Cruising through Life
Can I learn to enjoy cycling?
NB: As you may infer from the somewhat weak premise this isn’t my usual sort of blog post, which are typically about whether I can go to space or talk to the dead rather than if I can like bikes or not. And please don’t be discouraged, the Notes app on my phone is packed with disastrous and terrifying ideas for future articles: can I be cryogenically frozen? Can I pose as a child online to get a paedophile convicted? Can I technically become a God? I am in no way running short on methods to ruin my life for your fleeting interest and amusement.
Over the past couple of weeks though what I have been looking into is how hard it would be to actually start getting paid to write these gonzo articles. For the unaware “gonzo” journalism is the investigative method I am partial to where as opposed to objectively noting down facts you plunge yourself into a story and report from the epicentre, the progenitor being the late, great, irate Hunter S. Thompson who was sent by Rolling Stone magazine to write a few hundred words about a motorcycle race in Nevada and returned with the novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a frenzied, drug-soaked clawing away at the concept of The American Dream.
I don’t like taking peoples’ word for things. People can’t be trusted. If some sources tell me that eating nothing but fruit gives you pancreatic cancer and others fervently deny it then as a journalist what am I to do? Guess? Write an impotent article about how each side has compelling evidence so we’ll never know for sure? No, I’m going to load up my fruit-bowl and put my pancreas on the line to find out some answers for myself.
You might think gonzo journalists are in high demand, as each piece they produce has unsullied, exclusive data which can’t be wrong. However 99% of publications will always opt for the safe, distanced form of objective reporting that readers are used to, with no flavour or first-person narrative, just facts, stats and quotes. Whilst Thompson was able to make a living and legacy from it, ultimately from a business standpoint gonzo reporting is viewed as the riskier and less financially-sound option.
Only once, in my early twenties, was I able to stumble into a position where people were paying for my gonzo writing. I was working a temp job doing admin for a sperm bank, and I found a burgeoning business magazine recruiting writers on Gumtree. Madly I blagged the interview and they gave me my own column; the theme of the magazine was how brands use social media, and while the other contributors were writing thousands of dreary words about all the features of LinkedIn I requested I be flown out to Majorca to spend a night in a Twitter-themed hotel.
In true gonzo style I imbibed not only the surroundings and culture for a thoroughly probing article but also mass quantities of alcohol, so that I slept through my alarm and caught my plane home with just minutes to spare. As I sat on the flight back at 9am in my New York flea-market Hawaiian shirt, tapping up notes and pouring a Jack Daniels on top of my hangover it was with a mystified glee I reminded myself I was getting paid to do this. Then the magazine folded, I accepted a vanilla office job for regular income to pay rent, and I let the idea that I might be able to write for money get away from me.
Now I’m at the other, worse end of my twenties, with only 303 days left of them in fact, and have begun to ponder again whether there might be a way I can churn out gonzo works but at less crippling expense to myself. To that end I’ve recently started searching Gumtree and Craigslist for small freelance writing gigs, with the challenge I’ve set myself to always respond to the brief in a gonzo format regardless of whether such an approach is wise or relevant.
So far this has proved divisive. A blog about addictions asked for content so I attended a local AA meeting to write up my thoughts and the site host loved it, finding my “writing style to be of one myself and the readers can connect with” (you can read that piece here if you wish). Then again a chap commissioned me to write a 2,000+ word guide about cruiser bicycles, so I duly hired out a cruiser, got drunk and rode around, typed up my account and he hated it. “Fluff,” he disparaged it as, not the anodyne “informational style posts” he was after. “If we are to work together again, Matt,” he said, “I will ask that you stick to this style.”
Obviously I am not going to change my writing style. Plunging headfirst into esoteric worlds in which I do not belong in order to transcribe my experiences is my favourite thing to do, I just haven’t yet found a platform happy to exchange my words for money. With the cycling blog unwilling to publish my article (still paying me for it though, bizarrely) I thought I’d at least reproduce it here for posterity. It does mean that it’s stuffed with technical details about bikes which I normally wouldn’t bother with, but this may be the trend for the next few articles that end up on Fat Prose as I take jobs writing about sewing or bridges or death, defy what’s asked of me with some hare-brained gonzo masterpiece, get rebuffed by a fearful editor and simply list it here instead. For you the reader, it just means I’ll be forced to produce more content until one day I start getting paid to fund even better content, so you have nothing to worry about.
During the endless summer of childhood I would cycle everywhere. I can’t recall the particular model of bike I had but it was bright blue and I would careen about on it every day, racing around with friends high on Sunny Delight, sometimes venturing into the woods to take off from perilous home-made jumps. One of the biggest scars I have is on my left arm, as thick as a watchstrap, from trying to cycle down some stone steps as a young lad and instantly launching over the handlebars. They were, truly, great days.
These reveries lie in direct contrast to my most recent extended period of cycling. I was 22 years old, had just graduated and found tentative employment performing admin for a fostering agency based 5 and a half miles away from where I lived. I couldn’t afford the bus and certainly couldn’t afford a car so borrowed my girlfriend’s sister’s old pink pushbike, a malicious contraption, to make the 11-mile round trip each day.
