Double sestina


Double metric

And so it was decided: on that day –
Midsummer’s Eve – together they would ride
Two hundred k. A long day on the road,
The double metric; yet the fire inside
Would not be quenched, despite the threat of rain.
The workshop lights burned late: tea cooled, time slowed
As tyres and chains were checked one final time,
The last dust speck removed from frame and wheel,
Until, at length, the moment came to climb
The stairs and sink in dreams. The work and pain
Could wait until tomorrow to be real.

They’d known each other many years. A real
And lasting friendship had been forged one day
When Dave ran through a pothole, smashed a wheel
And crashed, a flailing mass of limbs and pain.
A minute back, Mike saw it all and slowed,
Pulled over, made the calls, then set to ride
Behind the ambulance. Dave healed in time
And when the moment came to take the road
Again, Mike nursed him up each breathless climb
Gave confidence on roads left slick by rain:
They’d ridden countless miles since, side by side.

They knew their plan was on the crazy side:
What looked fine on the map might not, in real
Life, work so well, especially in the rain.
Mike warned: “Two hundred clicks is a long way
If everything goes perfectly; but slowed
By mishaps, weather, it’s a nine-hour day
At least.” But they were still resolved to ride
And serve their time as convicts of the road;
On burning, windswept flat and airless climb,
Legs leaden, stinging eyes fixed on the wheel
In front, tap out the rhythm, block the pain
And narrow down all sense of life and time

To This and Now. Dave woke at six, in time
To get up, dress, eat hugely, crack the side
Gate open with a burglar’s stealth. Mike slowed
And stopped outside. “No sign of rain,”
He grinned. “All set? Grand. Let’s get under way.”
And in that moment, everything was real,
And as they laboured up the day’s first climb
Dave knew that they were truly going to ride
The double metric. No cars on the road
At this ungodly hour; any pain
In joints and muscles quickly gone; the day
Yet fresh and cool; the hum of wheel

And purr of chain the only sounds as, wheel-
To-wheel, they ticked off clicks and time.
With thirty gone, they stopped to stuff their rain-
Proofs into jersey pockets. “That last climb
Was pretty tough,” Dave panted. “And the day
Ain’t over yet,” Mike quipped. “Lot more to ride
Before we stop for lunch.” Both riders slowed.
“Sit on my wheel for now. I know the way:
We’ve got a stretch of fairly easy road
Ahead; it’s rolling – sprinter’s hills – no real
Big climbs.” Dave nodded, then slipped from Mike’s side
Into his slipstream – balm for cyclists’ pain.

At eighty k, another dose of pain:
A hill so steep, each felt that his front wheel
Might rear up any moment. Then the rain
Began, just lightly, as they topped the climb.
“I guess we’re lucky we got all this way
And stayed dry,” Mike remarked. “Ten more to ride
Then lunch.” They rode into the village, slowed
By cars, then found a café as the day
Was turning wet in earnest. “Now the real
Fun starts,” Mike chuckled. Both men took their time
With sandwiches and cake. Meanwhile, outside
The rain lashed down. “Come on, let’s hit the road,”

Dave said. With jackets zipped up high, they rode
Out of the village. In a window pane
Dave saw himself reflected. As he slowed
To look, he thought of all the time
And work that he’d invested, and a real
Pride rose in him. He knew this was the day
He’d finally made it back. “Hey, Mike – let’s ride!”
He yelled, exultant. On the first big climb
He set the pace, bike rocking side to side
Beneath him as he stamped the pedals; rain
Flared up in fantail fountains from each wheel.
He reached the top, looked back, and saw that way

Behind, Mike laboured, trying to find a way
To keep the gear going over. But the road
Is merciless to those who have no wheel
To follow. So Mike struggled through the rain
Alone, until he finally reached Dave’s side.
“I didn’t mean to drop you on that climb,”
Dave said, shame-faced, remembering the day
Mike stopped for him, “I know I should have slowed
And…” “That’s OK,” Mike gasped, “I tried to reel
You in but you were too strong. Dished out pain
Like that when I was your age. Guess that Time
Is catching up with me at last.” The ride

Now took them through deep woods. There, on a ride
Cut through the beeches, nine deer made their way.
Mike pointed to a doe, her fawn beside
Her. “Love a sight like that: just makes my day.”
The rain eased off, then stopped; and from the road
Steam rose and sunlight glittered. “About time,”
Dave beamed. They didn’t stop but simply slowed
To tear off waterproofs, then hit the climb
That turned them homeward: each spin of the wheel
Now brought them closer to the end. The pain
Could be endured; they’d stepped outside of Real
Life, as it’s called, embraced the cold and rain

And come through smiling. But the summer rain
Had one more snare for some unwary wheel.
The runoff spread sharp grit across the road;
In gutters, flint-shards waited for their time.
Just as Mike said, “We’ve made it through the day
Without a flat,” he heard the hiss, cursed, slowed
And made a gentle stop on the roadside.
Both felt the miles in legs and back. To climb
Off, break out tools and spares, get under way
Again was cruel work. “Man, what a pain,”
Mike groaned; “Why then?” and Dave agreed with real

Warmth, nursing throbbing fingers. Now the real
Fight started. Though the skies were clear of rain
They faced an older, stronger rival: Time.
The hundred miles they’d done began to weigh
On them. The minutes passed, and yet the road
Seemed to stretch longer. Each withdrew inside
A private world, no wider than the wheel
In front but infinitely long. Each climb
Became a Calvary. The will to ride
That had sustained them through their epic day
Now floundered in a rising tide of pain;
Tired muscles cramped, legs stiffened, pedals slowed.

The final forty. By now they had slowed
To touring pace, and nothing seemed quite real:
Bright sun now burned skin soaked and chilled by rain
Not long ago; there was no World, just Road,
And when he closed his eyes, each saw the wheel
In front he’d watched for hours. Then the pain
Was over, finally, as, side by side
They pulled up at Dave’s house. Nine hours the time.
They shook hands, smiled, and Mike was on his way;
A quiet end to their grand Midsummer ride,
But all they’d shared, each minute, mile and climb,
Went deeper than mere words could go that day.

For it’s on life’s hard roads we find our real
Friends, and ourselves. On that steep climb, the time
You couldn’t hold the wheel, but they slowed
And helped you find a way – out on the road
Through wind and rain, however far you ride
You’ll make it through the day, endure the pain
When you’ve a true companion by your side.


Well, I finally did it: the double sestina. I won’t weary you with the prosodic intricacies of this frankly idiotic form; suffice to say it has 12 end-words (the ‘standard’ sestina has six) which are used in a set order to create 12 stanzas of 12 lines each – plus a final stanza, called the envoi, that uses them all, again in a set order. Even for me, 150 lines of iambic pentameter feels like rather too much of a good thing, but I could hardly go through the Year of Living Metrically without giving it a go. And now I have, I feel no need, or desire, to do it again!

The ‘double metric’ of the title refers to a ride of 200 kilometres. (A 100-mile ride is a ‘century’, and 100km is a ‘metric century’.) I’ve ridden the double metric on quite a few occasions, and I have to say it’s a lot less exhausting than the double sestina. N.