Writing Obsessions: Cycling

Last night, I started reading the latest article on Bikozulu. I read the introduction that the writing maestro does to a guest writer’s post on his blog. He presents a metaphor for writing (and any skill, really) that I cannot get out of my head. It is this metaphor that sprang me out of bed at five this morning when the alarm rang – instead of ignoring it as I have often done lately. It is this metaphor that bids my fingers to keep flying off the keyboard and my eyes to keep focused on the growing letters on the screen. He equated writing to a three-stoned fireplace in the morning: most people have some little burning pieces of coal in there but what matters is that you keep stoking the fire, every day. If you don’t, the fire smolders away into ashes. But if you kneel on the ash and blow your lungs out, the fire burns. If you do this every day, the inferno can scorch anything.

I don’t know why this metaphor resonated with me so personally. It’s not the first time I read memoirs or reflections of a writer on craft or listen to an interview describing the importance of tenacity and consistency to honing one’s skills. I have heard countless writers say this in my writing classes, in their interviews, in their reading sessions. I think the only thing I have heard more from writers than this is “better readers make better writers”. In fact, only last month, I read Stephen King’s On Writing – the writing memoir that almost every writer worth their salt recommends. And Stephen King knows what it means to stoke his fire. He writes every day: Monday to Sunday (with one rest day a week), winter or summer, euphoric or melancholic. He gives himself an assignment of 2000 words per day. He doesn’t leave his desk until he’s typed 2000 words—whether the words gush out like waters of the Nile or they trickle out like droplets from a faulty tap that refuses to be turned on. I drew plenty of wisdom from King that I intend to apply to my writing. But Bikozulu’s metaphor took me back to my childhood. To my mom waking me up at 5 in the morning telling me to go make breakfast as she cleans the house. To me making the fire on a three-stoned fireplace, each morning.

Making fire on a traditional hearth isn’t as easy as striking a match stick on a gas burner. You must get the right firewood – the softer, more flammable types first (the magoko and mabebe), then the heavier logs to keep the fire burning. The metaphor also resonated with me because I have become the type of writer who knows that they should stoke their fire daily, even puts it on their calendar, even sets an alarm every day for that shit, then lets “life happen” – which usually looks like allowing myself to watch YouTube videos late into the night and sleeping through my alarms the next morning then hastily waking up to get ready for work, but not before squeezing in some minutes for social media. And now I am scared. You should see the way I am typing right now, it’s the same way I pedal my bike, frantically, not worrying whether the joints hurt. I am scared of being that “writer” who let their fire burn out because they let trending videos on YouTube, sleepy tendencies and memes on social media get in the way of their purpose.

***

So I sat at my table this morning and wondered: what should I write today? Then the idea from my last bike ride came to mind: write about your current obsession. See, I am a passionate being. Sometimes the passion is fleeting—but as long as it lasts, I become like Romeo at the beginning of the Shakespearean play when he broods over his unrequited love for Rosaline. I am consumed by whatever force rides my passion. Like when I watched Black Mirror last month. I binge-watched the fuck out of that shit in three days and when I finished that, I binged-watched interviews of Charlie Brooker (the creator of the show), binge-read his interviews, binge-watched his other TV shows, binge talked about the dude. I was uber-obsessed with his genius. I wanted to figure out how a mere mortal could create something so brilliant, so transcendent. If I was to sit down in the midst of my binge-everythinging of Charlie Brooker and Black Mirror to write about my obsession with the two, I have zero doubts that I would have made Stephen King’s 2000 word limit in less time than a football match takes.

***

So, my current obsession is biking. In the last four days, I have spent more time cycling and learning about cycling than I ever have in any week of my life. I have watched dozens upon dozens of videos of pro and regular cyclists talking about how to get better at cycling. (The awesome thing about these guys, they don’t just sit on some random ass chair and film how-to videos; they actually do it on their saddles.) On Sunday, I cycled my longest distance yet: 71 kilometers, from Kinoo to Ole Sereni and back via the Southern Bypass. It was one of the most exhilarating experiences. In the midst of the panting for air sprawled on the floor after the ride, I felt like impossible was just any other word. I felt like I could levitate. The most important part of the ride though was meeting this fellow named Stick (? – not sure about the spelling) who rode more than half of those seventy kilometers with me.

