My tendency over the years has been to move towards lighter and lighter bike frames (though not quite as expensive as carbon-fibre ones), but then acquire considerably more gear on top of them. The past two years I’ve ridden a “sports hybrid”: speedily built, but with the potential to be kitted out as a tourer. And boy, do I do that: a pannier rack and tourer mudguards; one or sometimes two beautiful Ortlieb monsters, with a spare set of lights and – until recently – puncture repair kit, pump and inner tube; and a heavy gold-standard lock for insurance purposes rattling away beneath me. And that’s before I buy lunch and pack a spare vest.
Since the start of January, I’ve been wondering what might happen if I cut down on my kit. The bad weather cramped my style for a good few days – even after the thaw, the chill kept me reliant on my panniered infrastructure of food and clothes – but I still had the idea at the back of my mind. A chance purchase of an incredibly cheap Merino top – where the delivery cost was zeroed out by adding to my basket a little saddlebag just over twice that postage – gave me the impetus to do so. I discarded my panniers and their contents under the stairs, finding that I had just enough space in my new saddlebag for spare lights and most of my personal effects. My mobile phone, the one thing too bulky to do so, went in the lower-back pocket of my cycling top.
The difference was amazing: once again, I felt back in touch with my bicycle, as it became more responsive and more clearly an extension of my will. But it was only when I trialled leaving my lock at home too – only for a couple of days, as security permitted – that I suddenly understood what I was aiming for. Without lock or panniers, and with a well-oiled chain, my journey was not merely almost weightless, but also almost completely silent.
I caught birdsong and the cries of red kites; I heard a horse munching passively on something or other as I freewheeled past him along the driveway into work. I could even sense cars in the far, far distance, both ahead and behind me; and I realised knew exactly where I was, and where everything and everyone else was, by sense of hearing alone. Finally, after lightening my back wheel, lightening my frame, and lightening my pockets: the last thing to lighten was my heart.