Poor bike. Looks like
You just came last
in the Tour of Flanders,
or spent the day
on the road to Roubaix
and, en route, passed
through all the seven circles
of cycling hell.
But mud and crud
Aren’t all that I
Must try washing from you:
A deeper taint
Now dulls your blue paint;
The rumours fly
And history’s rewritten
As more men tell.
Yet still, I will
Keep faith with you,
My partner for so long.
You are no fake:
Their crimes do not make
What we’ve been through
Any the less. We did it
And did it well.
Took the road bike on my own little ‘Tour of redemption’ today. As I’d hoped, the weather was foul and the roads were filthy – real hardcore stuff – and I chose a route with plenty of hills (not difficult round here!) I’d just finished reading Tyler Hamilton’s illuminating, and heartbreaking, book The Secret Race and desperately needed reminding just what it was I first loved about this crazy sport. Thing is, my road bike is the same as the one Hamilton, Armstrong and the US Postal Service team rode at the ’99 and ’00 Tours (which is why I got it) That big sponsor’s logo on the seat-tube, which I used to be so proud of, now seems like an indictment: from what I’ve just read, USPS should probably stand for Users of Suspicious and Prohibited Substances.
Anyway, had a brilliant ride, and came back with the bike looking as though it had just been dragged out of a canal; this poem came to me while I was washing it down. The truth I discovered today was that whatever Armstrong et al may or may not have done, they can’t make my light, fast, beautiful bike heavy, slow or ugly. The bike is bigger and greater than the sport of cycling, and I can still enjoy the one without the other. All is well. N.
(NB The Tour of Flanders is a legendarily demanding one-day ‘classic’ race held in Belgium every spring. The weather is usually appalling. Roubaix is the unlovely industrial town where the almost-as-tough and even-more-famous Paris-Roubaix classic ends. Both races include lots of cobbled roads, and the list of past winners is a roll-call of the sport’s serious hard-men.)
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.
And yet it always weighed my spirit down;
And yet it could not match my shifting moods;
And yet it had no hold upon my heart.
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.
I saw it on a Tour team-car roof-rack
In ’99. Pau. Frame greyed with the grime
Of rock-hard Pyrenean cols like coal-
Dust on a miner’s face. A strip of tape
On the top-tube, which bore, in small neat caps,
A name that blazed across the world that year:
L. ARMSTRONG. His. Right there in front of me.
Took five years’ waiting
but I got mine. That
Changed everything. Just-going-for-a-ride
Became twelve thousand k a year; the road
My second home; the bike a part of me.
And it was war, fought on so many fronts –
Fatigue, foul weather, gravity, the grind
Of spinning out the endless hours alone;
The predatory cars, the sudden crash
As glycogen reserves ran dry. I lost
Some battles; won my share. My days had shape
And structure: strong, continuous and true
As my bright-silver-spinning handbuilt wheels;
The steady scrolling of the countryside,
The hollow roar of tyres, purring gears
The biopic and soundtrack of my life.
And that was just the way it was. For years.
I tried to quit. I swear.
I went two weeks.
But my heart hurt more than my ruined knee
So I came back. A little easier,
Though still five days a week: the full-time job
Of being alive. Not all addiction’s bad.
I still waste hours in wondering, chasing wild
Geese up blind alleys, trying to figure out
All kinds of why and what-the-hell and how.
And all the time the answer’s waiting there
Downstairs. It slouches up against the wall
Like hired muscle: hard, honed; clear intent
In each smooth tube, taut line and swelling curve.
A circumnavigation on the clock
Now, memories bound tight in every strand
Of carbon fibre in its frame. It is
The constant – one of very few I have –
And balance-point of life. So if I ask
About my calling, cause, trajectory
I beg you to remind me – it’s the bike,
Stupid. Then send me back out on the road,
Where I find all this crazy world reduced
To simple, fundamental principles
And I am certain – just the way I was
Behind the finish line on Stage 16 –
Of all I want and need. It’s still the bike.
Another French stage win, no change in the GC: the peloton aren’t making it easy for me, are they? So I make no apology for writing a second Armstrong poem. In 1999, I was in Pau when it hosted the finish of Stage 16 from Lannemezan. As we made our way back to the car after seeing Lance receive his eleventh maillot jaune, we passed the US Postal team car. Lance’s Trek bike was on the roof, so close I could read his name on the top-tube. Then and there, I vowed I’d get one some day. I had to wait five years, but it happened. I still have it: it’s a bit scuffed and tired-looking after more than 25,000 miles, but the magic is still there. Which made Lance’s rather desolate efforts in Pau today all the more poignant. Maybe the champion will finish his Tour career as he began it: as a hero.
Eleven years and
Several lives ago
I saw him
Pull on yellow here
And take the crowd’s applause;
Another day done
For the resurgent star
On the long road to Paris
And the first of seven.
I watched him
Chase grimly into town
Among the hopeless hopefuls
Beg his body
To summon up the old fire
And finish nowhere.
Would I sit now,
As I did then,
Five hours in the sun
To see him?
Or maybe I should simply look
At the carbon bike, just like his,
Now hanging on my garage wall
And remember where I saw it first
And why I had to have it.
Bagnères de Luchon-Pau, 199.5km
Won by Pierrick Fédrigo (Bbox Bouygues Telecom)
Maillot jaune: Alberto Contador (Astana)
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.