Blood lines

Our whippet is 10 months old this week. In terms of height, we reckon he’s reached his operational ceiling; now he needs to start growing outwards, rather than just upwards. Even as a gangly adolescent, his power and sheer speed over the ground are remarkable: in a couple more years, when he’s fully mature, he’s going to be truly formidable. Weight-for-weight, whippets are the fastest dogs – and according to some the fastest animals – in the world, and when the red mist descends, he’s blind and deaf to everything except whatever unfortunate dog/cat/squirrel/bird/bicycle he’s pursuing. Otherwise, he’s amiable, indolent and has more ears than brain cells, which are reliable signs of an impeccable pedigree in most species, including our own.

This spring, our evening walk round the local fields and woods has become a routine test of his nascent hunting skills. Thus far, the local rabbits have been winning hands (or paws) down, but on last night’s evidence, they won’t be having things all their own way for much longer. So herewith some blank verse, for a dog with a vacant expression.

HUNTER’S MOON 

Now Venus and the new moon share the sky.

The chill creeps through the fields like a thief,

Sets cows’ breath steaming, steals warmth from folds

And hollows. Blackbirds chatter in the woods

Alarmed at our approach. My friendly dog

Trots easily behind me. Then a flash

Of white fur at the field’s edge ignites

The deep desire bred in blood and bone

And he is running. I can only stand

And watch. The catch and killing bite may come

One day; for now, the chase ends in a yelp

Of almost-had-him fury, and I smile:

Some hunting dog – he’s young, with much to learn

About his trade and harnessing his speed.

But when two summers more have rolled around

No rabbit will be safe on open ground.

Beauty parade

Rolling along a quiet country road on the Madone this morning, I noticed an old canvas-topped Land Rover pulled over a few hundred years ahead. Nothing so unusual in that. As I drew closer, though, I noticed a large object on the grass verge beside it. It was a body.

Happily, it was still alive. It turned out to be a bloke in a beard and a Barbour, lying down to get his SLR as close as possible to a group of Early Purple orchids. Like all Britain’s orchids, they’re protected by law – although they’re actually quite common round here – and bring a pleasingly exotic touch to our woods and hedgerows. As the name implies, their flowers are a bold, imperial purple that sticks out a mile among the ubiquitous bluebells and stitchwort. They’re the supermodels of the vegetable world: cue a short nature poem.

NEW COLLECTION

They pose, soaking up the sun

And men’s admiration,

Heads held high,

Wordless and aloof,

Accepting the camera’s love

As no more than their due,

Disdaining the bluebells:

They’re so last-month.

May’s must-haves

Are purple.

Snap them up before they’re gone. 

Fast friends

Drive for about 10 minutes north of where I live and you’ll find yourself on the Ashdown Forest – a high, sandy plateau covered with heather, gorse and stunted birch trees, crisscrossed with narrow, steep-sided valleys cut by streams the colour of cold tea. Immortalised by A A Milne as the setting for Winnie-the-Pooh, this is this is a ‘forest’ in the medieval sense; that is, a royal hunting-ground. Not that you’ll see HM Queen Elizabeth II and her courtiers galloping about in pursuit of the noble hart; these days, it’s a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, where commoners like me are free to ride horses (but not mountain bikes, fortunately) and walk dogs where and whenever we please. At  2,500 hectares – about nine square miles – it’s no Yellowstone, but it is the largest public-access area in the south-east of England. We know how lucky we are.

Although it’s a forest by name, there aren’t many full-grown trees up there. The few there are tend to be pines, growing in small clumps with lovely evocative names like Camp Hill, King’s Standing, Crow’s Nest and Greenwood Gate. There’s also one called Friends Clump, named in honour of the volunteers who care for the Forest. I regularly ride past the sign at the car-park entrance; today, I stopped and took the Madone’s picture. And guess what: a new bike-related poem quickly followed – appropriately enough, in rhyme royal.

FAST FRIENDS

It seems an odd relationship at first:

The passenger provides the motive power;

Just one of us feels cold, heat, hunger, thirst,

And pain. And yet it works: we can devour

Long miles at high speed, hour after hour.

We take whatever fickle Fortune sends:

The bike and I are partners – and fast friends. 

(Taken on my phone camera – think the lens needs cleaning…)

Formal verse

Mairmusic shares my love of formal verse forms, which she describes as ‘balm to my soul’. There is something incredibly soothing about working within strict parameters; far from feeling restricted, I find it liberating, stimulating and intensely satisfying. The challenge is to create a ‘real’ poem, not just a piece of clever wordplay or something that simply ticks the boxes technically.

