I wanted to grow old (part 2)

There’s a certain type of rider that every cyclist in Britain frequently sees as we train around our local roads, or when we’re out for a group ride.

I call them cycling old-timers, but it’s a term of endearment. I’m not making fun.

They churn out miles after miles, spending day after day of their retirement years on the road. They’re going nowhere in particular but forward, and for no better reason than because they want to. And because it’s what they’ve always done.

Their legs are spindly and worn; they can hardly stand straight because their backs have been curved over the handlebars for so many years. They ride bikes with saddle bags on the back. A thick poncho tucked away somewhere inside, next to a rolled up 10-year-old spare tyre and a foil-wrapped cheese and pickle sandwich.

They ride bikes with leather saddles and ornate lugs. They have leather straps on their pedals, and gear shifters on the down tube of their heavy steel machines. We’d call their bikes classics: Schwinns and Raleighs and Falcons. They’d just call them trusty old steeds. The bike they’ve ridden since they started cycling. At our age.

I wanted to become one of those cycling old timers one day.

“When I’m seventy,” I’d say to my wife, “I hope I’ll still be riding my bike in all weathers, pushing out the miles with no particular place to go, and no particular time to do it in.”

There’s pride and romanticism in becoming a cycling old old timer. As if you’ve done so much time in the saddle you’ve earned a place in the very cycling landscape.

Every club has a few, sometimes a handful. They wear club kit from four or five designs ago. They quietly chew on bread pudding and sup on strong hot tea in village halls, after they’ve rolled in from a 130 mile Audax.

We love these guys. We should love them more. Without them, there would be fewer cycling club events. They pore over race entry lists, hold us up on our bikes at the start of time trials, stand with high-visibility jackets and wave red flags to stop cars on the most dangerous corners as we ride past.

They support young riders, and display not a hint of arrogance or jealously as they hand out trophies with silver plaques on them, their own names also etched into the silver from perhaps 20 or 30 years before.

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that still does the rounds of the Essex lanes about a cycling older timer who just wouldn’t give up racing time trails. One misty Sunday morning, probably during a 10 or 25 miler, a guy in his 80s took a wrong turn and pedalled the wrong way up the hard shoulder along the busy A12.

No one quite knows why he did it. Or how he didn’t notice as the cars beeped horns in warning as they sped past him in the opposite direction. When the police eventually picked him up, he was disorientated and mumbling. But he’d done a good few miles, and would have kept going. Looking for that chequered flag.

Who knows now if I’ll fulfil my romantic dream of becoming a cycling older timer. But when my time does come, whether young or old, I hope I end up like that old timer from Essex cycling lore.

A cyclist who keeps pedalling for as long as my body will let me; and who’s mind gives up long before his legs stop going round.

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