'I’ve been reading a book about maps recently. I like maps, they’re useful for finding your way around, but they’re no substitute for landscape.
I sometimes wonder if there’s a British way of seeing our islands. We certainly seem to devote a lot TV time to helicopter shots of our countryside interspersed with any number of presenters, often in a Land Rover. I suspect it’s something common to a lot of countries, and that there is a relationship between population density, quality of scenery, and the esteem that scenery is held in.
In Britain we have a lot of people living close to a lot of scenery. England is seen as a densely populated country, but that perception is distorted by how we get around it. Railways cross the tracts of open land between towns and cities and then embrace the seamier side of urban life, the crowded Victorian hearts of darkness.
Motorways veer around major settlements, except when they encounter the likes of Birmingham, Manchester or Newcastle, where they introduce a note of terrible bleakness. What we see from the window of the train, the bus, coach or the car is one view of Britain, usually a main-line view. I’m acutely aware of that, because I live at the intersection of a number of major routes, so I get the full blast of modernity, which largely consists of big corrugated steel sheds with brand names attached to the front. Inside those tin hangars, things are made, distributed and consumed in just the same way as happens close to any big junction across the world.
France strikes me as much the same, indeed the effect is amplified, because the tolls on the Autoroutes stop you from wandering off that very beaten track.
But for three weeks a year we get a view of the roads less travelled, as the helicopters and motorbikes follow the cyclists on the Tour de France. I love the way that the cameras embrace the countryside, and how the story of the race traces a thread across it. I don’t identify with the stars who finish first. That climactic surge across the line, in a town that has paid to host the finish, is less important to me than the sight of the peloton snaking through a gorge, or across the endless wheat fields of Champagne. There is a way of interacting with the landscape and with others that evokes those relationships that we see on screen, we call it Audax, or we call it Randonnée. A group excursion through open lands, sometimes on a grand scale, by dint of distance or through sheer numbers.
Once you’ve decided that it would be good for people to have a chance to cycle across a country in the company of others, the logistics can get out of hand. The ‘how’ becomes just as important as the ‘why’. The ‘who’ sorts itself out if you make the event arduous enough. The ‘where’ informs that degree of difficulty, and dictates where our riders can come from. That has to be somewhere well connected, with ample accommodation, a part of the mainline modern world. A clear goal is always inspiring, although common sense dictates a return to the point of departure. We can’t cycle through that modern world, it would provide too much resistance. We’re channelled by that friction between ourselves and the present into the byways of the past.
It’s when you wake up shivering from a nap by the side of some minor road in the middle of nowhere at four in the morning, with 300km left to ride by the end of the day, that it pays to remember how it all happened. I’ve been there, done that and I’ve got the shirts. I knew why I was doing it when I set off, I’ve set that out above. But an appreciation of landscape is difficult to use as motivation, it may be part of what inspired the journey, but it’s not going to turn the legs across dozens of miles of featureless open fields. Pride, anger and the fear of shame might rise to the surface, as might altruism. Today those feelings can be bounced across the web, as a sort of emotional return to sender.
Ultimately the quest matters at an individual scale, but it’s enhanced by a group effort, it’s a kind of immersive theatre. An amateur dramatic production where the actors are also the audience. But for me the scenery steals the show every time.'