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.
Suddenly, a new power rises,
Liberating, tapping into
Unseen fundamental forces,
Bringing aid and hope of rescue.
Unexpected, out of nowhere,
One small spark. A new connection
Made, potential to kinetic,
Answers all my burning questions.
Surging, urging onwards, upwards
Higher, faster, far beyond my
Obstacles and limitations,
All the pain discharged, forgotten.
I will seize and ride the lightning
Take control then be conducted;
Follow where this current draws me
Remade and regenerated.
Behold the Volt Connect – the solution to my wrecked knees, made possible by a wonderful early birthday gift from my folks. It’s an e-bike, with an electric motor that gives me a choice of three levels of boost up the hills, but cuts out at 15.5mph (which in practice means on the flat and downhill). On the ‘High’ boost setting, climbing is virtually effortless, and takes all the strain off my joints. On ‘Eco’ mode, the battery is good for 70 miles or so, which is plenty for me! It’s very early days, but I’m a complete convert, and I think it’s going to be genuinely life-altering. Will keep you posted. N.
(BTW, the metre is trochaic tetrameter, best (or at least most famously) employed by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in ‘The Song of Hiawatha’. I like it for its sense of relentless, forward energy, which seemed to go well with the subject!)
And so we reach
The end of our long road;
We saw the moment coming
Like rain over the sea
And for a while
We dodged and weaved
Found secret shortcuts
And pretended we could win.
But there were things
We never could outrun
Thought swift and strong
This race was never ours:
I will give best
To ruined bones and time
And let you go
I’ve had to let The Guv’nor go. My osteoarthritis has been giving me hell this summer, and riding this bike, with its hefty weight and only three gears, was doing me more harm than good. Given the state of my knees, it was probably a mistake to buy him, to be honest (perhaps I should have titled this End of an Error?) but we had some fantastic times together, and I have no regrets. I’m pleased to say His Nibs has found a truly excellent new home, but it’s still a wrench. Part of me has gone with him. N.
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.
To think that once
We’d gather while the saner world
With its small ways
And dull, diminished dreams
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;
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.
Two dozen miles
Of knowing self-immolation:
Burning all the matches
Then digging deep
And burying myself
In the road.
A quick way out
That ends my pain
And helps keep me alive.
It’s been a stressful week, so I went out and left it all on the road yesterday. It hurt like hell, but that was exactly what I wanted and needed. Best part was holding off two guys on fancy carbon road bikes, who tried (and failed) to catch me in a five-mile, all-out drag race. Just like old times. And boy, it felt great. N.
We’re all at it
Though we don’t admit it.
No need for needles
No brandishing of TUEs:
Is to cheat –
And every day
I try my luck
To see how much
I can get away with
And so far I’ve never
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.
What I want
Is a faster bike:
Not just quick enough
To torch all records
Round a routine loop;
An long-impregnable PB
Like a letter under a door;
Gun down that distant stranger
And pass them in a blast
Of thrumming, taunting air.
No. I need one
Built to outrun
A world I no longer understand:
With wheels that spin up
Then roll like silk forever;
Geared to answer
Every surge and counter
From any in pursuit
Light as moon-dust, river-stone smooth,
So close to nothing air and gravity
Would be forced to let it go.
A machine my roaring, laboured mind
Can assemble and bring out at will
Climb on, clip in
Then let it rip
And know without a backward glance
None has the power to follow.
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.