"That’s a big dead badger" said Pete. It looked like a bestriped dog. It wasn’t quite the biggest badger I’d seen fatally stricken by arsewipe motorists, but it was quite hefty. It joins the ranks of beautiful wildlife deaths I have seen over these Velonaut years, which mainly consists of small rodents, a bee I once squished, several butterflies that met my full force of climb on Col de Menté (Mintiest Col In The France™), nineteen and a half badgers, the occasional fox, and just lately, quite a lot of pheasants. Murder roads, like I always say.
HC and I had spent yesterday at a wedding. I was shitfaced last night, of course, but it was not on the rasbo bellinis and rosé; instead, it was a sugar hangover that I faced this morning. Whilst HC rolled over and groaned because of the industrial quantities of sugar clogging up her aorta, I, master-digester and sugarlovin’ bastard that I am, had churned it up into RP-1 LOX and woken up, wild eyed, at 6.50am. Due to meet Omar and Pete at the Glass Mountain for 09.00, I realised that I couldn’t hold the fuel in, it required a magical self-destructive B U R N. I sent a telegram to Pete declaring that I was out, 08.00, eating landscape, killing fucking badgers and chasing bastard pheasants. Pure unadulterated sugar fury frenzy. Anyone who denies themselves this occasional glory (and let’s not overlook the solid espresso pot I had consumed at breakfast) is a fool. I broke the sound barrier coming over Purley Way, eating flies, tucked in like a speed-egg. I couldn’t get enough of the climbs. I flew up Woldingham ridge and doubled back, enjoying the solar tailwinds and rendez-vousing with the TEAM as they conquered Skid Hill. I’d put 20-odd miles in the legs already, and knew, deep down in the liquid kerosene core, that I would last forever. That this, ambrosia-fuelled or not, was F O R M. The miles fell. We all burned; Pete’s climbing is insanely quick and steady, Omar’s downhill pace is terrifying, and we laughed and piss-took our ways around the Toys Massif. By Spitfire, we sat, Omar satisfying his meat fetish with a glorious-looking bacon sandwich (the kind that almost tempts me back toward the PIG but not quite, not q u i t e).
I had three digestives. Pete swigged gatorade like the nutrition pimp he is.
Henri Pelissier won the Tour in 1923, and pretty much everything else he ever entered. Everyone said he was a sonofabitch, and that seems to be well corroborated in the stories that abound. My favourite concerns his training regime. He would train with his rivals, the cycle circuit being fairly close knit in those days. Arranging a time to meet, Pelissier would tell his comrades that they should relax a little, keep the pace down and just enjoy themselves. Unbeknownst to them, Henri had woken up at dawn, put three solid hours of uber-training in, and was more than happy to take it easy with his competitors. It’s no wonder he won the big races. The guy was a machine, and nobody ever understood why. Sneaky bastard.
O L D . F A T H E R . T I M E
[Jack wrote this. That was him. The author of this poem.]
One week remains. It is difficult to think on any other subject for long. Training is sketchy. I did just cycle home into the ever-persistent headwind; southerly, thank the Lord. That amounts to the most training a person can do in a single session - nine commuterly miles into the mouth of God. Avoiding death by taxi, squash by bus, chase by dogs, and in the case of this evening, a gurning woman beckoning me come hither from the back of Brixton’s infamous Hootenanny. She reminded me of the beastly dogs from Ghostbusters. I think this may have been because of her angular smile and odd teeth. Usually, such teeth aren’t seen until one has passed the gentrification of Bricks Town and crossed the dentists’ helltrap that is Tulse Hill, and the cemetery that metaphorically represents the teeth of native West Norwoodites.
ANYWAY: one week. Mind: focused. Training: dubious.
