Way Out Here Somewhere

I am way out here now. Way, way out here in the middle of somewhere. To someone, somewhere, someone who is not here right now but somewhere else, this place is familiar, holds meaning which is linked to the past; they know about that tree. That tree over there and that barn, which may not actually be there but should be, out here in this wide, curving field with the sun at three o’clock and the wind sitting still like a great big silent blanket, folded neatly in a jam jar draw.

It could be that this is the widest, most openest place I’ve ever been, riding now up towards the centre of it with my shadow behind me, maybe fifty or a hundred or a few hundred meters, riding behind me with some effort, but not too much, maybe thinking what I’m thinking, but maybe not – we are sort of together me and him, sort of pretty much absolutely kind of connected and have been since we left, but we are sort of alone as well, as is our wont, and there might not need to be anything said right now, we might just be ok here, without needing to comment or say or do much about a lot of it at all.

Somewhere

I take my hands off the bars and stretch my arms, let them hang by my side and just slow a bit up this little incline, this false flat, this tiny little, immense, wide, lost, significant, meaningless, perfect little huge microscopic place I’m at right now, way out here in the middle of somewhere, my shadow riding now otherwhere behind me, maybe twenty meters back and closing, just closing in on me as we reach what could be called the middle of this place.

And me and him, right, we don’t know each other much but we know each other well now and that’s ok because that’s all that’s needed to share this moment, which doesn’t have to be shared but can be and is being and must be noted actually, for its meaninglessness and significance, its lostness and foundness, for its immensity and width and for how absolutely tiny it all is too; that all can’t just be overlooked here.

Here, now in here. In the middle of somewhere else with all shadows outside of me and the wind kept out by four square walls with a roof on it. But still. We will always have Ingatestone, Doddinghurst and Kelvedon Hatch, that bit will always be there actually, and I’m happy to cry a bit now, not outside but inside and not really crying at all but laughing. Considering it now as a meaning which is linked to the past. A past where the children of Essex sleep sound in their beds with the jam jar wind in their pocket watch heads, as the whispering elms speak of sleeping to strangers, and the Nisa at Stock stays open till late.

Race Report: ELV at Hog Hill – 17th Feb 2018

East London Velo Winter Series #7 (Category 4)

Climbing the Hoggenberg with the pain face on

Competition can do strange things to the mind, transforming otherwise rational beings into paranoid obsessives, hunted by conspiracy and inspired by hitherto unnoticed leanings towards voodoo and the occult. Perhaps it is for this reason that ritual and superstition are rife across the sporting world, reinforcing our childlike longing for the absurd and providing conveniently intangible explanation for events that so often defy conventional wisdom.

Who knows what rituals exist in the pro peloton, but the amateur cyclist seems a willing victim to this unique brand of madness. Heart rate monitors worn upside down, cycling caps back to front, a fir cone from the Bedoin Forest tucked eternal into the vortex of a saddle bag; all these and many more bizarre rites are observed by wheelers as humble as you and I.

It was perhaps inevitable, therefore – after last week’s assault on Hog Hill and a return to the same stage planned seven days later – that I would spend this past week searching for messages in the bottom of my bidon, checking for moon-dust around the rims of my wheels. What was I to make, for example, of an ambiguous line in Guillermo Del Torro’s latest film, The Shape of Water: “There is no profit in last week’s fish”. Was this a warning? And what of being handed the number 13 at the race sign-in on Saturday? Despite my shrugs and smiles, I felt the breath of fate, keen and close.

The stars had aligned in another sense too. Among the 33 riders lining up along the start line on this crisp February afternoon, there were no fewer than six previous race winners – most after just one race – standing now on the cusp of ascension to the gated dominion that is Cat 3. These included Rickard Barbet (Rapha CC), Nick Marriott (Onyx RT), Andrew Bradbury (Paceline RT), and last week’s winner David Bavin (Dirty Wknd), all of whom would have earned their place in that hallowed land before the afternoon was out.

So as the whistle went and the group rolled through with the sun strong and high in the cloudless blue sky, there was a confidence to some of the riders that had been absent the week before. Befitting of this swagger, the group was spearheaded from the off by Marriott and another rider from Onyx RT, Alex Moody, who were distinguished from the other riders as much by their disc brakes and skin suits as by their stature, resembling two Davids amidst a rabble of misshapen teenagers. They immediately set a fierce pace that had the pack bobbing and undulating as it snaked around the first hairpin.

