Yesterday, I rode a metric century (100km) – my first this year and my longest ride since the whole arthritis thing kicked off back in the spring. It was a local Reliability Trial; a classic-end-of-season cycling club event in which the aim is to complete the course as close to a set finishing-time as possible. I’d trained quite carefully and everything came right on the day. Having thought I may have to quit the sport a few months ago, it really feels as though things are back to normal. And not a moment too soon. This poem (bit of a long ‘un, I’m afraid) is dedicated to my good friend and ride partner Kev Smith.
TRIAL OF STRENGTH
Early. Quiet. Cold.
Firing up old instincts
I’d once feared dead.
We have the road
To ourselves; no sign
Of our 149 opponents.
We get the first hints
A mile from the hall:
Here they are, all
Parked up; late-model German estates
With vanity plates,
Antlered with roof-racks
Or the back seats down. On the roadside
Refitting wheels, shoving shoes on,
Slipping bidons into cages.
At the start, we gather
A curious brotherhood
In our ill-matched winter kit.
Best bikes and old hacks
Stand stacked three-deep
Against walls, propped on posts
As we make the most
Of the chance to chat, check
Equipment. No turning back
Once we’re over that line.
So we sign our names,
Roll down to the start,
With every heart
Tightened. And – go.
A hundred k ahead, so start slow
On the back of the bunch; sit in
And spin. First hill and we’re splitting
Into twos and threes. For some
You can tell there’s a long day to come.
Easy for the first ten
Or so, then
Hit our first real big one, and
In seconds the field’s flung to hell and gone.
Head down, drive on,
Spot a gap like a lift door
Just before it shuts: dive through
Straight up the middle, between two
Riders right on the limit.
Make it look easy. Just like old times
On these fierce, familiar climbs,
Putting clubmen to the sword,
Breezing by without a word
To ride alone to the summit,
Drink, draw breath, then plummet
Into the valley with fearless
Fury, carving through corners careless
Of speed and the laws of physics,
Held to earth by two hard, trusted slicks
And a deep belief it will never
Happen to me. Up again and over
The high point of the ride
Which I found cloaked in cloud
The day I chose to check
The route, but now the mists peel back
To flood the land with sun.
Here, halfway round, the real work is done
So settle down for the long haul home.
The wind that helped us out here has become
The enemy, cold and in our faces,
And the hot, hard chases turn to steady
Toil in the headwind
That slowly sucks the strength
From legs and lungs, wears down the will. At length
We cross the line, with just enough left in the tank
To get us home (at least, we think).
The cold and hills will not prevail.
We took the test. We did not fail.