Two dozen miles
Of knowing self-immolation:
Burning all the matches
Then digging deep
And burying myself
In the road.
A quick way out
That ends my pain
And helps keep me alive.
It’s been a stressful week, so I went out and left it all on the road yesterday. It hurt like hell, but that was exactly what I wanted and needed. Best part was holding off two guys on fancy carbon road bikes, who tried (and failed) to catch me in a five-mile, all-out drag race. Just like old times. And boy, it felt great. N.
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.
We’re all at it
Though we don’t admit it.
No need for needles
No brandishing of TUEs:
Is to cheat –
And every day
I try my luck
To see how much
I can get away with
And so far I’ve never
In his classic collection of essays Need for the Bike (or Besoin de Velo in the original French) my cycling-literary hero Paul Fournel says: ‘Thanks to the bike, there is a faster man. The bike is in itself a form of doping. Which doesn’t simplify things.’ Amid the scandals forever swirling around the sport, it’s good to remind ourselves that the bike is innocent, untainted, honourable and, as Paul goes on to say: ‘the tool of natural speed…the shortest path to the doubling of yourself. Twice as fast, two times less tired, twice as much wind in your face. It’s always right to want more.’ And I do. Time to go riding. N.
TUE = Therapeutic Use Exemption; a doctor’s note authorising the use of a prohibited substance. Controversial, to say the least. PED = performance-enhancing drug.
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.
Set out today
To look for a line;
A thought, a word
Picked up on the road
And carried home
To keep a pledge
Made to an empty page.
Only to find
My mind consumed
By the unconscious calculus
Of carving through an off-camber curve;
Weaving down a pot-holed hill
Like a raindrop on a window-pane;
Ticking off long, level miles
With well-drilled diesel diligence;
Hustling over heart-freeze crossroads
Like a prisoner dodging the searchlights’ glare.
An hour’s artless, guiltless pleasure,
My mission and all sense of time forgotten.
Yet on returning
Found that my work was done.
The weight of the world
Slips off my shoulders
And into my back pocket
As the road tilts
And the universe shrinks;
Wrenching the pedals like bolts long rusted in,
Chain strained into a steel girder,
The newton-metres packed like powder
Into every joint and tube.
Forget the top
My heart and limbs from tearing loose
This yard of chalk-bleached, frost-cracked road
This shard of telescoping time
This roaring in my ears and chest
Are all I know and understand.
A welcome stepping-off
And reconnecting with the world.
For no other reason than I felt like it, today’s 30-mile outing included the steep, narrow road (known as a bostal in these parts) that zig-zags up the north face of the South Downs to Bo Peep. It’s a cul-de-sac, ending in a car park on the South Downs Way: to the south, there are wide views to Brighton and the English Channel; to the north, a notch in the hills frames a slice of the Weald. I haven’t ridden it in several years – and after a mile I remembered why. The whole 1.5-mile climb has a rather underwhelming average grade of about 5% (1 in 20) but this kicks up to a shade over 11% (1 in 9) in the second half. (To illustrate the true paltriness of my achievement, the classic Tour climb of Alpe d’Huez is eight miles long, at an average grade of 8% (1 in 12), and is usually preceded by about 100 miles of racing including several other Alpine summits.) I was reduced to walking pace on the final horrible ramp before the top, but somehow managed to avoid using the dreaded gear-of-last-resort. The descent was like being thrown off a tall building, prompting fervent prayers of gratitude to the cycling gods for giving us the hydraulic disc brake. Good vibes all round; and reassuring to know my aging carcase can still be persuaded to do these things. Albeit not very often. N.
It took five years to get from tentative pitch to published pages, but the miracle has finally happened: my first real book Mindful Thoughts for Cyclists goes on sale this Thursday, 2 March. My sincere thanks to Monica at Leaping Hare Press for keeping my original email on file for so long, and giving me the commission I’d always dreamed of. Now the ride begins. N.
No day of rest
For me and the tribe:
Pinched faces streaked with filth
Like miners coming off shift;
Shining machines crusted with clay
Like implements back from the fields;
Sharp air and long labour emptying lungs,
Flash-flooding muscles with fire.
But ask us
If we’re happy in our work
We’ll look at you blankly
Amazed that the question
Ever even entered your head.
The Sunday-morning ride is a ritual observed by cyclists the world over. With the worst of the winter (we hope) behind us, and the racing/sportive season on the horizon, the roads are starting to get a little busier than they’ve been for a while. Last week, I met a couple of dozen hardy souls, from other soloists to club-run bunches – and wherever I encountered them, they were always heading in the opposite direction to me; I didn’t overtake (or get overtaken by) a single rider in almost two hours. Strange how things work out sometimes. Maybe they knew something I didn’t…whatever you’ve got planned, have a great weekend. N.
Blast-frozen like a cut-price chicken,
Face flayed red and fingers numb;
Feet reduced to frosted nuggets
One mile down. And more to come.
No heater, windows, roof or doors
To shield me from this easterly
Whetted to a razor’s edge
And driving in relentlessly.
But let it do its worst. I’m rolling,
Motor running smooth and fast.
Engineered for harsh conditions;
Forged and tempered. Built to last.
A sudden, fragile truce.
For an hour
And yields the field.
A shell-shocked sun
Blinking in bewilderment
In the spin of silver spokes;
As I ride out to greet and grasp it
With my bare hands.
Later, locked in the deep dark
With Spring’s brief kiss
Still warm upon on my skin.
A parting and a promise
That I will hold her to.