Alex Moody (Onyx RT) setting the pace at the front of the group

The course is faster when moving anti-clockwise but even so, the pace the Onyx riders held for the first few laps was frantic and I found myself continually having to sprint to stay in the bunch, which would stretch out long and thin on the straights and then come together in a great sprawling mess at the corners. This made cornering dangerous and several riders came close to overcooking things as they sprinted into turns too hot.

In such a large group, positioning takes on much more importance. Riding towards the back of a group of 33 riders on a narrow and winding road circuit renders one a passive observer unable to affect the outcome of the race. But with the pace so high from the off, sheltering within the pack seemed like the only sensible course of action and I generally tried to stick close to Bavin and Fraser Duff of Dirty Wknd, who were my only reference point from last week and who both also seemed to be content to sit in and hold on.

Up top things were reaching breaking point and as the group thundered towards the fifth ascent of the Hoggenberg, Marriott and Moody rode off the front, opening a gap that had grown to 15 seconds by the time the bunch reached the summit of the climb. As we panted and pushed through the lap line, off to our left we could see the Onyx riders putting the hammer down, no doubt aware that they were on the cusp of what could be a race-winning move, and there was something majestic about the way they whooshed around the first hairpin and stormed up and over the crest of the peak on the far side.

Left to right: Jallani Quereshi, Fraser Duff, David Bavin, yours truly, Rickard Barbet

The group gave chase with Jallani Quereshi of Crawley Wheelers, who had placed just outside the top 10 last week, taking the bull by the hoods and pushing hard on the descent in their pursuit. Being in a chase on a circuit is notable for many reasons, but one of those is that you occasionally glimpse the riders you are in pursuit of, framed momentarily amidst the foliage around the edges of the course. So it was that for the next lap we would occasionally spy the Onyx men, aligned in perfect two-up harmony, working hard to extend their gap.

This was in stark contrast to the chasing group, which by the foot of the next Hoggenberg had resorted to bickering over who was to take on responsibility for the chase, with Shaun Terry eventually coming through to lead the group up the big climb. With such a lack of coordination, it was no surprise to discover that the Onyx riders had extended their lead to 30 seconds by the time we got to the summit.

Moody and Marriott working well in the break

Now seven laps in at a pace that hadn’t relented since the off, an unspoken agreement seemed to wash over the group: the break would be allowed to go. The race for third was now on.

Not surprisingly, the pace dropped off and the group kept it steady for a couple of laps. Having been deep in the red at points earlier on, I was relieved to have the recovery time and I sat in the wheels for a couple of laps. Having caught my breath now, I used some to chat briefly to the rider next to me, who I recognised from my pre-race research to be Rickard Barbet, winner of a previous race at Lee Valley, where he had finished first ahead of a large field. His was definitely a wheel to watch, as was that of Andrew Bradbury, who now headed the group, distinct in his blue and orange Paceline skin suit and notable also as another previous race winner.

The presence of so many riders of calibre as well as the fact that the group was still 20 strong had me concerned about getting lost in the bunch if it came to a sprint finish, and as we crested the Hoggenberg once more and got the shout that five laps remained, I felt fresh and recovered and that I might try and shake out a few of the hangers on, in the knowledge that if I failed to get away then I would have time to recover.

Andrew Bradbury leading the group with me on his wheel

I came to the front at the top of the Hoggenberg and nestled in behind Bradbury through the lap line, hitting the hairpin nice and fast and carrying the speed into the little kick up climb as I attacked. Coming over the top out front, I hit the descent as hard as I could, thinking that some riders would be looking forward to recovering here and that the group could split. I managed to open up a gap in the bunch, taking the corners as fast as I could but the nature of the course means that it is hard to keep a gap on this section and sure enough the bunch seemed to be strung out but holding on. I was still leading the group as we went into the next ascent of the Hoggenberg but was caught as we went up. I sat back in.

With three laps to go another two riders tried the same thing. More surging. More sprinting. Then they were caught. So as the penultimate lap came and went, with all the surging that had been happening there were a lot of tired legs and a bunch sprint felt like a sure thing.

