Over the hill?

There’s really no need
To paint
SLOW
In large mocking letters
On this thirteen-percenter:
I’m not about
To flout the speed limit here;
It’s all I can do
To keep this small gear
Just going over
And my two wheels turning.
With legs and lungs burning
Approaching the top:
Can’t stop. Kicks up again:
More pain
Piled on. Now. Just one
More push and it’s done.
And suddenly
Gravity
Lets go of me
And I’m no longer quietly dying
But flying.

Hero

I don’t hold with heroes.
Too many times
I’ve seen my dreams defiled
And danced into the dust
By careless feet of clay;
Watched conquered summits crumble
Immortal deeds effaced
Glimpsed wicked eyes and sneering mouths
Behind the smiling masks
And spied the crack that runs right through
The highest pedestal.

But if I were to pick
A model for myself
It’s the guy who’s always out there
Grinding down the miles
And the gnawing teeth of Time
Riding fearlessly
(And gearlessly)
Into his eighth decade:
A life’s work scored deep in his limbs
A faithful record of each season
Etched sharply in his face.

Resisting all beguilement,
Easy wins and level roads;
Undaunted by the weather
Wearing wisdom lightly
Committed to the labour
Unknown, unsung and unremarked.
A quiet courage, steel-cored
That bends but never breaks.
And when the rest have quit the field
Looks round and smiles, renews his grip
And onward.

 
 

Inspired by a fellow I met on the road yesterday. He was riding a fixie – a bike with just one gear and no freewheel mechanism, which means you have to keep pedalling the whole time, even going downhill – and I had a job keeping up with him. Apparently, he puts in over 2,500 miles a year on it, plus another 5,000 on his geared machines. And he’s 76. I want to be him one day (but not quite yet!) N.

Back on the road (bike) II

Image0341

Always the way:
First fine day
And old allegiance
Starts to stir.

Like hedgerow flowers
My dormant dreams
Awaken, bright, alluring,
And draw me in.

Shrug off ten years
With my winter clothes
And chase a younger self
In my racing shadow;

Wish for no world beyond
The heat mirage ahead;
All thought drowned
In the sound of the wind
And my own breathing.

Nail a For Sale sign
On my long-mortgaged soul;
The asking price:
One more summer on the road.

Vertical limit

untitled

This is my world: no flat road to be seen;
A jagged country chipped from ancient stone.
Not high, my hills, but fierce, their ramps and walls
Burned deep in heart and lungs, their contours carved
In calves and quads. Then every hard-won inch
Is gleefully abandoned on the drop;
Hard hauling to the roof, a deep-drawn breath
Then hurled down to the basement. And repeat.
Why seek so hard a road? What rare reward
Lies in such fruitless work? In desperate days
Where all seems doomed and doors are slamming shut
To take it on, eyes open, willingly
Endure a needless hardship and survive
Is proof we’re living yet. And in control.

 

 

Went out and rode one of my more egregiously hilly routes today. Not especially long (about 24 miles) and tops out at a mere 623 feet, but packs in a lot of climbing and descending. Nothing like it for clearing out a cluttered mind. N.

Age gap

The road tilts
like a crooked picture

and in a heartbeat

he can’t hold
my wheel;

every breath
like a bedsheet ripping,

pedal stroke
ground out like black pepper,

adding another yard,

another year,

to the infinite
         unbridgeable
                  inevitable

 

gap

 

opening up

between us.

 

 

The first draft of this piece, which I wrote about six years ago, was about going for a ride with my dad. But when I revisited (and revised) it, I suddenly heard a new voice: the me of 10 years ago, contemplating the rider I will become one day (if I haven’t already!) Love it when a poem does that. N.

Pensées

It’s not what you’re on,
What you wear, how fast you go.
Ride, and you will know.

I rode for five hours
And with every pedal stroke
I drew nearer home.

All I need is air
Filling lungs and hard slick tyres,
Blowing in my hair.

On a day like this
Not one of my twenty gears
Seems quite low enough.

There is time to think
Yet when the ride is over
My head is emptied.

 

As a rule, I don’t write haiku, mainly because I know I haven’t properly grasped their depth, intricacy and subtlety. But when I sat down at my keyboard this afternoon, they seemed the right – indeed, the only – things to do. The Muse commands, and I must obey. N.

An ill wind

Should have been
The kind of stage
You can set your watch by:
A breakaway
Left out there
To cook slowly on a high heat
For three hours
Then, slowly as the ox
Spins on his spit,
Reel them in
And set it up
For the fast men’s showdown –
All legs and elbows
To the line.

But then the wind blew
The day to pieces:

Left bodies scattered all over the road
Like crash debris
As men gasped and strained
On the pitiless slopes of the invisible hill;

Arrowheads forming,
Aiming at targets
Moving steadily
Out of range
On a flat parcours
That didn’t produce
A level playing-field.