Here’s the thing: I am a big loner. I am so big on loning that my mother let me grow up as an only child. I have loned so much in my life I should get a PhD on it—that’s how much I’ve mustered the ins and outs of doing shit alone. My school reports are choke-full of “he’s really good but he doesn’t talk much in class” and my job reviews have lots of “he does brilliant work but he can improve on his working closer with peers” comments. And so no surprises that I took my lonesome self when I started biking again in November last year. I found routes and I followed them, sometimes in advance, but often on the fly. And for months I did that. Picked some random road and followed it—cycled until I ran out of energy and then Googled my way back home.

Then on Sunday morning as I approached the underpass where the Southern Bypass joins Ngong Road, this fellow with his fancy-ass cycling gear rolls up beside me, smiles behind his shades and says hello. He asks where I am headed and because I have ridden longer than I intended and don’t have any destination in mind, I simply tell him, nowhere really. He zooms past me and then past another rider who has crashed off his bike some hundred meters ahead of me. Then, our guy slows down to check on the fallen rider after which he beckons at me to ride with him. It sounds stupid but in that moment I feel special. Writing this, I still don’t know why I feel special. I feel a sense of kinship with the guy—maybe I am grateful he sees me. I pass the other cyclist who’s now on his feet and join Stick, whose name I don’t know yet. He tells me he’s going to Ole Sereni and back—would I mind joining him? At first, Ole Sereni sounds like one of those small towns in Kajiado that pals go for Tusker and Nyama Choma over the weekends—so I am not sure.

That must be far, I say.

Not really, about 40 kilometers to and fro, he responds.

And that is when it hits me that Ole Sereni is that hotel along Mombasa Road. It seems reasonable. Yes, let’s do it, I tell him. He tells me to ride close to his bike, right behind it, so I can benefit from his “wind-breaking.” I try it but I am too scared of crashing into him (especially after having witnessed another cyclist crash just a few minutes ago.)

It’s about 8 in the morning. The sun is out and bright but not burning. The terrain slopes downwards, but not too sharply. Stick sets a rather comfortable pace. I am enjoying myself. I let myself see the world from my saddle. To my left is Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa. I have never looked at it from this angle in real life. I have been into the slum once, but from where I ride, I can see how huge it really is. Rows upon rows of oxidized tin roofed shacks that hundreds of thousands of people call home. In the background, skyscrapers in Upperhill kiss the clouds. Before philosophical thoughts on poverty flood my consciousness, I realize I am so far behind Stick and have to pedal harder to catch up. Luckily, he slows down and looks back; he waves his hand to check if I am alright.

How’s the pace? He asks.

It’s alright.

He pedals on. I try to stay as close as I can to him this time. He says that riding about a foot behind his rear wheel will conserve my power by almost 30%. I don’t believe him at first but soon enough, I can feel the effect.

The Nairobi National Park comes into our eyeline on the right. A vast expanse of the kind of vegetation you would find on a tourism brochure: savannah grass dotted with acacia trees. There are no animals to see near the edges of the park though. It still looks beautiful. I don’t even realize that we already passed Langata Road. Soon, Ole Sereni stands regal ahead of us—like King T’Challa from Black Panther which I watched last night. We pedal around the overpass, taking those cool sharp bends like pros. Then we pause to catch our breaths and so I can take some photos. Stick asks me how I am doing on my energy and like I would always respond to such a question, I say I am fine. But the truth is, my energy tank is starting to run low. I take a swig from my two-liter Coca Cola bottle of water. Like he hasn’t been kind enough, Stick sees through my lie and offers a banana saying I will need the energy as the ride back is uphill.

We’re back on the road, cycling up with the park now to our left. I am in front this time and I pedal consistently. Then I start feeling the heat and I decide to stop and take off my hoodie. Stick chuckles as I do so, adding: I also used to be like this when I started, riding with hoods and all. It kinda hurts my feelings but I don’t let it show. I realize how unprofessional I must look. I am wearing Manchester United football shorts and jersey (coincidentally Man Utd will later in the day whoop Chelsea’s badonkadonk at Old Trafford; J Ligz will even do a Wakanda Forever cross after heading in the winner!) and my shoes aren’t even sports shoes. Unlike my partner who’s wearing legit biking shoes which I don’t own a pair of, I am wearing blue, denim slip-ons with a strip of kente. One might think I am paying homage to Wakanda with the kente but truth is less sexy: I left my sneakers outside only to find them wet this morning. Add to the slip-ons my grey socks with non-matching patterns and one would be forgiven for mistaking me for a clown cycling to a carnival.

