This long sweep of blacktop is more than a road
Snaking under the Downs: it’s the mother lode –
One that I’ve prospected, blasted, mined
Many times, knowing just what I’m going to find:
There are thick, rich veins of miles-per-hour
Running through this country, and I have the power
To dig down deep through layers of pain.
I’ve struck lucky before, and I’ll find it again:
Magnesium sun on skin today:
All the heat I need for this next assay
Of myself: weigh my worth, test my soul’s desire –
Flecks of gold, iron core, and a restless fire.
So long we’ve been the oddballs, loners, geeks,
Derided MAMILs, big kids with our toys.
Now suddenly, in three transcendent weeks
We’ve given Team GB its poster-boys.
Three heroes have arisen from our ranks –
Froome, Cavendish and Wiggins – and it seems
Our wilderness years may be ending, thanks
To rides that changed the world, fulfilled our dreams.
So can we lesser mortals now expect
All those who’ve shouted Wiggo to the sky
To treat us with a measure of respect
Or must we still accept abuse. Still die.
What chance the bounty Bradley has bestowed
On Britain wins us honour on the road?
Words are insufficient to describe Sunday’s Tour de France finale in Paris. I’ve been watching the race since 1996 and never thought I’d see a British winner – far less a British one-two, seven British stage wins, a British rider (and World Champion) winning on the Champs-Elysees for the fourth successive year…simply astonishing.
Perhaps inevitably, THEY have seized on it and wrapped it up in the Union flag ahead of the Olympics. A presenter on the BBC’s Today programme summed up the media reaction perfectly when he said: “I never knew [cycling] was so interesting until we started winning.” It’s worth noting that Wiggins had already won three of Europe’s most prestigious stage-races this season before the Tour even started: not one of these victories was reported by the mainstream press.
The hope is now that Bradley Wiggins’ remarkable achievement will mark the start of a new era, not just for British cycling, but for cycling, and cyclists, in Britain. We’ve waited 99 years for our first Tour winner: let’s hope it doesn’t take that long for attitudes to change, and we stop killing 1,000 cyclists a year on our roads.
(In case you’re wondering: MAMIL is short for Middle-Aged Man In Lycra. Originally a derogatory term, we’ve sort-of embraced it now and see it more as a badge of honour than an insult!) N.
There’s just one question left unanswered: Why?
What drives a man to do such deeds? What force
Compels him to endure such agony,
Won’t let him go till he completes the course?
He risks his life descending at high speed
On roads left soft and slick by summer sun;
What is this urge, this all-consuming need
To ride himself into oblivion?
Look at the champion’s bands around his sleeves,
His hollow cheeks, blank stare and lolling tongue:
It’s not about the money: he believes
In all of this – has done since he was young.
Such deep desires are not ours to command.
You have to ask, you’ll never understand.
Inspired by yesterday’s brilliant stage win in the Pyrenees by Thomas Voeckler (Europcar). The Frenchman is usually described as ‘plucky’ by commentators: this epic ride, which saw him lead the race over four massive cols, then negotiate a 10-mile hairpinned descent at 50 mph to win alone in Bagneres-de-Luchon, was nothing less than heroic. He’ll take the polka-dot jersey of King of the Mountains to the finish in Paris on Sunday, and it’ll be thoroughly deserved. Chapeau.
Washed out once more: confined, kept off the bike
By work and weather. Pros will talk about
Le jour sans. Says it all – the ‘day without’ –
And though I’ve no conception what it’s like
To ride for cash and glory, I can share
That gnawing emptiness; curse as the day
Goes down the road without me, with no way
To reel it in; that delicate despair.
And so tomorrow, I’ll get in a break,
Go off the front à bloc and leave the pack
Behind, make my escape and not look back.
A bold move, but the one I have to make.
No maillot jaune – my sole prize is the ride.
Without it, I am not myself inside.
These are the days that run and run
Into each other; merge and blend,
Amorphous, seamless, never done,
When even sleep can bring no end
To thought; wake in sick certainty
The world is lining up to send
Another damned delivery
Of Way Too Much for me to do.
Tight panic rises, choking me
Like smoke from burning tyres. Through
The weary hours I wish that I
Could stop the clock, escape into
A quieter world, beneath a sky
Of speedwell blue, and walk apart
From all the toil and tumult; try
To find a place to rest my heart
And mind. But this is not my fate.
With each new dawn, I’m doomed to start
Again: no time to contemplate,
To breathe clean air or feel the sun;
Though I protest they will not wait,
Just shake their heads, reload the gun.
