Cycling Scent-sations

Amidst the Whim and Rape
Cycling the maze of Roe Valley's coastal farm roads, everything in early May is yellow. The dark golden warmth of thorny whin hedges borders the lemony coolness of rapeseed blossoms, and together they're fringed by generous sprinklings of matte creamy buttercups. Rolling past these swells of subtly-altering yellowness, I realise that I can parse out the plants, even from a distance, by more than just their hue. I can smell them each individually, even before I can see them. Coming around the bend, the honeyed scent of the whin flower heralds a prickly wall of yellow ahead. Strange, since I can't ever seem to smell this plant off the bike - even if I walk right up to the hedge and sniff the flowers up close. 

It is not only flowers that smell more strongly from the bicycle. On sunny mid-mornings I pick up on scents of freshly washed laundry hung out to dry. 

In the evenings the smells of peat fires being lit and dinners being cooked taunt me as I hurry hungrily home in the rapidly cooling air.

I can smell horses and farm animals, and other warm farmy scents, and increasingly I can tell what exactly they are.

I can smell the sunbaked stone of village centers and housing estates.

And the damp, musky stone of dilapidated structures reclaimed by new growths of forest.

In the distance, but sometimes up close, and sometimes beneath me over a cliff's edge, I can smell the sea, with its salty slimy growths, pale grasses and petrified shellfish.

I can smell the rich soil.

I can smell the coming rain.

I can smell that exquisite sentimentality up at Ballyhacket mountain at dusk that is probably moss and peat heated up by the slow-burning sun, then released in subtle vaporous doses through the evening hours. 

It is reasonable to assume that this heightened awareness of scents comes from being outdoors, not enclosed in a car or building. But I think it goes beyond that. After all, my sense of smell on the bike seems keener than when merely lounging outside or walking. It also seems to grow stronger the harder I go, the more I exert myself. A friend has noticed this in himself as well, and his thinking is that cycling - with its strain, its focus, its heightened appetite, and its reliance on intuitions - sharpens the senses, making the rider more animalistically attuned to the layered nuances of scent. After hours on the bike, pushing their limits, the rider is no longer simply a person on two wheels. No, something is added in the process. Slowly the rider is transformed into an altogether different animal - one that is gifted with a richer and deeper olfactory experience. The effect may only be temporary, but the memories and secret knowledge it leaves us with remain ours forever. 


  1. I think it is whin hedges, not "whim", although whim sounds more poetic!

    Its the name given to gorse in Ireland.

    I grew up beside a hill called Whinny Hill in County Armagh. I will now think of it as Whimsy Hill ;)

  2. I like this one and have noticed it before.

    The way I smell it is you're jamming way more particles of that smell into your nostrils on a bike divided by a given time, hence the experience is more intense. The sensation may not even register (often doesn't) at walking speed, the little particles getting blown hither and thither.

    On a bike you're controllng the force-fed smell induction machine.

    Things do smell differently up close vs. a distant admixture of life.

  3. Lovely writing- it sounds as if the country is getting under your skin

  4. How do you feel about wild garlic? This time of the year I wish my sense of smell was not quite as keen as it is!

    1. wild garlic is one of the best things about this time of the year. fabulous free salad greens, wonderful pesto and you find it with your nose, whats not to like?

    2. It's nice in moderate doses; there's some growing in my back yard. It does not dominate the landscape in my neck of the woods as much as I hear it does in other parts of IRL & UK, so I've never had the experience of being overwhelmed by the smell.

  5. I too have noticed the heightened scents brought on by moving more air carried aromas over the olfactory glands.

  6. "...hurry hungrily home"

    Nice one.

  7. Interesting post, I was just noticing this yesterday while getting a ride in over the green blooming rolling hills and in between thunderstorms.It is Morel season in the midwest right now. Just the other day while out on a ride we were taking about hunting Morels, and how some people can sniff them out. As i pedaled through a wooded area close to the river, Suddenly I noticed the musty smell reminiscent of the delicious fungus. I had never noticed before during the hundreds of times I've pedal this path.

    Keep up the great blog, I've enjoyed following it over the years and have found it to be a great source of inspiration

  8. In Aberdeenshire, particuarly out by the way of Alford, you can smell the rapeseed from inside the car. The entire country turns bright yellow and dark green. Sucks if you're allergic.

  9. Lovely! What a little trip you took me on, the sights, smells and sounds. Cycling of course opens up the lungs, and thus your sinuses, so you are going to smell more deeply. As a cyclist you spend a good deal of time outdoors and your body adapts, especially living in the country. Welcome to the natural world! These are skills that you have been developing alongside cycling and can and will help you. Be it knowing if rain or a low pressure cold front is moving in, if you've got allergies and need to avoid certain plants or smoke, for plant recognition, possible help if you have a broken bike or are sick and smell a village or home. Or knowing how the sun moves, where to expect a sunset, how much time you have before darkness falls and you forgot a light.

  10. When you've been exposed to a certain odour for a while you quickly become desensitised to it (olfactory adaptation or fatigue). I'd say, more than being exposed to an increased concentration of odour, that the speed you travel on a bike decreases your opportunity for olfactory adaptation. That is, the rate at which you are moving from odour to odour is what is increasing your appreciation for them.

    Also, yes, whin.

