leaves of ancient trees shade out the sun of a late northern European summer. A turn, a small drop and the narrow road is cool away from the sun. The hoary trees soften the sound, so I slow the bike and make the few kilometres stretch out a little more. Uncharacteristically for the Netherlands, the road turns and twists a little, over rises and drops, past low banks cut in the earth. And uncharacteristically, the smells are not the sharp ones of cattle urine and shit, working overtime fertilising the polders. Instead – and welcoming – are the softer smells of moss and leaves, old bark and forest animals. So I savour the air, suck it in. As I do, I feel the large Dutch breakfast providing plenty of energy reserves, and my legs feel toned from a week on my steed. Until now I have been exploring the length and breadth of the Netherlands, from where my parents came. The sheer pleasure has been enhanced by the enjoyment of being on my own, relishing the time to myself after being freed from a disastrous relationship. But of all the many cross-country fietsrouten with their careful signposting, of all the many curious corners, out-of-the-way villages, of all the dykes, fields and loping runs along flat fields, this piece of road remains etched in my bodily memory.
Italy: That magical piece of road does not always appear when my legs and the day are fresh. Some years ago in Italy, it appeared unexpectedly after a tough climb up a spur of Apennines from Pistoia (near Florence in the valley below). On the winding road, snaking ever upwards, sleek Italian pelotons sped past me, haughtily sneering at my strange, small-wheeled cycle. Yet I have the last laugh, since I sail past them at San Baronto, where they have fallen off their machines, eager for wine and smokes and abundant carbs. It’s only half-way, I think as I smile at them, tackling the next climb to Vinci. Now the midday sun of a Tuscan summer bears down, while I kept a keen eye out for ‘aqua’. Then it comes upon me: a single-lane road winds its way along the spur, past centuries-old low stone walls on either side. On the mountainside terraces, olive trees mingle among the grape vines. Small houses with semi-circular red tiles sit in folds of the land. Washing hangs on short single lines on the side of the road. A goat looks up at me, pausing with whatever tasty morsel it has found to chew. Absorbing the smells, view, and feel of the road, I barely notice my dry throat and weary legs.
Germany (eastern): To be on a bike on the first real day of an eastern European spring – especially if you happen to be with a frisky riding companion – is almost a guarantee of a great ride. Bitter winds, the threat of snow and sub-zero temperatures have only just passed. But for some reason they are suddenly a distant memory, for now one’s body responds to the turn of the season in a wholly different way. Sap is rising, clothes come off without noticing, sun-starved skin is eager for exposure. So we ride, slipping out of town in the far east of Germany, heading for the Czech border. And there it is once again: a ribbon of road over gently undulating hills, lined by trees eager to grasp the sky and push out buds. We sprint, race, ride in circles on the road, laugh and play – for what seems like an eternity.
Denmark: The pressure of a sprint to make the last ferry – so it is when we have to catch the boat from Southern Jutland to the island of Fyn (from Fyndhav to Bøjden). After a sleep of the dead, we wake too late and leave in a hurry from Sonderborg. Before us are a stiff climb and then a drop. With no time to settle into the saddle, to loosen up legs, to stretch stiff shoulders, and gently ease into the day, we set off at breakneck speed. The seconds tick by. The hill grows ever longer. Lactic acid burns in our legs. Breath is raw in our throats. At long last, soaked with sweat, we crest the hill to see the ferry below preparing for departure. We drop like stones, the spokes spinning in the sunlight. We bank low on curves, pedal furiously and whoop as the wind dries our sodden clothes. The ferry captain sees us coming, fires up the engine and … holds the boat for a little longer. We collapse on deck, trying not to think too much of the crossing of Fyn before us.
Australia: Rarely does a dedicated bicycle path, with its obstacle course of dogs and walkers, measure up to a great stretch of cycling. Instead, those roads appear serendipitously. Most of the day may be spent dodging potholes on the side of the road, with cars buzzing your shoulder. Then, an unassuming turn opens out onto a whole new vista. Here is a single track, with not a motorised vehicle to be seen or heard – a road that has forgotten it was originally built for cars. It passes over hills with stunning views, is pressed in by trees and bushes that have not been allowed to grow as they will, slides past quiet farms without a dog in sight and offers spots that invite you to stop, light a fire and boil a billy for a quiet drink. That road exists in my Hunter Valley. It is one of the best pieces of cycling road I have encountered, precisely because it was never intended to be so. I hope it will be there forever, but it is threatened by the coal mines that keep expanding thereabouts. Who knows if it will be there when I seek it out once again?