Positioning was everything and Duff and Bavin went straight to the front as the final lap started, with me hot on their wheels. With Bavin in front of me, I had one of the three wheels I wanted, knowing that if I could follow him up the final climb then I would likely be close to the points. But about halfway through the lap there was a surge as a group of riders came through on the right hand side, jostling for position as we neared the foot of the Hoggenberg, and I found myself boxed in behind Bavin with riders on either side of me and the group about 15 strong now.

As the gradient kicked up, Barbet, who had been in the group coming round the outside right, shot off the front with a huge kick and started the sprint early. With Quereshi and others giving chase Bavin and Duff went, with the latter taking the turn at the top of the climb wide and carrying his pace into the finish line. I was on Bavin’s wheel and right on the edge of being in the points and as I threw my bike at the line I felt I might have just crept into the top ten. (Video of the sprint for 3rd).

Over a minute before the sprint, the breakaway had rolled through the line together, with Alex Moody taking all ten points ahead of his teammate, Nick Marriott, making it an Onyx Racing 1-2 and capping an imperious debut performance from the South African rider as he looked down from the top of the proverbial box.

After a wait, the commissaries confirmed that Barbet had stormed his way to 3rd with Quereshi just behind in 4th. Duff’s outside line had carried him to 5th ahead of Bradbury with Bavin and myself having to settle for 8th and 9th respectively, just behind Alistair Holland. Charles Butler of Cambridge University CC completed the top ten.

Paolo Puggioni (centre – ‘in the red’) in the 2/3/4 race

Prize for hero of the day goes to Paolo Puggioni (above), who finished 15th in the Cat 4 race and then went on to contest the 2/3/4 race immediately after. Chapeau! And the award for unsung heroes of the day has to go to all at East London Velo for organising the event, and in particular Miriam, who cheered and danced the riders on ceaselessly throughout the race as she marshalled a corner. Thank you also Roger Maidment for all of the great photos above, capturing perfectly what was a great and memorable day out for all involved.

Race Report: Hog Hill – 10th Feb 2018

East London Velo Winter Series #6 (Category 4)

Alejandro Valverde aside, I would hazard a guess that at 34 years of age, most professional road cyclists consider themselves to be somewhere in the deep autumn or even winter of their careers. The elite among them look back contentedly on a palmarès that effectively sets them up for life, while others eye media opportunities and many more still plan the giving of their esteemed names to bike shops in Belgium.

A far cry then from the scenes on this inclement February afternoon, where at 34 years of age I was one of several first timers lining up at Redbridge Cycling Centre to spend the best part of an hour ‘hanging on’ in rain that never really started but never really stopped.

There is something curious about a bike circuit, imbued as a space with the same staid quality as an air hanger; it is remote regardless of its location. On sunny days, such places can take on a futuristic quality, all sharp lines and grand, modulating curvature. But when the cloud and rain dictate, the hard heart of these concrete hinterlands is laid bare, evoking cinematic visions of uninhabitable post-apocalyptic wastelands; unapologetic and uncompromising.

And so it was that in a turret atop the wind-lashed peak of Hog Hill, a group of 23 shivering amateur cyclists waited in varying states of consternation, excitement and foreboding, eyeing each other with a cannibalism that ranged from the Merckxian to the McCarthyesque.

Among their ranks, the Islington Cycling Club (ICC) were well represented. Fresh off the back of their efforts last weekend when they had placed 4th and 5th in their respective races, Peter Armitage and Jon Sutcliffe stood alongside the rookie, ready to do battle once more. We didn’t know it then, but by the end of the race Pete would have made Cat 3, Jon would be a hair’s breadth away from the same fate, and I would have my first points, as well as a punctured rear tire.

The ICC Team (left to right: Jon Sutcliffe, Peter Armitage, me)

Several other teams stood in our way, however. Local club East London Velo and Richmond’s London Dynamo had five riders between them on the start line but it was a new, unaffiliated club called Dirty Wknd that dominated the pack with no fewer than seven riders chomping at the carbon fibre bit. They looked slick, young, fresh and confident and there were general murmurings before the start that a fast-pace was expected.

These expectations were realised as the group – moving clockwise around the circuit due to ice and grit on one of the hairpins at the north eastern edge of the course – set off at a pace that was hard enough to shed at least two riders on the first ascent of the legendary Hoggenberg, a 300 meter climb at an average gradient of 6% but which kicks up at the end to about 12%. Travelling in this direction, the Hoggenberg is not really the final climb as it dips into a short descent at the top, before ramping up again around the hairpin with the ice and grit on it and then levelling off for a 20-30 meter sprint finish to the line.

