Call of the wild enough.
Back in July, the weekend of the Wimbledon final in fact, I took a line to the Forest. It was white hot and glorious. Down there, you take roads that nobody ever seems to use, houses are abandoned and the roots of trees cord across the broken asphalt. It’s mighty nice.
A lot of bicycle companies eschew the 1990s marketing idea of racing and lightness in favour of a sense of wildness. Of course, the racing and the lightness is still there, but I seem to find that the appeal is toward my grizzly nature, as opposed to my achievement of ten-stone and 0% BMI. It’s swapping out one idealism for another. Wildness, in the UK, and certainly only twenty or thirty miles from Croydon, is a relative concept. It’s not the Appalachians. It’s not Siberia. It consists of fairly-populated farmland, commuter villages and train tracks, well-kept main roads and people, like me, attempting to commune with the bits of it that aren’t listed above - the wild bits.
In the UK, there are, of course, great wildnernesses. One has only to look to the mountains of Wales, the Highlands, the grassy moors of Lancashire, Yorkshire and the Peak District, the Forests New and Dean to find something vast and sparse, something feral. Something feral near a road. That’s what I’m in the market for. And by God, don’t the bike companies know it.
I like to think of myself as being someone who can’t be marketed to. Well, shit, doesn’t everyone? I was on eBay for about an hour last night, thinking that I’m bucking the big market in favour of small market economics. I check my emails, Rapha having dropped one of those fantastic-looking pages into my face - black, white and pink text, a video still of some grizzle-faced trapper dressed in a grand’s worth of technical fabric (most technical fabrics claiming something like 2 years’ rigorous development, as opposed to wool’s several thousand years’ rigorous development) and sat upon several grands’ worth of bike, souping it down some forgotten Kazakh trail in shit weather, gritting the veneers with the modelesque strategic chip in a single mantooth.
I’m buying. OK, I’m not buying exactly (their ninja hood is £200 of caboodle which promises to do more than the thermal I saved up £32 for in 1997 which still keeps me warmer than the deadly embrace of a polar bear) but I’m in with the myth. It’s easy to sling mud at Rapha clothing (and I suspect be paid for it during one of their photoshoots) but, I’m guessing, it’s worth it. But it all depends on your sense of value. Cycling is meant to be democratic, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be lulled into spending two or three hundred quid on a jacket. Buy cheap, buy twice? One crash in the ‘wild’ and you’ve seen two hundred quid go down the pan. What I’m buying is the loneliness myth, the outback, the Silesian Mountain dude, the hair, the beard, the coffee-back-in-civilisation (should a future archaeologist ever discover my frozen corpse in the wilds of South London, then they’ll be able to date my precise doom by the Costa Coffee card I sometimes pack in my rolled-up-sock and ziplock bag).
It is November. I went out yesterday at midday, and it was dark and fogdrizzle and utterly wild-seeming. Except I’m editing out all the things that are normal-Sunday for everyone else, like kids doing homework in the cafe (seriously?) and people coming home from Ikea. I am a mountain-faced granite dude, I am Davy Crockett by-way-of-a-Nike-ad, I am humanity’s last hope of wildness personified. I am connected to the roots and shrubs, and I am hairy. Except I did shave off three months of beard this week, so my face was cold as hell. I’ll get one of them Rapha balaclavas perhaps.
Town & Country
The joys of late have consisted of the usual. My life is dominated by a timetable of such routine that only two or three events during the week allow me to differentiate between the days. I am missing out on midweek rides, usually a staple of the colder months; this is partly because of the weather, but more often because of work. Work is keeping me firmly rooted at the desk, with only a swim at noon to rouse me into any kind of outdoor action.
I was wondering about my lungs. Like, are they good lungs? Can they channel as much oxygen as a pair of good lungs possibly can? I’ve been trying to breathe a little differently in the pool, and I tried this at the weekend when I was gurning up Botley Hill on my way back in from a big ride. I suppose, if you can control your breathing, then you could be working harder, to such an extent that you can barely breathe anymore. Is that such a good thing? I am not sure, the summer ride in Provence still reverberates.
Town gives respite. I’d come to the natural end of some drawing last Thursday, and had little to do. Since our landlady was poking about in the flat doing errands, I felt a desire to be elsewhere; I decided to go to the Design Museum, a little culture would be of great respite. Off I went. Via the swimming pool, obviously.
