Kirky says, “Fancy doing a ’10’?”
I say, “Alright.”
I’ve been riding my bike a lot over the winter, long hauls across empty moorland roads in the Yorkshire half light, fast commutes in perpetual darkness, morning and night, broken glass nestled in the cracked tarmac reflecting my lamplight. I’m feeling in pretty good shape.
The lads in the club all ride Time Trials, riding a measured distance against the clock.
10 miles, 25, 50, sometimes a 100. They are racers. They have all the gear. They like to win.
I’m not a competitive type, not really. I don’t feel the need to win, but then again, I don’t like the idea of losing.
I set my bike computer to zero and ride for ten miles on my own, flat out. Head low. Icy wind pushing me into the gutter or pushing me in my face, never pushing from behind. Ten miles into oncoming headlights, avoiding potholes and stopping for traffic lights.
Ten miles, over and over again. Ten miles in the rain, in the sleet. Ten miles squinting into brilliant Winter sunshine that skims the horizon, blinding, casting shadows fifty feet long.
Kirky says, “You should ride a proper Time Trial bike in the 10, y’know. You’ll get a faster time.”
I say, “I’ll see what I can do.”
I get a lucky bid on a frame no-one wants. It won’t take gears, it’s a track frame, but that suits me fine. I want to build it cheap and quick and light. Gears are expensive, and besides, I’ve seen the race I want to take part in.
It’s a ten mile blast along the A64 on a Sunday morning in February, starting early. Five miles out, up a slip road, over the top, five miles back. It will be a big field of riders, but there is a race within the race, so to speak. The Medium Gear League are taking part. They only ride one gear – 72 inches. That means one full rotation of the pedal will propel the bike for 72 inches along the road. You only have one cog at the back wheel, and one chainwheel. You cannot change gear. I like the simplicity of it, the purity.
I used to read old bike magazines I’d find at cycle jumbles and book fairs, tales of cyclists hammering along A-roads in the early sixties after having slept the night in a hedge to be sure they were on the start line at five thirty. Hard blokes, bare hands gripping bare bars, no helmets, wool jerseys flapping as they battled a headwind in a 25 mile race.
I want to be part of that.
I want to race.
I’ve got a great Pete Matthews wheel in the garage. Titanium hub, light, smooth as butter. Kirky lends me an aerodynamic back wheel with the right cog to make it a 72 inch. I dig a set of handlebars out of my bits box and buy an old pair of triathlon bars from the mid nineties for a fiver off Ebay. I find everything else I need in the garage, things I’ve bought and never used.
I put it altogether in my garage on a night while listening to the radio, tightening bolts and and taking measurements, making sure I can ride the bloody thing once it becomes a bike. I only need one brake. Keep things light.
Once It’s built I try it out. It’s a bit wobbly to start with, but steadies out at speed. Taking my hands off the bars to rest my elbows on the pads in the middle and grip the triathlon extensions feels just plain wrong, but I do it anyway.
I become aero. I am faster.
Head low, back flat, arms reaching forward, knees close together I push the cog, speeding along the inner ring road at night, riding the bike to and from work, getting used to the feel of it.
The race is near.
I feel ready.
I want to be healthy, eat pasta and go to bed early, but the Saturday night before the race nerves get the better of me. I end up necking a bottle of red and a load of crisps. Fucking typical, sabotaging myself again.
Next morning I am bleary. It feels like the middle of the night as I pack the bike into the car along with my clothing and set off towards York. I sip hot tea from a bottle, listen to a DJ who sounds like he’s talking to himself and going slightly stir crazy.
Dawn is on the horizon as I pull into the car park. The temperature is below freezing. Snow is in the air. I consider pissing off home to bed but I don’t. I get out of the car and go to sign on, inside a golf clubhouse.
I meet Kirky there. He’s racing too. He’s with Alan. They look at me with trepidation.
I say, “What’s up?”
Kirky says, “Fucking Hell, mate. You won’t believe it but…”
Alan says, “You’re off first. Race Number 1. Talk about in at the fucking deep end.”
They look at me with genuine pity. I don’t properly understand.
