A runway extends towards the vanishing point, punctuated by a few dog walkers, the sporadic kite flyer, and a cyclist charging furiously down the tarmac, sitting erect, hands grasping his lap in quiet determination. We stand witness to the charm of Berlin’s retired Tempelhof Airport, founded in 1936, exuding the revolting charm of despotism and ideological divide, now thriving as a public park favoured by the aforementioned tethered promenaders, wind jockeys, and aspirants to the World Record for Longest Distance Cycled Without Holding The Handlebars.
The aspirant is Franco Brandiche (brand-yeesh), 35 year old meditation prodigy from Fedfer, whose swerving life path has been a defining feature of his rise to fame. He spent his early childhood in Spokesdale, a village in Northern Fedferia where his parents owned a bicycle shop. He mastered the techniques of repairing punctured tires long before he could count to 1936. Owing to a genetic deformity in his hip that made walking for more than twenty minutes a painful challenge, young Franco embraced the bicycle as his constant companion, evolving into an ubiquitous cyclist, and cycling away from home at age fourteen. For most of his teenage years he worked as a cycling dog walker, mail carrier, and bicycle courier until the day he delivered a series of packages to the Wat Auṅganadēnāsaikil Mountain Centre, where a monk therein offered him a cup of tea and a new inner tube. He has meditated eight hours a day ever since, mostly atop a moving bicycle. Brandiche joined the National Cycling Corps in peace-keeping missions in southern Asia, where he contributed to the accidental bombing and intentional reconstruction of Buddhist temples, further delving into the spiritual and architectural frameworks of the tradition. In 2018, after a stint in corporate finance, he garnered acclaim for “Cycles of Insight”, a bestselling memoir detailing his distinctive cycling odysseys and simultaneous exploration of mindfulness.
Brandiche has been residing in Berlin for the past nine months, with a daily routine consisting of breathing exercises and cycling ninety kilometres around Tempelhof Airport’s oval runway – without touching the handlebars. He declines all interview requests (including ours), choosing instead to impart his knowledge directly to the public. Prior to each session, along the fenced-off terminal building, he sermons his dozens of followers, among which a seamless mix of cycling bottoms and yoga pants defy differentiation.
It is today that Franco Brandiche attempts to break the World Record for Longest Distance Cycled Without Holding The Handlebars, here on Tempelhof Airport’s runway. With me in the audience are his daily fervent followers, local politicians, ordinary cycling enthusiasts, and a small contingent of TikTok influencers. Steering towards us, now in the final stage of his warm-up, both arms now in the air, the Two-Wheeled Transcendentalist executes a hip movement that rotates his machine 90 degrees and slows it down to a controlled halt.
He leans towards the microphones:
“There are no handlebars on the path to enlightenment. The journey itself guides us. In this journey we confront the boundaries of ordinary life, of ordinary cycling, of ordinary humans. Today I do not merely break a record, I am illuminating a path.”
A roar soars throughout the crowd. Brandiche’s elocutions ring true for those who connect with his inspiring spirit of ambition, self-belief, mindfulness, and balance in motion. He frames his record attempt as a means of transcending not only the ordinary in cycling but also in life itself, thereby capturing the essence of pushing personal boundaries. He leads us through technical terrain; ascending singletracks that demand finesse, focus, and properly inflated inner tubes. A self-help guru who talks the talk and cycles the path.
“I am dedicating this record to the pioneers of abstract thought, the people who pushed and scraped and scanned the limits of their minds, who didn’t need hands to achieve their goals, because success starts in the mind, because hands are a crutch for the weak, because hand-eye coordination is an illusion. Reaching this awakening is awakening to the best version of you. Hands-off the best.”
As he delivers these lines Brandiche’s voice is breathy, swift, and enigmatic, like a bicycle pump working tirelessly. His lycra clothing, which he refers to as his “performance armour”, is tight enough to reveal the curls in his chest hair and the rigidity of his mentality. His sermon is episodic; no more than five sentences are uttered without a minute-long pause, each set ushered in by Brandiche’s striking of a singing bowl.
Indeed, Brandiche’s custom-made bicycle, Saṃsāra (from the Sanskrit word connoting the continuous cycle of birth, life, punctured tires, death, and rebirth) is an orange tubular affair with a Tibetan singing bowl in lieu of a bell. Saṃsāra’s frame is glossy (an obvious reference to the top of the Dalai Lama’s head, and probably just as scratch-free), the only conspicuous object being a sticker with the words: “Objects in mirror are crashing - because they need handlebars.”
