James Thinks

writing is a kind of thinking

When I rode my first audax in 2013, I had only the vaguest idea of the philosophy of this under-appreciated form of cycling. Is it a set rules about not cheating by getting a train? Does it mean fixing your own punctures? The Audax UK website says, "navigate for yourself and if you do have any mechanical problems along the way, it's down to you to sort them or get yourself home".

Audax is a broad church and people are encouraged to approach the challenge of a long bike ride in their own way. Ride quickly and take long breaks to recover or make steady progress stopping only long enough to get the brevet card stamped and down a quick coffee? It's up to you. No one bats an eyelid at the wide variety of bikes in motion. But one thing is consistent; the culture of self-sufficiency which is central to audax. Those who've ridden sportives will find many familiar elements missing. There are no arrows guiding you around the route. There's no broom wagon to sweep up riders whose bikes or legs give up. Why is that a good thing?

For one thing, it makes the sport more affordable. Any comfortable, reliable bike will do. If most riders had a support crew ready to provide new wheels or refreshments, that would set them apart from the rest who couldn't afford that or persuade family to help. Audax isn't competitive and finish times are not published, but there is a camaraderie in knowing that others are experiencing the same challenge as you. Secondly, the lack of infrastruture makes rides easier to organise. With no signage or support vehicles, an all-day audax can be run by a couple of volunteers. This keeps costs down to a tiny fraction of a sportive.

For me though, the best thing about self-sufficiency is the way it allows you to own your achievements. Completing an audax is never certain, but those who succeed frequently have to do more than point the bike in the right direction and pedal. The challenge includes planning, navigation, bike maintenance and compromises between carrying spare clothing and food or saving weight to make climbing hills easier. If you can't fix your bike, how far will you need to walk to catch a train? Can you walk that far in your cycling shoes? When you solve these problems for yourself, rather than paying for a solution to be handed to you, the achievement of completing the ride, in spite of difficulties, is richer.

Not only that, but it brings a deeper understanding of how dependent we are on the support of others.

Leave only footprints; take only pictures

This philosophy is also seen in self-supported racing, famously in the Trans Continental Race. Taking outside help is strictly against the rules. Buying food from a shop is allowed, but anything which is not available all competitors, such as sleeping at a friend's house en-route, would be cheating. This means the prizes can go to any determined and well-organised rider rather than only those who have a paid support team attending to their every need.

The GB Duro race has gone further, with an ethos which emphasises sustainability even going beyond the bikepacking pricinple to "leave no trace". Flying to the start of the GB Duro is not allowed and "riders (ride) the whole route in a single stage carrying all their food/not using commercial services including accommodation and carrying all their non-biological waste with them to the finish". They say this is self-sufficient, rather than self-supported. I find much to admire about this ethos, not simply for the small reduction in the competitors' carbon emissions but for the way it gets people thinking. But is this really self-sufficient? How far can you go down this route?

In addition to carrying all my food with me, I could make it myself, cooking up a load of flapjacks, say. But I didn't grow the oats myself and I've no idea where the golden syrup came from. Similarly, I can build my own wheels, but I can't build a hub or mine the iron to make the bearings and spokes. I'm necessarily dependent, at some stage, on an industry that makes bikes and replacement parts like chains and tyres. Even if I opted for a simpler sport - walking - I'd be relying on people to grow crops to make my food and clothing or those who make maps and those who taught me how to navigate.

Before long you find yourself at the Carl Sagan quote:

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”

Does that mean that self-sufficiency doesn't matter?

I don't think so.

Understanding our dependencies

Although perfect self-sufficiency is not possible, the journey towards it is enlightening and humbling. Only when you try to go without something do you realise how important it is.

Modern culture often encourages us to think of ourselves as individuals; separate from others and entirely responsible for our own success or failure. This may be the influence of the Stoic philosophers on Western thought. The Stoics emphasised personal virtue at the expense of acknowleding our relationships to other people and the world around us. Long distance cyclists may feel an affinity for certain stoic ideas while the rain is lashing down into their faces. Certainly, Marcus Aurelius's words seem apt:

"You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength."

So perhaps it is surprising that my attempts at self-sufficiency have lead me to a frank realisation that I am deeply connected and dependent on the world in which I live. Trying to go without things which I took for granted made me appreciate them. In some cases I realised that certain creature comforts are not so important. I think we're all inclined to use the phrase "I can't live without..." a little too often. Yet I discovered I can leave the house without a full breakfast. I don't need to shampoo my hair every day. Even sleep can be flexible in the short term. Those small discoveries were interesting.

What was really surprising was noticing what I genuinely can't live without. Food, water, shelter. Needs which are easily met for most of us in the rich world. So easily that we consider them automatic, or we don't consider them at all. Although I can't live without these things, neither can I provide them directly for myself. I might be able to buy them if my work is valued, but I'm dependent on systems - be they natural or human - to provide what I need to live, let alone thrive.

I think we should all be mindful of this. We all accept outside help. None of us pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps. John Donne's words are remembered centuries later because they are an important reminder of this.

"No man is an island entire of itself"

So I think there is value in trying to be more self-sufficient, as long as we remember to acknowledge we are still supported in many, often invisible, ways.

To misquote Newton - if I have cycled further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

Category: Philosophy
Photo credit: James Bradbury
Mugshot of James cycling on a road in the sunshine.

James Bradbury

I write about whatever is on my mind. I do so mostly to help me think more clearly. If other people find it interesting that's good too. :-)

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There is a camaraderie in knowing that others are experiencing the same challenge

I'm dependent on an industry that makes bikes and replacement parts.

I think we're all inclined to use the phrase "I can't live without..." a little too often.