Hellish

I do not need to stand with them
In la grande place in Compiègne

Like men before a firing squad
Waiting for the flag to drop:

I know what lies in wait for me
Out on that sunny, flower-fringed road;

The broken pavé of my mind
Holds fears and traps and falls enough;

An endless Arenberg of fears
And sickly doubts; each secteur strewn

With loose, uneven thoughts, all poised
To rip my wheels from under me;

My every bone and muscle braced
For the sudden twist that smashes me

Face-first into the cobblestones
Dry-drowning in the drifting dust.

Yet I’ll go on. This is the course
That life has set for me to ride.

And I will conquer, live to tell
My story from the road through hell.

 
 

A poem for the day of Paris-Roubaix, the most infamous of the one-day Spring Classics in northern France and Belgium. Known as l’Enfer du Nord (‘The Hell of the North’) for its fearsome cobblestones, it was immortalised in the compelling 1976 documentary A Sunday In Hell by Danish director Jørgen Leth. Although my ride yesterday was as benign as Paris-Roubaix is brutal, life as it is at the moment ensured I had plenty to think about. N.

Sonnet: Do or die

I love the bike: the ride, the road, the air
Have been my life so long I can’t recall
A time I didn’t do this thing. What bare
And sterile days those must have been; so small
In scope, so tame and desk-soft: indoors skin
That never felt the rain’s lash, glowed like flame
From eight hours out in August. Can’t begin
To picture him, that stranger with my name.
So what should I do now, when every day
Brings ten fresh invitations to that dance
We all must do; how long until I lay
The losing card in this rigged game of chance?
I’ve reached a crossroads; asking whether I
Still need it all enough to want to die.

Petrarchan sonnet: Giant of Provence

From fragrant fields of lavender, a vast
Forbidding blade of blasted, sun-bleached stone
Rears like a thunderhead. It stands alone,
Inviting bold adventurers to cast
Their caution to its endless winds. Its past
Is littered with their shattered hopes; it’s shown
No mercy, done no favours, idly blown
Careers, looked on as legends breathed their last.
And come July, when hard-limbed men again
Face agonies of hunger, heat and thirst
Upon its slopes in search of victory,
How many will remember through the pain:
For all their training and technology,
It was a poet reached the summit first.

 
 

I consider myself still in training with the Petrarchan sonnet. For this workout, I picked the formidable climb of Mont Ventoux, the 6,000-foot mountain in southern France made famous by the Tour, and notorious by the amphetamine-stoked demise of British favourite Tom Simpson in 1967. But the ‘Giant of Provence’ seemed a doubly appropriate subject for this form: the first recorded ascent was made in 1336 by none other than Petrarch himself. He, of course, did it on foot: I’ve never attempted the climb, but I suspect I’d end up walking, too. 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.

Out there

On such a day
Want
Is not enough; only
Need
Will get you
Out there
In this.

It takes a deep and eager
Hunger
To ride roads emptied by cold’s curfew;
Roll alone
Through dank tunnels of dripping trees,
Sumbit, mute,
To the steaming lorries’ lash
Of fume and filth,
Ignore the creeping chill of water
Closing in on skin,
Jealous of its warmth.

Give me this shot
Of wild weathers:
Let them
Wrack me as they may.
For all their force
They’ll never break
My habit.

Between seasons

Rain.

(Again.)

Now we’re getting in
To the days when getting out
Gets harder:

When the tan-lines blur

Old hacks get the daily nod

And kit we last wore
Before the Tour
Of Italy

Goes on

(And on

And on.)

As we descend
        into the dark and frigid
            lower circles
                of l’enfer
                    d’hiver

The shorts-and-short-sleeves days
That were all-but guaranteed
Can now be counted on
The fingers of one gloved hand:

Feet marinated in rain and road-filth

Fingers cramped to cracked red claws

And a nose like a leaky tap

Are now the norm

And warm

Is just a word

We once heard

But never seem to feel.

The knock

The end
Begins
At the tips
Of the fingers:

A numbness
That creeps,
Grows,
Spreads.

The mind
Follows routes
Unrelated
To the real road
Unrolling
Unheeding
Under the wheels.

A gradual closing-down
And switching-off of lights
In critical departments;

Knock, knock.
Who’s there?
Nobody at home.

All-points bulletin:
Calling all carbs.

The world spins
In soft-focus;
Trees and houses fade
Like figures in a blizzard
And someone’s stuffing wool
Into my ears.

