I experienced the death of Diana Spencer in a rather bizarre manner: in a taxi to catch a plane to a new life before most had heard the news, the black-bordered rush newspapers in the airport shops, and then in the series of bizarre and intimate condolence emails I received due to my name (which I only wish I had kept). I never mixed with royalty, although my father once received a rather lovely letter from Diana’s then husband. And I experienced the huge and bewildering outpouring of Elton John-shaped collective grief that ensued from afar. I was asked by one of my housemates in Nijmegen what I thought about it at the time and I was… nonplussed.
I have never really understood death, and public death even less. When my father died it had a lengthy and distressing impact on my well-being and was a major factor in my nervous breakdown of 2006. The public celebration we had of his life was an important event (and reading Tennyson there more so). Although it has became clear to me that such events are distinctly odd, and construct and relive sometimes false memories, they are important sites for setting the dead in context (as I write this Spotify serves up Dead Souls, and I’ll return to music in good time).
I had never found the death of public figures affecting to me until the last few weeks: despite my sometimes fragile emotional state I can’t remember a single public death making me cry until this year. Two events changed that enviable record: the sudden deaths, both to traffic, of two people I have never met. Both were cyclists, and although that might seem an obvious factor in explaining my feelings, I never cried when Marco Pantani died, although this was a similarly sudden shock. One was Steve Tilford, the other Mike Hall – I do not intend here to pay tribute to either, I would rather leave that to such as Juliana Buhring, Seth Davidson or indeed Bill Strickland (sometimes the best tributes are written when the subject still lives).
My strong reaction to these two deaths has challenged my view of public grief, but has also after reflection impacted on my understanding of why I continue to ride long distances. On many of my rides, completed or otherwise, I have had major physical or emotional crises which although not life-threatening, have felt pretty awful: I have sat on the grass in pouring rain in Bowland, tears streaming down my face (finished); I have experienced the despair of simultaneous navigational and lighting failure in the middle of the night (finished); more recently I’ve found motivation hard to come by due to nutritional collapse (vomiting and exhaustion; emergency bus shelter bivvying; DNF). Perhaps most distressingly I remember the sense of desolation at oversleeping on my final PBP qualifier and losing out on a four-year goal. Being close to disaster is a common feature in my riding. Even on my last 300 which was surprisingly trouble-free I ended up dazed with cold in a bus shelter chewing an energy bar held with senseless hands.
Is there a false equivalence here that makes me feel simultaneously moved by Mike Hall’s death yet uncomfortable? I don’t race, and I never think of what I do as actually dangerous (statistically speaking it isn’t). Do I fear that the next step in the epification of long distance riding is for it to become a death cult? Overcoming (and managing) a certain level of risk is one thing, but cycling does not have the relationship with risk of motor racing (although not quite as risky as Lauda claimed) or mountaineering (read Joe Simpson) . In the field I work in, music, the sanctification of musical martyrs is an object of study, one which I first experienced as a music fan, writing as a teen about Joy Division and the reasons why the suicide of Ian Curtis were both relevant and irrelevant to their music.
Of course, like any thing worth doing, long distance riding can become pathological – like crack or heroin (or indeed the prescription painkillers I know so many have become addicted to) – first it giveth, then it taketh away, so to speak. I’m still learning about this, as are we all I hope. My last ride (revisiting the Plains 300) was close to the edge, but I finished, and despite a dip 48 hours after finishing, I’m still OK.