ride on R.B.

Richard Ballantine’s analysis of the value and joy of cycling will never fade.

“Equipment makes a difference, but the main thing is to get out there.”

Richard Ballantine on cycle touring.

Last weekend I had the honour of providing rolling sound for Richard Ballantine’s funeral procession which ran down from Spaniards Inn – on the summit ridge of Hampstead Heath – to Golders Green crem’ and was – as one celebrant remarked – the speediest funeral parade in history.

Hauling battery and speaker up through Hornsey and Highgate to the rendezvous, early on one of the first summery Sundays of this late, late Spring it was striking how many people were out on bikes. Individuals, groups, dressed for riding or for leisure. Most of these people had never heard of the great man but all are – in some sense – his followers. If you weren’t there it’s hard to describe how outrĂ© cycling was in the early Seventies when Richard’s Bicycle Book was published. Its combination of practical advice and lyrical boldness may seem commonplace now but then it was weird and electrifying.

In the chapel a favourite bike, a Burrows Ratcatcher, leaned against the table supporting the coffin, ready for the road with drinking tube and lights. Richard’s son Sean briefly consternated the assembly by declaring his intention to “read from the Bible…” and got a big laugh when he clarified “…the bicycle bible Richard’s Bicycle Book.”

“Which brings us to the most positive series of reasons for trying to use bicycles at every opportunity. Basically, this is that it will enhance your life, bringing to it an increase in quality of experience which will find its reflection in everything you do.

Well! You have to expect that I would believe bicycling is a good idea, but how do I get off expressing the notion that bicycling is philosophically and morally sound? Because it is something that you do, not something that is done to you. Need I chronicle the oft-cited concept of increasing alienation in our lives? The mechanization of work and daily activities, the hardships our industrial society places in the way of loving and fulfilling relationships and family life, the tremendous difficulties individuals experience trying to influence political and economic decisions which affect them and others?

Of course there will always be people who say that they like things the way they are. They find the Tube really interesting, or insist on driving a chrome bomb and rattling everybody’s windows. But the fact is that trains are crowded, dirty impersonal and noisy and nearly all cars are ego-structured worthless tin junk (with bikes the more you pay the less you get).

The most important effect of mechanical contraptions is that they defeat consciousness. Consciousness, self-awareness, and development are the prerequisites for a life worth living. Now look at what happens to you on a bicycle. It’s immediate and direct. You pedal.

You experience the tang of the air and the surge of power as you bite into the road. You’re vitalized. As you hum along you fully and gloriously experience the day, the sunshine, the clouds, the breezes. You’re alive! You are going some place, and it is you who is doing it. Awareness increases, and each day becomes a little more important to you. With increased awareness you see and notice more, and this further reinforces awareness.”

Some of the detail in Richard’s Book – the capital ‘B’ is necessary and important because R.B. produced lot’s of other bicycle books, lots of other books – has been rendered obsolete by technological development. You must – for example – be some kind of dedicated machine-fiddler to feel nostalgic about cotter-pins. Richard Ballantine’s analysis of the value and joy of cycling will never fade.

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