In London, I love to cycle. I fly here and there, and last week, as I beelined my way from the southern ramparts of Balham through to Shad Thames, I felt that singular joy of motion. The fixed wheel is nothing but a glorious rhythm-maker, a leg-metronome. I went like hell, or at least, felt that way. I had a boiled-egg-and-nuts packed lunch at the Design Museum along with strong coffee, and then went with even more heady speed down the Embankment into town, and back out at the early sunset. Beautiful, in its own ethereal way; cycling outside the rush hour in Central London is still twitchy business, but is as perfect as it gets for Big Urban Riding. I had this peculiar sensation on the way home; I was going rather fast and felt as if I were freewheeling. I actually did check my chainset to see if I was on the right bike, such a fluidity of motion did it seem to achieve. I was, indeed, on the fixed wheel, but it was as connected to my body as ever a bike can be. I was warm, dry, felt the cool air on my beardy jaw and all things were in alignment.
The Longness of the Sun
Britain’s about to get spanked by a storm. As with all natives of these islands, I frown at anything above that resembles a dark and dangerous-looking cloud. Winds are howling, and the chimney rattles.
The clocks went back last night, meaning that waking up early this morning was sublimely easy. I was a bit groggy when I looked out of the window, seeing that it was crisp and blue, but also blowing a tremendous gale. I mumbled “it’s winder as fucky”, to which HC laughed greatly. She says it sums the weather up exactly: too warm to be cold, too cold to wear a jersey, too windy to be at peace and too clear to think about rain. It’s what winter would be if it was a warm season.
At 7, I was wandering around casually, making coffee and listening to HC tell me stories about yesterday. I got caught up in a cycle of writing emails, and didn’t set out for a ride until 10.30. It’d been raining all night, and reminded me of one of my least favourite things about autumn/winter riding - the wet ground. If it’s a bit slushy around our flats then it’ll be tenfold when you get to the Downs. And it was thus.
The sun was beaming. I’ve been off the bike recreationally of late - several Sunday commitments have hampered big weekend mileage, and midweek is sadly filled with work at the moment. It has been a few weeks of commuter-miles and nothing much else. Add to that I’ve had some kind of virus, and as expected, I couldn’t really pedal for shit when the time came. I put in a 40-mile ride on Thursday and another 45 today. I guess you could add that to the 30-odd miles I’ve done commuting since Thursday and come up with a respectable mileage. I won’t lie to you, though, it felt tough: coming over Tulse Hill on Thursday night from the pub might as well have been Ventoux.
So, that storm. It’s howling outdoors, now. I’ve cleaned the bike of its autumnal filth and am thinking of doing some stretching. It’s the beginning of the dark months and the long suns, and I really want to be springy when it comes to the cold December mornings; that means I need to try and dig deep, find more miles and more speed in the cold legs. Today, I stopped for coffee at 56 minutes, perhaps the earliest coffee stop I’ve made in a while. The queue was enormous, so I treated it as a psychosomatic espresso and instead banged up Ide Hill and around the Four Elms dirt-tracks, returning some forty-five minutes later to the same cafe with a significantly smaller queue. Which made me realise that I am fit enough to ride 35 miles without a real stop, and that it was dumb of me to think I wasn’t. The coffee was good, I smacked up Westerham’s 12% clamber with decent traction and steamrollered back to Norwood. I’m going to be alright this winter, I just need to find some rhythm.
Brightness and contrast
There are several reasons why I don’t usually post pictures:
1. When I used to take a camera out with me, it became so steamed up with condensation that it would be useless.
2. I draw pictures for a living and I like to use them, or bits of them, or draw new ones (this was actually the reason I started blogging; I’d intended to draw a new picture for every ride.. that didn’t happen, though).
3. I haven’t got a smartphone.
4. Every cycle blog in existence posts lots of pictures. I blame/commend Rapha for this.
The more astute of my dozen or so readers will see a photo at the top of the page. If I was indeed concerned about concealing my identity, this would be a perfect image to do so. It is the only piece of proof on this blog that I actually do any riding at all, but it wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny in a court of law. But it is me. I am on the road from the A22 that will soon fold to the right and climb the 150 or so metres to Woldingham, and then another 25 or so to the top of Botley Hill - frequently the highest point in my ride. For obvious reasons, this is a lovely road, and this is perhaps one of my favourite parts of it; the A22 is behind us, the rolling countryside is ahead.