Perhaps emboldened by this dynamic finale to the first lap, Pete tested the water by pushing off the front at the start of the second and left the group to chase. There was some discussion at the front of the pack about whether or not to chase this attack down and although in the end they were happy to let him go off, Pete’s attack had caused a surge strong enough to drop several other riders and register the fastest lap of the afternoon.

Tom Stoneham (right) leading the group round the final hairpin on an early lap

Sitting in about fourth or fifth wheel as Pete was reeled in, I glanced around to see Jon on my wheel and a much reduced group – about 15 of us in total. At this point I thought we were in a breakaway, not quite realizing that with the majority of starters in this group, it was in fact, well, the group. Even so, I felt comfortable enough after three or four laps to take a turn on the front to keep the pace high but looking down and seeing my heart rate deep in zone 5 I was cautious not to get carried away and so settled in near but not right at the front. Here I remained for most of the race and it was a good place to be because it gave me an opportunity to observe some of the stronger riders leading the group.

Chief among these was Tom Stoneham from London Dynamo, who seemed to be dictating the pace most of the time, keeping it high and steady at about 40kmph average on the flat. He looked comfortable, poker faced, in control, and I was content to follow his wheel up the main climb if I could find it, safe in the knowledge that not much was likely to get away from him.

The high pace on the flat and the fact that the group incessantly attacked the Hoggenberg, which despite not being the final climb was certainly still the most significant section of the parcours, meant that before long we were in a front group of ten riders, which incentivised everyone to keep going, in the knowledge that doing so was certain to be rewarded with points.

Any expectation that this scenario might yield a more relaxed pace was misplaced however, as David Bavin and Jonathan Snell from Dirty Wknd started to take turns on the front, working with Stoneham to keep it breathless, if not quite breakneck, forcing the pace over the top of the big climb and pushing hard on the descent over the lap line.

The Dirty Wknd team keeping the pace high on the run in at the top of the final hairpin on the penultimate lap

By the penultimate lap it was clear that the majority of the group were just holding on, with Stoneham, Bavin and Daniel Baker from East London Velo controlling the race and this trio could easily have made up the podium had it not been for the Dynamo rider’s misfortune in getting a puncture at the start of the final lap.

I was so exhausted by this point that I harboured little ambition of a podium finish myself although I did feel that I was strong on the climb and that if I could make it to the top of the final Hoggenberg near the front and then push through over the top into the last hairpin then I would be in with a shout of not finishing ninth.

That is exactly what I tried and I think I got to the top of the climb in about third place with Bavin about 15 meters in front and Baker in second. But as I pushed over the top, Tom Vose from London Dynamo, who had been sitting in quietly all race, came around me just before the final kick up on the hairpin with the ice and the grit and I knew I wouldn’t be able to follow as he stormed away to beat Baker in a sprint for 2nd place behind Bavin, who had rolled through the line alone to take 10 points.

As the final little rise flattened out for the sprint finish, Pete came round me for 4th and I shouted and span and gave everything I could but my gear was too low and I could feel myself getting caught by another rider and as we got to the line together both Jon and I threw our bikes in a shootout for 5th and 6th.

The shootout for 5th and 6th (Jon #21, me #7)

As I freewheeled down the hill and began to be able to see and think again, I realized that my back wheel was punctured. Who knows when it had happened, perhaps on the grit on the last hairpin, but what it meant was that the final act of my first race was pushing my bike the right way up the Hoggenberg in the rain. Character building rating: 100.

Back in the turret, the commissaires initially had me down as finishing 5th, just pipping Jon to the line. However, this turned out to be erroneous, and the decision overturned, with the Hogwatch Review Committee eventually awarding Jon 5th and me 6th place. Hogwatch indeed.

This gave ICC an incredibly strong 4th, 5th, 6th and while it would have been great to get one of us on the podium, it did mean we walked off with the non-existant Team Prize with an overall haul of 15 points.

