An excerpt from

Mind is the Ride

Jet McDonald

The Seat Tube

We were knackered. We'd cycled twenty kilometres from the French coast and it felt like we'd already done the trip. All the expectation, packing and house clearing had knocked us out. We just wanted to sleep. We didn't want to cycle to India.

It was the day after the British elections. Blighty was dangling on the end of a string like a yo yo that's lost its “yo” and we were happy to wait in abeyance amidst the bluebells of Normandy. In the cool of the green forests the bluebells are like a shallow sea, approach the edge from the road and you feel as if you might go paddling in them. And at a certain angle the colour of the bluebells multiplies, makes such an intense blue violet it feels like you can see the red in the palette.

The Seat Tube is the large diameter frame tube between the Bottom Bracket and Saddle. The Seat Tube’s role in the geometry of the bicycle is in defining the height of the rider above the crankset, i.e. those parts of the bike that engage the rider in movement (see Pedal, Crank, Chain). Also the position of the rider fore and aft along the length of the bike is partly determined by the Seat Tube angle, i.e. the angle between the back of the Seat Tube and the horizontal. If this angle is shallow the rider is placed further back along the bike, increasing the load on the back wheel and making it easier for the rider to touch the ground without getting off the seat. This makes for a more relaxed or touring style, versus the aggressive style of riding, with the rider to the fore, leaning over the handlebars. The average angle of a road racing bike is seventy three degrees, ours were considerably less. In that first campsite in France it felt like the angle of the Seat Tubes was zero degrees. We just couldn't find the momentum to get riding.

One of the delights and challenges of bike touring is that you're in charge. There's no coach waiting at 9am for you to sling the luggage into the hold. But the price of control is motivation. And how do you motivate yourself out of the bluebells? The chalk roads of Normandy were singing to us but the bluebell forests had their own mermaid songs; “picnics, croissants, sleep, sleep, sleep.”

The cafes and tabacs have a different message. The posture here is certainly less than seventy three degrees, elbows over chair backs, but Espresso keeps the brain lurching forward. This, I like to think, is how Parisian existentialism was engineered. Mr Sartre realised that someone had to get the groceries and it wasn't going to be Simone de Beauvoir.

Existentialism is built on something called Phenomenology. Another big word in a small coffee cup, but basically the study of how we perceive the world. Phenomenology asserts that there is no definitive object “out there” and that we all interpret the world with our own, very personal, perceptive traits. Existentialism claims (unlike Plato and the idealists) that there is no universal and eternal realm, that there is and never has been an “ideal” concept of the world and the objects it contains. That there is, in fact, no preordained “essence”. That there is, in fact, no god. We are material objects first. We exist first and then we develop a conscious understanding of the world by our individual perception of it, our essence. Existence precedes essence, like coffee granules precede coffee.

The net outcome of this is that our lives are not pre-ordained. There is no deity making up the rules for us. We map our own paths through life, even if we kid ourselves that we don't, and it is fate that is in charge, pulling at our handlebars.

Sartre explained we are “born free” but that this freedom comes with a responsibility, a responsibility for our actions. Everything that happens to us and will happen to us is decreed by what we choose to do. Even if we choose to do nothing, that is still a decision. “Not to choose is, in fact, to choose not to choose,” Jean Paul Sartre said. Our lives, our very being is defined not by what opportunity offers or denies us but by what we do, by how we act. “To be is to do,” he says.

Lying around in a French campsite is a decision. A decision to do nothing. And the argument that I am worn out and duff and not fit for riding would not hold true for Sartre. “I cannot be crippled without choosing myself as crippled,” he says. This is not an appropriation of disability but rather “This means I chose the way in which I constitute my disability.” I could sit around thinking “blimey I'm knackered and we've only done a few hundred miles. How are we going to get to Bombay?” Or I can get on my bike and ride. To be is to do.

In fact the existentialist would see the daunting bike journey ahead as something that allows me to function, as something which gives purpose to my life. The actual facts of the road, the potholes it throws up, creates the action that defines who we are. “The resistance of the thing (facticity) sustains the action of man (freedom) as air sustains the flight of the dove.

Sartre was a fan of the German philosopher Heidegger, born some hundred years before. Heidegger, happy go lucky as he was, framed life by the death that awaits it. Every decision in life, he argued, should be made with the finite nature of life in mind. Thus every decision should be an affirmation of that life, its zing and presentness. On the other hand, a life lived on the basis of avoiding death was a series of tiny deaths in itself.

It's a hard life being Mr. or Ms. Existentialist, but an honest one lived in the moment. In fact Existentialism has many similarities to philosophies of the East (see Freewheel); its focus on the present and its understanding of the nature of consciousness.

It is because man is defined only by what he does, that he is always passing through a moment, rather than in a moment, that the past is always behind him and the future never arrives. And so the Existentialist recognises consciousness as a stream of thought rather than a thought itself. Consciousness or mind is movement, it is something that is always coming into being and passing away (see Bottom Bracket). So even sat in a campsite doing nothing my mind is still hurtling onwards. We move even if our legs aren't going round and round.

The second morning in France I had the squits, possibly from sucking the cooker fuel off my fingers the night before. We listened to the election results on a hissing transistor radio. England seemed so far away, hung in the balance of its history, as we started our own adventure. And this was the final kick up the arse that got us going again and back on the road. To escape that hissing Radio 4 history, a middle class consensus falling like rain.

We were on the B roads that track across the country like delicate wrinkles; along a winding chalk path over Normandy farms and through a wild pasture humming with the first full hot day of Spring, a dusk journey past the battlegrounds of World War I with wooden Christs emerging out of the mist like mystics and an endless downhill through green forests that seemed to be steaming like rainforests. We remarked, in a pompous cyclist kind of way, how delightful it was that the shops weren't open on Sundays, how English culture comparatively was so “twenty four hours” and the continent knew how to kick off its shoes and relax. And then we found ourselves in a series of villages where nothing was open. Nothing. In rural France Sunday extends into Monday and then Monday extends into Tuesday and two hungry cyclists with a dirty petrol stove trying to eat the remains of yesterday’s pot noodle do not make for a happy couple. “I don't give a shit,” Jen eloquently put it when I told her that I'd filled the stove up with barbecue fuel and it was no longer working, and there was no shop open for fifty miles.

We invented a character called “Mr Moped” whose job it was to putter across rural France closing all the cafes and tabacs and restaurants just as we arrived. He was like those guys on motorcycles in the Tour de France swooping ahead of the peloton for the best camera shot. Except “Mr Moped” was expressly employed to close all the food establishments just as we rested our fully loaded touring bikes against a wall...