The even more astute amongst you will have ascertained that it is not a selfie; good spot. It was taken by a student at LCC called Daniel, who sent me a text on Sunday morning to express his interest in cutting some miles. I said come, bring a camera and some bananas. And he did. And he rode splendidly. And he took some ace pictures. Now, I usually have no interest in photographing the riding splendour, but as it turns out, a cycling website is currently offering a Hoy road bike as a prize in a competition and all one has to do to enter is post their best Autumnal picture on their forum. Easy as pie. I am no fan of competitions, and the Hoy bike is alright enough, as it goes, but I would be tempted to flog it and halve the money with Daniel. Or maybe get it, ride it to Chris Hoy’s house, and ghostie it into his fence. I reckon I could outrun him; he’s not cut out for running.
But this photo is a development, no pun intended. It looks right nice and it kinda sums up my mood, and the kind of magic that Autumnal mornings have in the air. SO I like it, so it can stay. And anyway, number 3 is also wrong - I NOW own a smartphone. I bought a Blackberry last week, which I cannot figure out. All I know is this - as soon as the company went bust and they became an endangered species, I went and got one. I’m all about the retro.
Joe sent HC and I a text on Saturday night, at some obscene hour. He said he’d been racing across some range of munroes and was feeling excited at the Earl Grey tea we’d brought back from France for him. “My sister went to France and all I got was this awesome tea”, is what he should’ve said. It seems that the weather in Scotland was crystal clear, the tops were blue and bright, the ground underfoot springy and clean. It is the best time of year to be outdoors by far, he told us.
Autumn is my own favourite time of year. I do love the warmth of the high summer, the sensation of waking to the knowledge, before your eyes have even opened, that the skies outside are clear, bright cyan, and that the heat is coming quickly. September has been cool so far, a reminder of the winter to come. But it is not quite autumn; the leaves seem healthy and cling to trees still. HC and I have been picking blackberries for a few weeks, although the rain has ended that seemingly infinite spell of baked crumbles. There is warmth in the air again, tinged with a chill. When I rode out yesterday, the damp roads beneath Pains Hill allowed the barest certainty of grip. Last week I’d gone for an afternoon ride, having posted work in early and hit a deadline; it gave me an afternoon to head out. I’d managed an hour to the A25 and buckled, unable to stay cool or keep my heart rate down. During the Ventoux ride in August, and for a fortnight afterwards, I’d felt a great sense of form on the bike; I seemed to be able to turn the plaque and dance on the pedals with no loss of energy.
I went to Ranmore Common and Box Hill for the first time in ages, a couple of weeks ago; it kinda reminded me that I do like that part of the world, and should make it a part of my Winter training, not least because it quietens down when the world gets darker and slimier.
I think, though, that it’s now the time of year for engine-tuning. I don’t want to officially think that I am going into Winter: I am not. It is still light, still warm enough for shorts and short sleeves, and is in fact about to be hill-climbing season; cursory trips to Yorks and White Lane, if only to sprint past the tops and hear the megaphones crying out, are on the cards. As are the red-leaf Sunday mornings that I am incredibly fond of. The year has sailed by, though. Perhaps Ventoux was a target of sorts, and I did certainly ride it well, but it was not a year like years past: no big rides, no tours, no real glories. I just rode because one ride begets another. And now it is September.
My last post is perhaps the most significant one of all; it wasn’t just a notch in the way I record my own cycling, it was a line in the sand. It was a point when I saw someone stop working, and one of the things that I love about cycling is the absolute awareness of your own functions; it is predicated on fuel, on water, on heart beats and electrical impulses. It is physics, chemistry and biology, engineering and art; it is present, past and future, history, geography; it is religious and it is multi-phasic. I thought all of that before and I think it still.
How can seeing someone’s lights go out fill me so much with life? It’s perhaps just an appreciation for life; like Autumn going into Winter, leaves curling and falling, seeing all of these things from the spinning humming wheels of my bicycle along roads I know and don’t know.
