The green lanes of Devon are riddled with potholes. It’s easy to avoid them on summer bicycle rides, when it’s dry. But in the winter months, when the sky is bleeding rain and mud is seeping from field to road, it’s harder. Especially if I’m careening down a hill. In such situations, running over a pothole on my bike is bad news. So I’m left with a choice. Go slow, allowing myself to avoid potholes if I see them or roll through them and not get bucked from the saddle. Or go fast, keeping one hundred percent of my attention on the road immediately in front of me. The former is near impossible; the only way I can go slow down a steep hill is by burning my brakes out. So it seems the sensible choice is the latter, to pay full attention to the surface I’m riding on. But that too presents a problem.
Some cyclists—the ones I see roaming the countryside like packs of dogs—want to go fast and want to go far. I doff my hat to them, but that’s not my aim. Sure, I like going fast, and I’m not shy about going far either, but I cycle to see the world. I want to explore. I want to experience the countryside I live amongst. I want to get off the main roads and visit the hamlets and the villages that litter the South West. I want to experience secret views, stop to “bahhhh” at sheep and “mooooo” at cows. I want to look over hedgerows and see the sun looking back at me. But if I go fast, I can’t do any of that. Because the faster I go, the less I see. The greater my speed of travel, the more attention I must pay to my immediate surroundings. Visualised:
Speed places a constraint on experience. It narrows the vision. It sharpens the ears. It quickens the breath. If life is measured in terms of psychological and physiological arousal then speed kicks us onto a higher plane of existence. But life is not just about arousal. Life can also be about stillness, about appreciation, about noticing, about presence. And speed is the enemy of these things. Sceptical? Try this. Make two trips to a local park on separate days. The aim of both trips is to notice as much as possible. On the first trip, sprint through the park, as fast as humanly possible. Once you exit it, stop and record, in as much detail as possible, what you saw. On the second trip, stroll through the park, walking as slow as you can bear. Once you come out of the park, record what you saw. Then, compare the two sets of notes. Which has more breadth and more depth?
Going fast, we see next-to-nothing. And going slow? While it doesn’t force us to see more, more clearly, it does give us the opportunity, the choice. Perhaps that’s why filmmaker Werner Herzog says, “The world will reveal itself to those who travel on foot.”