Great Riches in a Little Wood
by John Ward

John Ward's fixed gear roadster

No-one who pursues a conventional job has much sympathy for writers. Quite right, too. After all, they can get up when they like, and need only shuffle a few yards to another room (unshaven, dressing-gown clad) to plant themselves at their computer and do what passes for work until it is time to make the coffee.

Yet this lack of structure in the day is a difficulty, and most writers devise something to get round it. Some build sheds at the bottom of the garden, to separate the work space from the domestic one. My own solution is to cycle to work.

This came to me soon after I built my first fixed-gear bicycle a few months ago. I began my fixed adventure with some trepidation in the lane beside the house, bordered by a wall of convenient height for grabbing onto. (I should perhaps mention that, against all common sense, I used as the heart of my machine an ancient frame of unknown origin and great size -- 26" -- and compounded this folly by doing without brakes of any kind.) Soon I had the courage to venture out onto the street, then go round the block. Early one morning I crept out to make my first descent of a sizeable hill, a stimulating and rather frightening experience which made me think a lot about the leverage exerted by large diameter wheels. I was soon so intoxicated that I kept nipping out "just to have another shot". My children remarked that I was like a wee boy who has just learned to ride without stabilisers.

And indeed it was just like that: through riding fixed I rediscovered the pleasure of cycling just for the sake of it, with no thought of any destination, and from that sprang the notion of cycling to work, an ideal journey that could be as long or as short as I liked and could follow any route. A brisk thirty to sixty minutes, depending on the weather, brings me back to my desk wide awake, much invigorated and well-exercised.

One of my favourite resorts is Lochardil woods, a pocket of woodland not far from the house. Though small in compass, these woods are criss-crossed with tracks broad and narrow, sinuous and straight, and the ground varies considerably in height, so that you come on sudden dips and rises quite unexpectedly. Even in the open woodland you can never see very far ahead, and on some of the tracks you are crowded in on either side by tall bushes. The terrain is agreeably testing too, being ribbed with half-exposed tree roots (though sturdy Westwood rims and 28x11/2" tyres cope admirably) and at this time of year strewn with slippery leaf-mould. At this time too the sun is low in the sky and everything is sidelit, often to breathtaking effect, the birchleaves almost luminous green and gold and the tracks carpeted with copper.

The whole has something of the character of a maze: though you know the outside world is not far away, the multiplicity of tracks and the variety of the terrain is too complex to map easily in your head, so it is possible to get lost. Pleasurably so, since you know you always will find a way out in the end.

At least in the daytime...

Those of you who are fans of the inimitable M. R. James will know that in mazes things happen differently after nightfall 'wherein all the beasts of the forest do move'. You might even 'begin to be sensible of some creature keeping pace with you and peering and looking upon you from the next alley'. (See 'Mr. Humphreys and his Inheritance'.) If you collect literary bicycles might like to know that James has one in 'A View from a Hill', a story where a bit of cross-country cycling takes a most disquieting turn.

But there now, I am slipping out of the real world into an imaginary one (though I suppose that is why I cycle to work in the first place).

For those of you who like the details, the big black bicycle began life as a rusty frame of unknown origin and age, though from its great size and cottered bottom bracket it must be upwards of eighty years old. I got it from Tim Gunn at The Old Bicycle Co. By far the costliest part of it is the glossy black powdercoat from Triple-S in Yorkshire. The Bayliss-Wiley flip-flop hub is an eBay special and the saddle is a hybrid, an old faithful Brooks B73 cover remounted on Brooks B90/130 springs from Ninon at the Bicycle Workshop. The superb handlebars are Nitto B-617s from Hubjub (of course). The 48t chainset is an old Raleigh one I had lying around. Running on the larger 19t sprocket, it gives a surprisingly tractable 71" gear with the 28" wheels.

John Ward's fixed gear roadster, again

John Ward is a writer with a passion for roadster bicycles.

v1.0 written November 2005

The suppliers John mentions are The Old Bicycle Co., Triple-S Powder Coating, The Bicycle Workshop and Hubjub.
If you're interested in finding out about the ghost stories of M. R. James, see the excellent Ghosts and Scholars website at Ghosts and Scholars.
John wrote us a very funny piece on Flann O'Brien.

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