I’d had problems with my left knee for three or four months. Physiotherapy, stretching and weapons-grade anti-inflammatories kept it under control, but couldn’t make it go away. I tried to ignore it; tried not to think about the throbbing ache that erupted when I massaged the joint gently with my fingers. I wanted it to be muscular, nervous – anything but a mechanical problem. That would mean surgery, and days, weeks, even months off the bike. Physically, I knew, a decent layoff would do me good, and the only way to get me to take one would be to force it on me. Psychologically, though, I wasn’t sure I could take it. That’s how deep the addiction ran.
They took an x-ray more as a precaution than anything else. So they seemed as surprised as I was at the results. The radiologist’s report spoke loftily of ‘osteophytosis’, ‘tibial spurring’ and ‘medial compartment narrowing’. I went straight to Google. Rather wished I hadn’t. ‘The findings are consistent with osteoarthritis’ the report concluded. And there it was. Something that, at 41, I shouldn’t really have, according to the statistics. But I did. And now, always will.
In the darkest days, I was ready to quit the bike for good. I didn’t think I had any choice.
And yet, I’m back on again. I don’t ride as hard, or as fast, or as far as I did before. But I’m loving it more than ever. The very fact of being out there at all is enough these days. And while osteoarthritis has got my knee, I’ve realised it isn’t the end of me as a rider, or as a man. And just how much I need this, to make everything make sense.
FRAME OF REFERENCE
This is where I come
To straighten life out;
Its lists and sinks and spikes and kinks
Fall into line,
Constrained by angles,
Cast in carbon strands
Like bones to mend.
Flaws are fettled, scores are settled,
Gaps and cracks smoothed over
And sealed under silver paint.
And for a while, I set the tempo –
Direct, guide, control, decide –
And redefine the plane and line
Of life’s obscure trajectory
With this precision instrument
That measures each day’s worth, and mine.
Doesn’t feel much like May; the temperature’s about 10 degrees below the seasonal average thanks to Arctic winds that have been with us for the last week or so. Like all cyclists, I’m intimate with the wind; its strength, direction and origin all have a direct influence on my riding. A headwind levels out descents, makes flat roads into hills and turns hills into mountains. That granny ring is going to see some use today.
Nine times out of ten
This wouldn’t even count
As a hill.
This mere raised eyebrow in the road
Is my own private
Whipped into wind
And screaming south
Sets my wheels in wet cement,
And slips the weight of the world
In my back pocket.
It’s been another stop-start spring here in the South of England. On Monday, I rode in full winter gear (windproof jacket, wool socks, Roubaix tights and gloves) – yesterday was shorts-and short-sleeved jersey. But while the weather seems unable to make up its mind, the rest of Nature is throwing itself into the season with gusto. Our woods are thick with bluebells, the hedges are spangled with stitchwort and primroses, and the beech trees are bright with delicate new leaves. Riding through the winter makes me appreciate the coming of spring all the more keenly; there’s a real sense of having earned the warmer days and dry roads. Which is what this little poem is about.
A mild wind
Pinned a primrose butterfly
To the first summer jersey
Of the year.
For a winter spent
Fighting ice and wild weather
Spring awarded me
Its highest decoration.
This poem is written in an old French metrical form called a pantoum. I first encountered it in Stephen Fry’s book ‘The Ode Less Travelled’ and have come to like it very much. It uses repeating lines and rhymes to create a rather doom-laden feel, like the tolling of a bell. This one goes out to all our members, honourable and otherwise, standing in today’s General Election.
We’ll punish you come polling day
For your deceit, the lies you’ve told;
We know your tricks, the games you play,
Where you’ve been bought, and what you’ve sold.
For your deceit, the lies you’ve told –
There are some things you can’t deny;
Where you’ve been bought, and what you’ve sold.
We’re going to hang you out to dry.
There are some things you can’t deny
Your sophistry won’t work this time
We’re going to hang you out to dry
For years of unrecorded crime.
Your sophistry won’t work this time;
We know your tricks, the games you play.
For years of unrecorded crime
We’ll punish you come polling day.
Let’s start with the very first cycling poem I ever wrote, way back in 2005. I’ve moved on a bit since then, but the sentiment’s still the same.
It’s not miles
Or what you spend:
It’s being out here
When the wind hits fifty on the flat
Hurling ball-bearing rain
And people passing
Shake their heads
And smile sadly.
That’s when you know
This is the real thing.
And so are you.
I bought my first road bike in 1997. I’ve had several since, but the one that really got me serious about cycling was the Trek 5200: Lance’s bike. Mine was an ’03 model, the last of the US Postal Service team replicas, and I loved it. I still do, though it’s scarred and scuffed after six seasons and 25,000 miles. I did all my big rides on it: London to Brighton, London to Canterbury, London to Paris, a 400km overnighter, seven-hour centuries, 10-mile time-trials: my whole cycling history is woven into its myriad carbon fibres. Without it, I would never have seen, heard or felt the sights, sounds and sensations that inspired many of my poems. I owe it a great debt.
It’s not my number-one bike any more, though. All the miles I rode on it, and the other bikes I owned during the same period, came at a cost. Regular cycling has given me the heart and lungs of a man 10 years younger, but it’s also left me with the knees of a sexagenarian. I have osteoarthritis confirmed in my left knee and probable in my right: apparently, it’s rare in people under 45. Not the kind of distinction I’d hoped for.
I wasn’t ready to hang up my wheels, though. So my friendly local bike shop set me up with the latest generation of Trek carbon bikes. Lower-geared, a more upright riding position, a little less extreme. What we’d call a sportive machine, rather than an out-and-out race bike. So all the new stuff I put up here will be brought to you by the Trek Madone 4.7 – the bike that’s helping me move on, without settling for less. Cheers, Pete.
I’m a road cyclist. Not a particularly fast one; nor, since I was told I had arthritis in one knee, a great mile-eater any more, either. But I love the bike and the being-out-there, which are the inspiration behind (most of) the poems I’m going to be publishing here. I don’t pretend to have great insights into the human condition; these are just my observations and impressions – the thoughts that come with the silent looping of lightweight wheels, and the endless roll of the world beneath them.