Pole Position

They call it the sleigh ride: the three-hour flight on a ski-equipped Hercules cargo plane from the U.S. base at McMurdo to that most exotic of Antarctic destinations: the South Pole. Schoolboy keen, I showed up early at the icy airstrip, bundled up, bags packed, eager to go. It was the summer of 2000 and I was in Antarctica on an assignment for National Geographic, bound for Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station where I was supposed do a story on the future of science at the Last Place on Earth, talk with climatologists about such worthy topics as global warming and the ozone hole, and write a side piece about the construction of a new $150 million super-high-tech base the Americans were building there.
Unbeknownst to my editors, I had a hidden agenda as well: to ride a bicycle around the world. I’d always wanted to circumnavigate the globe by bicycle.

but never could find the spare year or so such a journey would take. At the South Pole, however, not only could I ride around the world on a flat course free of traffic, but I could do it in a time that would make even the space shuttle’s ninety-minute orbits seem pedestrian by comparison.

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My (New) Bicycle and I


Not so very long ago I took delivery of my dream bicycle: a classic old-style steel-framed tourer, custom built with a quill stem and stylish Rene Herse-inspired lugwork, stainlessGilles Berthoud fenders painted to match the frame, cream-coloured touring tyres, and a French-made front rack and decaleur with one of those traditional canvas-and-leather Continental-style handlebar bags; all in all, very much like the sort of thing they used to call a randonneur back in the golden days of hand-built bicycles, when art and function lived happily side by side.

It was built by Mark Reilly, master frame-builder at Enigma, a small family-run firm of bicycle makers whose workshop is just over in Pevensey. That’s a leafy little village not far from where I live  down here along the Sussex coast. I can hardly believe it’s mine. I’d been daydreaming about doing something like this for ages: putting together my ideal bike, something that would be a personal and philosophical statement as much a bicycle, reflecting everything I loved about cycling and the sheer joy of being out and about in the world on two skinny wheels. I did a personal trainer course with Discovery Learning and worked as a fitness trainer to private clients in order to pay for construction of the bike.

About a year ago I took the plunge, and on a soft, hazy mid-summer afternoon I pedalled over to Pevensey on my old expedition bike with a hard-cover notebook in my handlebar bag billed with sketches and jottings, all rubber-banded together with money for a deposit. It was a particularly nice feeling in this age of mass production and factories in the Far East to be having your bicycle made for you by a frame-builder whose workshop was so local that going there meant a pleasant ride across the Sussex marshes on a fine summer’s day. It was nicer still, of course, that said local frame-builder also ranks high on anybody’s shortlist of the finest in Britain.

The seasons have made a full circle since then and now at long last my new bicycle has arrived – just in time to form the topic of one of my inaugural essays on my new blog, and a fitting one too since it was the hours of thoughtful introspection that went into the conjuring up of this perfect (for me) bicycle and the creative joy in bringing it to life that focused so much of my cycling thoughts this past year and inspired me to start writing this blog.

I should start out by saying in fairness that the thirteen-month time lag between the commissioning of my frame and the arrival of the completed bicycle on my doorstep in no way reflects Enigma’s usual delivery time. They are really very prompt. The delays were my doing. Right from the get-go the story-teller in me had loved the idea of following the creation of my dream bike from start to finish, and so I’d asked Jim Walker, the founder of Enigma, and Mark Reilly himself if it would be okay for me to hang around the workshop and photograph my frame being made – a big ask, really, when I think about it; I’m not sure I’d want anybody hovering over my shoulder with a camera while I tried to write a story. They not only agreed, however, they did so with incredible graciousness, generosity and patience – and many a congenial cup of workshop coffee as we talked about the ins-and-outs of the bicycle trade.