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The Confessions of a Bike Commuter Ellie Potts

Festival of the Future City
1984 Penguin edition cover

Written by Ellie Potts

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You click your helmet closed with one hand as you bang the front door shut with the other. After all, why should you be the only one awake at 8.30am?

You wrestle your bike from the shed and stand holding either handlebars. You shut your eyes and tilt your head towards the morning sun. If you are commuting correctly, the tip of your nose should be almost at freezing temperature, perhaps slightly wet like that of a healthy Great Dane.

You take one huge swing of your right leg and mount your bike. You most likely wobble slightly from your poor early morning packing decisions, involving a giant water bottle and far more lunch than you would ever admit to packing, let alone eating. You steady yourself and regret bringing two volumes of your favourite literary series along in a tote bag, swinging from your left handlebar.

After a few slow pedals on a too-high gear, you start off. Onto the pavement, bump down the curb, turn left and join the road. Watch for the number 70 veering into the right-hand lane. Get to the traffic lights and stop. Flail your arm out to indicate that, yes, you are turning. Then, pray you can make it up the hill to the bike path without stopping twice for water and once to do an already tied shoelace back up.

I, myself, move through this routine like the hands of a clock ticking. I could, to the second, say at what point I will see the same tiny chihuahua in its blue rain jacket, its little legs working overtime to keep up with his owner; a bald burly man in a matching button-down blue raincoat with a face that says ‘it’s too cold for this’. I could, to the minute, say when I will be passed by the lady, brightening the morning light like the aurora borealis to an Icelandic sky, in her high vis, padded cycling shorts and matching knee-high socks.

I like this.

The idea of doing the same routine, seeing the same people and following the same route feels comfortable, safe even. It brings a sense of order to a world that exists in over seven and a half billion ways. I follow a checklist, ticking off for the morning the people I have seen and the places I have gone past. Each one still there, turning on their personal axis of life. Of course, they would be. As humans, we become attached to the everyday. We keep our routines as we would keep our children: safe, well-fed, looked after. We are angered if something upsets it, disrupting the status quo we have become so accustomed to. It seems we are born with an innate behaviour to follow patterns, trends and routines.

But with something so clockwork as the morning commute, it is easy to expect to see something so much that we manifest it for ourselves. Take, for instance, the lady lit up in high vis like Harrods at Christmas. I always notice how bright she shines at 8.45am, yet I have failed to notice that in recent weeks, she has, in fact, started dressing for the Christmas months. Brand new cycling gloves now cover her bell-ringing hands as she dings me out of the way. A tartan scarf now is wound round her neck and tucked away into her jacket, so as not to create any wind resistance. The little details we do not see whilst obsessing over normality and expectations. Do we ignore such things because it is uncomfortable for us to accept change?

In my case, I think I so.

There is a view I go past in the morning, a favourite part of my commute. Having just scaled the steep hill and reached the bike path, I take the opportunity to slow down. There are never any other cyclists here to prove myself to. No need to keep my eyes locked to the ground in front of me, fixed until I reach my destination. I can look up. Plod along. Drink oxygen from the chilly air. I stop by a small gap in the hedge that opens out onto a huge green field. A field that rather reminds me of the thick layer of algae that covers my local duck pond back home in Wolverhampton. The field extends into a skyline of Bristol- perhaps Fishponds or the City Centre. Evergreens reach up like church spires. They weave themselves around rows of office blocks and schools and toy town houses. This image seems to be copied and pasted in chunks across the landscape.

But then, I started to think about noticing and how I could do this without my expectations clouding the reality. I wanted to see my morning commute, the streets, the strangers and the scenery, for what it was in the present. It felt almost rude to not wear the rose-tinted cycling goggles I strapped on just as fiercely as my helmet.

Yet, I took them off and one morning last week, I stopped at my viewpoint once more. Slowed my heartbeat. Sipped on air. After playing spot the normalities for a while, I begun to actually observe rather than just see. The view had changed from what I assumed it looked like. What it may have looked like a month or two ago.

Across the field, still a rich, thick green, the last of the autumn leaves were whipped up by the breeze and spiralled towards me. They moved as a tumbleweed does in the Arizona desert, with the intention of telling that something is arriving by air. Something I had been trying to ignore. Something I had been trying to cast aside out of fear of its arrival. Again, I looked beyond the field, out onto the skyline and saw, between the sky scrapers, the parks and the houses, a morning fog that was beginning to stroke every surface, to fill this vessel of a city with liquid heaven. The fog, in places, was slashed with stripes of grey from chimney’s that were heating houses to keep up with the change in season. A change I had failed to even notice had started to arrive.

Somehow, due to my desire for familiarity, I had managed to ignore the changing world around me. I had grown so conformable with creating visions of place according to my expectations of it, that I forgot the beauty of letting the world exist outside of my manifesting mind. I forgot the fresh delicacy of morning fog and how it felt as it stroked my face and ran its wispy fingers through my hair. I forgot how the cold air felt as it filled my throat and cleared my mind. I forgot how to let the past drop, fall to the floor and be blown away into memories, like leaves fall from trees.

There, standing legs either side of my bicycle looking over Bristol, I remembered how refreshing it was to not shy away from change, to not to hide in the cave of familiarity. To look and to notice and put myself out there. The thought came to me like a soothing exhale of a breath I had been holding in over June, July and August. I no longer had to hold on to this summertime version of myself. A version addicted to routine, organisation and people pleasing. A version that pushed, so tightly, a mask of perfection against her face, that the individual underneath was stifled.

I was learning how to accept the arrival of winter as a change of season, both in the world around me and in the world inside me. I began to recognise a newer, truer version of myself wanted to emerge, to be encouraged to come forward from its place in hiding. For the first time in a months, I stood bare and un-shaded to myself. It was time to evolve.

The knuckles of my hands started to chill over. My attention was drawn back to my trusty bike, the noble steed of my commuter’s fairy-tale. I pushed the balls of my feet against the floor and lifted them up onto the pedals, building momentum with each turn of the wheels. I shook my hair free from the collar of my coat, letting it float over my back. A feeling of lightness filled me. As I pedalled away from my beautiful viewpoint, I smiled with relief into the cold air.

Written for UWE Bristol’s ‘Ideation, Platforms and Commercial Writing’ module in the Faculty of Arts, Creative Industries and Education 


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