About half-way through his epic, record-breaking cycle circumnavigation, Julian Sayarer enters a polluted, industrial, Chinese city. He has had a hard few days in China - has felt dehumanised by incessant car-horns, ogling crowds, and the Promethean national project of planetary-scale building - flattening mountains for roads, filling gorges for power … But as he enters that city, this is what he sees:
Beside a line of plant machinery, of trucks and bulldozers, I watched a young boy as he sat swinging on the heavy chain that looped from the hook of a crane. In tiny hands he held the large links of metal, swinging backwards and forwards, a child faced with the hard steel of that contraption, and seeing in it only a swing on which to play.
Sayarer is always on the look-out for these miniscule indications of humanity, these subversive moments of hope and innocence. The crane stands for all that he has been uncomfortable about in China - the huge, cold, powerful business of man shaping his environment on a monumental scale and at a prodigious speed. But inside that, Sayarer has found the trace of the impulse that may be passed on into the future to make it bearable, to make it on a human scale.
The image of hope often comes from children playing. There is the Kazakh nomad caravan encampment where Julian sleeps - a place of real poverty - where he wakes to find the children have diligently copied the brand names of the bicycle, the panier bags, the saddle with chalk onto the caravan “... Mavic, Ortlieb, Brooks, Tout Terrain …” The brand has done its job and reproduced, but it has been done by curious children in a “Latin script they’d never seen before”. It is another moment of subversion of globalisation, where the logos are seen through the children as pure memes; the copying an act that will never sell an extra Brooks saddle.
The reader has been used to Sayarer’s generous, inquisitive attitude to the people on his road: the Tartar woman in her desert pit-stop in Kazakhstan with whom he finds to the delight of both that they can communicate in Turkish (Sayarer’s father is Turkish), the son of a rich official in Almaty, the Russian long-distance cyclist on the Volga, the dope growers of Northern California, the Brazilian prostitute in the Spanish bordello ... There are countless encounters in the book where Sayarer, against the odds, uncovers the particularity of the person that fate has thrown in his way.
And yet China’s project really brings him down. The reader is worried for the state of mind of a narrator who is by now a companion. In North West China, he finds himself cycling with trucks carrying pigs to slaughter: “I looked at them, pink skins shifting red and blue as abrasions and bruises took hold, bled with explanations for the confused trauma in those sad, intelligent eyes [...] You might wince, I certainly cast judgments, then remembered the white man had been doing the same thing with Africans less than two centuries earlier.”
But Sayarer is constantly rescued by the chinks of humanity that manage to make it through the carapace of folly that he finds everywhere, in all its particular variations, on his race around the globe. And there’s nothing schmaltzy about those moments of optimism. It’s never about the unbounded goodness of the ordinary and the inhumanity of the forces of globalisation. Maybe my favourite vignettes of nuance come from Sayarer’s American encounters - the generosity of God-fearing Texans, the self-righteousness of the liberal, but still gun-loving shopkeeper in NorCal …
The best of all, perhaps, is the Lemoine family Julian spends an evening and night with in the Louisiana bayou. He’s had a mechanically challenged day and Lemoine Junior finds him struggling at a garage and invites him back for the evening. The vignette moves from Kerouac pastiche - tough men smoking and drinking beer, suspicious but warm-hearted and accepting “Julian London” - to moral and political approval, as it turns out that this extended family has taken in a deaf-dumb man because he had nowhere else to go - and then punctures its own “noble savagery” when it comes to telling racist jokes. None of the difficulty is ignored. Sayarer sticks to his guns: “The Lemoines … even that old dragon in the yellow cardigan, you don’t meet better people than that.”
Sayarer, a London courier, set out to cycle around the world faster than anyone had done before. The success of the book as a literary enterprise is in no small part due to the fact that Julian’s quest is not really the record at all. Sayarer reacts angrily to news of the previous record, held by the man he calls Kash d’Anthe who was blazoned by sponsors from the finance industry and did it all hyper-media’d and “for charity”. Sayarer admits: “... he caught me at a bad time [...] I was desperately searching for some meaning back then, crying to believe some things in this world remained precious [...] a small embarrassing part of me thought that, in beating him, perhaps I could change the world for the better. I suppose, at the very least, it was a worthwhile quest in which to fail.”
