Seven Points in My Apprenticeship

Falling on cattle grids and fixing punctures was only the start of my learning about road biking. I soon found out that riding with a club was an apprenticeship.  

Me and my italian classic tommasini!

Love your machine

Forget tyres, wheels, cassettes, bars, headsets and saddles – the most versatile, the classiest equipment for road bikers? Tape and cable ties. These two items are so valuable I’m surprised there isn’t dura ace or chorus versions of them! Together they hold all manner of things on a bike together; pumps, CO2 cylinders, guards and once we had a cyclist who used electrical tape to secure a banana to his downtube.

The open road is a catwalk

You might not be the strongest rider in cycling but no matter how bad you’re going, make sure you’re dressed properly for road cycling. I’ve already mentioned my woolly arm warmers which I don’t think were ever in fashion even in the 50s which is probably when they were knitted. For my first cycle in the Lake District I wore a baseball cap under my helmet because of the rain. Not good! On a club run you’ll hear cyclists who have cycled 120 miles or average 24 mph in races talk about colours as if they were on 60 Minute Make Over. ‘I love the celeste….aye the green sets it off…that’s a bonny colour.’ There’s little point in buying a £1800 carbon machine only to turn up in brown socks with your base layer hanging out. We have prizes at our club dinner for fashion nightmares. My favourite is the cyclist who showed up for a winter run with his feet tucked into 2 Tesco plastic bags. Maybe he was trying to find an alternative to sealskins or overshoes?

Fellow Travellers

A fellow clubman once said to me, ‘In a disagreement between a cyclist and a motorist, the cyclist will always come off worse..’ True words which drivers would do well to remember. The problem is you don’t know what kind of driver is behind or charging down the road in front of you. Most of them are pretty patient and understanding. My personal enemy is the motorist who manoeuvres past you on a narrow road whilst on his mobile. Of course club riders are not always angels – 3 or 4 cyclists spread out on a bendy road or cresting a hill must be fairly scary for a driver! On one of my early runs we were heading for Corsock moor and before we reached that bleak climb a motorist pulled up in front of the bunch and rolled down her window. I remember it was windy that day and I heard her say ‘This is bullshit.’ To which I replied ‘Oh shut up!’ and cycled off. In actual fact what she must’ve said was ‘Watch there’s a bull.’ Sure enough 100 yards up the road was the massive beast front and centre watching us, its head lowered. No one shouted ole!

The Food Narcotic

This is my favourite topic on a bike next to bikes themselves. Cyclists are obsessed with what goes into their stomachs. Weight must be constantly monitored. Club cyclists will not be shy about remarking on any gain in pounds in their fellow riders and they’re also quick to notice if your love handles have disappeared. It’s unusual to meet a cyclist who is vague about their weight, they know it to the ounce. What goes into the back pockets on a run amazes me in its variety; bananas (sometimes pre-cut) biscuits, cake, bagels, jelly beans, rice cakes, apples, pears, sickly sweet gels, rolls and jam. My favourite is one of our club riders who rode with a whole packet of jaffa cakes or a soreen loaf. How he fitted it into his jersey defies reason.

I am a Satellite

I’m now an expert on our climate. I study the skies like a soothsayer. So much depends on the forecast and I don’t just mean road conditions. Which bike? What clothes? What distance in this rain? A hill becomes a mountain in a headwind. I think the cyclist’s darkest foe is black ice. Ordinary ice isn’t much better but at least somebody will shout it out and you’ve got time to get those bum muscles tightening with fear and trepidation. I remember vividly every time I’ve cycled in accumulating snow: the thin tracks of the guy in front of you, the flakes gathering into a solid mass on your calipers, how everyone goes quiet as they concentrate and hope for a long, straight road. And even though you thought going out was crazy, you get back and text your cyclist pals who stayed home and start the bragging!

The Rubber Band Paradox.

One minute you’re pedalling along talking about food or a new chainset, the next you’re strung out chewing the handle bars. What just happened was the rubber band paradox! When it happens and why it happens is sometimes predictable – a 30 sign up ahead or a flat stretch or someone with a rush of blood to the head. However just as often it is a mystery – why does everyone suddenly go crazy? The cyclist who was talking to you about recess saddles and asking after your family is the same guy who the next minute is at the front drilling it in the hope of dropping everyone. This happened one day and one of the boys who got dropped told us later…’my only crime was to peel a banana!’

Get acquainted with the Suffering.

Jens Voigt said cycling is all about our relationship with suffering. Agreed! What’s the definition of a great club run? Drained? Sore legs? Sunken eyeballs? Getting the bonk? Blowing is the worst feeling in cycling. It happens to everyone who cycles seriously. It feels like you’ve been hollowed out, you’re dizzy and no one can help you! Usually someone will ride along with you but you really just want them to leave you to your suffering. Although all cyclists suffer we still see it as a personal experience, something we need to internalise. Hills will always bring out the suffering. On a club run if someone says ‘I hate this hill…’ then they’ve already started suffering. I realised early on that there were plenty of hills on our routes so I better have a positive relationship with them. Getting dropped is part of the suffering relationship. Everyone gets dropped at some point. In fact being dropped shows you’re ready to suffer. I remember one spring Saturday going round the lumpy, Solway coast with the club. These runs are usually brutal but especially in spring when everyone is trying to ramp up the suffering and the fitness that goes with it. I had ridden some early miles and was given a severe kicking. After 75 miles, my eyeballs had disappeared into my skull. I was deathly pale and dizzy. My wife opened the door, told me she’d had a busy morning and was ‘knackered.’ I spent the rest of the day nursing my battered limbs in a suffering silence.

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