These are the days that run and run.
A quick terza rima thrown together in the midst of what my good friend Tom Davis calls ‘a long work jag’. I guess I should be glad to be busy, really, when so many are losing their jobs, but it starts to feel like too much of a good thing sometimes. This one goes out to everyone stepping back onto the treadmill this rainy Monday morn. N.
These verdant fields are violent lands, patrolled
By killers armed with talon, fang and claw:
The buzzard circles overhead with cold
All-seeing eye; the fox pads round the shaw
With studied stealth, burnt-toast ears pricked to catch
The smallest sound; pinned dark against the sky,
The kestrel waits; while stoat and weasel watch
The teeming, helpless warren hungrily.
And I am prey, too, tightened for the strike
That breaks me, robs me of my blood and breath.
I’m further down the food chain on the bike,
A lower-order species stalked by death.
My predators are monsters made of steel –
My deadly fellow creatures at the wheel.
Helicopter passing low above the sleeping streets,
Twin rotors chop the darkness into tumbling chunks of noise.
Where do you come from? No one knows. Your swash of sound retreats
Into the night, a mystery ship. Where are you heading, boys?
To barracks down on Salisbury Plain? Or out on exercise?
Are you weighed down with men and gear, or empty? What’s the plan
You’re part of: will your mission whirl you from these friendly skies
To sweat the bullet-spitting badlands of Afghanistan?
Fat men in suits on their hind legs in Westminster will claim
Your presence in those dusty wastes protects us from attack.
But I’m not asking you to go: you’re not there in my name.
So if you’re flying out tonight, pray God you’ll all come back.
Most nights now, at least one big, green, tandem-rotor Chinook helicopter goes whop-whop-whopping low over the town. The Chinook fleet is based at RAF Odiham in Hampshire, so the westbound ones are probably heading home – but from where? And what about the ones flying east? Got me thinking…
The streets here are not paved with gold. Their shine
Is not the gleam of ingots, but the glare
Of sunlight on wet tarmac. And they’re mine
For now; it seems no-one’s inclined to share
A stormy Sunday afternoon with me
Out on the road. No, they’re all snug inside
With post-lunch television, cups of tea
And slumber. It’s left up to me to ride
These plated lanes alone. The bike, hand-made
From steel and aluminium, tipped with chrome,
Cuts through this metalled landscape like a blade;
Quicksilver flashing down the hill for home.
I have no gold or silver to my name.
But there are riches here that I may claim.
Even though I detest sport, I love major sporting occasions, because if everyone’s inside watching the TV, it means the roads are quiet. As you can imagine, during yesterday’s Wimbledon tennis final, featuring the first Brit for 76 years, I had Sussex pretty much to myself. The weather wasn’t great, but the solitude was wonderful. N.
This cockpit held those vasty fields: I saw
Harfleur in flames; men called back to the breach;
The king declare he wished not one more man
On Crispin Crispianus and beseech
God, and his ragged rogues, as longed-for day
Broke over Agincourt; the turncoat mud
Drag down the new-dubbed knights; the French dismay
And English wonder at the fall of blood.
This is not history, law or holy writ
As some would claim. A play, no more. But I’d
Defy one born in Albion to sit
And watch without a heart made big with pride.
Let ages pass and custom fail: we’ll still
Cry God for Harry, England – and for Will.
I had the immense pleasure and privilege of seeing Henry V at Shakespeare’s Globe in London on Friday. I’d booked the tickets months ago and been looking forward to it enormously; this was my fifth trip to the Globe but my first ‘history play’. Needless to say, it was wonderful from start to finish. The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee left me largely unmoved, and the less said about the Olympic Games the better. But this production (with the fantastically talented Jamie Parker in the title role), the theatre itself and, of course, Will Shakespeare’s immortal words, reminded me that there are still some reasons to be proud – or, at least, not entirely ashamed – of this benighted country of ours.
To call them ‘my bikes’ is to sell them short;
Reduce them to possessions, mere machines.
They are a part of me as much as thought
Or breathing; limbs and wings, the magic means
By which there is a faster man. I know
Them all just as I know my face and name;
Each has its tales to tell, its scars to show,
A vivid portrait in a diamond frame.
So if you’d understand me, spend some time
Among them, for their lines and curves reveal
My different facets more than any rhyme:
Carbon confessions, poetry in steel.
They are my other selves, my history.
I cannot let them go. For they own me.