“Buy a bicycle in Maidstone to visit an aunt in Dover, and you will see Canterbury Cathedral as it was built to be seen.” –G.K. Chesterton
The joys of the cycle are akin to the joys of the seasons. With each turn, each revolution, one finds them the same and, somehow, different; always old hat and yet always surprising; growing even as they remain the same; predictable but begging to be conjectured upon and discussed; a routine that grows more novel as it grows more engrained.
I begin each morning in the kitchen, measuring forty-seven grams of coffee beans, pouring boiling water through a dry filter, swirling and dumping the water into the sink, filling the kettle with another twenty-five and a half ounces and flipping it on. While this heats, I turn the grinder crank and listen to the beans break down and smell their newly-released oils. The parody between water and beans is such that, if I have measured correctly, my grinding and the kettle’s boiling end in unison. Of course, one does not pour boiling water over coffee. The boiled water must sit for about ten seconds to cool to brewing temp. I allow it to do this and then begin the slow process of turning one liquid into another.
My labour does not end here, for the manner in which one pours—placement, speed—has much to do with the result. One should allow the coffee to foam and bloom but not to erupt onto the sides of the filter. One should also remove the grounds before all the water has left them to keep out bitterness. When the filter is removed, I swirl the coffee one last time to even out the flavour. The whole process takes twenty minutes, and I am left with about twenty ounces of coffee—enough for my wife (who will not be up for another hour) and I and no more.
I began this more intensive process by necessity. Cambridge is not bursting with drip-makers, and its hard water—we have heard—will cake and freeze up any such machine within a year. At first the pour-over was a chore, inefficient, inexact, and inconsistent, for I was the brewing machine, and I am inefficient, inexact, and inconsistent. The coffee I produced varied widely and wildly. A slight delay or hesitation could minimise extraction, and a hurried step could burn or wash out the grounds. I had to learn—and I have learned—to brew in rhythm, to hone my measurements, to look to the quality of my water and my beans. Unlike dead machines, I have acquired skill, improved my function, and, in doing so, have improved my morning cup. But, more importantly, I have, through daily attention to the work, learned to rest in the task, and, even more, to make the task part of my rest. Were I to skip a step, or, being in a hurry, whip up a cup of instant, my day would lose a portion of its rest by losing a portion of its ritual. It has taken months of minor perseverance, but the work has become the pleasure—deep pleasure inaccessible by any other route. A quick cup of coffee has its own joys, but they are not the joys of the cup I brew.
Cheese makers tell me the same holds true of their product; there is no shortcut in ageing a stilton or a mozzarella, no substitute for time that equals time. And I have come to believe that something similar occurs on a bike. Just as cheese cannot be aged any faster than the clock can tick, a cup of rich coffee cannot be made in one step, and eight hours’ sleep cannot be crammed into six, the pleasures of cycling cannot be accessed on a vehicle any faster, any louder, or any more confined than a bicycle. This is especially true, incidentally, of the moped, which is the orc of the two wheeled machine—the twisted ancestor of a perfect form that whines and screams and zooms and drowns out and asks nothing of its rider save that he put his life in serious jeopardy for the minimal benefit of going twenty-miles-per-hour more than he could on a cycle. And it is the moped’s driver’s just punishment that he must confine himself to the sludge-stream car lane, which, in the city of Cambridge, usually means resigning himself to a later arrival time than the man on the cycle.
That aside, I have learned to rest on my bike, even while I am straining. I have come to forget the pump of my legs even while I am warmed and energized by their motion and effort. There is a sense in which I can rest more fully while rolling down Mill Lane or up Castle Hill than I can while sitting in some deep chair or lying in bed. The ritual work of moving the bike down well known streets, sidewalks, alleys, and lanes feels familiar, generative, and comfortable.
Out our window I often see white-headed seasoned citizens on bikes seventy years younger than they, working their way up Carlyle Road at my walking pace. They can no longer rage around as I tend to do, but they continue to cut their old lines down the streets, and, I imagine they find a slow, thick pleasure and even rest in their riding that I will not know for years and years—and perhaps never know, if I re-enter the world of the personal automobile and renew my negotiations with fire and inhuman speed.
Now, the bike has its inconveniences, but, I have found, most of them, with time and a dash of perspective, become new, bracing pleasures. A thorough soaking between Christ’s College and Corner House means a sudden, deep appreciation for the cup of tea, dry clothes, and spot by the living room radiator that await me. Shopping bags that hang from arms and back and handlebars brought safely home make a trip to the store a kind of challenge of balance and agility. The inability to shoot down to London or up to Manchester or over to that other university city means an increased knowledge and love of Cambridge and its appendage-towns.
In my Manhattan days, when I exercised regularly at the Kansas State rec, my workouts were improved exponentially by the presence of other gym regulars. I never learned their names, but I gave them names—“Lady Mary,” “Sweat-Pants” among others—and grew so I enjoyed their company and imagined they enjoyed mine. I would report to my wife if Shoulders was gone, or if Lady Mary stopped texting enough to pump out even one set on the quad machine. We were a kind of headphoned, silent community, forced together by circumstance.**
Something similar now seems to be occurring as I live and cycle my accustomed routes in Cambridge. The same circles of teenagers dot Jesus Green; the same street minstrels play and sing. The same characters pass me without a hello day after day. And yet I know them and some of their movements and attitudes, and furthermore I like them, generally.
The other day I was pedalling up Jesus Green toward the river, a grocery bag in one hand and a handlebar in the other. I was in no hurry and looked around me as I went. There, to my right was the group of frisbee players that often haunts that part of the park. To my left was my old friend, the river, and up ahead was the man my wife and I have begun to call “The Walker.” Almost any day you choose, you will find him holding a paperback and striding with long, lanky steps around a Cambridge garden or green, reading furiously. He follows no apparent pattern, and, like some errant mower, cuts no straight row. This day, he was pacing Jesus Green and snaked across the path in front of me twice before I overtook him. And as I glided by, I felt, perhaps for the first time since our move, that sense of silent community I had built in the rec. I knew that my rickety blue bike and I were members of that community of unacknowledged friends. I thought back to all those years driving around Kansas in my car when I was a community of one, packed and sealed away from those that drove the same highways and streets: warm, comfortable, dry, mobile, but unseen and unseeing.
The Christ’s College Gym is a windowless dungeon into which few descend, and very few regularly descend. So I suppose I have lost the quiet community of my gym, but, on my bike, I have gained the quiet community of my city.
R. Eric Tippin
In my academic gown
Christ’s College, Cambridge
25 May 2016
Transcribed at Corner House, Cambridge on the same date
Oil on Canvas - 1940
*This essay is a response to Broom Snow’s Gambler No. 18 [On the Extended Joys of Cycling] and is part of an ongoing conversation between the Trifler and the Gambler on the subject of cycling.
** Bryn Homuth tracks a similar phenomenon—though in far more eloquent terms—in his Hobbler No. 6 [On Hunting]