Sold

 

The car drives off; and in my hand a heap
Of well-creased tens and twenties, counted out.
A handshake and the trade was made.
                                                 So light
And yet it always weighed my spirit down;
                                                 So swift
And yet it could not match my shifting moods;
                                                 So strong
And yet it had no hold upon my heart.
                                                 So long,
Then, to a dream – or so I thought it was:
No longing or regret assail my soul;
No second thoughts, no doubts disturb my mind.
And if I grieve
It is not for the thing itself
But at my own indifference.
And quickly as it comes
The small, slight sorrow slips from me
And I am free.

 

I’ve bid au revoir to the Trek Madone. Didn’t ride it much, miss it not at all. A salutary lesson in the transience of possessions. But I’m still pleased to say it’s gone to an excellent new home. N.

Resurrected

Good Friday

Easter last, my body
Betrayed me;
And after all I’d done for it, too.

Overuse, genetics,
Or a fractional misalignment
Of joints and bearings turning over
Hundreds of hours and
Thousands of miles
Hammered nails
Into my bones
And all I’d known and been and loved
Was left to die.

I cried out
In the darkness

And my God
Did not
Abandon me;

So now you see me
Resurrected;
The veil of fear and anguish
Ripped in shreds and whirled away
In my busy slipstream.

And all that had seemed
Dead and buried
Is restored to me
And glorious.

Today
Is a good day.

My heartfelt thanks to everyone who sent good wishes after my last, rather gloomy, post; things are a lot better now. This time last year, I thought my cycling days were done: on Friday, I took the Madone for a spin and it was just like old times. No pain, no taking-it-carefully, just spinning along on a big gear in the sunshine, feeling fast, fluid and strong again. I know there will still be less-good days (I am who I am) but this Easter weekend has reminded me just how much I have to be thankful for – including the wonderful support I get here.

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.

Another cycling poem

I seem to have been distracted by nature and history lately, so here’s a new cycling poem to restore the balance. It was late in the evening before I managed to get out yesterday, but it was a classic ride with all the elements that keep me in love with this ridiculous sport: the Madone purring along the road in the warm summer air; carving through bends at high speed; no pain anywhere; and little groups of riders heading home from a local time-trial to create a suitably target-rich environment. Developing arthritis has changed many things, but it hasn’t altered my desire to be in front. And though I blush to admit it, I had a lot of fun chasing down the other guys. I’m paying for it today with some grumbling from my knee. But for the psychological payoff, it was worth it.

TARGET ACQUIRED

Last night
Was just like
Old times:

Cruising the lanes
Like an electric-blue
U-boat,
Hunting convoys
Of home-going riders,
Stalking them on the flats,
Hiding in hedgerows
And bends in the road;
Reeling them in
Then making the kill
On the next hill –

Spinning by, easy,
With a nod to their rolling shoulders
Wide eyes
Open mouths.

Then slipping away
Over the summit
And vanishing
A bit of their souls
In my back pocket.

Rapid cure

The expression ‘going downhill fast’  is usually meant as a negative, whether it’s applied to health, wealth, career, relationships, poll ratings, even the weather. Once again, the bike is the perfect instrument for turning convention on its head. As a child, I loved freewheeling down a long hill, my eyes streaming, the wind roaring in my ears. Thirty years later, I still do. In fact, it’s even more fun now: the bike’s a lot faster and (sadly) I’m a lot heavier. And now, as then, the speed, noise and whiff of danger fill me with a primitive, savage joy.

Today, I took the Madone for its first ‘proper’ downhill run, just to see what it could do. My chosen test-track was Duddleswell Road, which runs down the southern ramparts of the Ashdown Forest. It’s neither the longest nor steepest hill around here – it’s just over two miles end to end, with a total drop of about four hundred feet – but with no sharp bends, you can just let the bike run without touching the brakes. By the time you reach the bottom, the phrase ‘terminal velocity’ has taken on a new and vivid significance.

Needless to say, the Madone was magnificent: oil-smooth, greyhound-fast, Top Gun on two wheels. Being English, I’m not naturally inclined towards whooping-and-hollering, but I must confess  I did let out a yell or two. A lot of other things are going downhill fast around here at the moment. But all the time I can do it literally, I know I’ll be OK.

GOING DOWNHILL FAST

Swing right, zip up,

Flick a finger

To pick a bigger gear.

Get low, nose to the bars,

And go.

Ten seconds, I’m supersonic,

Madone at Mach One,

Unwinding a silver thread of speed

From the rope of road

And the roaring air. 

This is no blind

Descent into madness

But a wild, joyous dive

That ends in clear space

And a quiet mind.

Tinkering (2)

Today, the Madone ran silently. No chain noise, no clicks, creaks or squeaks; just the hollow thrum of hard tyres, alloy rims, and bladed spokes slicing-and-dicing the cold air. It’s a state of grace, Nirvana, something I’m always striving for. But it’s not easy to attain. The intermittent, untraceable yet irritating mechanical sound-out-of-place  is the bane of every cyclist’s life. Most are so tiny no-one else would even notice it. But just as any parent instantly knows when their child is poorly, a rider instantly detects the smallest change in how the machine sounds and feels.

Of course bikes know this, and their symptoms usually vanish as soon they enter the workshop, in the same way children miraculously rally the moment you step into the doctor’s surgery.  Sometimes, though, a mechanical gremlin can evade months of seek-and-destroy missions; the cost in time, bike-shop bills and frustration can be enormous.

I find any unexplained or unidentified ‘mechanical’ deeply unsettling; it shakes my confidence in the bike and thus everything else, including myself. I become preoccupied and irritable (OK, more preoccupied and irritable); I’m restless, nervous and feel slightly queasy until it’s resolved. An unhealthy obsession?  The dark side  of a perfectionist nature? A hint of some deeper insecurity? Probably all of the above. That’s why today’s silent running was so good. And why I wrote this.

 MECHANICAL

My world revolves

on a pair of hubs,

its axis marked

by a silver chain.

My uneasy mind

is held secure

by bolts

wound down tight,

snug in smooth

machine-milled metal.

The mystery creak

crack

rattle

and

groundless grinding

are betrayals:

traitors

to be hunted down

and permanently

silenced. 

 

It is about the bike…

I bought my first road bike in 1997. I’ve had several since, but the one that really got me serious about cycling was the Trek 5200: Lance’s bike. Mine was an ’03 model, the last of the US Postal Service team replicas, and I loved it. I still do, though it’s scarred and scuffed after six seasons and 25,000 miles. I did all my big rides on it: London to Brighton, London to Canterbury, London to Paris, a 400km overnighter, seven-hour centuries, 10-mile time-trials: my whole cycling history is woven into its myriad carbon fibres. Without it, I would never have seen, heard or felt the sights, sounds and sensations that inspired many of my poems. I owe it a great debt.
It’s not my number-one bike any more, though. All the miles I rode on it, and the other bikes I owned during the same period, came at a cost. Regular cycling has given me the heart and lungs of a man 10 years younger, but it’s also left me with the knees of a sexagenarian. I have osteoarthritis confirmed in my left knee and probable in my right: apparently, it’s rare in people under 45. Not the kind of distinction I’d hoped for.
I wasn’t ready to hang up my wheels, though. So my friendly local bike shop set me up with the latest generation of Trek carbon bikes. Lower-geared, a more upright riding position, a little less extreme. What we’d call a sportive machine, rather than an out-and-out race bike. So all the new stuff I put up here will be brought to you by the Trek Madone 4.7 – the bike that’s helping me move on, without settling for less. Cheers, Pete.

Carbon workhorse