The villanelle is an old French verse form; perhaps the best-known example of (fairly) recent times is Dylan Thomas’ ‘Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night’. I can’t pretend that this early attempt of mine has one scintilla of Dylan’s depth or power, but it was fun to write. For my non-UK readers, Wight, Portland and Plymouth are sea areas used in the Shipping Forecast, which is broadcast four times daily by the BBC. And although she sounds like a small village or paint colour, Charlotte Green is actually one of the BBC Radio 4 newsreaders and announcers, whose mellifluous voices are so reassuring to mariners plying the unpredictable seas around Britain – and anxious landlubbers camping on the coast. This villanelle was, as the movie people like to say, ‘inspired by real events’ on the north-west coast of Brittany, which is covered by sea area Plymouth.

SHIPPING FORECAST

As we sit in the tent and wait

It comes clear on the radio,

“Wight, Portland, Plymouth: gale Force Eight.”

We feel the restless ocean’s weight

Surge hard against the dunes below

As we sit in the tent and wait.

Charlotte Green hands down our fate

From her warm London studio,

“Wight, Portland, Plymouth: gale Force Eight.”

The day dies in a sky like slate

Far out to sea, the breakers grow

As we sit in the tent and wait.

The canvas strains as we debate;

Should we sit tight, or pack and go?

“Wight, Portland, Plymouth: gale Force Eight.”

The first drops hit. We are too late;

Will our pegs hold? Well, soon we’ll know.

As we sit in the tent and wait,

“Wight, Portland, Plymouth: gale Force Eight.”

Rapid cure

The expression ‘going downhill fast’  is usually meant as a negative, whether it’s applied to health, wealth, career, relationships, poll ratings, even the weather. Once again, the bike is the perfect instrument for turning convention on its head. As a child, I loved freewheeling down a long hill, my eyes streaming, the wind roaring in my ears. Thirty years later, I still do. In fact, it’s even more fun now: the bike’s a lot faster and (sadly) I’m a lot heavier. And now, as then, the speed, noise and whiff of danger fill me with a primitive, savage joy.

Today, I took the Madone for its first ‘proper’ downhill run, just to see what it could do. My chosen test-track was Duddleswell Road, which runs down the southern ramparts of the Ashdown Forest. It’s neither the longest nor steepest hill around here – it’s just over two miles end to end, with a total drop of about four hundred feet – but with no sharp bends, you can just let the bike run without touching the brakes. By the time you reach the bottom, the phrase ‘terminal velocity’ has taken on a new and vivid significance.

Needless to say, the Madone was magnificent: oil-smooth, greyhound-fast, Top Gun on two wheels. Being English, I’m not naturally inclined towards whooping-and-hollering, but I must confess  I did let out a yell or two. A lot of other things are going downhill fast around here at the moment. But all the time I can do it literally, I know I’ll be OK.

GOING DOWNHILL FAST

Swing right, zip up,

Flick a finger

To pick a bigger gear.

Get low, nose to the bars,

And go.

Ten seconds, I’m supersonic,

Madone at Mach One,

Unwinding a silver thread of speed

From the rope of road

And the roaring air. 

This is no blind

Descent into madness

But a wild, joyous dive

That ends in clear space

And a quiet mind.

Tinkering (2)

Today, the Madone ran silently. No chain noise, no clicks, creaks or squeaks; just the hollow thrum of hard tyres, alloy rims, and bladed spokes slicing-and-dicing the cold air. It’s a state of grace, Nirvana, something I’m always striving for. But it’s not easy to attain. The intermittent, untraceable yet irritating mechanical sound-out-of-place  is the bane of every cyclist’s life. Most are so tiny no-one else would even notice it. But just as any parent instantly knows when their child is poorly, a rider instantly detects the smallest change in how the machine sounds and feels.

Of course bikes know this, and their symptoms usually vanish as soon they enter the workshop, in the same way children miraculously rally the moment you step into the doctor’s surgery.  Sometimes, though, a mechanical gremlin can evade months of seek-and-destroy missions; the cost in time, bike-shop bills and frustration can be enormous.

I find any unexplained or unidentified ‘mechanical’ deeply unsettling; it shakes my confidence in the bike and thus everything else, including myself. I become preoccupied and irritable (OK, more preoccupied and irritable); I’m restless, nervous and feel slightly queasy until it’s resolved. An unhealthy obsession?  The dark side  of a perfectionist nature? A hint of some deeper insecurity? Probably all of the above. That’s why today’s silent running was so good. And why I wrote this.

 MECHANICAL

My world revolves

on a pair of hubs,

its axis marked

by a silver chain.

My uneasy mind

is held secure

by bolts

wound down tight,

snug in smooth

machine-milled metal.

The mystery creak

crack

rattle

and

groundless grinding

are betrayals:

traitors

to be hunted down

and permanently

silenced. 

 

Little rituals

Going to the garage and getting ready to ride is an oddly enjoyable interlude in my day. It’s a calm, neutral space where I’m neither fully in nor fully out, suspended between one reality and another.

I’ll already have gone through the process of choosing the right mix of clothing – never easy in a climate as variable as ours – so I when I close the front door behind me, I at least look like a cyclist. But it’s only once I’m in the garage I start to feel like one.