My commuter’s route was almost entirely on unlit, national speed limit roads that weaved at unholy gradients through pastoral farmland. I was undertaking this terrible journey through the dead of winter so needed bike lights but these were stolen on literally the first day I bought them, and from then on had to use a hand-cranked torch in the shape of a pig that I’d gaffer tape to the handlebars each morning, turning a little pink lever which would belch light out through the pig’s nostrils to briefly illuminate my dismal surroundings.
These journeys were so uncomfortable, dangerous and degrading I actually came to dread 5pm each working day, but they also completely tainted my relationship with the humble bike. I became conditioned to associate sitting on a saddle with taking my very life in my hands, swerving around potholes in the freezing darkness while cranking my toy pig like a madman.
It was a shame that ferrying to and from the 9-5 grind had stolen the joy and liberation I connected with cycling as a kid, so I recently decided to re-learn how to enjoy this pastime. If I could spend just a few hours behind the handlebars of a bike, cycling aimlessly without the stress of potentially being late for work or minced by oncoming traffic, it might be enough to overcome my disinclination.
I couldn’t get this experience on any old bike though, the best tool for the job would be a cruiser. Recognizable by their curved framework and fat tyres, cruiser bikes are designed solely for what I had intended – to offer a ride that’s comfortable, easy and fun, much as cycling used to be before it was repurposed as a means to get to the office faster. While many things flow in the opposite direction in life, cruiser bikes prioritise enjoyment over practicality.
Happily in my seaside town of Bournemouth I was able to hire a cruiser from a local depot with ease, just £10 for 2 and a half hours of relaxed cycling therapy.
The rental chap, black with oil smears, had sent me off on an Electra Townie which I took smoothly down the beachfront after the tiniest of preliminary wobbles. He didn’t mention this but from my own research I discovered this model to in fact be the U.S.A’s best-selling bike, with Electra as a whole now wheeling out over 100,000 bikes every year.
Electra are not, however, one of the main companies associated with cruiser bikes. Indeed the Townie model I was riding did not precisely resemble a traditional cruiser, which typically possess a sweeping cantilever frame so that the seat tray curves steeply downwards for its conventional retro look. With my Townie, Electra have “opened up the frame geometry… and given the entire body some breathing room” to use their words, trading the sensual styling for rigid efficiency and “a more ergonomic ride”.
I was pleased to see some other traits of the cruiser bike were maintained faithfully. The handlebars were wide and curved to encourage a more relaxed cycling stance, the saddle was for once a comfortable place to be perched on, and the balloon tyres offered a plush ride yet were still rugged enough to go over sand and bumpy concrete.
My Townie was a multi-gear model so had three gears, as opposed to a standard cruiser which would have only one. I did feel the extra gears were gratuitous on my ride as cruisers aren’t bikes you’re ever going to be dragging uphill, they’re to be moved effortlessly whilst draped over the handlebars in a slovenly fashion and simultaneously checking your phone. Although somewhat redundant the gears did shift very smoothly and thanks to the inter-gear hubs you could change between the three even when stationary.
The brakes on mine also went against convention, as a cruiser would normally operate with a coaster brake meaning to stop you simply start pedalling backwards. I can however understand the oil-streaked rental proprietor’s reluctance to send casual cyclists off on bikes with no traditional brakes, and to that end my cruiser did have one brake for the back wheel which worked incredibly well, stopping any possible insurance headaches from tourists who might otherwise hurtle off a pier.
By chance I’d chosen the perfect conditions to rekindle a liking for biking. The day was warmish and bone-dry, with intermittent sun and a bit of wind to stir up some interest among the sea and sandscape. It was also a Saturday however, meaning the coastal paths were clogged with beachgoers and worse still my bell to signal attention sounded like a chirp of meek crickets.
When the crowds finally thinned I could fully grasp the cruiser’s appeal: the ride is so pleasant and easy you genuinely forget that you’re moving of your own volition. I meandered through puddles and flurries of sand and found myself not only smiling but unconsciously humming Bobby McFerrin to myself, all very out of character and a long way from those merciless bike rides to and from work where I would be locked in a tight grimace muttering “I’m going to die, I’m going to die, I’m going to die,” over and over.
The beach really is the cruiser’s natural home. They were originally designed as an affordable method of transportation in the austerity following the Great Depression when other bikes had become luxury items, but by the 1970’s they had found their way to the coast where they belonged. Surfers, Beats and all who valued free-thinking would flock to the beaches to party, let the roar of the waves eclipse the sound of Nixon’s voice, and cruise in fleets on their easy-going cycle rides.
Since then cruisers have enjoyed a steady growth in popularity, especially on beaches where picturesque scenery at a level gradient make these bikes one of the best ways to soak up the surroundings. From my saddle I watched sightseers shuffling into the carriage of a diesel locomotive which chugs up and down the promenade, their faces murky through polythene windows, and I pitied them.