There’s this thing called cadence, it’s the most important thing I have learnt about cycling, Stick is dishing more wisdom which I pay little attention to as my current priority is sulking.

A few days later I will learn from a YouTube tutorial that cadence is the number of revolutions of the crank per minute. Experts tout it as the main difference between a good and great cyclist; okay cyclists will do around 60 RPMs (revolutions per minute) while great cyclists will do about 90 RPMs. Usually the better you select your gears, the better you become at maintaining a higher cadence. And with a better cadence, you ride faster and farther.

In the moment though, I want to prove to my boy Stick that I ain’t no punk ass on them pedals. The ascent is getting steeper, my energy levels dwindle. But I, well, stick it out. Stick keeps checking on me—a kind gesture, but after that comment on my dressing that felt me leaving insecure, I find it patronizing. It’s no like he has been cycling that much longer than me to lecture me anyway, I bitch in my mind.

In my pseudo-wallowing, this white chap who eats hills on his bike like Jhene Aiko proposes booty be eaten in that Omarion song, whizzes past me. Then my current world shatters when Stick gives chase. The pair makes it seem too easy yet I have to select an even lower gear, stand up, bob up and down on the saddle, to just keep moving. Kufumba kufumbua, they’re past the bend. It’s just my lonesome self again, struggling, panting up a hill. Funny enough, that’s when kids who’ve not washed sleep from their eyes show up on the side of the road looking at you with gazes saying, I could ride better than that. I don’t want to stop. You know that modern proverb: life is like riding a bicycle: you don’t fall off unless you stop pedaling. In life and in cycling, I like to painstakingly hang onto this proverb. And in most cases it’s true, you maintain your balance when you move forward and you move forward when you maintain your balance. But at the moment, I am running out of gas. I need to stop, to regain energy so I can move forward. Especially now that Stick is gone.

Back on the road, a few more bends uphill, I spot him on the side of the road. He’s waiting for me! What a gentleman, I think. I feel terrible for having vilified him in my mind. He even cycles down towards me.

I want to ask him why did you leave me but it would sound too desperate so I ask how did you manage to keep up with the white guy?

I couldn’t man, he was just too fast, he says.

I silently wonder: if he was too fast for you, then what was he for me? On a deeper sense it gets me back to one of my constant reflections on the road: the importance of keeping your own pace (in contrast to trying to keep up with others). See, on the road, as in life, there are multiple types of people and vehicles. Of course you can’t keep up with the cars, so you stay in your lane. Keeping up with other cyclists is very tempting though. But the truth is: some will always be too slow and some too fast for you. And you don’t know their story, how far they’ve come—maybe they just got on the road and you’ve been on it for two hours. Still, the urge to keep up, in both life and in cycling, seems innate to us. Despite the urge, you have to ride your own race.

We’re past the overpass where we met now. To the right, prestigious mansions peer behind leafery. Huh, I have never seen these houses, so fancy, I tell Stick. The ride isn’t as steep as earlier. It gets steeper at Dagoretti though. Before the climb, we do some stretches on the kerb. I don’t know where Stick gets the energy to maul that hill. I struggle farther and farther behind him. But as I have learnt, I pause to sip my water and calm my breathe. To look around me and appreciate all the beauty and blessings the world around me offers.

Luckily enough, when I am back on the saddle and on top of the hill, I find Stick waiting for me. He asks if I have tools to help him repair something loose on his crank. Of course I don’t.

I have to head back home now before it’s too far. It was great meeting you, he says.

Okay, it was a lot of fun cycling with you, I respond as he turns his road bike Karen-wards.

I want to ask him if we can ride together again. If we can be friends. If I can have his number. If I can see him again. But I don’t say any of this. And just as he came out of nowhere, he’s gone. Gone with gravity, down the hill.

I slowly climb towards Kikuyu. I savour my most favorite stretch, the stretch between Gitaru and Kinoo, with a gradient so perfect it’d rival the perfectness of Bruno Mars’ swag. In the cruise, my mind drifts back to Stick. I am grateful for the time we spent together. I realize that in life, you think you’re doing well until someone or something sweeps in and catalyzes action. The catalyst jolts you from your comfort zone, makes you realize how much more there is to learn, how much further you can grow, how much farther you can go.

Also, I know I will look him up on the net when I get home because I want to be like him when I grow up.


My next article in the Writing Obsessions series will be on avocados.

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