And yesterday I was a courier again, and it was just as wonderful as I had remembered. It felt like arriving home, coming full-circle, and reaching my journey’s end – though, of course, I am nowhere near the ‘real’ end of my journey, and there are still several continents to go before I can start talking about full circles in anything other than metaphorical terms. It is, however, increasingly obvious to me that this is a journey with no end – or, to put it more optimistically, a journey with many ends – and I’ve almost deliberately sabotaged any chance that it might become yet another predictable tale of going out into the world to seek my fortune, triumphing over the odds, and returning home to live happily ever after. I’m already living happily ever after, and predict that there are many more returns – and departures – to come.
I’d worried that my return to the courier circuit would be a let-down in some way, that it could never possibly live up to the rose-tinted picture I’d painted of it. Over the past year I’ve realized repeatedly that what become happy memories are often extremely uncomfortable experiences at the time. I look back fondly on the Turkish winter now, and it’s only on particularly chilly mornings, when my fingers and toes and nose start to sting, that I occasionally get a glimpse of just how painful it actually was. I even speak nostalgically of that time I had to cover over 1,600km of China in 11 days to beat a visa deadline, and then in the same breath state that it was the hardest thing I’d ever done. What if I went back to couriering and was slapped in the face with all the pain and misery I’d edited out of my memories over the years?
And there were more practical concerns too. Riding (slowly) around London over the past couple of months, I’ve noticed that all my old routes are still firmly etched into my subconscious – but that I’ve forgotten the actual street names. I predicted a triumphant return, that would quickly become disastrous the moment I was given a pick-up, and would have to waste the next ten minutes combing through my A-Z to remind myself where on earth Oxford Street is.
Or I would simply find that the world had moved on in my absence. The company I used to work for was bought out last year, so I couldn’t go back to my comfortable old routine of starting the morning in the control room in Vauxhall, necking half a packet of custard creams before I bothered to do any work. (Probably just as well.) A lot of my old friends would by now have left and moved on to better things, as most couriers do eventually (and thank goodness for that), and the circuit would be ruled by a new generation, none of whom I’d recognize, and who would look at me like I was the new one. Trying to rekindle past glory is almost always a bad idea, and it seemed very likely that I’d be disappointed.
But, to my continuing surprise, I’m just as much in love with the job as ever before – the good bits and the bad. I quickly rediscovered the exhilaration of soaring through the streets, ducking in and out of the traffic, cornering at insane angles because I don’t want to slow down, zipping through closing gaps with the thinnest of margins, and moving faster than almost everything else. I also rediscovered what elsewhere I’ve described as “the mild, nagging discomfort that makes up a large unacknowledged portion of the courier experience” – the way couriering magnifies what would otherwise be imperceptible little itches and injuries. After a few hours my feet (in shoes a size too big) were aching sharply, my saddle area (in shorts impregnated with two years of sweat and inadequately washed under Chinese hosepipes) was sore and throbbing with every pedal stroke, and the strap of my (borrowed; unfamiliar) bag was digging painfully into my neck.
None of these things would be so bothersome in the course of a ‘normal’ day’s cycling – a two-hour pootle in the Surrey Hills, or even a full 12-hour jaunt on the Qinghai Plateau. I had forgotten the peculiar intensity of couriering – the intensity of its joy, but also of its discomfort – and I realize now just how well I’d managed to fine-tune everything over the years, gradually adjusting my bike, bag, clothing, riding style, routines and habits so that, at least some of the time, it all hummed along in perfect harmony.
I’ve slipped out of tune now. Every few minutes during a day’s work, a courier will stop, lock up her bike, whip her Xda out of her pocket and the package out of her bag, and stride off towards the next postroom. The frequency with which this simple string of activities is repeated means that they quickly evolve into a dance. You stop the bike, swing your leg over it and lean it against the railings in a single fluid motion. As you dismount you lower your hands to your lock, open it with the key dangling from your right wrist, flick the chain from around your waist with your right hand, catch the free end with your left hand, and thrust it thorough the spokes of your front wheel, bring the ends back together and padlocking them, before turning on your heel and heading towards the building, swinging your bag round to extract the package as you do so. The whole process probably takes a couple of seconds, and is better characterized as one action than as many, each of its constituent parts flowing seamlessly into the next.
