Built for Adventure

Cycling has become the new rock and roll, or the new golf, depending on whether you're into off-road biking (type ‘Danny Macaskill' into YouTube and you'll see just how far off-road you can go), or road cycling which has been gentrified with kit and accessories which wouldn't look out of place on a Vogue fashion shoot. It's given rise to a new phenomenon, officially recognised by brands and marketeers alike, that of the MAMIL – Middle Aged Man In Lycra – who responds to his inevitable mid-life crisis by shaving his legs and spending a five-figure sum on a new bike rather than a sports car or mistress. And that's making the bike industry very rich. An average of US$6 billion a year has been spent on bikes and parts during the last decade in the US, according to the National Bike Dealers Association. Saving the World But it's not all one-sided. The bicycle has done some wonderful things for humanity too, other than make us fitter and leaner. Acclaimed British engineer Mike Burrows (the designer of Chris Boardman's 1992 Olympic winning bike) once said that, unlike a football or tennis racquet, the bicycle "is the one piece of sports equipment that can save the planet." An example of this can be seen in the coffee plantations of Rwanda, where farmers harvest their crop riding cheap, sturdy bicycles specially designed for them by American frame builder Tom Ritchey, better known as the co-inventor (with Gary Fisher) of the mountain bike.

In other developing parts of the world, such as Sri Lanka and South Africa, tens of thousands of affordable bikes have been provided by charities for use by farmers and schoolchildren in rural communities. One of these charities, South Africa's Qhubeka, is the co-sponsor of Africa's only elite level professional cycling team, MTN-Qhubeka. In the world of professional sport, cycling may still lag a long way behind the likes of football or Formula One in terms of global popularity, but that is slowly changing thanks to the success of English-speaking riders who have, over the last 20 years, infiltrated the previous hegemony of European countries such as France, Spain and Italy. And while it's true that Lance Armstrong's name is best spoken in whispered tones, some names from cycling's golden age still have the power to inspire and make grown-men misty-eyed with admiration. These names include the likes of five times Tour de France winner Bernard Hinault who knew only one tactic – to attack, and then attack again, whether it was a short criterium (street circuit race) or epic 200 kilometre mountain stage of a Grand Tour. He would resort to fisticuffs if any external forces – such as striking farmers, for example – tried to impede his progress. Another legend and personal favourite of mine is Jacques Anquetil (also a five times Tour winner) whose unique method of recovery between the daily stages of a three week, 2,500 kilometre long race would involve copious amounts of champagne, lobster and women. Men like him and Hinault make some of today's riders seem as bland and predictable as robots. Roads to Ride But as important as the names of individual riders are the names of the roads and mountains they have conquered. Names such as Alpe d'Huez, Ventoux, Stelvio and Zocolan send shivers of excitement – and fear – down the spines of riders and fans alike. These are the natural, mountain arenas that have witnessed extraordinary sporting accomplishments, and where you, me and any other cyclist can visit and attempt to emulate our heroes. You may never get the chance to strike a home run at Fenway Park or score a goal at Wembley stadium, but any of us can ride our bike – or at least attempt to – on the same roads used by the professionals. A host of specialist tour operators has emerged to meet the demand from recreational riders wanting to live the "pro experience" – riding iconic roads with full mechanical and logistical support. You can now ride multi-stage races across Europe's most famous mountain ranges without having to worry about anything other than whether it might rain or not. But if the effort of cycling 120 kilometres a day doesn't make your eyes water, the price possibly will. The entrance fee alone for the Haute Route series of races — which bills itself as "the highest and toughest in the world" — will set you back around US$2,000.

 

And here's where I'll let you into another cyclists' secret. Unlike mountaineers, we don't climb mountains "because they are there." We climb them because we know there's the thrill of a 100 kph descent waiting for us at the top. So while walking may not yet be "obsolete", that article in Scientific American was nearly right — the bicycle really is built for adventure. Trevor Ward is a UK-based freelance journalist who writes for a range of cycling publications including Cyclist, Cyclist Weekly and Guardian Bike Blog

 

Time to dig deeper and explore the exotic brew of South East Asian culture:

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