Take a little sidelong
Look at death;
Decide
It’s not for me.

So stop.
Refuel.
Remount.
Resume.

Piece of cake.

 

A hot, fast ride today left me on the verge of the dreaded hunger knock, or bonk – the cyclist’s term for hypoglycaemia, when blood sugar levels suddenly crash and when the bridge starts signalling frantically to the engine-room for more power, there’s no response. Luckily I reached home, and savlation in the form of a homemade flapjack, before things got ugly, but it was a close thing. Certainly close enough to remind me of what it’s like when the bonk strikes in earnest…

Road (tax) rage

There’s no such thing as road tax
And there hasn’t been for years.
A simple fact, but one you’re unaware of, it appears.
Back in the 30s Churchill took it off the statute book;
It isn’t in the Highway Code, no matter where you look.
Nor is there any law that states the gutter is my place
(In fact it says the opposite: you have to give me space).
And when I’m doing 20 in a 30 zone, that‘s fine;
A limit’s not a target – but you say I’m out of line.
So what if I were driving at the same speed? In that case,
I guess you’d follow merrily, a smile upon your face?
There’s no such thing as road tax –
And I’ll tell you, if there was
I wouldn’t pay it anyway: I’d be exempt, because
My bike is non-polluting; no emissions means no fee.
The same applies to horses and pedestrians. We’re free.
There’s no such thing as road tax
And that paper disc you bought
Doesn’t pay for highway upkeep (is that really what you thought?)
The roads come out of general tax, like hospitals and schools,
And those who’ve told you otherwise are liars (or plain fools).
There’s no such thing as road tax
And your beef should really be
With all those crooks in Westminster: it’s them you want, not me.
Save all your ire for Government, whose greedy, grasping hand
Makes travel so expensive in this green and pleasant land.
There’s no such thing as road tax:
So let’s put aside all doubt
And turn our minds to weighty matters we should talk about
While there’s such a thing as SMIDSY,
Short for (every rider knows)
‘Sorry Mate, I Didn’t See You’, as the old expression goes.
And there are such things as widows,
Orphans, families that grieve
For fallen loved ones, while a selfish few like you believe
That since we haven’t paid our dues to Swansea we’ve no right
To use ‘your’ roads (an argument you still love to recite).
No, there’s no such thing as road tax
So, repeat this every time
You see a rider on the road, and think that it’s a crime.
And in return, I won’t bitch when I see you sitting there
Without a seatbelt, on the phone, or messing with your hair.
For ride or drive, we’re only human, and we get things wrong.
Until we’re perfect – all of us – let’s try to get along.

 

While out riding a couple of evenings ago, I found myself embroiled yet again in a stupid argument (OK, a serious argument with a stupid person) about my right to be on the road, given that I don’t pay Vehicle Excise Duty (still widely, and completely erroneously, referred to as ‘road tax’) on my bicycle. This is such an oft-debated, wearisome topic I won’t bore you with it here (especially since, to my non-UK readers, it won’t mean a great deal!) – so here are the headlines. No, I don’t pay it on my bike, because I’m not required to, but I DO pay it on my car, because I am. Furthermore, I DO pay for the roads I ride on because I pay my taxes. As a cyclist or pedestrian, I have a RIGHT to use the road; as a motorist, I merely have PERMISSION, in the form of a driving licence. Rule 101 (aptly enough) in the Highway Code states that ‘When overtaking motorcyclists, pedal cyclists or horse riders, give them as least as much room as you would give a car.’ The lady with whom I ended up having this tedious discussion appeared irked that she’d been unable to overtake me on a narrow road in town (which would have involved either running me off the road, or a head-on collision with an oncoming car) and that I was doing 20 mph in a 30 zone. She brought this to my attention while we waiting at the same set of traffic lights 50 yards further on (after she’d passed me, then immediately had to slam on the brakes as the lights turned red).

Like most introverts, I’m not very good at thinking on my feet in these situations (particularly when said feet are on their toes balancing a bicycle). It’s taken me a few days to frame my response; my apologies if it comes across as a bit of a rant, but I endure so many near-misses and cars passing me six inches from my right elbow, getting verbal abuse as well was the final straw.

This was just one tiny skirmish in what seems to be a nationwide war between motorists and cyclists (most of whom also drive cars, incidentally). This website will give you a flavour of the antagonism, vitriol and outright hatred we’ve allowed to flourish on our roads. Stay safe out there. 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.

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.