Although penned as a contribution to a weekly tradition that has emerged on the social media page of a, ahem, ‘collective‘ I used to ride with, it seemed churlish not to recycle the content here too…
“I’d better start with an introduction because I have no doubt that few, if any, of the Dodici will recognise my name. Although a flurry of messages exchanged with the sage Neil Appleby did underline the ubiquity of this situation, a theme to which I shall return in the main body of my text.
Like Hemingway in Paris, or the Beatles in Hamburg, I spent a short but formative period of my youth in Birmingham, albeit in my own case pedalling through my apprentice as a cyclist alongside tottering early steps on my actual ‘day job’ career ladder. As a result, from mid 2005 until late 2006, I did a fair chunk of riding on Saturday mornings, and Wednesday evenings, on routes that will be very familiar to you, the current crop of SD riders. And so, with a heavy nod to self indulgent reminiscing (aren’t soapboxes for ranting chaotically from anyway?), I’m going to take advantage of this platform to wax lyrical about that time in what should be read as a thinly veiled thankyou letter to ‘the 7:12’ and those characters who shaped me in my early days as a cyclist… Also, in a vain attempt to keep in touching distance of the impressive authoring of contributors to date (proof that the SD enjoys Galacticos both of the road, and of the pen), I’ll also be attempting to weave a smattering of pseudo-intelligent cultural & sporting references into my prose, some obscure, some more obvious. I’m genuinely interested in whether people can decipher them all…
My story began, as so many did, with a naive step through a tatty yellow door, quickly followed by a brusque assessment by a lanky Antipodean, of what items I’d be taking home in exchange for a wedge of my hard earned salary, and a parting shot of an invite (was it an order?) to a 7am rendezvous that coming weekend. I get the impression that he prefers the thwack of leather on willow these days, as is a mans prerogative, but undoubtedly we all owe a thankyou to Alister.
It’s useful to reflect on the words of LP Hartley at this point, indeed: “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. And so it was in mid-2005. Cycling itself was in a very different place to where it is found today: electronic shifters were outmoded nonsense from the past, (justifiable?) treachery in Madrid was yet to come, the Boss hadn’t even racked up all his TdF titles yet.
But more notably (and this is the crucial plot hinge) we didn’t have social media: Facebook was yet to be unleashed on the world, GPS was rare and Strava a dream for the future. And so, despite me wanting to say ‘thankyou’ to people who made a great impression on me, I barely know what they are called. At best you might catch a forename but, all in the same shades and helmet disguise, riders were usually primarily discernable by bike (“you know, he’s got ‘Big Leg Emma’ written on the fattest chainstay I’ve ever seen“…), their performance astride said machine and the content of the chat you might exchange as you rotated through the group (“Haven’t seen you out much – but you’re going well though?”. “Yes, I usually spend Oct – Feb cross country running instead of cycling – but when I come back I just tell everyone I haven’t ridden a bike all winter!”).
For me, one particularly moment stands out in the memory from the performance side. When I first rolled out from Bristol Street there was only one ride option – go North. And as a result there was only one place where it counted at 8:50 on a Saturday morning, after a run through roundabouts and traffic lights more frantic than the approach to the Cauberg during the Amstel Gold Race, glory was to be found on the Heartlands Parkway. I was soon to be given a masterclass in bike racing on this stage.
After several weeks of riding the route I’d learned how to best cope with the demands placed by the sojourn across the Wishaw road race course (the short incline always made the legs burn, the drag up to the bridge was always longer and harder than it should have been), and that Fox Hollies Road was not the place to launch ‘a long one’… So, with pride coming before the fall, I harboured hopes of claiming scalps in the final sprint.
In my memory the rundown the A38 and into the last few turns was, on that particular day , punctuated by endless calls for care, pleas to hold a line neatly in the left hand lane, warnings about incoming cars. I’m sure it’s a fabrication, to counterpoint what was to happen, but for whatever reason I found myself in a small bunch, plotting to make a move, but also thinking carefully about doing it within the full bounds of the Highway Code. The last roundabout was navigated, at speed, but cleanly – the familiar reticence in the pace began to signal that the collaboration was collapsing and there was nothing left for me to consider but when to soar away to victory.
Then, hunched low over his bars, Birmingham CC kit sleekly covering his modest stature, the roundhouse was dealt. Outside of Channel 4 coverage of Le Tour I’d never seen anyone attack in the opposite gutter before, and I’d certainly never seen it done on British roads. What genius. It may even have been accompanied by a cry of ‘on the left’ just to throw us further off our guards… We were left trailing in Marks wake, and I was starkly reminded of both how far I had to go physically, but also given a taste of the tactical acumen that I’d need to develop if I were to ever cut it in the heady heights of actual bike racing…
Thankfully I did learn the trade, supported along the way by a range of other characters from BRAT (Him: “Why don’t you try triathlon?”, Me: “Well, I can’t swim”, Him: “Don’t worry – neither can we…”), the highest ranks of international amateur racing (In a shameless plug for my blog you can pick this point up here: https://meandthemountain.wordpress.com/2011/12/07/humility/), the less higher – but on occasion supremely more self confident – ranks of local amateur racing (Trek 5600 for a winter bike anyone?), and countless others.
Unfortunately, in a strange parallel to my training regimen, I find that I’ve not given myself enough time to write this Soapbox entry. I’d intended to (half) unveil characters more steadily, across a number of tales of sporting endeavour (or through the medium of their heckling of pretty young ladies from the coffee shop balcony at the Bullring), but TV coverage of Paris-Roubaix is calling. So, like that magical Scottish village, the ‘shop ride’ (as I knew it) will fade back into the fog of my memory, whilst I continue to consider whether I should maintain my search for another ride that has the wonderful camaraderie it held. For, although I have continued to ride since leaving Birmingham and (despite a hiatus enforced by the arrival of a protege of my own) maintain dreams of sprinting to victory, I have never found a group of individuals as inspiring, interesting or enjoyable as those with whom I rode out in the mid-2000’s.
Chapeau gentlemen, and thankyou for the memories.”
As a postscript, and considering I have waxed lyrical about the wonder of other group rides, and moaned about them too – it’s true to say that ALL the cycling groups I’ve ridden with have had their good and bad, and I’m eternally grateful to have had company on tap when i’ve wanted it.