 

Today’s flat stage out of Tours ended with the inevitable bunch sprint, won by our very own Mark ‘The Manx Missile’ Cavendish – his 25th stage win at the TdF. But the real story of the day was the wind, which split the field and created the kinds of time gaps you’d expect to see after a major mountain stage. The biggest loser was Spain’s Alejandro Valverde (MoviStar) who, like Richie Porte a few days ago, saw second place overall disappear down the road, probably for good. Even maillot jaune Chris Froome lost a minute of his advantage over fancied rival Alberto Contador, with Team Sky looking vulnerable once again. What’s going to happen when they hit Mont Ventoux on Sunday is anyone’s guess right now. ‘The invisible hill’ is roadie slang for a headwind, which has the power to turn a flat road into a slope, a slope into a mountain, and a mountain into hell on earth. N.

Hammered

Out there,
Somewhere,
He waits:

The Man with the Hammer.

The instrument he wields
Is a veritable Mjölnir,
With a great iron head
And an oak shaft thick as your thigh.

And when he swings it,
Brings it down on the back of your neck
In a single, swift, almighty blow,
There’s no way back:

The heart fails, the legs crack,
Your wheels are set in wet cement
And all of a sudden
Not one of your twenty gears
Is quite low enough.

He haunts long hills
And hot afternoons –
Anywhere that gives him elbow room.
Your helmet, strength and reputation
Offer no protection:
Even Merckx was not immune.

No telling where he waits
Or when his stroke will fall:

But when you see
A rider with blank, sightless eyes
Driven back deep in his head
His soul reduced
To a slice of beef carpaccio
And his ears ringing
Like a blacksmith’s anvil

You’ll know he just met him.

 

The Man with the Hammer is known, and dreaded, by all roadies. He’s the menacing incarnation of that sudden, catastrophic weakness that comes out of nowhere when the legs simply say ‘enough’ and stop working. It’s unpredictable, can be rather frightening, and affects riders at all levels. After stage 8 of this year’s Tour, the Tasmanian rider Richie Porte, a team-mate of current maillot jaune Chris Froome, was lying second overall: next day, he met TMWTH and dropped to 33rd, having lost 18 minutes and (probably) all hope of a high finish in Paris. Expect to see plenty more suffer a similar fate when the race reaches the Alps in a few days’ time. N.

Clipless

Cleats snap into pedals:
Two sharp raps of the judge’s gavel

And I’m committed:
Left without a leg to stand on.

Clamped in rigid ankle-irons,
Every movement circumscribed;

Yet in this captive moment
Power is released:

And locked in here,
I’m ready to escape.

 

My attachment to my road bike is more than just emotional. Like most roadies, I use clipless pedals, so-called because they dispense with the traditional (and fiddly) toe-clips and straps that everyone, including the pros, used until the 1980s.

Plastic cleats bolted to the soles of my shoes snap into the pedals, which (allegedly) makes my pedalling stroke more efficient and certainly prevents a foot from slipping off a pedal in the wet. Twist the heel sharply outwards, and the cleat disengages. Fortunately, this usually happens instinctively in a crash (as I’ve discovered) but every roadie has their own blush-inducing version of the ‘forgetting-to-unclip-at-the-traffic-lights-first-time-out’ story (I’m not telling you mine). Being locked to the bike by your feet may sound foolhardy at best, but once you’ve got used to it, you rarely go back.

My cycling-literary hero Paul Fournel writes about this technology in his wonderful book Besoin de Velo (‘Need for the Bike’): “Since toe-clips disappeared, the peloton makes a new sound. I became aware of it one morning in St-Etienne. There were about a thousand of us, and at the pistol shot of the starter, we all clicked into our two thousand clipless pedals. In the Sunday morning silence it was a good sound, and it said, ‘Time to get going’.”

And even though today is a ‘rest day’ at the Tour, pretty much all the riders will be clipping in again and riding for three or four hours. Convicts of the road indeed. N.

Convicts of the road

No one pays us
To be out here –

Journeymen labourers
Hammering the roads
With expensive tools
And ludicrous workwear
We must provide ourselves.

A chain gang,
Prisoners of our own ambition,
Shackled to our senseless dreams

Yet finding our own kind of freedom

In doing the time.

 

In 1924, journalist Albert Londres followed the Tour de France for his newspaper, Le Petit Parisien, and famously described the competitors as forcats de la route – ‘convicts of the road’. These were the days when stages were up to 480km (300 miles) long, and riders’ stimulants of choice included amphetamines, cocaine, chloroform, and even strychnine. Most of us MAMILs revel in the suffering our sport still demands, but we stand in awe of those pioneering pros who wrote the legends we like to feel we’re part of. N.