Sayarer is alive everywhere to the tenuous meaningfulness of our plight; he is summary in his dismissal of false gods - “as with any nation prone to believing its past brighter than its future, the Russians had taken up nationalism”; “Americans stand accused of lacking internationalism, and yet the truth is they’re obsessed with the outside world, always falling over themselves to locate their own curiosities in the global or intergalactic context without which a thing is substantially less worthwhile. ‘World’s smallest harbour’ … without the rest of the world, that harbour would’ve been puny”.
He is self-aware, understanding that his own epic is 18,000 miles of assertion, of pedalling in spite of pointlessness. So the record is a part of the world he is diagnosing. At one particularly low point, when he thinks he won’t make it, and takes a train rather than cycle for an impossible deadline to catch a plane, he muses: “And with that it was over. My Americas ended in New London [...] I’d sold myself short there [...] really battered my stock as a motivational speaker [...] They’ll never invite me to a bank or a gala dinner now … never ask me to shoot my mouth off about adversity, give the good folk at the yacht club an adventure hard-on…”
But the whole point is that the language of “selling (yourself) short” is what Sayarer was protesting against. The person who actually held the record before him is Mark Beaumont, who has also written about his then record-breaking circumnavigation. Beaumont was sponsored by the financial industry, and he rode for a charity. His was a great sporting feat and a considerable adventure. But Sayarer’s point is that he didn’t do it for the thing in itself. It fitted well into a predefined set of meanings for the sponsors and the adventurer. It did not create its own sense. Beaumont starts his Cycle-log telling us that one of the things that he enjoys about cycling is the opportunity to think. Yet time and again, thinking is what Beaumont seems least troubled by - and certainly he doesn’t trouble his readers with its results. This is somewhat typical of the tone:
I struggled to find a love for the national delicacy of sauerkraut - left me lethargic as i pedaled for Krakow.Early afternoon I passed Auschwitz which almost went unnoticed as the signs I passed bore the Polish name which Piotr translated for me. 1.1 million people died in concentration camps in the area around this small town. In the basking mid-summer sunshine it was impossible to get a sense of the history but it left me thinking about the places I was flying past.
As I approached Krakow I had a number of road option, Krokow, the former capital, is one of the largest and oldest cities …”
The contrast between the solid, nice but - dare one use the word - somewhat pedestrian Beaumont and Sayarer, struggling to find meaning on his road is perhaps best brought out by the two strikingly shared non-cycling experiences they have - rites of passage for the long-distance cyclist, as it were: the inevitable passage through a bordello and the confrontation with the lone long-distance cyclist, the Flying Dutchman of the road who has become truly peripatetic, who is no longer returning, just peddling.
Beaumont’s bordello is in Poland. He comes down from his room to the dancefloor where he watches the show: “She wore a string thong and nothing else […] She was only a couple of metres away, looking at me, solemnly dancing. It was not particularly sexy, although she undoubtedly was [...] I declined a second Coke and went to bed, amused and confused.”
Contrast Beaumont’s wide-eyed tourism with Sayarer’s bordello, in Northern Spain:
The road ahead was empty, my stomach was empty … legs and willpower empty, all of it exhausted. I wanted food, knew of no good reason not to eat food in sight of a metal pole, in sight of strutting women in decorated bits and pieces. Not to my taste .. but who cares? Sure it might not have been a bar of the greatest repute, but it was still a bar and that was all I needed as the hail kept coming.
There follows a comic interlude as Sayarer tries to make it understood that he really is after food and food only, and finally the human moment as he sits in the empty kitchen with his would-be hostess and finds another opportunity to understand the wrinkles of globalisation:
She’s Brazilian, from a favela in Rio … eight years passed, her family still in the favela … she sends them money.
Heavy shrugs and then, “Spain is not agreeable or disagreeable”
I specify, “And Tafalla?”
“Tafalla is shit … one day I’ll leave”
I glance at my empty paper plate, the grease of cold chicken, unsure of what to say, how to avoid offending her. I might as well ask.
