End of an era

Guv 2

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
For good.

 

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.

Goodbye to all that

Guv 1

 

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.

Deep roots

Rain makes autumn cultivations a tricky, stop-start affair on our clay soils, but in the current dry, unseasonably warm spell, they’re progressing at a furious pace. This is one of my favourite times of the farming year: I’ve always been fascinated by the heavy implements that turn ragged stubbles into smooth, drilled seedbeds, and watching their steady passes up and down the fields. On a ride with The Guv’nor yesterday, I found myself pulling off the road to observe a big rig at work; a childhood habit I’ve realised I’m in no hurry to shake off. So, apologies for another tractor poem; normal service will resume shortly.

CULTIVATING HABITS

A deep diesel drone
And the thin, brittle ring
Of steel on stone.
That sound
Half-heard
Has me
Diving for the verge
Like blue lights and sirens:
Searching
For a gap in the hedge
To peer, wary as a poacher,
At a big New Holland
With a till-and-drill machine
Beyond Jethro’s wildest fancy.
Still the lad
Who’d haunt the lanes
Then, bike forgotten,
Wait patiently on gate or stile
And watch the land at work;
An eager boy who shrugs
At the grown man’s shame.

Out and about

One of the things I’ve learned recently (and belatedly) is that you don’t have to go far or fast to have a proper bike ride. I did this little route yesterday with The Guv’nor, snatching the only half-hour of the day when it wasn’t raining; although it never takes me more than a couple of miles from home as the crow flies, it’s full of interest, both from a technical riding point of view, and in the sheer variety of things to see on the way. As backyards go, I guess it’s pretty good.

CLOSE TO HOME

It begins, like them all,
With a hill.
A well-known haul
Up from the town and the river
To the greensand ridge.

A straight mile, more or less,
Attention divided
Between fast-moving traffic
And cauliflower clouds
Heaped over the Downs.

Change down, toil up
A hundred-yard climb
Left rugged and rubbled by frosts
Then a long, cooling plunge
To the heart-in-mouth bridge

And charge for the stiff pull
Through a tunnel of trees;
Sandy banks brock-burrowed
Deep shadows harbouring
The shy deer.

Into the village: sharp left
At the Hare and Hounds
And light out for home
Slashing through esses
Past the Big House, the farm shop and stables

Then stoop like a falcon
Down Bird-in-Eye Hill
And into the final few furlongs
Of brick terraced houses
Parked cars, potholes, patched tarmac, impatience.

Four-and-a-half miles;
About twenty minutes (on a good day).
Not far, not fast,
But a little of everything
I look for in a ride.

Tour 2010: Répos 2

A curious reversal of roles today: while the Tour riders are resting, I’m going racing. Tonight is the last in my local bike shop’s annual series of ‘have-a-go’ time trials, and marks the end of my (exceedingly modest) competitive riding for this year.
It’s a simple 10-mile dash against the clock, fastest time wins. As always, I have no illusions about winning, or even a high finish: my sole aim is to beat my mate Kevin. In three years, the only time he’s finished ahead of me was when I foolishly decided to ride The Guv’nor and the chain fell off after two miles.
OK, so it’s not Le Tour. But I still get a thrill every time I pin on a number and make the subtle change from bike-rider to racing cyclist. Three-time Tour winner Greg LeMond once said of being a pro, ‘It doesn’t get easier, you just go faster’. Even downhill with a following wind, I won’t match the speeds Fabian Cancellara sustains on the flat. But I’ll have some idea of what he goes through, and that’s good enough for me.

MY OWN RACE

There will be no crowds
Straining to see me start,

No cameras to capture
My grimaces and smooth pedal strokes,

No helicopters overhead
Shadowing me through the lonely miles,

No team car in my slipstream
Loaded with spares and moral support,

No fans along the barriers
Shouting, waving, urging me in,

No soigneur at the finish
With drinks, towels and strong arms waiting:

Just the pain, desire, isolation
And fear of falling short

In my own race.
With only myself to beat.

Maillot jaune: Alberto Contador (Astana)
Green jersey: Thor Hushovd (Cervélo Test Team)
KoM: Anthony Charteau (Bbox Bouygues Telecom)

Return of The Guv'nor

In November 2008, I bought myself a Pashley Guv’nor as a birthday present. A replica of a 1930s ‘path racer’, it’s everything my Trek Madone isn’t: made from Reynolds steel, it weighs 35lb, has three-speed Sturmey-Archer hub gears and a Brooks leather saddle, and all the sprightly handling and acceleration of a fully laden furniture van. It’s a complete anachronism, a conscious rejection of all the advances in materials science and technology that make modern road bikes so efficient and exciting to ride.
But I absolutely loved it (sorry; him) and together we clocked up over 3,000 miles – including a couple of time-trials – during the 2009 season. All winter I looked forward to spring, when we could take to the road again. Then came the diagnosis on my knee. A heavy bike with three gears seemed precisely not what the doctor ordered for someone with osteoarthritis, and living in a hilly area. With infinite reluctance, I took The Guv’nor back to the excellent Future Cycles where I’d bought him, and asked them to get whatever they could for him.
That was three months ago. There were a couple of nibbles, but no takers. So on Sunday, I went to the shop and busted him out. The money would have been useful, but I feel altogether richer simply by having him back home.
This morning, we went out for a ride. Not far, not fast, but wonderful nonetheless. And despite all the miles we’d done together before, I felt that today, I finally ‘got’ him. My mistake had been to ride him head down, flat out, for as many miles as possible – in fact, as though he was just another road bike. But he’s not. My mistake has cost me dearly; I’m sure that, even if it didn’t cause it, riding The Guv’nor too hard probably hastened the onset of my OA. As William Blake observed: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom; for we never know what is enough until we know what is more than enough.”
I have no choice but to go easier on him now; my knee simply won’t let me do otherwise. But if I’m careful, I can still ride The Guv’nor after all, which is a truly marvellous realisation. And if I have to put up with a few twinges in the hinges, I’ll consider it a small price to pay. Cue a sonnet.

RIGHT YOU ARE, GUV’NOR

They were hard men, the ones who used to race
The Tour de France on bikes like this. They gaze
From books and photographs: each stern, lean face
Is grimed and etched with suffering. The days
Of crossing mountain passes on one gear
Are gone; spare tubes wrapped round the shoulders, too,
With goggles and wool jerseys. Now I hear
The tales of their two-wheeled derring-do
And know a little of their world. And yet
This bike is also England, from a past
We’ve chucked aside but still can’t quite forget;
When we knew how to build a thing to last.
A grand machine inspired by history:
Reminding me how cycling ought to be.

Tinkering (1)

Like most cyclists, I’m an inveterate tinkerer. I’ve spent countless hours out in the garage making footling adjustments to gears, brakes, seatposts and stem bolts, to the exasperation of my wife, and the glee of my local bike shop, who reap princely sums from my unconquerable cack-handedness. Occasionally, though, I score a small but significant triumph, which is all the sweeter for its rarity and unexpectedness. This little poem concerns the traditional leather saddle fitted to my beloved, but now sadly departed, Pashley Guv’nor.

BROOKS

All it took
Was a one-eighth
(maybe even a one-sixteenth)
Anticlockwise turn
Of the tensioning bolt
And the creaks
That for weeks
Just drove me crazy
Were gone from the old B17.

One tiny twist
Of an Allen key (six-mil)
And all the frustration and hullabaloo
Had quit
The place where I sit.

Would that life
Were more like
The bike.