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.


They built it for the battlefields of France
In ‘forty-four – a paratrooper’s way
Of gaining rapid ground as the advance
Drove inland from Gold Beach that Longest Day.
Our active service won’t force us to face
The wait inside a dark Dakota till
A green light sends us roaring into space –
And time’s the only thing we’ll ever kill.
But still, we’re comrades in a long campaign
Against our cratered roads, the armoured might
Of cars, wild weather, human weakness, pain;
A just and righteous war we’re proud to fight.
Each day a small but vital victory
In life’s unending struggle to be free.


A little tribute to my faithful 1940s-replica Pashley Paramount: now the snow’s gone at last, we’re back on the road, doing battle with floods…the poor old bike certainly doesn’t look as shiny as it did when I took its picture in Brittany last summer. N.

A good bike


Is there a better thing, I ask myself
In this world than a Good Bike? And by that
I mean the bike that runs exactly as
You want it to, and makes you happy when
You look at it; whose little dings and scuffs
Aren’t flaws but battle honours; and you’d know
Within an instant if the saddle height
Were altered by a fraction of an inch.
A bike like this cannot be bought: it’s made –
Transformed from shopfloor-shiny by the road,
Necessity, communion and time.
So one-and-only, so completely yours
You’d know it at a hundred paces. Build
Another like it, piece by piece, down to
The smallest bolt, it wouldn’t be the same.
Now your idea of what makes a Good Bike
Won’t be the same as mine. You may define
It as the latest, lightest, fastest, made
From moondust, spider-silk and starlight. Or
Could be the budget gas-pipe clunker: fell
Out of the Ugly Tree and hit each branch
On its way down, but never failed you yet.
A Good Bike is the one you’re always glad
You took today. And want to ride again.


My Pashley Paramount, on its holidays in Brittany this summer. A Good Bike if ever there was one. N.

Under pressure

Under pressure

The big John Deere
Is working late;
After so long waiting
For a reborn sun and drying wind
To strip winter from the soil
They’re staying out,
Getting on.
The ten-foot, two-tonne roller
Treads thick, green scents
From the tender grass;
Driving in frost-lifted stones,
Making pancakes out of molehills,
As it wraps broad silver bandages
Round the bruised and pummelled pasture.
But these bent blades will be re-forged,
Stronger, and in greater numbers,
Ready for the tearing mouths
And hooves of summer cattle.
The roller passes on –
No time to lose –
And the soft earth breathes again:
When pressed, we do not break;
Though crushed, we do not die.


I promised my good friend and fellow poet John Stevens another tractor poem; I had something different in mind, but this one came along first, during a ride on the Paramount yesterday as afternoon gave way to evening. Apologies for the pic; a long-range phone-camera effort, I’m afraid.

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.


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 (3)

Picking up a thread from a few weeks back, another poem about the pleasures of tinkering with bikes. Today’s victim was my Pashley Paramount, a wonderful British-built bicycle that faithfully replicates the BSA bikes issued to paratroopers on D-Day. A hefty beast, to be sure, made of steel and equipped with a leather Brooks saddle and Sturmey-Archer hub gears and brakes, but a truly charming machine that always makes me smile. All it required was its chain tightening a tad, but even this simple procedure feels like ‘proper’ mechanical work. I don’t find it easy, but that just makes it all the more satisfying when it goes right, as it did today.


They don’t make them like this any more –
And no wonder:

What with wheel-nuts
To be slacked off with a spanner;
Brake and gear cables to disconnect;
A brute tug-of-war to snug up the chain,
Before all the adjustment, tightening, testing
And starting all over again.

A job for the workshop
At home, in the dry,
With plenty of time,
Rags, the manual
And a mug of hot tea,

Not out on the roadside
With my face full of fumes
Grass and grit waiting
To absorb tiny vital bolts
And the rain running cold down my neck.

But when those five speeds
Shift with buttery smoothness
And the hub settles into its soft
That tells me
As sure a regular pulse informs
A doctor that all’s well within

I take a desk-man’s pleasure
In working with my hands,
In being anointed with the holy oil
Of the one who makes and mends;
In understanding
Not just using
And keeping the bike I ride
On the road.

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.


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.