On Tuesday, having ventured into vicious pernicious S____Y once more, I once again decided I would do this no more, but most importantly, we warriors three all ventured unto the bastard county together. For the first time, our fragile union of velonauts was made proper, ossified on the tarmacadam and the grass. Tarmac all the way to Box Hill; grass, because Omar collapsed at the peak, having been given his hill-high-fives and deciding that they wouldn’t be enough, and then eating a sausage roll and a cornish pasty. I watched in abject horror. I had eaten about 160g of dates and a banana. Omar ate more than I could realistically imagine. Except all I could imagine was it churning. On our way back, we climbed Banstead Downs road as a trio; I was out front, Pete was at the back, and Omar delicately held between us. At one point, I heard Pete yell that he had just ‘cycled through a meat burp’.
Y O U T A L K T O O M U C H
27°C. 08.04 depart. I had decided to take Pete to the Greatest Show On Earth, or perhaps the greatest slog in the Weald. Via the Sweetest Petrol Station On Earth. Pete’s form is crystallizing into a rhythmic golden thing. He brought out the Crack’d Raleigh; its headtube is almost half-cracked, extending around from the downtube lugs. It makes a twisted smile. As he cycled, it creaked the William Tell Overture, or something like it, and gradually widened. I advised him to sit down and pedal, no standing out of the saddle whatsoever. The bastard thing could go any moment. I did not want to use the phrase time-bomb; there were times, however, when I would hit a lump in the road and check aft, just to see that it hadn’t had some disintegrating effect on Pete. At one point, an old lady almost killed me, which would have spelled the end of all ambitions to traverse this majestic isle. But those things were small fry. I took Pete climbing and he loved it. I chatted amiably, and practically non-stop, as we went up anything wall-shaped, and we certainly did that: Toys from its stealthy bastard south side. I had done this on Friday night, too. It’s not quite the hardest of climbs in the Weald, but it rewards you with one of the finest descents this side of the Alpes, and not only that, it has Westerham at the bottom. Coffee in England’s Most Patriotic Village™? Bally-ho.
S I C K O
I was done for, Friday afternoon. I had a deadline to hit for 17h, yet I spilled out into the countryside for country miles. I bahoomed it through Mitcham, smelling the tears of terrified parakeets as I carried their flight on a wisp of Velo-air, and spun a glorious web of intrigue as I indecisively hip-zagged through Greater London to finally breach the latitude of the M. Once past that concrete behemoth, I used the Gatwick flight path to navigate some little-known lanes, ended up on the murder road, cycling past the Chelsea-shirt memorial to a lost unfortunate, musing on the life expectancy of any poor soul who chews mileage on drag-spit roads like this, considering how this may affect navigational plans for the LEJoG. In the end, I’d caned 45 miles before the coffee stop, feeling a little nauseous for no real reason (other than a speedy breakfast, I thought), and then another 20 miles home. I hit Brasted hill with the penultimate gear, never a good sign, and saddle-climber the fucker. The rollercoaster double of Brasted (which always sounds to me like a Yorkshireman saying “bastard”) and Downe hill (TWENTY FIVE PERCENT, might I say) was spun, rather than ground, by my souple legs.
I zinged home, demolished some beans on bagels, hit my deadline and collapsed into viral fevers. Seriously, there’s about ten hours of my life I cannot account for, so delirious, so burned-up-to-the-point-of-shiver, so caned on bagels and chocolate yazoo was I. My dreams involved building entire civilizations of small pieces of paper on the backs of lego plates. I kid you not. I was through the worst of it by Monday, so it looks like I shall be putting some ‘staff development’ in this morning. By caning it some more. In my own employable time. My boss is a peach. He’s me.
I’d originally wanted this to look like a poster for coffee. Titles I considered before settling (and reasons for their dismissal) are as follows:
UBERMENSCH (Too Nazi-appropriated - I do dispute this however)
ESPRESSI (Too pretentious - I ask you this - what isn’t?)
EXCELSIOR (Latin for ever higher - I decided to save this for something else)
In the end, I was daydreaming about Thomas Mann, of Faust and some other things, and decided that it all sort-of made sense, in the end. Did it? Discuss.