The ICC fanbase (aka Stella)

A note must go also to Guido Gessaroli, who brought his daughter, Stella (above), along to support the ICC racers and who whooped and cheered throughout the race, bringing the warmth and taking most of the great pictures above. And lastly, to the Uber driver who was kind enough to let me put my bike in the back of his cab after I had collected my second puncture of the afternoon, two kilometers down the road from Hog Hill with no spare tube and the rain lashing down. A fitting end to an afternoon that felt like a rite of passage.

The Fit Saga – Part 1: Arrival

It arrives two days after the order. Imagine that. Two days is all it takes. To travel from one side of the earth to the other. Two days. God the world is small. God the world is just so small, you know. Like a little village. Like a tiny little global village etc. Imagine that. And when it arrives, it doesn’t arrive at my door. It arrives at the newsagent at the end of the street. A new service. Foolproof. A drop point. New tech. How exciting. Jesus, this is exciting. I am very excited. Walking over there now. Immediately. Right now. Actually walking there. To the newsagent. To the drop point. Opening the door now. Now actually inside the shop. Doing absolutely everything within my control not to shout “In the motherfucking shop!” at the top of my voice. Goddamit this is good. My heart’s probably averaging about 182 bpm right now, practically bursting through my 80cm chest here. And I’ve got no trousers on. Only joking. Of course I’ve got trousers on. Everything is under control here. My look, you know. It’s dialled in. On point. Classic newsagent. Giving it a bit of the old ‘just browsing the chocolate bars mate’, you know. To look at me, you know, as a stranger. I mean, if you were a stranger, to look at me you might think that I was actually browsing the chocolate bars. That I could exist in this present state for an hour or two. If I absolutely had to, you know. And that’s what’s so exciting about this. That nobody knows.

294.605
Possibly how the package was delivered to the drop point

Back at the flat things are almost exactly as they were when I left to go to the drop point about five minutes ago. In fact, they are precisely the same. I clear a space for the parcel on the table in the front room. There is already enough space but the fact is, is that this parcel is going to sit right in the middle of the table and nothing is going to be near it. Also, the parcel can’t touch the table until the table is tidied. And there is a lot of stuff on top of the table. This is the game. But as I’m scrunching up old receipts and throwing a cycling cap onto the sofa, there is a part of me that wants to just push everything off the table top with one grand swoop of my arm. To make a real fucking macho statement here for absolutely no reason whatsoever. But my grandmother’s decanter. And the soil from the poinsettia will probably take hours or even weeks to sweep up. No no, better not. We’ll just clear most of the stuff off the top and then put the parcel down. Forget about the game you idiot. Someone’s going to get hurt.

Now, finally, the moment has come. With the parcel on the table, I take a last look out of the front window, draw the curtains and strip completely naked. Only joking. Of course I don’t do that. No, I walk to the kitchen and get the scissors and then carefully open the package. Careful not to cut what’s inside! And then suddenly it’s out. It’s out of the envelope. It’s here. It’s in front of me. Actually here. Oh my god I’m holding it. It’s in my hands. Oh my, it’s beautiful. Every bit as beautiful as the pictures. More so. Even more beautiful. What a jersey! What an unbelievable jersey. Silken. Pro fit. From Australia. Fuck me! It’s here. It’s arrived.

 

Flamingo on a Trek Madone

I’m down in the drops and taking this quite serious now. Serious stuff, this, that’s what it is. Serious. A lot of heavy breathing and looking down at my legs, spinning away at a high cadence and looking pretty good as legs go. They look good. Pretty good down there, those legs. Some light contouring around the bottom end of the quadricep. That’s important. Not too much lateral movement. That’s essential. And hair. A lot of hair. Too much perhaps. Or no. No, it’s good. Subversive. Part of my statement. My ethos. That’s what I’m putting out there. This hair, you know, which speaks to the other riders. Silently. Hair talk. Quiet and whispering. The whisper of a thousand follicles. A collective message. From me to them. The other riders. Letting them know, you know. That I’m not shaving. I’m not there yet. I’m new.

I am new. New to the game. Even though this isn’t a game. It’s serious. Serious stuff, this. The consequence too far away for a game, beyond arms length. But we’re ok with that, aren’t we, and maybe that’s the thing. It’s the extension, the stretching, the reach. I take a sip of my drink, replete as it is with electrolytes and a carb:fructose ratio. It’s pink. And there’s a lot of pink in cycling round these parts. Pink socks. Pink stripes. Pink jerseys and caps and bikes. No, bikes, no. Pink is not a colour for bikes, apparently. It’s for apparel only, and the brighter the better. It’s ok to have pink flamingoes on your jersey, but not on your bike. Although there is something about flamingos and bikes, something we likes. Perhaps it’s their structure, the angles and arches, their innate sparseness, that makes them well suited to one another.