But I’m out of practice these days. I can still swing my lock around my waist and catch it with my left hand with uncanny accuracy, but I’m now keeping my key, my Xda, my phone and my pen in the same (capacious yet inaccessible) pocket, which introduces a certain amount of stumbling and fumbling to the process. My bike’s dropped handlebars mean it doesn’t lean against railing as neatly, and the mudguard and extra spokes make it harder to get the lock through the front wheel. None of these things would bother me at all if I were only locking my bike up once or twice a day, but lock your bike up several times an hour, and they will start to grate.
So there’s fine-tuning to be done – much as I fine-tuned the way I packed my panniers during my first few months on the road, so that during an average night’s camping I’d only have to open three of my bags; sometimes only two.
And I’d forgotten (or perhaps never fully realized) how demanding couriering is on the bike itself. I had remarkably few mechanical problems on my way across Asia – a handful of punctures, a couple of snapped spokes, and the usual wear and tear on brake pads, bar tape and cables – but within hours of being back on circuit, I’d snapped a spoke and my back wheel, which was rebuilt under the watchful eye of a professional wheelbuilder back in Tokyo, was once again wavering from side to side as though it had downed five pints of Guinness.
It’s not just that the roads are bumpier in London. (Contrary to what you’d probably expect, the only seriously bumpy road I had to deal with in Asia was the Karakorum Highway (and about 100km somewhere in the dead of night between Taiyuan and Shijiazhuang in China, at the memory of which I still shudder).) The way a courier rides (or perhaps just the way I ride as a courier) puts a much greater strain on the bike than pedalling gently, steadily and rhythmically across continents. There’s nothing ‘steady’ about couriering. You’re riding as fast as you can, but constantly having to modify your speed or direction because of traffic lights, pedestrians, cars …oh, and all the other thousands of obstacles that might hurl themselves in your way. I regularly feel as though I’m actually wrestling with the bike; wrenching the bars from side to side with as much vigour as I do the pedals, bracing my right leg against my left arm, and then my left leg against my right arm as I set off from one set of traffic lights, trying to get up enough speed so that I’ll beat the next one. Small wonder I had enormous triceps and deltoids when I used to do this for a living. I looked in the mirror after my shower last night and, after only a couple of days, they’re coming back.
But it’s hard on the bike, sprinting from a standing start every few minutes. I once read that Graeme Obree, when he was preparing for (and breaking) the world hour record, would put so much torque through the bike as he set off that the rear tyre would actually touch the chainstays, putting him at risk of a blow-out at (very) high speed. (His team decided not to mention this to him until after the record, in case it affected his performance.) Granted, I’m no Obree, but it no longer surprises me that I wore through so many cranks and bottom brackets in my years on the courier circuit. There are much greater forces going through the bike now than when I used to push off gently and sleepily in the morning, gradually wind up to cruising speed, and carry on rolling till lunchtime.
There are different forces going through my body as well. For the first time in months I’ve felt the burn and drag of of lactic acid in my thighs as I sprint and stop and sprint and stop and sprint and sprint across the city. And I’ve already rediscovered that sweet spot towards the end of the day, where your legs finally (somehow) gather enough momentum to spin without taking up all the air you can get into your lungs, and you race along singing and whistling to yourself. As well as my expanding shoulders, I’ve noticed muscles moving near my waist and hips, as I once again steer from the rear, and shift my weight in the saddle to rebalance the bike as I wind through traffic. Sometimes it feels as if I barely move my body when I’m touring. Pedalling my overloaded tank of a bicycle up and down mountains has made me stronger, no question, and the long strenuous slogs of Iran and China have increased my stamina, but I feared all along that my fitness and agility were declining, and might never come back. Looks like a couple of months on circuit might be just what I need.