I think I’ve time to take a ride in the morning. I got ripe bananas.
The Man Comes Around.
I’ve been back for about two weeks. Usually, I’d have written immediately, but I didn’t. It’s been a while. Last time I posted something, it was about the death of a frame. This post is about a death, too.
We did that thing we’d been thinking about doing - HC and I went to France: we camped, saw ruins and anthropological museums; we swam in wild places, we swam in non-wild swimming pools; I even did an evil run, and then jumped into an ice cold rocky pool on a terribly hot day. Each and every one of my cells seemed to be radiated in sunshine, soaked in freshwater, fed cheese and 1664 (the red delicious variety one seems only to buy in France) and born afresh. It was a sublime holiday.
One of its most sublime moments came at the point I had expected. We went to Ventoux. You see the mountain as the TGV draws close to Avignon: a domineering jagged whale, sandstone on its hump and forests on its tail. It is visible. It haunts you in Provence. We drove to Languedoc firstly, for a wedding; a week later we were back in the shadow of the geant. Having not taken a bike to France, I instead hired one from a bike shop in Bedoin that sits on the start line of the D974, some 16k from the top. My intention was to wake at 7, eat, and walk across to the shop at 8, as it opened. I would thus guarantee a relatively cool temperature for the majority of the climb. I’d done it before, and by God I would not change a thing.
It’s perhaps because of its size and sheer dominance that I felt a bit nervous. I don’t get too nervous too often, and I’d certainly been contemplative when idle thoughts had taken me to the Ventoux. But I was nervous of circumstance; like, would the bike shop have messed up? Or the bike breaks halfway up? Or my legs cramp up and I stop, and it’s over before it ever really starts? You don’t fear death. I guess you might wonder about accidents coming down. That’s the likeliest problem. It’s easy to overcook a bend at 77kph.
On holiday, we camped in our small tent. Our hire car was our dining room, study and kitchen. On this cool morning, we ate together on the front seats. A single magpie darted out, looked around, skipped across the ground and then flew away.
“I think I saw another one,” said HC. I knew she was lying. She was nervous too. I wonder, did I do this? Make HC nervous, make her seem like an astronaut’s wife on the morning of a launch? Was I, consciously or not, giving off an air of trepidation? Either way, the morning felt slightly odd, and the mood portentous. And it is only a ride. Like any other. I do 50 mile rides all the time. This one is no different. I tell myself.
So, I got the bike. I bought two bottles of water, my pockets were stuffed with dried apricots and bananas. I had on a cycle cap and a rented helmet. I rode four times around the roundabout in Bedoin to get used to a bike I’d never ridden, and I headed back to the line. Timer on. And go.
In truth, I found it harder than I remembered. I stuck near a pace guy, a Dutch cyclist who I would reel in every now and then through the forest, and then he’d shift down and head off 20 or 30 metres. I was surely annoying him, breathing heavily and blowing snot, but he was useful. I did miss the loneliness of the forest - it’s an incredible, endless-seeming road; ten kilometres of trees and occasional people. At one point, perhaps 2k from Chalet Reynard, you get a single hairpin; as you swing the bike 180°, you have a glance of the weather station on the peak: some 7k away, and some 800m higher than your current position. Some refer to this point as a suffering point - where you suddenly realise the quantity of the ride. Last time I rode here, I felt good. This time was exactly the same. You know the hardest part is over. Sort of.
At 9.57, some hour and forty-four minutes after I left, I crossed the top. There were less than ten cyclists there. I was coated in sweat, but I felt good, if nauseous, with a coppery taste in my throat. I took four photographs for fear of getting cold, and set back down the mountain. It was quick, inglorious. I did not dwell, and you may have realised if you have read older posts that I have a vast capacity to dwell.
My arms were cold for the first 10k downhill. It takes about thirty minutes to get to Sault, and the beautiful road-layers of France had coated the descent in primed, perfectly smooth asphalt. In Sault I ate a croissant with a coffee. I spent ten minutes on a patio chair. I felt fine, wobbly perhaps, but ultimately fine. And then I went to the Gorges.