    Put me in mind of this poem:

    I shall not go to Heaven when I die,
    But if they let me be
    I think I'll take the road I used to know
    That goes by Shere‑na‑garagh and the sea.
    And all day breasting me the wind shall blow,
    And I’ll hear nothing but the peewits cry
    And the waves talking in the sea below.

    I think it will be winter when I die
    For no one from the North could die in spring –
    And all the heather will be dead and grey
    And the bog‑cotton will have blown away,
    And there will be no yellow on the whin.

    But I shall smell the peat,
    And when it’s almost dark I’ll set my feet
    Where a white track goes glimmering to the hills,
    And see far up a light…
    Would you think Heaven could be so small a thing
    As a lit window on the hills at night?
    And come in stumbling from the gloom,
    Half-blind, into a fire‑lit room,
    Turn, and see you,
    And there abide.

    If it were true
    And if I thought they would let me be
    I almost wish it were tonight I died.

    Helen Waddell

    1. Thanks. I did not know this poem or writer.

  11. I hadn't even made the connection but that poem is Northern Irish, it's called the Mournes. (And it should be Slieve na garagh, not Shere.)

  12. Honeysuckle in bloom is my all time favorite smell when cycling.

  13. That is why we bike.

    1. Indeed! What keeps me on a bike throughout the decades has less to to with fitness or efficiency than the sense of being connected. I'm not so much a smells person but am big on sounds and visuals. It's all about being in the moment via all one's senses. I'm also a dedicate walker and fell that one's senses are equally ignited when moving about through space.

  14. I traveled the roads along the coast while visiting a friend in Carnlough, way back in the seventies. An absolutely beautiful part of the world. The smell of the peat fires returned with this story.

  15. I've noticed the same sensation. Though my smells are the fresh bread from the bread factory or doughnuts in the mornings. Then the afternoon/evening smells are the frier at an Asian restaurant, dryer sheets from a load of laundry, smoke from someone's backyard grill and occasionally smoke from someone's backyard time.

    But I love the smells and the noises that I experience riding that are never experienced when in a car.

  16. Is peat burnt in something like a wood burning stove?

    1. Good old fashioned open fire. With a poor drawing chimney so you sit in a thick haze. But It smells great.

    2. Wood, peat and coal can all be burned in standard fireplaces and stoves here.

    3. Thanks. Love em all, but this post is really outstanding.

  17. ah yes, the smell of roadkill is often experienced in Australian country riding. You just can't hold you breathe long enough to get past it.

    1. Oh god. I occasionally ride past dead badgers and rabbits here, playing the how-long-can-I-hold-my-breath game.

    2. Heh. Do the locals use the term "Pong"

      I nearly ran over- or more properly, through- a deer on a ride early last fall.
      Didn't see it in the tree shadows until I was nearly upon it, and was moving fast downhill, and upwind. The riders behind me didn't see my hand signals, and I heard some gasping and retching as I mercifully got out of the stench-radius.

  18. Thank goodness for merino base layers then.

  19. A second candidate for a children's book treatment, with Sleeve Boy.

  20. Metropolitan Rank . . .

    I know there is an ugly poem in there somewhere, I might write it someday but I doubt it would be publish-worthy!
    I rarely get to ride along a carpet of emerald with wonderful spritzes of colour here and there. The closest I come is Prospect Park or to Breezy Point on occasion. Even then, I am hemmed in by borders of blight. Yes, I make the best of it, after all, I am hurtling forth on my own power owing nothing to Big Electric Big Oil, Big Government, etc.

    So for the under-represented urban commuter there are a few things that tickle the nostrils, especially when the city is waking up from 3 months of what seemed like permafrost.
    The Manhattan Bridge is awesome. It cuts up NYC farther north than the Brooklyn Bridge and has its own dedicated bike path (North side) and pedestrian path (South side). When it's warm in the morning with no wind, approaching the Manhattan side at the curve, you get a few scents wafting: the burnt electrical smell from sparks from the D or Q subway train disappearing into it's tunnel, if the train is not there, you are greeted by a hot open oven door blast of air with the scent of hot dirty musty concrete with dusty wood. Further along the curve to street level, you can distinctly get the aftermath of people's relief during the night.
    Traveling into town, near a bar you will smell the stale beer from the night's empties that are fermenting in the morning heat. Along a busy avenue with cars creeping by at 5 mph, you will smell: bad perfume, asbestos brake shoes being depleted, car exhaust, diesel exhaust, exhaust from breakfast cart generators and little stoves, and yourself.
    Rinse and repeat for 5 more miles til locking up to the lamp post.
    At least I can read about greener pastures here!

    I agree w/ GR Jim about the excess molecules in the nose at speed.



  21. Lovely stuff. Best one I've read yet.

  22. Your old neighbor @lucaturin would enjoy this.

  23. Gorgeous pictures. I'm so jealous about the blooming canola. We had snow this morning...

    1. We had snow in New England at the end of May last year. "Never agin," I said, and flew to sunny Northern Ireland.

  24. My own favorites--the smell in the air just before rain falls.
    And (in western US cities) passing the kitchen vents of Mexican restaurants.

  25. Very nice post, and well illustrated with the beautiful photos.

  26. As much as I enjoyed your post, and the accompanying photos, I find that "Amidst The Whim and Rape" could be misconstrued entirely.

  27. Sadly, the scents of my commute quickly go from "outdoorsy" to car exhaust to jet fuel pretty quick. For my more utilitarian cycling, it just stays car exhaust. Need to find some quiet tuck-away road to enjoy sometime soon!



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