The New Wheels
Both Pete and Omar have chosen to go with new machines. Pete’s is the refurbed orange Raleigh, a testament to Nottingham’s glorious mid-1970s output, halcyon days for sure. Omar has chosen a Bianchi of modern calibre, a sportive-type thing with squoval tubing and the geometry of an angry panther. I will most likely be taking the tourer, a bike I’ve had a love-hate relationship with over the past seven months due to some necessary frame realignment and a distrust of its balance.
I have accepted that I am fastidious, and learned to love the girl again. She’s called Rocinante and ferried me to Toulouse and back once upon a time, via the Pyrenees. We have been places. I love her dearly. So it has to be her for the Big Ride. That doesn’t mean she can’t get a new pair of wheels, though, does it? Of course not. So I just laced them up ready for going in the jig. I can road test them next week, finish truing them, and stick a few hundred practice miles in them before we depart.
S H A P
Navigational specialist that I am, I have been meticulously looking over Ordnance and other geographical oddities on The Route. I have done this primarily out of late-night curiosity, when I should be tucked up reading Treasure Island or other Victorian literature. Prior to most rides, especially rides in new places, I will use the glorious sixth-sense that is Google streetview to know what new junctions and turns look like. I see myself as one of those chaps in rally cars (obviously when rally cars were Mark I Ford Escorts), those guys in the passenger seats who shout how the driver ought to take the corner. Whatever those guys do, it must be at least as important as the space and weight they occupy in the general cut and thrust of the rally world. Their understanding of the course is at least as important as the time it takes to take the course.
Anyhow, just lately, when daydreaming of the LEJOG, I have found my thoughts linger on the middle part. Once we have breached North Wales, and that odd Staffordy bit, we shall see the mighty Winter Hill come into view, and then I shall know that we are almost at my house in Lancashire, where we can eat tinned rice pudding and drink my Dad’s low-calorie lager. (Blood pressure. His, not ours.) But there’s roads past there, the Mother Road itself: the A6. Ever since I started gunning out uber-miles as a teenager, the A6 has lodged in my consciousness. It is a classic road; long, smooth and quite brilliant at taking you North. I know it all the way to Lancaster, but I’ve never gone past on a bike. There’s a village about fifteen miles past Kendal, and it goes by the wonderful name of Shap. It’s a small thing, clinging onto windy peaks and looking enviously at the Lake District some twenty miles west. Shap. It sounds like it gave up trying to sound romantic. I already streetviewed it. It looks like Shap. Shap is the right name for it.
Shap sits about 500m higher than sea level, which doesn’t sound like much. Indeed, I have been to the Pyrenees on my bike, and can testify that 2115m above sea feels like every centimetre cost a nutrient, a blood cell, a part of a limp, a tiny twist of a knee. But English Hills, they are special indeed. They lull you. English Hills are everything that French mountains are not. They are short, sharp and dangerous. You don’t work with them, you fight them every inch (because, being English, they are measured in imperial inches and feet, my friend). You don’t approach them, seeing them come into view, romanticising the zigs and zags, the smoothness of their tarmac. You hit them, you grind at the bottom, grind at the top (should you reach it) and you have nothing other than grind in between. Shap isn’t steep, so they say. But it is positioned just so; it is fed by constant headwinds, it is straight-as-an-arrow, it is the Roman sense of humour, their historic grit. It tells you what you already knew - that going North was to leave everything behind that was gentle.
Shap, then, is where you learn that awful truth. That everything is going to be beautiful as hell afterwards, but you’ll start paying a premium for any kind of enjoyment. I have some Kendal Mint Cake that my girlfriend’s mum gave me, and I have been saving it. And I will save it for Shap. We will wash it down with good coffee, or whatever constitutes good coffee in Shap (probably diesel mixed with some slurry or what-not).
And then we will gun it down the other side.