You Hills have limits –
sides, slopes, summits –
I can measure and master
by muscle and mechanics.
Not so you, Winds:
without edges or apex
surrounding me, pounding me
tirelessly, full in the face.
But I’ll fight you –
together or one at a time –
with rage and resolve and refusal to quit
wherever, whenever you like.
Better you –
with your physics and physical pain
suffering to savour like single malt scotch
that ends when my feet touch the ground –
than the figments and phantoms
that stalk me inside
and I cannot outride, outwit or defeat
with training, or talent, or time.
– the driven, the diehards
the hardy and hungry
the lifers, high-milers
the ones old enough to know better
or too young and eager to care;
the addicts and regulars
gripped by a habit
hard-wired and hard-won
that nothing and no one can break –
glories in going out there in this
when people with brains and ordinary lives
sit inside tutting and shaking their head
glad of the glass between them and the fear.
Who but us
pits muscles and bones
skin, blood and tissue
against fast-moving metal
the rush and the rage
of a world that would rather we didn’t exist.
Who but us
always takes the longest way round
the hardest road home
spinning it out for a couple more miles
a few more minutes stolen and added to life.
The ones who go further
longer and deeper
not really caring if we’re understood
or that none of this makes any sense.
And while there’s a road
miles to be ridden
air to be breathed
who but us
would we want to be?
I don’t hold with heroes.
Too many times
I’ve seen my dreams defiled
And danced into the dust
By careless feet of clay;
Watched conquered summits crumble
Immortal deeds effaced
Glimpsed wicked eyes and sneering mouths
Behind the smiling masks
And spied the crack that runs right through
The highest pedestal.
But if I were to pick
A model for myself
It’s the guy who’s always out there
Grinding down the miles
And the gnawing teeth of Time
Into his eighth decade:
A life’s work scored deep in his limbs
A faithful record of each season
Etched sharply in his face.
Resisting all beguilement,
Easy wins and level roads;
Undaunted by the weather
Wearing wisdom lightly
Committed to the labour
Unknown, unsung and unremarked.
A quiet courage, steel-cored
That bends but never breaks.
And when the rest have quit the field
Looks round and smiles, renews his grip
Inspired by a fellow I met on the road yesterday. He was riding a fixie – a bike with just one gear and no freewheel mechanism, which means you have to keep pedalling the whole time, even going downhill – and I had a job keeping up with him. Apparently, he puts in over 2,500 miles a year on it, plus another 5,000 on his geared machines. And he’s 76. I want to be him one day (but not quite yet!) N.
I’ll hear no more the hollow thrum of cream tyres on the road,
The steady tick of Sturmey-Archer gears,
The creak of saddle leather, or the bright ping of the bell:
I’ll not return triumphant, with heroic tales to tell
Of up-hills conquered, down-dales dared and compliments bestowed;
Farewell to days of grace, and golden years.
The heart, so long ascendant, finally bowed to common sense;
My ruined bones prevailed in the end.
Though now we’re put asunder by infirmity and pain,
If I had my time over, I would do it all again;
And these haggled tens and twenties are but little recompense
For all I’ve lost: what price a faithful friend?
And so I say goodbye to steel; hello to alloy frame,
Flat bars to save my back, low gears my knees.
No more merino jerseys, plus-fours, goggles, cap and tweed:
A by-the-numbers rider on a dime-a-dozen steed.
These roads and lanes we knew so well will never be the same.
A foreign country, filled with memories.
Finally bowed to the inevitable and put the Guv’nor up for sale. What with my dodgy back and osteoarthritis in my knees, I just couldn’t manage it any more. A sad day indeed. N.
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.
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.
The road tilts
like a crooked picture
and in a heartbeat
he can’t hold
like a bedsheet ripping,
ground out like black pepper,
adding another yard,
to the infinite
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.
On such a day
Is not enough; only
Will get you
It takes a deep and eager
To ride roads emptied by cold’s curfew;
Through dank tunnels of dripping trees,
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:
Wrack me as they may.
For all their force
They’ll never break
At the tips
Of the fingers:
To the real road
Under the wheels.
A gradual closing-down
And switching-off of lights
In critical departments;
Nobody at home.
Calling all carbs.
The world spins
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.
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…
The world says
I should be producing
Doesn’t matter what or who
It’s the taking part
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.
The suits will send
The snatch-squad out
To haul me back and shackle me
To that other, dark machine.
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.