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.

Glory days

To think that once
We’d gather while the saner world
With its small ways
And dull, diminished dreams
Slept on

And roll out

Knowing we’d be gone
Till those same silent streets
Smouldered gold in a hickory reek
And weary shadows yawned and stretched
Into encroaching dusk;

Returning

Cheeks and bellies hollowed out,
Legs freighted with a double metric tonne
Of England’s lanes and hills;

Unconscious of our glory
Complacent in our strength
And never yet supposing

That our one day’s ride
Would turn in time
Into a weekend’s work;

That knees and hips would find their voice
And raise a chorus of complaint
With backs and shoulders

And all our talk
Would be of what had been.

A different road
Through distant days.

 
 

When I was 15, Bruce Springsteen’s anthem Glory Days was just a great song. It still is, of course; but 30-some years on, I feel as though I’m in it. My friend Mike wasn’t (as far as I know) ‘a big baseball player’ but he was a fine bike-rider, and a great companion on the road. Looking back, I can’t quite believe we put in some of the miles and days we did. Couldn’t do it now, but wouldn’t have missed it for the world. N.

Unfair advantage

We’re all at it
Though we don’t admit it.

No need for needles
Or PEDs
No brandishing of TUEs:

To ride
Is to cheat –

Gravity
Friction

Fear
Death

Age
Time –

And every day
I try my luck

To see how much
I can get away with

And so far I’ve never
Been caught

Yet.

 

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.

A higher state

bo-peep

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
Dismiss desire:
Merely
To move
To breathe
To keep
My heart and limbs from tearing loose
Is enough;
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.

The Big One

Tomorrow sees the start of the Tour de France – the biggest, richest, craziest and most glamorous bike race on Earth. Plenty of British interest this time round: Bradley Wiggins is in with a shout of a high finish, while Mark Cavendish looks almost certain to add to his 2009 tally of six stage wins.
Cycling aside, it’s also a big day for me from a writing perspective. In 2007, I set myself the challenge of writing a poem a day for the duration of the three-week race. The doping scandals that engulfed the event (yet again) that year gave the collection an unexpected narrative arc – and also estranged me from the race for the next two editions.
But I love the Tour, for all its many faults, so I’m giving it yet another second chance (that’s about five now) and repeating my poetry experiment of three years ago. There’s no knowing what’s going to happen between the start in Rotterdam tomorrow and the finish in Paris on 25 July. All I can tell you is, it’s going to be a wild ride. And I can’t wait. In fact, I haven’t.

BACK FOR MORE

So you’re back.
It’s been a while
Since we were intimate.
Once, you distracted and possessed me,
Your moves and moods
Filling my talk and study.
I crossed countries to be with you,
But you repaid my devotion
With scorn and treachery
And so I turned from your cruel beauty
Took back my summers
And a different road.
Yet I never quite let you go:
I listened for your name
Glanced at you in unguarded moments,
Always knew your company
And whereabouts.
You were too much to me
To be nothing to me
And so, against all reason,
I’ll let myself be drawn
Back inside your loopy world
Where all is madness
Torment and pretence,
Still meaningless;
Still making perfect sense.