Glory days

To think that once
We’d gather while the saner world
With its small ways
And dull, diminished dreams
Slept on

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;

Returning

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.

Unfair advantage

We’re all at it
Though we don’t admit it.

No need for needles
Or PEDs
No brandishing of TUEs:

To ride
Is to cheat –

Gravity
Friction

Fear
Death

Age
Time –

And every day
I try my luck

To see how much
I can get away with

And so far I’ve never
Been caught

Yet.

 

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.

Back on the road (bike) II

Image0341

Always the way:
First fine day
And old allegiance
Starts to stir.

Like hedgerow flowers
My dormant dreams
Awaken, bright, alluring,
And draw me in.

Shrug off ten years
With my winter clothes
And chase a younger self
In my racing shadow;

Wish for no world beyond
The heat mirage ahead;
All thought drowned
In the sound of the wind
And my own breathing.

Nail a For Sale sign
On my long-mortgaged soul;
The asking price:
One more summer on the road.

Frozen with fear

That moment.
Round the corner
And it
all
just
goes.

From calm, unthinking black
To glassy, deathly white
In one sharp breath
And a shocking spike
Driven through my chest:

All connection
With the solid, blessed earth
Snatched away;

Cut loose
From the soothing clasp
Of friendly, faithful friction.

Nerves yanked tight,
Muscles seizing:
Every wolf and lion our fathers ever saw
Springing out of time
And suddenly recalled;

The helpless dread of drowning
On dry land.

Aeon seconds
And then the sagging joy
Of grip and sanity regained.

But more awaits:

I feel it in my bones.

 

After more than 20 years and many thousands of miles in all conditions, I readily confess that I’m still petrified, almost literally, by icy roads. There’s not much ice about at the moment – indeed, there’s hardly been any all winter – but yesterday I rounded a corner and found myself on a veritable skating-rink, the surface smooth and glassy from verge to verge. I got through OK, and in my whole cycling career, I’ve had only a couple of minor ‘offs’ on black ice, never a serious fall, so I should really get over it. Just can’t, somehow. N.

Back on the road(bike)

Tinkering (2)

A molten copper sun
And roads left parched
By a week of quicklime frosts

Sets the old urge surging
Through my sluggish blood and ruined bones,
Shaking lost desires from their long winter sleep.

Tool up, clip in, tuck down
Turn the taps on full
Settle to the work.

And so the wheel turns.

 

The road bike has been waiting patiently in the shed all winter for the roads to dry up and the sun to put in an appearance. Yesterday, finally, it all came right. And it was good. N.

Hammered

Out there,
Somewhere,
He waits:

The Man with the Hammer.

The instrument he wields
Is a veritable Mjölnir,
With a great iron head
And an oak shaft thick as your thigh.

And when he swings it,
Brings it down on the back of your neck
In a single, swift, almighty blow,
There’s no way back:

The heart fails, the legs crack,
Your wheels are set in wet cement
And all of a sudden
Not one of your twenty gears
Is quite low enough.

He haunts long hills
And hot afternoons –
Anywhere that gives him elbow room.
Your helmet, strength and reputation
Offer no protection:
Even Merckx was not immune.

No telling where he waits
Or when his stroke will fall:

But when you see
A rider with blank, sightless eyes
Driven back deep in his head
His soul reduced
To a slice of beef carpaccio
And his ears ringing
Like a blacksmith’s anvil

You’ll know he just met him.

 

The Man with the Hammer is known, and dreaded, by all roadies. He’s the menacing incarnation of that sudden, catastrophic weakness that comes out of nowhere when the legs simply say ‘enough’ and stop working. It’s unpredictable, can be rather frightening, and affects riders at all levels. After stage 8 of this year’s Tour, the Tasmanian rider Richie Porte, a team-mate of current maillot jaune Chris Froome, was lying second overall: next day, he met TMWTH and dropped to 33rd, having lost 18 minutes and (probably) all hope of a high finish in Paris. Expect to see plenty more suffer a similar fate when the race reaches the Alps in a few days’ time. N.

Convicts of the road

No one pays us
To be out here –

Journeymen labourers
Hammering the roads
With expensive tools
And ludicrous workwear
We must provide ourselves.

A chain gang,
Prisoners of our own ambition,
Shackled to our senseless dreams

Yet finding our own kind of freedom

In doing the time.

 

In 1924, journalist Albert Londres followed the Tour de France for his newspaper, Le Petit Parisien, and famously described the competitors as forcats de la route – ‘convicts of the road’. These were the days when stages were up to 480km (300 miles) long, and riders’ stimulants of choice included amphetamines, cocaine, chloroform, and even strychnine. Most of us MAMILs revel in the suffering our sport still demands, but we stand in awe of those pioneering pros who wrote the legends we like to feel we’re part of. N.