At some moment that same morning, a man had left his own bed, breakfasted and taken a look at his bike. Pulled on his shorts, his shirt, his shoes. He’d looked at the weather, maybe the night before, maybe that morning. He’d clipped in, and taken a road from Villes-Sur-Auzon that takes you to Sault, the back road. This isn’t any kind of back road; this is the most beautiful of roads. The Ventoux is good, it has the things a mountain has, but my decision to cycle to the Gorges was for the beauty. It serves as the reward for the two hours of grit and punishment; from Sault, you climb maybe a hundred metres, but then it is a constant shallow descent all the way; a road that curves around juts of rock, occasionally through dark tunnels. It is a bobsled track for a Velonaut.
People like to climb it, too. This man had figured he’d climb it, coast into Sault and maybe have a beer, maybe a coffee. Maybe he’d have sat in the chair warm from my own presence, and the presence of the now-all-consuming sunshine. But you must have realised by now that he did not.
Somewhere between the bottom of that hill and the top, as he looked across the Gorges, his heart began to stop working. It might have been a slight change, or it might have come suddenly. I approached a dark tunnel as I came around a bend; it is here that I encounter the man. Two paramedics arrived from Carpentras at the same moment. They hurried to his side where he lay, and began to work, but the work was fruitless.
"Il est mort" said a witness, a car driver who’d explained to each arriving motorist or cyclist what had happened. Most looked on and turned around, to go around another way. It’s a Gorges road. There is only one road. I did not want to go back the way I came, but ahead lay a dead man. So I waited. It took about thirty five minutes for them to pronounce the man dead, during which they had used CPR almost constantly, as well as a series of IV drips and defibrillators. He was dead. He’d died before he’d hit the ground. Propped against the shallow rock wall stood his bike; it was an aluminium 1980s frame, no decals or manufacturer. It had sawn-off handlebars, downtube shifters, bits of Shimano 105 from two or three generations, fast wheels and yellow tyres, tape and trim. It was utterly unique. The man even rode Look Delta pedals, which they stopped making about ten years ago, and were for many (myself included) the pedal on which they first learned to clip. This man was not some hobbyist. This man knew his bike, had adapted and improved it. I loved this dead man for loving his bike.
They fetched and filled a foil-like body bag, carried it into an ambulance. The engine started and the ambulance went away. He deserved a better descent than that. I walked past the ambulance, cap in hand, and mounted the bike on the brighter side of the tunnel. It took me about forty minutes to get back to Bedoin, where I returned the bike and met HC at 1pm, right where we’d arranged before I’d left. She had lunch ready for me and we sat and ate bread, cheese and yoghurt. I told her the whole thing and she cried. The magpie had created a little sorrow in the world. It changed the way I would have otherwise experienced the day. Mont Ventoux is famed for the cyclist Tom Simpson’s death, in 1967. Near the top, where he fell dead from a heart attack brought on by heatstroke, there is a memorial. I didn’t see it in 2009, and failed again to see it this time around. Now, my experience of the Ventoux will be associated with the death of a real person, a stranger whose time had come, had come early, but had at least come at a good time and in a good place.
The inevitable happened. Right about the time I thought to myself, “the inevitable will happen. Right about half an hour after cruising pretty steadily alongside the redoubtable Ed Y as we climbed some unknown steady beamer toward Bristol Airport and thinking “C’mon Hercules, you can climb ANYTHING”. Or thinking, as we belted along a road that was more track than tarmac, “yes, Hercules, you and I, we’ve been through plenty and we’ll go through plenty”. That I might take Herc to Preston / Edinburger for the dark zenith week of Christmas, go out in cold, shitty weather and find more of these dirty places.
And then a pop. A PING would have signified a broken spoke. We know that sound. A clunk or a creak could be all kinds of things. This was new. New is not good. It was such a funny sensation, as I cranked out of the saddle toward the oppressive, vaunted, and much-anticipated Dundry Hill, that I stopped, dismounted, and examined; first, the wheels, no problems. Then the saddle and seatpost. And then, as my eyes darted downwards, to the bottom bracket shell, which had cleanly disconnected itself from the seat-tube, a catastrophic amputation (looking a bit like this). The bike was no longer two trianges, it was a diamond with a suspended, unnecessary tube.