She’s clinical about it … “Works OK, we girls get on well … a family. Brazilian, Spanish, Portuguese, Angolan, Moroccan.”
Annie asked after me, what my job was in London. We laughed together [...] It felt nice to be a human once again for a little while.”
Beaumont’s travels might be described as tourism, even if it is extreme tourism. He stays on the outside of everything. He is a visitor waiting to be ripped off or surprised. His Cyclelog reads as if he’s read a lot of tourist brochures.
Sayarer’s travels, in contrast, are in the nature of a quest: the world is broken, and, magically, cycling might just repair a bit of it. Sayarer is endlessly alive to the metaphorical quality of what he is doing - as he crosses the Golden Gate bridge, he writes, “Slowly I walk down the bridge, down that landmark, one of those icons that seems to stand for more than just the matter from which it’s constructed” - everywhere, Sayarer wants to find the significance of what he sees and his place in it. That’s why his Cyclelog is a literary success to match his sporting achievement.
The second rite of passage that both cyclists share is a meeting with the flying dutchman of the road, the mythical sailor who can never return to land. Beaumont finds him in New Zealand, and this is his summary assessment:
“Nigel [...] explained that he had spent the last five years alone, cycling around the world [...] I admired his nomadic adventure. However, I wasn’t the least bit jealous. A five-year solo trek like that is no longer an expedition, it becomes your lifestyle [...] He had no intention to write a book, kept no journal and had no website for friends to follow him [...] He seemed a nice guy but I couldn’t help feeling that he was a lost soul.”
So that’s it. A lost soul. Time to pedal on. Sayarer meets Mike from Montana on a desert road in the American West: “a homeless man riding a bicycle through the New Mexico night [...] The more I look, the more bags I see…”. They cycle together for a bit. Sayarer gets the life-story and a sprinkling of mad-cap mysticism. But is he a lost soul? No, but certainly a soul. Once Sayarer has decided to pedal on further that night, he ruminates:
I thought of myself, of d’Anthe and all the rest of us self-promoters, with our bankcards, our little plastic rectangles embossed with names [...] then there was Mike, standing in his beard, jeans and work boots, a duvet tied to the back of his bicycle […] There was us … and then there was Mike … living that thing of which we could only talk.
This self-doubt, the self-criticism, brings us on finally to Sayarer’s record, to its significance for him and for the book. In many ways, his adventure is in the style of Dervla Murphy’s 1963 cycle ride from Ireland to India, where the act and its description are reason enough. Murphy, like Sayarer, is the best sort of adventurer - she is as happy to live with peasants in mud huts as in the palace of the Akand of Swat; she is welcome everywhere and her readers are privileged flies on the wall (a place they share with an abundance of the real thing). Murphy needed no record to break - she sets off with her bicycle Roz - a very small Rozinante - and her .25 calibre pistol and the utterly compelling Picaresque adventure of cycling, day after day, through such unlikely expanses, keeps us glued to the narrative.
So why did Sayarer need to break the record? Sayarer is always looking for meaning, is working as hard as he pedals to make sure that things don’t descend into senselessness. He admits early on that
Numbers can get to be quite an affliction, they suck you in to make you stare at the computer screen counting the miles from your handlebars. Believe me but China feels like a long way to ride a bicycle, once you’re besotted with thoughts of bigger numbers accumulated over shorter times, once you lose the love for the process in favour of a destination.
That struggle of his against the numbers is a struggle of our time; how to preserve meaning and value in a world that appears endlessly KPI’d and quantified. His rival, Kashe d’Anthe, has taken the record and given it to the forces of the Key Performance Indicators, thinks Sayarer - he says of him that, “Camera rolling, they put d’Anthe into a laboratory, strapped him to a bike with a hose in his gullet, a monitor upon his disappearing heart.”
If Sayarer can take the record back while staying pure at heart, he will have become a living example that humanity does make it through the thick carapace of numbers. And that is how his own story becomes itself one of those uplifting and optimistic vignettes we find throughout the book - when he crosses the finish-line in Rouen, he’s slain the instrumental dragon.
Read the Lemoine extract from Life Cycles here.