About 90 minutes or so into my blissful cycle I had my first minor incident. My path was lined with beach huts behind which a lot of pedestrians relieve themselves as the public toilets are sporadic and costly, and a small river of liquid waste had forged together and cleft its way through the sand. To me this resembled a jump, much like those I’d gleefully risked in the woods during my youth.
I ploughed over the gully, managing to gain a little air on the big, heavy bike, and was so pleased with myself I almost carried on straight into a terrified man emerging from between two huts. “STOP!” yelled a passer-by unnecessarily, as I furiously pumped the rear brake to avoid disaster.
This does reflect how carefree I had become on my cruiser, I was pretty much utterly detached from my surroundings – thankfully the very essence of the bike encourages a slow and controllable ride. A little shaken up I thought I would recollect my thoughts at a nearby bar (he was fine, by the way, I managed to swerve the bike around him, but probably eked out whatever he hadn’t already splashed behind the beach huts). I bought a Birra Moretti and sat al fresco, guiding the loping bike clumsily between beer garden tables to much clattering and disarray.
Drink in hand I looked at my Townie bike in the dappled sunlight, somewhat dismayed it didn’t conform to the cruiser’s trademark curved body frame. It still rode very well, but that would have been aesthetically preferable.
My Electra model was the only variety of cruiser the hire depot had, there are of course myriad other brands that create a more traditional product. SixThreeZero and Firmstrong are two such companies both producing coast-route-ready cruisers from possibly the most ideal place to do so, the palm-lined sands of Hermosa Beach, California. Then there’s the innovative Huffy brand, the first to patent chopper bikes and banana seats, and also of course the genesis of cruisers: Schwinn Bicycles, who have crafted durable bikes for the past 125 years and put the first ever cruiser on the streets back in 1933.
The wind had really picked up now to topple chairs over and whip empty glasses off tables. A roll of paper towel half-unfurled to about a metre and billowed in the air, blowing into people’s faces. An apologetic bar staff member emerged to set up a system of overhead heaters which he erected with a raucous grating noise. Myself and all my fellow drinkers pretended not to notice any of this, part of the self-hypnotism which allows you to enjoy a day at the beach whatever the weather. I held on to my bike for fear of it being blown over and watched the world go by.
Hot Rocks, the bar I was perched at, was reasonably close to the bike hire centre with a good view of the promenade so I was expecting to see a fair amount of cruisers easing their way around, but I didn’t. The majority of the bikes emanating from that direction appeared generic and efficient, straddled by dour riders who looked like they had somewhere urgent to be. In fact the only exception was a hen party on a convoy of tandems with tinsel tied at the handlebars, weaving about to a cacophony of their own cackles. Where were all the cruisers?
With some beer in me and some time left before I needed to return my bike I cycled into town to run a small errand and instantly wished to return to comfy beachfront territory. The cruiser is not a bike to be used to squirm through busy streets, it’s too cumbersome and feels jarringly unnatural to do so, like wearing your slippers to brave a rush-hour tube train. I abandoned my errand and with palpable relief returned to the coast.
When my time had elapsed and with some small regret I wheeled my sandy, wind-weathered, slightly beer-and-urine-flecked cruiser back to its rental home. I had hired one of these bikes to forcibly remind myself that cycling doesn’t have to be a miserable slog to get to places, it can in itself be a pleasurable activity and my short stint on a cruiser completely surpassed expectation. Whilst I knew it would be better than my experience of inching up dark, frosty hills trying to illuminate a plastic pig I really did not foresee quite how pleasant a ride along a beach on a cruiser bike could be – I was beaming as I slotted my Townie back in the rack among its fellow brethren. The owner, now somehow even darker with oil, emerged to talk to me and I gushed over the cruiser’s virtues.
“Yeah,” he agreed, “I love these bikes.” We took a moment to admire them against the backdrop of shifting sands and crashing waves. And then: “shame we’re having to phase them out soon.”
This was news I was not expecting to hear. Bournemouth prides itself on having the best beach in the UK, and the fifth best in Europe, so if cruisers can’t thrive here then that’s troubling. I pressed him for a reason and he scratched at his beanie hat awkwardly.
The reason, he told me, was as tourists and casual riders shy away from somewhat unconventional bikes. His cruisers with only one brake are viewed as the risky option, so I can only imagine the reaction if he had rented out real cruisers with no brakes at all.
Instead the commercial future was safe, bland reliability, and he gestured at a row of generic Marin bikes ready to usurp the unfamiliar cruisers. It was truly a shame to hear, but then if I was a novice cyclist offered a bike with oddly bulging tyres, a melting framework like Salvador Dali had designed it, and one or no brakes then I would have likely blanched at first too.
Only when you’re on one do you realise how easy and comfortable cruisers are, and how swiftly you can change from a stressed and bitter 21st-century office worker to one of those unhurried, unharried 1970’s beach drifters, ebbing with the flow. It’s honestly made me want to go cycling again, as long as it is just a dawdle down the boulevard on a cool cruiser and not more pig-lit purgatory on a pushbike.