When riders were preparing to head off from Middlesbrough on Sunday on the third leg of this year’s annual Herne Hill Whoosh fundraising ride, we were told there would be no formal departure event. Instead, we should simply leave when ready. Having undertaken fairly long segments of this year’s ride on my own, I departed unaccompanied, using my mobile phone to give me directions. But I almost immediately encountered two other riders and then a group of around a dozen. They had found part of the route blocked and turned back. We were soon a single mass of people trying to find a way out of Middlesbrough despite the closure of our planned route.

The incident was one of several during Sunday’s ride when I was reminded of how much more effective collective action can be than the efforts of a single, unaided individual. We were soon together consulting maps, pooling our knowledge of the route and calling back others who had headed the wrong direction to ensure everyone quickly returned to the intended route. The process was far quicker and more efficient than any one of us could have managed on our own. We were soon navigating a series of cycle tracks that carried us out of the city and into the nearby fields and farmland. It felt like some kind of moral lesson.

Not that there are no attractions to acting alone. At points over the last few days, when I have found myself alone, I have been able to set my own pace. I have suited myself in my riding style - rushing up the hills and pottering down rough tracks. I have been able to decide how long to stop for breaks – or, mostly, decide not to stop at all. Such riding is devoid of the compromises inherent in making a decision about where and when to stop for lunch that everyone can tolerate, or waiting for slower members of the group. I do nearly all my bicycle riding without companions, partly because of these advantages.

As we headed towards the village of Sedgefield, however, it became clear that different members of the group were making different contributions. Some had a particular mastery of the gadgetry that nowadays shows the way. Some set a steady pace. One rider had a particular knack for sweeping deftly round the complicated gates that barred the path at points. Other riders praised my efficient hill-climbing.

The group worked particularly well because we spurred each on. When other riders handled well aspects of the riding where I was less gifted, it made me realise what was possible and encouraged me to do better. Perhaps I encouraged others in their tackling of the climbs.

That phenomenon reflects the wider nature of Whoosh’s organisation. There are people who shoulder most of the burden or organising the event, others who organise the travel or fundraising – even people who undertake to write the daily blog. The experience has made me think about how effective societies recognise that everyone benefits from collective action because it makes everyone’s lives better. For people participating in Whoosh, that happens on one level through the involvement of many of us in the congregations of the Parish of Herne Hill. However, it also manifests itself in our support for the event’s good causes. The Ebony Horse Club in Brixton seeks to help disadvantaged children by giving them opportunities related to horses. Afghan Aid is seeking to mobilise world support for the people of Afghanistan, whom the world has so gravely let down in recent years.

Collective effort showed its power over lunch in Durham, when one rider proved particularly adept at placing restaurant orders quickly. Much of the rest of the ride followed an old railway line towards Consett. As we climbed steadily through the County Durham countryside, I recalled for the first time in many years how the line was famed for its steep gradients and hauling coal and iron ore on the line was regarded as one of the ultimate tests for freight hauling steam locomotives.

The day was to offer a final lesson, however. As we rode towards Hexham, I and one of the other stronger climbers had left the other riders behind. But my mobile phone, showing me the way, had died. We rode on towards the village of Slaley, near Hexham, encouraging each other on the climbing while she pointed me in the right direction with her still charged navigation device.

It was one of many reminders on a bracing day’s cycling that often, without the support of others, we might literally be lost.

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