Early. Too early. Whose bright idea was the Sunday club ride? So Sunday. So early. Yet some must return to hoist children onto shoulders or tackle jungle gardens, you know, normal life. We’re cycle cramming. This is our time.
Six AM. Everything is wrong. The clock four hours fast, bed time the wrong side of Saturday night. Breakfast is porridge and coffee not bacon and a bloody mary. Bib shorts not dressing gown, you look like the world’s sleepiest, thinnest wrestler. And let’s not mention the cream you’re applying down there.
Eventually you bumble outside accompanied by your trusty bike. Air chilly. You regret not wearing more. You climb on the bike as if climbing on a horse for the first time. Off you go. Drunks walk straighter.
The ride to the meeting point is slow until you realise you’re late. So begins the all too familiar pre-ride sprint. You’re knackered before the ride begins.
Conversation is sparse at the club meet-up. This is what we do for fun, people’s faces don’t say. One by one more Lycra zombies arrive. One of us smells of booze and will enjoy the hills that much less than others. Poor bugger.
Mumbles of late alarms clocks, unruly kids, mechanicals, whisky. It’s a wonder we have the energy to leave our beds let alone ride a not insignificant distance at a pace beyond our comfort zone.
Talk of the route. Which route? Everyone has five variants of the ‘usual’ ride. None of them match. Talk of road names and places few recognise, despite the nodding heads. Fiddling with bike computers to load the digital line we shall follow. Others care not, they shall follow the wheel in front, an added incentive not to get dropped.
The old boys have the route inked into their muscle memory. They could ride this half asleep. Fortunate, looking around the group.
Off we go
The ride begins. Pace gentle. Chatter of weekends gone, of the latest unneccessary bike related purchases, excuses traded early. Riding side by side, leg muscles warming up as we weave out of town avoiding the discards of the night before, smashed glass near pubs, kebab wrappers a little further down, the occasional solitary shoe. It’s amazing how many people must wake up with one shoe. A few bedraggled folk are still making their way home after a very late night, their hangovers already kicking in.
A call out from the pack. Whoa! Shambles alert number one. Half the group has turned off, following the wrong route. Oh, so this is the long/bob’s/version 32 of the route we’re doing?
Country lanes. Each twist and turn and pothole well-known to the regulars. A few spurts from the front as people begin to test their legs and the legs of those in their wake.
Voices increase in volume and we nod as if yes, we can hear you over the noise of traffic and the wind gushing past our ears at 22mph. You’ve just unknowingly committed yourself to riding a monster Euro sportive in two weeks time and you’re nodding and smiling like an idiot.
Riding blind. Hand signals point to holes, craters, horses, that driver three-point turning without warning. The occasional shout. Car up. Hole. Car back. All on.
Man down. Mechanical. We stop and regroup around the stricken rider. Time to help. Or provide a running commentary. Or simply stare. Research would surely show it’s quicker for a single rider to repair a puncture than a group.
Q. How many cyclists does it take to fix a puncture? A. 10. Two to discuss the merits of CO2 canisters versus a pump, three observers, one to tut at the upside down bike, one to bemoan the strength of the mini-pump, one to blather on about tubeless, one to criticise, and one to actually crack on and fix the bloody thing.
Conversation stops when the pace increases. We’ll let our legs do the talking. They mostly grumble and beg us to stop. The wheel in front is not listening, inching further and further away.
Now your fate depends on who has turned up and what mood they’re in. The fast boys on a good day or the not quite that fast but still fast guys feeling frisky.
Today’s pace is clearly ‘let’s rip the legs off’. Off we shoot, the usual suspects on the front dishing out pain to all those who dare follow. Time to check the remaining miles and wince. Bugger, 40 miles more of this pace. Ugh.
You begin mentally counting the remaining hills for it is when the road goes up the group suffers most. You hit the front, not by choice but because everyone else has peeled off. You calm things down with a slower pace, which lasts all of 24 seconds until the group comes thundering past you one by one. You dare not look at them. You’re fine of course. If being close to cardiac arrest is fine.
On the peloton rides, the pace cranking up. Desperate for a break you’re tempted to call out puncture just for the rest. Time to start hitting those potholes.
The ride blurs by. You’re exhausted. Muscles cramping, you must cling on to the wheel in front. The final hill. Judgement time. The group stretches out, everyone wants to stop but nobody wants to be dropped. You kill yourself, for what, you’re not quite sure but it is the most important thing in the world not to be dropped.
The street sign sprint looms. You shake your leg muscles out as if you have a chance. You don’t. You’re doing all you can to follow the wheel in front. Not that this will stop you putting your nose into the wind come the street sign sprint. Speed at 30 mph, when to jump, when to sprint?
Glory so close, boom, off you go. For 2 seconds you’re the fastest rider alive, glory assured. Your spurt is short-lived. By second 3 you’re dying along with your speed. Legs screaming. The winning line still a long, long, long way away. The rest of the bunch breezes past you as if you’re stationary. Glory gone, you had your nose in the wind for so little time you can barely call yourself a lead out.
Cafe time. Perhaps the cafe will have a defibrillator or a big needle with an adrenaline hit to be aimed at the heart Pulp Fiction style. You order double espresso, a can of coke and the biggest cake you can see. It’ll have to do.
Talk is slow coming, just like that coke you’re begging for. Still recovering. Some won’t recover until next Saturday night. Conversation of the shambles and memories of similar rides. Talk of summer rides in exotic places. Yes, I’m going to Slough. More equipment talk. Families and beers. Innocuous chatter. No Trump, no politics. For this is a safe haven.
Stomach grumbling for proper food, it’s time to head home. See you all next week, except you I hope, yes you who dished out all that pain!
Done. Of course you enjoyed it. Loved it. Can’t wait until next week.