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.
To see it now
In all its buffed, perfumed
I can almost forget
The weary, oily wreck
It was a week ago.
Tight, smooth, noiseless,
New parts softly shining,
Stripped of winter’s grease and grime
Spring-clean and ready
For long escapades
On sun-shimmering roads.
My one bright hope
That under all the filth and ruin
Not everything is lost.
My day-to-day work bike has been in the shop this week for its annual service, in the expert hands of Harvey and Luke. After a hard winter, it needed the chain, cassette, brake pads and gear cable replaced, so it wasn’t cheap; but it’s essentially a new bike again, with all the sensory pleasures that brings, and worth every last penny. And heading out for the first shake-down ride yesterday, I felt like part of me had been restored, too. N.
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.
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.
Round the corner
From calm, unthinking black
To glassy, deathly white
In one sharp breath
And a shocking spike
Driven through my chest:
With the solid, blessed earth
From the soothing clasp
Of friendly, faithful friction.
Nerves yanked tight,
Every wolf and lion our fathers ever saw
Springing out of time
And suddenly recalled;
The helpless dread of drowning
On dry land.
And then the sagging joy
Of grip and sanity regained.
But more awaits:
I feel it in my bones.
After more than 20 years and many thousands of miles in all conditions, I readily confess that I’m still petrified, almost literally, by icy roads. There’s not much ice about at the moment – indeed, there’s hardly been any all winter – but yesterday I rounded a corner and found myself on a veritable skating-rink, the surface smooth and glassy from verge to verge. I got through OK, and in my whole cycling career, I’ve had only a couple of minor ‘offs’ on black ice, never a serious fall, so I should really get over it. Just can’t, somehow. N.
A molten copper sun
And roads left parched
By a week of quicklime frosts
Sets the old urge surging
Through my sluggish blood and ruined bones,
Shaking lost desires from their long winter sleep.
Tool up, clip in, tuck down
Turn the taps on full
Settle to the work.
And so the wheel turns.
The road bike has been waiting patiently in the shed all winter for the roads to dry up and the sun to put in an appearance. Yesterday, finally, it all came right. And it was good. N.