A colleague asks the Pedal Prodigy about the connection between his meditation practice and Cycling Without Holding The Handlebars. Brandiche gently closes his eyes and takes three deep breaths, his audience bracing, for a gong and dance. “Cycling”, he begins, twisting the left end of his handlebar moustache, “much like meditation, is a journey inward as much as it is a physical, i.e. external pursuit. Just as we navigate the open road, we navigate the landscape of our thoughts and emotions. Both are about finding that tranquil space within ourselves, where the hum of the wheels aligns with the rhythm of our breath. Where the worries of the world momentarily fade. In this union of motion and mindfulness, we discover a profound harmony that guides us towards our goals.”
The Cognitive Cruiser’s insight is met with an agreeable om, perhaps supplied by an indistinct peloton in the crowd, perhaps supplied by the low-flying airplane roaming overhead. As soon as the om subsides, Brandiche’s gaze darkens, searches for the biggest camera pointed at him, issues the following:
“Riding on one wheel, high over physical constraints. When joy throws a stone, from where does the fall originate?”
Some of the uninitiated members of the audience are puzzled by the admonition. “What’s the matter?” we ask.
“Nothing is the matter” responds Brandiche, his eyes closed, his meaning opened, ever the koan man. My colleagues conjecture this to be an invective against unicyclists, with whom Brandiche has strong differences in opinion regarding the path towards enlightenment. Unicyclists have notably deviated from Brandiche’s orthodoxy by advocating for a more progressive approach, suggesting that every being could aspire to become enlightened, not solely bicyclists.
The well-lubricated wisdom fountain spouts on. But at the second mention of “uncharted realms of freewheeling”, a young person with a balaclava confronts our source of wisdom about V.T Vignesh Kumar, reigning World Record Holder for Longest Distance Cycled Without Holding The Handlebars – Kumar set the record at a respectable 122km in 2017. The mention of Kumar, also known as The Handlebard of Madurai, seems to have chafed Brandiche’s dignity in at least two places, and an expression of doubt forms on his face as if a thread being pulled, unraveling the fabric of certainty.
“Ah, Kumar’s claims”, he muses, his gaze drifting towards the abandoned control tower, seeking permission to unload his skeptic’s baggage. “Records are meant to be earned through mindful effort, not a jolt of luck and, perhaps, electric magic.” Brandiche has hinted in the past that the bicycle used by Kumar had been surreptitiously and electrically powered. “More importantly” continues Brandiche, “Kumar has revealed himself not as a mindful trailblazer but as just another misguided glory seeker. His pretences will unravel and lay bare the handlebar he grasps for relevance.”
Franco Brandiche twists the right end of his handlebar moustache before he pauses to strike the bowl and add: “The fundamental difference is that Kumar saw the bicycle. Whereas I don’t even see the bicycle. I see an extension of an elemental desire for forward motion, an acknowledgement of impermanence. And this is not metaphysical meandering, this is a statement of fact about experience. Kumar’s record will rise and pass away.”
The applause is not as loud this time because the devotion is increasing: a growing subset of audience members are now sitting cross-legged, eyes closed, joining their thumbs and index fingers to form two adjacent circles – a hand gesture known as the Saikil Mudra. They let out an om after Brandiche’s last pronouncement, as he twists the left end of his handlebar moustache.
“What is freedom?” asks Brandiche as he finally mounts Saṃsāra. “It’s this moment of life without handlebars. This long stick of handlebars, forming effectively an I, is the I, the self.” He strikes the bowl one last time. “The freedom one finds in cycling is inherent to the nature of awareness. Freedom is the presence revealed by the absence of our mental handlebars. It’s the condition of empty open clarity that precedes and transcends every other experience.”
With a dramatic gesture, Franco Brandiche, the Pedaler of Enlightenment, tapping his temple with one hand and Saṃsāra with the other, unveils his final stroke of wisdom. “And as a matter of experience you’re not meditating on that. You are that.”
Five followers with closed eyes appeared taller than I thought them to be. It eluded my observation whether their feet were still touching the ground. The Cycling Path Illuminator, satisfied, cycled off towards the looming terminal and enlightenment.
As he finished the first lap, about 50 meters away from us, Franco Brandiche’s billowing robe became entangled in the rotation of the wheels of Saṃsāra, locking the front wheel, causing a sudden halt, pivoting the bike, projecting the aspirant over the handlebars and head-first into the tarmac. He suffered a mild concussion and is mindful of wearing a helmet in his forthcoming attempt, despite several helmet manufacturers declining his sponsorship requests.