My legs hurt, but in a good way.
On Saturday I turned out nearly 50 miles on the bike, the longest I’ve been able to do for a good few weeks. I did have an epileptic seizure at mile 26, but in until my medication has been increased sufficiently to prevent that, I’m seeing it as a price I’m willing to pay to stay on two wheels. Just for good measure, I pulled in another hour on the turbo trainer last night.
And today, I have two mildly aching legs; a pleasing sensation that reminds me of the unavoidable truth. I am a cyclist.
Anyone who is or knows a cyclist will be familiar with how all consuming a passion it can be. I almost wrote hobby, but that would be far from doing it justice.
I was riding my bike a long time before I became a cyclist. I suppose it started at university, where biking around my college town was just the most convenient way to travel.
“The thing about you Gideon,” said a college friend to me one day, “is that I rarely see you without your bike.”
After university, I moved to London and naturally kept cycling around as a quicker (if not quite safer) way to travel. When I started my copywriting business, charity clients would be amused when I turned up for our first meeting by bike. For later meetings, they would be surprised if I didn’t show up on two wheels.
Cycling to work every day, and across the capital at least three days a week (not to mention to and from pub and grub evenings with friends), I must have been putting in some pretty serious mileage, albeit stop-starting at traffic lights and weaving in-and-out of lines of cars.
But I was still riding my bike. I wasn’t a cyclist.
The day I became a cyclist was the day the Ethical Careers Guide was delivered to my office, the first book I published and the result of months of hard work and not a little stress. I’d stuck a picture of a £1,000 Bianchi bike above my desk, a carbon beauty, with bright green trim and pure white handlebars.
If I can make the book a success, I’d promised myself, I would walk into a bike shop and buy that Bianchi. (That was back in the days when I thought £1,000 was a lot of money for a bike. My own bank statement has since testified to how naïve I was.)
On the day the Guide was delivered, I went to the bike shop and promptly fell in love. Instead of the Bianchi I’d been flirting with, my eye was turned by a gold and red framed Cannondale, all crimson rims, sparkly handlebar tape and a frame you could lift with your little finger. (Think Terry’s All Gold, and you’ll get the colour scheme about right.)
What I hadn’t bargained for was that bikes of that price aren’t sold with pedals. Shops assume if you’re going to blow that much cash on a bicycle, you’ll probably already have your own clip-ins.
Assuming Waterloo bridge wasn’t the best place to learn how to clip-in (or more vitally, clip-out) of my brand new bike, the nerd in the bike shop hunted around in the back room. Eventually I headed home on my shiny, expensive new steed, turning flat white plastic pedals that looked like they’d been taken off a child’s shopping bike.
But at least I got home. I was then faced with a big question.
Given I’m never ever ever going to ride this thing in London, and never ever ever going to chain it to a railing, and probably never ever ever even let it out of my sight again, what, exactly, am I supposed to do with it?
(I eventually snapped it against the back-end of a transit van on the Upper Newtownards Road in East Belfast while I was smashing through it’s rear windscreen, but that’s another story.)
On the following Monday, I called the Lea Valley Cycling Club (LVCC) to get an idea of what bike rides they did. Less than 24 hours later, I was doing my first 10-mile time trial around the Eastway – the one-mile cycle circuit that lies, now dead and buried, underneath the Olympic Stadium close to Stratford, East London.
32 minutes, 47 seconds. Cyclist readers will know just how good (or otherwise) that is for a 10-mile time trial, but whatever. I was hooked. I had become a cyclist.
Over ensuing weeks, then months, then years I chipped away at that 10, adding to it pretty decent results for 25s and 30s, and began to spend most weekends, a number of early mornings and any other chance I had, spinning around – and then racing around – the Essex lanes. Then later, up and down hills in northern Ireland.
Time trials. Audax. Road racing. Sportives. Challenge rides. Come wind or cold, sun or rain (in northern Ireland it was mostly rain) I would be out there.
I love the pure simplicity of cycling. OK, you need the gear, but once you have it you are free. You can ride alone or with others, you can ride fast or slow, long or short. There’s no court to book, no opening times, no team mates to co-ordinate with.
Just you, the bike and the road.
Once out there, you can join other cyclists even if you don’t know them. Or you can pass them and wonder if they’ll jump on your wheel.
I fell for the colours and the camaraderie, the belonging and banter. I learned the secret language (half wheeling, up-the-road, off-the-back, shelled, bonking) and the secret hand-gestures (mind that hole, your turn, pick up the pace, let’s drop this guy, God I’m knackered) that come with group cycling.
From the day I first pulled on club colours for a race (the green and white of LVCC, clashing with the Terry’s All Gold of my machine), I knew I was part of something special.
That something, I was pretty sure, I’d never be able to shake.
I learned to change punctures, index gears and adjust breaks. I learned why cyclists are obsessed with going up hills (because they’re there), and the stupid and scary rush of hitting over 40 mph going down them again. And I learned how to have a bike accident without loosing too much skin or too much dignity.
I began to love watching professional cycling, discovering soon it was far more than just pointing your front wheel at the finish. And I tried to emulate the pros by doing stages of the Tour de France, on flat and in the mountains. Two days after my wedding, I headed for the French Alpes to watch the Tour go over Alpe d’Huez. Who needs a honeymoon, when there is a peloton to chase?
I love the sleek bodies and shaven legs, the sinewy calf muscles and gaunt cheekbones, the perfectly strong curved shoulders and tight backsides. Whoever claims cycling doesn’t have a more than generous helping of homoeroticism is merely kidding themselves.
And I love the way that old guys pushing 80 would still turn out on their old steel frame bikes and pedal along at pace with me, sometimes even kicking my arse in a sprint. But when off the bike, they could hardly walk, so doubled up by so many miles and so many years in the saddle.
“That,” I would tell myself when one of the old timers rode past in their ‘classic’ 30-year-old woollen jerseys, “is how I’m going to be when I’m old.”
Who knows now whether I’ll get the chance. I always wondered whether a bike accident would take me down before I became one of those old timers, at least that would be poetry.
Now it’s looking more likely it’ll be my brain tumour that stops me, or at least the seizures it has brought with it.
But until that day I finally do clip-out, I hope the thing about me will remain: you’ll rarely see me without my bike.