There are the basic pre-ride checks: tyres, chain, a few crucial bolts, brakes, the quick-release skewers that hold the wheels in. Usually, the tyres need a few PSI to achieve the desired solidity, which the old track pump delivers with a few quick strokes.  

Then it’s time to get myself ready. Unlike normal civilian clothing, cycling jerseys and jackets have pockets (usually three) stitched along the back. This may seem strange, but it’s actually incredibly practical. You can carry a surprising  amount in them, they don’t restrict your movement, you don’t need big saddle-bags or panniers and, best of all, you can put things in and take things out of them while you’re riding along. You start with the basics (reaching back to grab a banana or cereal bar, for instance) then progress through finer motor skills like extracting a camera or phone, to the ultimate tests: unpacking and putting on a rainjacket, then taking it off and stuffing it away again. The potential for disaster is considerable – I’ve seen pros come a cropper with an errant sleeve tangled in the chain – but once mastered, these are invaluable skills and the mark of a true roadie.

In my back pockets, I always carry: a mobile phone, wrapped in a plastic bag; a mini-pump; and a CO2 canister. My racing tyres run at 130PSI, and getting that amount of air in with a small hand-pump is no joke, believe me. One shot of compressed gas, though, and you’re back up to pressure and rolling again in no time, providing of course you haven’t frozen your fingers to the valve. If the clouds are threatening, I’ll jam one of the aforementioned pack-down rainjackets into a pocket, too. The rest – spare inner tube, tyre levers, patches, tools – are already snug in a little pack slung under the saddle.

Put on helmet and glasses (clear or yellow lenses on gloomy days, Terminator black the rest of the time)  then swap red Crocs for stiff-soled cycling shoes. And if you want to know why they’re called cycling shoes, just try walking in ’em. Last of all, gloves, carefully tucked into sleeves if it’s chilly. Can’t stand a draught. If it’s really cold, there’ll also be wind- or waterproof overshoes to pull on – well, over my shoes.

Wheel the bike up the drive (which makes it sound a lot longer than it is) onto the road, swing a leg over, check up and down the street, then click into the right pedal. Once the left foot snaps in too, and I’m rolling down the hill, the transformation is complete.

RITUAL IN RHYME ROYAL

In quiet contemplation I prepare

Myself. This is the sacred space between

All that I leave indoors, and life out there.

A thousand times I’ve run through this routine

That clears my mind, unites man and machine.

With mobile, gas and pump all safely stowed

I’m ready for the rigours of the road. 

Tinkering (1)

Like most cyclists, I’m an inveterate tinkerer. I’ve spent countless hours out in the garage making footling adjustments to gears, brakes, seatposts and stem bolts, to the exasperation of my wife, and the glee of my local bike shop, who reap princely sums from my unconquerable cack-handedness. Occasionally, though, I score a small but significant triumph, which is all the sweeter for its rarity and unexpectedness. This little poem concerns the traditional leather saddle fitted to my beloved, but now sadly departed, Pashley Guv’nor.

BROOKS

All it took
Was a one-eighth
(maybe even a one-sixteenth)
Anticlockwise turn
Of the tensioning bolt
And the creaks
That for weeks
Just drove me crazy
Were gone from the old B17.

One tiny twist
Of an Allen key (six-mil)
And all the frustration and hullabaloo
Had quit
The place where I sit.

Would that life
Were more like
The bike.

Nocturne (1)

I used to ride at night a lot, blatting round the lanes on my faithful Marin (steel frame, slicks, no suspension, a proper old-school MTB) on winter nights dark as espresso in winds getting out of Siberia in a hurry. I don’t do it now – I’m past fixing punctures by torchlight in sub-zero windchill – but being out there alone, under the moon, made for some of my most memorable rides.

NIGHT RIDER

By day, I am prey
To cars and the like.
But I own the night.
The stars and my bike
Run silent and swift,
I am the ghost rider,
Blink and I’m gone
In a whisper of wheels.
Racing, owl-silent
On the ashen and smouldering
Road beneath cloud towers
And streetlight-stained skies.
In the night, I am lighter,
A helium shadow,
A fugitive flying from gravity’s grip.
I have nothing to fear
From the fathomless woods
Closing over the road
Like a wave on the shore.
I glory in speed,
And the roll of the road,
And the moon-billowed sky
And the tear-tearing air.

Learning through riding

The bicycle is a natural teacher,
Demonstrating the great laws –
Motion, friction, thermodynamics,
Inertia, force, acceleration, gravity –
In every climb, turn and wobble.

It makes me go out to play
Even when it’s raining,
Sets tests and stern examinations,
Marks harshly, and insists
I could do better.

But there are days when it comes over
All end-of-termish,
Turns a blind eye to my coasting
Beneath a benevolent sun,
Gently reminding me of the importance

Of balance.