Progress, despite what we’re told, isn’t always for the best, at least not for everyone. And today, it’s hard to stand still, especially in a high-speed internet age driven by the impetus to record and share every move made in daily life.
Thankfully there are still times when you can step off those WiFi rails, ditch the stats and updates and just ride as far and wherever you please for the sheer hell of it.
This may whiff of an old timer rambling on about how great the good old days were, and how things were so much better back then; although in reality, it’s not. This is just me taking a well-needed step back and sideways and rediscovering why I started cycling in the first place, some 40 years ago.
Around 20 years or so I wrote a story for a mountain bike magazine about the mixed virtues of taking a mobile phone out on a ride. They were already becoming commonplace, yet few wanted their ride time de-railed by the very things they were there to ride away from - the hassles, stress and worries of regular daily life.
There was a huge response to the story with many decrying the notion of carrying a phone on a ride.
How times have changed, now it’s tough to find a rider who doesn’t hit the road or trail without being wired to the always-on insanity of the virtual world, where every twist and turn is recorded for posterity, and few rides complete without a selfie or three.
Of course, it’s not just a cycling thing but life in general, and today connectivity impacts on the lion’s share of rides we all take – even though I frequently rebel against the concept.
Cycling has become far more popular than it’s ever been, and it’s become a far more expensive and trend driven sport in with it. Road cycling is now the highest value sporting market out there, estimated to be worth a staggering US$47 billion a year globally (New York Times, reporting on the Rapha sale).
The demographic of regular riders has changed dramatically and so have the reasons people have for getting into cycling. For many, it's now a gear and stats fitness thing, which it never was for me.
Many of us got into cycling as teenagers, and it tended to attract the individualistic loners (as in my case), with the bike first and foremost a means of freedom and adventure, a simple machine that gave you the liberation and independence you strived for (until you got your first car).
From a very early age that adventure, freedom, and escapism were (and still is) what cycling was all about for me, yet through pressures and expectations (especially when you write about it for a living), that is often left behind.
A few months ago I interviewed Tom Ritchey, and got to talking about the connected world and the fact that he refused to take a mobile phone or any device with him on a ride, preferring his time out on two wheels to be his alone, independent and free, something which stirred my old core values.
I’ve almost never used a GPS or bike computer, because I know I’ll become obsessed and stressed by it, especially on a tough day. I do carry a mobile, not to record data, but to snap often unnecessary photos and video along the road, usually for Instaposts that will be gone in 24-hours. Admittedly this is not because I want to, it’s because I feel I should.
With this in mind, I’ve taken a couple of recent trips into the wilds of the Northern Thai mountains, staying in a small place with no internet or phone coverage. In some ways, it’s been a digital detox, although despite having no signal I did find myself habitually checking my phone every few minutes.
Having been raised in a WiFi free age and longing for the mental disconnect, it took some getting used to. I was riding a gravel bike deep into hill tribe lands, without facilities or coverage – pretty much what I’d done for most of my life until about 10 years ago.
The feeling was one of apprehension and vulnerability, sugared with a coating of anticipation and nervous excitement. Of course I did still take the phone with me – after all, you never know when there will be a remote clearing somewhere so that I can clear my spam folder and reply to the news of WW3 starting.
Several days later I rolled back to reality, eager to check my email and social media accounts, just to see if the world had forgotten me or something life-changing had happened. It hadn’t, and I did sneak in a cheeky Instagram post after the fact.
Don’t get me wrong, I can see the safety and value in recording stats and routes, and I can, unfortunately, appreciate the addiction to social media.
Even if it was slightly unsettling being offline and unplugged for several days it did free up a lot more thinking time and allowed me to re-acquaint myself with the distant memories of what cycling was originally all about.
Let's see if it can last longer the next time. I used to go off-grid for a month at a time (pre-internet days), and those are the riding adventures that continue to stand out.
It's still possible, so give it a try and you'll see and notice things you never otherwise would when observed from behind a screen.