Ahead of this year's Cycle to COP26, author and cyclist Julian Sayarer shares fond memories of his most important rides.
A number of rides always stick in my mind as having been more important than others.
The ride from a final university exam in Sussex, to a ferry at Portsmouth and then across the Channel for my first touring in the cycling promised land that is France. The following year when, with a friend, we discovered we could ride as far as Istanbul in our summer break. The following year, when I graduated and rode back to Istanbul, but with the difference of having set out alone. The time I rode leisurely to Rouen with friends, but knowing the next day I’d set out towards Shanghai and the first leg of a daily hundred-mile effort on an 18,000 mile world record circumnavigation. And then, as I often come back to, aged 10, and riding the dozen miles to my grandparents' house, the first time I ever rode anywhere independently.
In a different way, riding to Glasgow for the COP26 Climate Summit, with around 100 other riders, also feels special.
The pace of change in political action on the climate can feel both exhilarating and infuriating. I feel moments of belief when I see that 40% of UK electricity is now generated from renewables, up from barely 10% a decade ago.
Other times, more often if I’m honest, I remain concerned and angry that neither the pace nor the investment is fast or committed enough. Why aren’t we also investing more in predictable energy like tidal and geothermal, or in energy storage for the grid surplus of those stormy nights when the turbines spin while we all sleep? Why should tank-sized jeeps drive around our cities, even if their fuel source is partially made from electricity? Why do we detain migrants in prisons when they eventually arrive in the UK, having had to leave the hard face of climate change in their home countries; hardships often exacerbated by brutal regimes that our governments hold in place?
Even before we set out, I know nothing that happens at COP26 can alter the very real harm already being done globally by climate change. Nothing that happens will make the change as fast as it needs to be.
In some ways, the idea of cycling to the Summit, with people who perhaps feel similarly about the earth, its people and politics, is the sort of event that inspires in me as much enthusiasm as the Event itself. Grand events can function as lightning rods, markers in history and signifiers of importance, but as with climate change it’s often the ripple effects and connections made around them where greater impacts wait. Here is an energy that is harder to define but in which lies the kernel of a more lasting change, community and confidence still needed to make the movement for climate justice the force it has to become. There are people like you out there, and together, riding the length of a country, you realise you have in you the potential to do more than you previously thought.
The ride to Glasgow comes almost exactly a year since my last cycle across any great distance, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to leave the indoors. A year ago, between pandemic lockdowns in the summer of 2020, not enthusiastic to end a month-long stay in Portugal, I bought a second-hand bicycle in Lisbon and spent a few weeks riding it to Barcelona.
This autumn my notebook of that journey is published under the title Iberia, and it’s been interesting to consider how strongly its themes resonate with climate change and the ride to Glasgow. The book was written mostly as a series of notes, encounters and observations on the edge of lockdowns. It was written before much about the pandemic and how it would change daily life was well-understood, but at a time when nonetheless it was obvious vast changes were in motion. It was as much as anything a collection of thoughts on how we live, and how that way of life interacts with the bicycle as one version of life and how we live.
Something about the slightly-too-humble second-hand bicycle seemed helpful too, slowing me from my regular touring bicycle and the haste it sometimes instils in me, against my wishes. The old bicycle brought with it the lesson that you make use of what you have, and you learn to appreciate it.
As with climate change, that ride through Portugal and Spain, at that time, had about it a great sense of the fragility of human life, but so too a sense of its beauty and resilience. The everyday humanity with which perfect strangers will meet you, and a roadside will sustain you; whether that is in small restaurants on a sleepy village square, or an orange tree growing wild and full with fruit at a roadside.
The road to Glasgow in October will, I am sure, not be quite the one that I found myself riding last Autumn in Iberia. I keep my fingers crossed that the weather will be mostly kind, if perhaps not quite as warm. I feel sure that the destination in Glasgow, unlike Barcelona which I drifted towards for no real reason, will in its summit provide a clear focus for all who arrive into it. Last year I rode alone, this time in a small convoy; a differently special way to travel, a reminder that the journey is often most of all about the people you meet.