– 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?
A sin to stop
Just six miles short of home
And sit on a slab of weathered wood
In the sun and set
A few words down on paper;
But what’s another moment stolen
From a day already plundered;
My conscience is as a clear
As the blackbird’s song
In the cherry tree
And the June sky I’d have missed
If I’d taken the other road.
There’s really no need
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:
Piled on. Now. Just one
More push and it’s done.
Lets go of me
And I’m no longer quietly dying
No torment so sweet
As a brand-new bicycle
Confined to the house
As the rain falls.
The spotless silver chain,
Those glossy black tyres
That smooth, gleaming paint:
I cannot do it –
Something within me rebels
At the very thought
Of knowingly exposing her
To what’s out there:
Bleak roads all awash
Seeded with needle-tipped flints
Slathered with churned filth
Potholes like bomb craters.
Fear not, my lovely.
The moment will come
When, under blue skies,
We finally get acquainted.
The calendar says it’s spring. The daffodils, primroses, snowdrops, celandines, windflowers and assorted amorous birdlife all concur. The weather, however, is refusing to get with the programme. Profoundly bored of the endless wind and rain now; longing for dry roads and warm, sunny days. N.
Tight in three-hinged beauty;
Built for daily duty
On the greasy, gritty
Streets of some great city
But destined for quieter days
And trips to the sea
And as I stare
At it, sitting there,
In those modest dimensions
I see grand intentions,
And wondrous tales waiting to be told
As its possibilities unfold.
Marked 29 February by buying a Brompton. Been considering it for a while but it’s not a cheap bike and I couldn’t quite muster the courage. Now the deed is done and it’s sitting in my workroom, taking up as much (or as little) space as, say, a bedside table. It really is a thing of beauty and wonderfully engineered; every time I look at it, I notice another exquisite detail that just makes me smile. Can’t wait for some more clement weather now. N.
Like I’ve not seen
In many a year;
The riding-through-a-carwash kind
That makes paper bags of clothes
And sieves of shoes.
Blinding, drenching, driving warmth
From face and fingers
Streaming from chin and elbows
Arcing in graceful rooster tails
From sibilant wheels.
Rain that would keep
Anyone slightly sensible
Safe and snug indoors.
Bring it. For in that roaring, stinging madness
There is a will
To strive and conquer
A strength undaunted
An iron grip
A laugh that echoes from the woods
And a peace I all too rarely find
When I look for it inside.
and roaring, pouring air;
Suspended by magic and iron laws
Between dawn and a day from hell.
But no matter
What I conjure
From this concatenation of curving tubes
Precision parts and spinning spokes
It will not suffice:
There’s no machine, no human power
That can outrun the onward rush
Of fate, events and time.
Yet while there is a road
Breath and blood, a rising sun
And I have strength and will enough
I’ll ride and rage, hurt and hope.
Maybe. Just have to see
How legs and heart
Feel when I start. Could be
They’ll baulk, rebel;
And though I beg and scold, just tell me:
You can go to hell
And we’re not coming.
Then again, could be they’re humming
Like a Swiss-made sewing machine
And strong, serene,
I’ll spin through town, into the great
Wide open; hill and mountain will prostrate
Themselves before me. One way to know:
Get on. And go.
Can we call
What we feel
For this melange
Of odd-shaped tubes and angles
And spider’s webs spun in silver steel
An asymmetric passion:
But no shared laughter, tedium or pain;
Enduring the same wild weather
Yet it knows no cold or drop of sweat;
And passing through
Those freezing instants
When time slows and life shrinks
To fractured bits of inches
And scattered shards of seconds
It alone is left untouched
By fear, and all that follows.
This bloodless, wordless better half
Makes us greater than ourselves;
Transports us back to lighter, swifter days,
Revives old glories
Banishes our ghosts
And pries time’s grasping fingers
From our limbs and hearts.
And if to be as one
Wanting nothing more
Content and all complete
Then I have found a form of it
And will go with it
To the end.
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.