A flamingo on a Penny Farthing

I’m looking around now, between breaths, and all I can see are flamingos, going round and round the Outer Circle of the Park, working hard and taking this serious, sometimes looking down at their legs and then up again at the other contenders. There’s a strong flamingo up ahead of me, on a Trek Madone with red handlebar tape. He’s working hard, this flamingo, digging deep, his beak almost down touching his handlebars and his spindly legs turning a lot of power. See the way he keeps his wings pressed tightly against his sides, making him more aerodynamic and helping him gain those precious watts. I’ve almost got his wheel now, it’s there, ahead of me, just out of reach. But I’m reaching it, a real stretch, giving everything I’ve got to get that wheel, but this is quite a flamingo we’ve got here, look at him go, he’s about to take off.

And then. Got it! I’ve got it. And now I have to keep it. But the flamingo senses someone in his slipstream, raising his long neck and glancing round at me. I’m never quite sure what that look is. Surprise? Welcome? Contempt? Probably a bit of each. And now he’s really putting the hammer down. He’s got an audience now so he’s upping his game and I’m going to struggle to hold this wheel. This wheel’s going to get away from me. It’s going. Slowly, painfully, stretching away from me inch by inch and then foot by foot and then meters and 10 meters and then the flamingo has broken my resolve, I’m going to let him go. You can go now. Go. Fly away now with your pink jersey and your flamboyant contempt and your Trek Madone with red handlebar tape. Go. Be free.

He drifts away and another group come past, a lot of shaven legs and a few pink socks. I could try to hang on at the back, but I’m ok. I’m happy to let them go. I’ll ride a while longer, keep my own pace, my own council. Me and the hair on my legs and the sight of the earth, giving everything it’s got and nothing at all, slowly losing the wheel of the sun.

 

 

oBike: The Aliens Have Landed

An alien on a bike. You know.

So oBike has arrived. SooooooooooooooBike has arrived. It has. I seen it. Yesterday. Saw them. The fleet. Flung somewhat carelessly around the edges of the pavement near where I work. In a way that had me looking for a sales rep with a clipboard, but a healthy looking one, walking towards me with a broad grin, a shit-eating grin, you know, a good one, probably wearing a somewhat tight Fred Perryesque polo shirt, a black one, and breathable, you know, and also not made by Fred Perry. But tucked in all the same. And this guy looks blond and young and healthy, even though he doesn’t exist, and he’s telling me how buying this thing, this thing that I am never going to buy and that isn’t even actually for sale, is going to make me a better person, even though I know and he knows and you know that I don’t need to be a better person and that, anyway, nobody sells like that anymore, do they? I don’t know. But the point is that he wasn’t there. It was just the bikes and a few other sleepy-headed passers by who, while passing by and being sleepy-headed, were woken from their morning slumber by a sight they hadn’t seed before. The aliens had landed.

The alien fleet.

I parked my bike and took a moment, a precious five or so seconds from my morning routine, to survey the alien fleet, moving in a wide arch around them, leaning in to read the laminated sign that adorned each one, just close enough to make out some vague and yet precise instructions that pointed me firstly in the direction of an app and secondly and thirdly in the direction of something else. But, no. Oh no. An app. No. No, no. I wouldn’t be downloading an app. And so I moved away, not wanting to touch one, especially not wanting to touch one, and continued on my morning routine. Suddenly feeling unjustifiably smug. Walking now with the pompous air of a man who knows better, who refuses to yield, piteous of those lost souls who are destined to concede. But with an unmistakable injection of pace. A pace that can only be put down to one thing: the fearful sense of the future – oafish and behemoth-like – stalking close behind. Don’t worry, I thought. They’ll be gone by nightfall.

But when I neared the end of the road as that evening arrived, as I peered through the glass of the shop on the corner, they were still there. The dastardly yellow and grey platoon, refusing to yield, knowing less and yet infinitely more. Than me. And all my imaginary comrades. They have won the battle, I thought. They might just win the war.