July is supposed to be midsummer, but here in England it’s not so sure; the weather is sketchy, blowy and cool, the sun fleeting. Sasha has fixed the troubles with his road bike – fitting hand built wheels with strong spokes in place of the good-looking but fragile stock ones – so we tend to cycle back from work together. Frequent stops at The Greenwich Union break up the ride home. It’s very cycle friendly as well as having great beer.
In the middle of the month, I’m in Montreal for a week. Here, summer is sure of itself, the sun high and hot in a boundless blue sky. Parts of the city feel overgrown; the houses pull back behind porches and balconies, or retreat beneath trailing ivy and flowers. The sunlight falls gently through leaves and at night you see fireworks, or kids still in shorts and dresses, or Hassidic jews, dressed devoutly in black and deep in conversation. It is hard to believe this place spends so long under ice.
It’s a great city for cycling, crossed with cycle lanes that are often separated from the road by low concrete barriers, as opposed to just a paint line in London. It’s also the city where the Boris bikes began, only here there’s no need for a nickname to shy away from the corporate reality. The scheme is called Bixi (bicycle + taxi), and the bikes are a common sight. I tried the Boris bikes in London when they launched last summer, but in the West End found it nearly unusable, thanks to the tidal flows of commuters who made sure the flow of bikes leave the bays in a binary state: completely empty or totally full, as they move from station to office blocks and then back again.
In Montreal, it was easier: most of the time, a couple of bikes ready and waiting, and always a spot to park at the end of the journey. As well as the city, we cycled the F1 track, the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, on an island in the St Lawrence river. They put racetracks anywhere these days, dropping them onto flat and featureless land, like they’re just a black line, painted on to a few square miles of dust. They’re real estate destinations, not places. A real racetrack isn’t like that. It is a place, one that earns its name and its position on the map. It fits the land, reflects its concerns, respects its contours. Hence Monza, historic and grand folded into the gentle, regal trees of a park outside of Milan, or Spa and Hockenheim, the fast sweep through dark, whispering forests from some Mitteleurope fairy tale – and of course, Monaco, gaudy and brash, a heavy shape wrapped like a necklace around the throat of a laughing rich libertine.
There’s something egalitarian and accessible about Montreal’s circuit; there’s no entry fee, no entry gates when the race isn’t on. It’s just part of a park. It’s not a new circuit, either: the Armco has been painted and painted again, the pits seem small and there are few flashy buildings. Most of all though, it’s full of people. As we cycled round, there were others, like us, gently circulating. There were men on racing bikes wearing team Lycra matching the frame, lapping and lapping, the hard buzz of their thin tyres as they zip past, comparing their times to the cars. Couples walking in the park that surrounds the course, and in the middle of it, the noise of the Vans warped tour, surrounded by dazed rock kids in dusty black t-shirts, and on the start finish line, a greeting to the man who did it for real: salut Gilles, the man who drove a Ferrari like a snowmobile, hanging it round the corners and never wanting to give up.
Named in his honour, it is a real racetrack: an attempt to nail down the distance implict in any life, to make its journey circular, something you can practice, do over, learn the contours and of which you can say: this looks doable.
So speaking of all that, how goes the BHAG? Well, I managed to cycle 17 miles in Montreal on the Bixis, a useful contribution to the goal. Back in London, I give the Boris bikes another go: it’s still a frustrating system to use (the addition of lots of privacy and security notices to the terminals means it takes far longer to hire a bike than it should). Still, another 11 miles added, along with 10 commutes and a 40 mile loop out on Westerham hill as well. Less than 1,000 miles to go – which is great, but I’m running out of summer…
Total Miles: 188
Total to cycle: 956