Hercules is dead. No glory, no crash, no hospitalisation. In the grand history of frame failures (from which I have suffered only two, neither of which caused me any actual deathly danger) this was the most severe. I took a taxi back to Ed’s place, which involved a long and interesting conversation with a philosophical South African gentleman driver, the age of sixty or so, who proceeded to place himself within the context of his own history so effortlessly that it was like poetry. He had had happiness, and less-than-happiness, and all was right enough at this specific moment. I paid him the agreed fare, gave him more for a beer, and pushed the bike into the house.
I would, as I went to bed later on, go and have another look. Like it might have self-repaired. Like one does with toothache, hoping they might not actually have to go to the dentist.
There is no dentist, only a junk frame. Everything else is reusable, and will be used again. I immediately recognised the gap in the market for a new town bike and found that I would, after a year or so of thinking about how nice they are, buy a Soma Rush. It is the first off-the-peg bike I have ever bought. I did not want to spend more on a Bob, or a Merc, or something else of that British hallmark. In fact, this is the first American bike I’ve ever bought. That said, I’m sure it was not built in the States, probably in a corrugated iron shed in Taiwan. Let’s see what happens next. A build, that’s for sure. And then some Yeagering. The first trip will be to the local recycling centre with Hercules. She will be crimpled and crumped into ore, smelted and stamped with a white handprint and become something else entirely.
The title refers to a Hindu pilgrimage of faith. The Kumbh Mela takes place in India, on the Ganges. There you will find the greatest gathering of holy people, whose minds and bodies work in wonderful union. Who have an enviable capability to no longer differentiate between the physical and the mental; all things in equilibrium, all actions and thoughts suspended in togetherness. The world opens up like an egg.
HC was looking after three kids in a drawing workshop yesterday; their Muslim faith was a huge part of their lives; like all children, though, they had jumbled the details somewhat, but were certain of their certainties. “Jesus was a bad man” one laughed. “My God is the best God.”
I came to the end of a fascinating Graphic Story yesterday called Alan’s War. Jerome had given it to me a long while ago, insisted I read it immediately. It took about a year, I think, to get to it, and like all recommendations, it took no time at all to read. The drawings were good, of course, but I am that bad kind of artist - I never look at the pictures. I mainly read the captions. If I look at pictures, I scrutinise and find fault - not through a form of snobbery, but because I look at all things in this way; deconstruct, reconstruct and do so according to the best way I could possibly do it myself. Screw you Roland Barthes. The book talked much of religion, particularly toward the end. Three times yesterday, I was confronted with ideas of religion, idolatry and philosophy.
That morning, I had gone for a ride. I am much into the idea of escapism, I want to hit Ventoux on my holiday, and I have been giving an unusual amount of thinking to how I might achieve that. By cycling up a hill, yes. But in taking the bike itself, that was my fundamental problem. Taking a bike, camping stuff, clothes, things, HC, and fitting all of that into a hire car with some friends we’re picking up; it seemed a massive challenge.
Thousands of butterflies were hatching yesterday, I cycled through streams of them as I passed the edge of the forest at Ashdown at the apex of the hot day’s ride. I was humming, nothing decipherable, I was talking in tongues at the rapid pace of inner monologue. I sometimes jibber bits of plays I once learned at school, I sometimes dictate the contents of this blog as I make sense of the world around me. And at one point, without really knowing why, I thought: “don’t take a bike to France.”
The idea is anathema. Except, as soon as it were floated, it began to join all these disparate ideas together, uncertain little floats, how the two weeks of our break into the sunshine might go, and it made all of those things clearer. Taking a bike, in theory, is wonderful. It is why I am going. Except it isn’t. I’m going to be someplace else. I don’t have to cycle. I can walk, swim, occasionally jog. I can lie down, or think. Visit houses, Le Corbusier apartments, the sea. Museums, vineyards. Not question how I should be integrating a ride into each and every day. I should just give it a rest.
Anathema. But I think, worst of all, it is what I want to do. A little break from being on the bike. Of course, I’ve located a bike hire place near Ventoux, and that’s going to have to happen. Imagine, an assault on the Géant without a week’s training beforehand. A week of beer and croissant and swimming in rivers and seas.
So no longer carrying all those bike belongings to France. To go, with the intention of a big cycle up a big mountain, without the big cycle. Like a holy man, belonging-less, on his way to the Ganges without a clue.