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.

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




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
Is not enough; only
Will get you
Out there
In this.

It takes a deep and eager
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.

The knock

The end
At the tips
Of the fingers:

A numbness
That creeps,

The mind
Follows routes
To the real road
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;
It’s not for me.

So stop.

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…

MAMIL on the loose

The world says
I should be producing
For Someone:
Doesn’t matter what or who
Or why;
It’s the taking part
That counts.

And so
Each weekday-morning pedal-stroke
Is a small rebellion;
A quiet refusal
To be contained.
This sun-stretched hour has not been bought
So I need not account
For how I spend it;
I shout no slogan, raise no banner
But register my protest
With long, lonely marches
In the heat-mirage of burning tyres.

In time
The suits will send
The snatch-squad out
To haul me back and shackle me
To that other, dark machine.

For now,
I’m out of sight and reach,
Fallen off the roaring edge
Of a world they never see.

And if they want to take me
They’ll have to catch me first.


Just back from a lunchtime ride: 80 minutes on the road bike, in sunshine hot enough to melt the tarmac. Got to work this afternoon, but now I can face it with equanimity, having done the thing I want to do, ahead of the thing I have to do. Mission accomplished.

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.


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.


Out there,
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.


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.