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.

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.

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.

Confessions of a MAMIL

We’re old enough
To know better,

But not yet so near death
We cannot dream

Of swapping our grey, empty days
And little, easy lives

For a cobweb-light,
Diamond-hard machine

A jersey dipped in liquid rainbow
Dossards, bidons,

And the road:

Of half-killing ourselves to hit
The finish – stark, unarguable –

Not some arbitrary deadline
Forgotten soon as reached;

Or accepting kisses and bouquets
On a podium before a cheering crowd

Not the one-line email, casual word
Or whistling silence when all is done.

A dream reality would shred
Like sunburned skin on scorching tarmac –

A fantasy that, knowing what we do
Of life, fate’s machinations and ourselves,

We should have left behind
And yet

When this is what remains
Of all that greatness we once thought was ours

Perhaps we’ll be forgiven
For holding on so tight.

 

MAMIL: Middle Aged Man In Lycra. And yes, I am – and proud of it. N.

A thorny issue

Image0503

 

I hear it up ahead – the age-old threat
That haunts the lanes around this time of year.
For months I’m almost able to forget
That creeping sense of doom, the lurking fear
Until I see the signs left where it passed –
The shattered stems, the blasted branches, white
As clean-picked bones. And here it is at last:
Deep diesel growls as whirling steel teeth bite
And chew the hedge to splinters. Every thorn
The beast spits out across the road a baited
Trap primed to treat tough Kevlar tyres with scorn
And leave me stranded, beaten and deflated.
So while these hungry monsters snarl and stalk
I’ll ride prepared to turn around – or walk.

 

Seems our local farmers are obsessed with trimming their hedges. All autumn they were out there with their big mechanical flails, and now they’re at it again, leaving every lane like a bed of nails, and the dreaded P*ncture Fairy rubbing her hands with glee. It’s something to occupy the winter months, and as an erstwhile agriculturalist myself, I appreciate the husbandry benefits – but as a cyclist, I wish they’d leave the poor hedges alone for a bit!

Image0506

Reading the road

 

Butterbox Lane.
Stuck the knife in
And laid it on thick:

The wheel to follow.
Dishing it,
Not taking it.

Picked up a tailwind
Blew down Sloop Lane
A two-wheeled man ’o’ war.

Long drop on Ketches
Pulling hard as the hangman’s rope
Through woods slowly bleeding to red-gold death

Witches Lane. Flying,
Speeding, spellbound.
Wicked. Cackling.

Burned Down Street
To the old powder mill.
Blasted the climb beyond.

Rolled up Rocks Road.
High Street shuffle.
Last hill home.

Seeing the signs.
Feeling my way.
Reading the road.

 

Free-verse recall and redolent Sussex road names from yesterday’s ride. Our Ketches Lane has an ‘e’ Charles II’s notorious hangman never had, so there’s probably no connection, but I can’t help thinking of Jack Ketch and his eponymous knot every time I ride along there. N.

Sold

 

The car drives off; and in my hand a heap
Of well-creased tens and twenties, counted out.
A handshake and the trade was made.
                                                 So light
And yet it always weighed my spirit down;
                                                 So swift
And yet it could not match my shifting moods;
                                                 So strong
And yet it had no hold upon my heart.
                                                 So long,
Then, to a dream – or so I thought it was:
No longing or regret assail my soul;
No second thoughts, no doubts disturb my mind.
And if I grieve
It is not for the thing itself
But at my own indifference.
And quickly as it comes
The small, slight sorrow slips from me
And I am free.

 

I’ve bid au revoir to the Trek Madone. Didn’t ride it much, miss it not at all. A salutary lesson in the transience of possessions. But I’m still pleased to say it’s gone to an excellent new home. N.