Small enough to carry on a bus (and put at one’s feet) and sturdy enough to ride 100 kilometres in a day. Once again, after too many years, I had a fold-up bicycle (a Brompton). I could fold and unfold it in 10 seconds, although it had taken years of design and refinements to achieve this feat. A fold here, a flick there, a turn and twist with hands in a certain position and the job was done, seemingly effortlessly. Each part was carefully crafted to sit snugly beside another, so that one could scarcely believe how compact it could become. At the same time, its stretched-out condition could easily accommodate my lanky frame in comfort – for kilometre after kilometre.
Another form of self-powered transport it may be, but when I first mounted it, I was not ready for the rush of half-forgotten memories. I could not get over how the physical feel of the bicycle drew out a host of intensely felt, if not physically produced memories, from another life. Every component seemed to combine for such an effect: long metal tubes and small wheels, hinges and clamps, the feel of a single chain ring and internal gears, a distinct position and tilt, my leg muscles working in a particular way. We might call them bodily memories, but that hardly captures what I felt. It was as though the actual nature of being on such a bicycle and riding longer distances revealed a connectedness between machine, body and mind that makes mockery of the distinct terms themselves.
At the same time, it was not merely that the bicycle brought me to recover those memories. Instead, it had the curious effect of opening up two worlds at once. I was in two universes, folding into one another in a way that made them both present simultaneously.
The fold-up seemed to know what it was doing, seeking out quiet pathways far from the madding crowd and finding the zone where the worlds opened up.
On one occasion, I was in the Australian bush on a rail trail. Simultaneously, I literally felt as though I was in the Netherlands a dozen years ago on an earlier version. Then, I had been on the road for a week or so, following a paper map with trails (for there were no phones with GPS at that stage). I had turned a corner, dipping slightly into a stunning stand of trees through which soft light filtered on a summer’s day. I know I will probably never find the exact place again from years ago, but here it was once again, powerfully present with a feeling that was as rich as the first time.
Late in the day, weary and hungry, I was rolling down the last slope to my camping spot for the night. From the midst of the trees, the vista of the place opened before me. I was suddenly in southern Jutland (Denmark), not long after finally meeting my soul-mate. We had agreed to connect at Kolding and planned to ride long that day. But by Hederslev it was clear we would need to be a little more realistic. We followed the quietly marked route into town, looking out over the low hills and seeking out accommodation. On the last slope, we spied our place for the night – a cabin in a youth hostel. Soon I (and we) slept the sleep that comes only after being out on the road all day.
At another moment, the bicycle took me onto a path around a long lake, travelling at a fast pace that deceived many (they seemed to assume that small wheels mean one must be slow). The loping cadence of the bicycle and the path along the water transported me to a long ride along the Maas (Meuse, the French call it) towards Maastricht, at the southern tip of the Netherlands. It was the lack of hills that bemused me then, apart from the slopes of dykes. Days were spent in one gear, eating up the kilometres along well-signposted fietspade (bicycle paths). So it was today too.
Waiting to board a ferry for a river crossing. The last of its kind in Sydney, in a place few people know. As the ferry approached, the Parramatta river became the Rhine, crossing from south to north on my way to Rotterdam. My thoughts on both occasions meshed with one another. Who catches ferries these days? Surely a bridge, even if it is a characteristic bridge one can rise for boats to pass, is far preferable. Hardly, for the pleasure of waiting, boarding, chugging across, and disembarking cannot compare. One dreams of a longer voyage, to cross a sea or an ocean, and the mighty river becomes more like a stream by comparison. But one has to cross and this is the way human beings have done so for millennia.
The intimate and felt memories became constant companions. Even to fold the bike and simply carry it with me onto a train took me back to a rail journey from Copenhagen to Amsterdam, or from Maastricht to Tilburg, or to Kolding for that southern Jutland ride. At the other end, one simply picks it up, steps out, unfolds and sets off, fully self-sufficient.
Two worlds, two universes in one. I was riding here and there, then and now, in the same place and time. Perhaps that is why I have already planned for a long European ride in the summer to come. The bicycle longs for it too.