In a new occasional column, AC's man in London, Pete Harrington, talks about the challenges of finding time to ride when kids, work and life in a big city conspire to keep you off the saddle. Rest assured, he still spells the American way.
About a year ago, I started reading surf magazines. The thing is, I don’t surf. I’ve never surfed. I can’t even tell you why I started to read about surfing. One moment, I wasn’t; the next, I had my feet firmly in the sand, surrounded by colorful copies of The Surfer’s Journal. Each month, I devour salty tales of swells, breaks, shark attacks, artist surfers and madcap boating trips from a world I know nothing about. It’s all very strange. But having thought about it, I think it might have something to do with cycling.
Last October, my family and I - wife, 2-year-old daughter and King Charles Cavalier - moved back to London from Portland, Oregon, our home for five years. The move was rational on paper: be nearer aging parents and get a little support with the little one (and now littler one with the recent arrival of our second daughter). But on paper isn’t reality. In truth, the past year has been rough. We didn’t anticipate how much we’d miss Portland and our American friends. Neither did we imagine how hard we’d find it to make new friends or reconnect with old ones. Five years is a long time. Up close, our parents were older than we’d realized, which made us thankful for our decision to return, if not a little wistful for the support that would never come. Most of all, we found that time, often in balance back in Portland, was stripped to the bone by the dual demands of life in London and the needs of our growing family. Between the try-to-get-out-of-the-house mornings, school runs, work, and the evening dinner/bath/play/negotiate/read/play/snack/re-negotiate routine, parenting was taking everything we had.
We adapted slowly, and for a while, I lost my way. Riding was a problem. What had been simple in Portland became somehow complex. Days without the bike become weeks and, bafflingly, months. I still thought about the bike, yet I wasn’t riding. As the year wore on, a question began to form in my mind, beating a rhythm that spoke to a reality I had tried to avoid: was I still a rider? I cycled our eldest to daycare on our electric cargo bike every day. But a rider? That was something else.
About that time, the surf magazines started to appear. And dreams. Vivid dreams of apple orchards, all dewy greens and fresh reds, blurring to patchwork fields and hazy horizons beyond barreling descents of flashing front tires, side grins and trimmed speed shifting down, ever down. Dreams of fast rides in farm country.
Escape, of course - all an escape. Avoiding the difficulty and fleeing to new terrain. Easy meat for a shrink. But I needed a friend to tell me the truth, and an American one at that. “Pete,” fellow Portlander and cyclist Annalisa puffed after what should have been a sedate commute to show her London over summer turned into a fast-paced crit race on hire bikes, “you need to start riding again. It’s different here. That’s ok.”
The tires told me exactly how long it had been - 60 psi at best. Even my bike was deflated. That made me laugh. And I love my bike. A Mediterranean-blue Pegoretti Marcelo, with a zip motif amidst the Ciavete paint scheme that Pietro at Pegoretti told me when he handed over the frame in 2019 signified being a little too tightly wound. “Because you are zipped up!' he had laughed. I still don’t know if I should be upset by that.
My first ride was weird. A year of daycare commutes on a 110 lb cargo bike had given me a leaden hand. Was my Peg always this frisky? For a moment, I could believe in levitation. Release me from an anchor, and I’ll float. Give me Italian steel after Danish utility, and I’ll crash into a fence. I adjusted, tweaked the height of my seat post and found my flow. And yes, twee as it is, a sense of fun. I don’t know why I’d left it this long, and I hoped I wouldn’t leave it so long again. All the more so because I’ve always ridden, ever since donning too-loose lycra shorts and joining my local mountain bike club on Saturdays to scrabble across the moor, fen and scree of northern England as a 12-year-old, mud-caked, mint-sauced and desperate to go back out again. Later, a first road bike, and the thrill of easy speed, downshifters and a real-life Raleigh, the same one (or so I thought) as the pros rode in the Tour of Britain, albeit without the bananas.
A few weeks after that first ride back, I’ve managed to string a modest series of spins together. They’re nothing special, but each time I borrow a window of time from something else, I come back more able to be the dad I want to be. And that’s priceless.
The surf magazines have been an escape, but more than that, they hold an extra allure that comes from not living in that world. I don’t know whether things are good, bad, rehashed or striking out somewhere new. I experience everything for what it is, not in the shadow of something else. And that’s freeing. Aside from the beautiful photography and stories, there’s a freshness and breadth to surf culture I want to explore, baffled as I am by its vernacular. Perhaps my interest in surf media also speaks to a lack of a broader lens in the cycling scene. Maybe there’s a gap to be bridged.
Am I a surfer if I don’t surf? Perhaps not. But I am a rider. Here’s to a great 2024.