Kirky explains. “Thing is, you’ve no-one to chase. We’re all chasing you. You’re on a Medium Gear but you’ve got racers on geared bikes chasing you at one minute intervals. When they start passing you…well… it can be a bit demoralizing.”
I say, “Well, I’d better not let anyone pass me then.”
Kirky and Alan exchange a glance.
I go to get my bike ready.
I’m shivering on the start line.
An old chap holds a stop watch in his gloved hand, breath billowing. Freezing mist clings to the bare fields all around and the trees look black and dead. The sky is pewter.
I fumble with the cycle computer I’ve stuck to my tri-bars with black electrical tape, zeroing the speedometer. I’m trying to breath but I can only manage shuddering gasps. The next bloke off after me glides up and wishes me good luck. He’s dressed like a Power Ranger. Pointy helmet, skinsuit, a bike that costs more than my car. I look back and see more of the same, Imperial Stormtroopers on carbon stealth machines. My bike cost sixty three quid.
I look forwards, at the road.
Don’t let anyone pass.
Set off first, cross the line first.
I clip into my pedals and get into position. A marshall holds me steady.
The man with the watch counts me down.
7… 6… 5… 4…
Ground Control to Major Tom.
3… 2… 1…
I surge forward, front wheel wavering as I steady the bike. Pushing the pedals as hard as I possibly can, getting up to speed. Head down, elbows on the pads, hands on the tri-bars, cutting the air in front of me.
I am away.
Each pedal rotation covering seventy two inches, pulling me closer to the five mile turning point. The long, long sweep of road ahead, traffic passing on it’s way to Scarborough and Bridlington.
I’ve got a minute before the Power Ranger sets off behind me. A minute to put some distance between us.
I realise the wind is coming from behind. For the first time ever the icy wind presses my back. I sit up a bit, theorising that my back might act as a sail and take a bit more of a push. It works. I look at my speed. 27mph.
The fields skim past, tangled skeletons of hedgerows and the broken stumps of trees. I’m dragging the cold air into my chest and it burns but I ignore it. I’m trying to spin my legs faster, huddled over the handlebars like a miser, hoarding speed, counting seconds, watching that first precious minute pass.
I know the Power Ranger is now hunting me down, a speck in the distance. I can almost hear dogs barking.
Each minute is a fresh hunter, chasing my tail.
Don’t let anyone pass.
I see a mile peel of the speedometer, then two. I’m keeping my wheel to the left of the line which I later discover is a mistake, as the road is cleaner on the right and I’m riding in the gravel, the glass, the puncture zone.
I don’t know that. I’m just trying to survive.
Wagons blast past at sixty, the wall of wind hitting me, causing me to waver. I steady the bike and pedal faster, pushing my own speed to thirty. Adrenaline is screaming in my limbs.
I can see fingers of ice creeping from the grass verge, into the road. I keep my wheel away, suddenly curious as to how I’d get back if I crashed.
I ignore that thought.
Three miles, three and a half.
I wonder where Power Ranger is. I can’t afford to look back as my front wheel might waver onto the ice or clip the kerb. I have to stay alert. But still, I wonder where Power Ranger is.
I imagine him focussed on me, a small shape getting larger as he closes in. I am his motivation. With the tailwind I know he can push a huge gear whereas I only have one, 72 inches.
I spin my legs faster.
Four and a half miles.
I see the slip road ahead.
I get out of the saddle, my legs an agony of lactic acid and cold. The slip road is steep and I have to keep momentum, I can’t let the Power Ranger catch me here.
I feel my back wheel slip. I sit down, take care with my steering. There is a large roundabout and a race marshall frantically waves me in the direction I need to go. I turn, and my back wheel slides across the road. I stop pedaling and the bike locks up, slithering across a road completely coated in black ice. My heart is battering against my ribcage and I let out a moan of fear. I start pedaling and just regain control, but the bike starts to slide again.
I let it go, hit a dry patch and suddenly I’m in control again, heading down the other slip road, onto the last five mile stretch.
My tyres crunch salt where a gritter has been, a reassuring sound.
It’s at this point I realise how hard this is going to be. It feels like someone has thrown a glass of cold water into my face.
The tailwind is now a headwind.
I fold myself over the handlebars, leaning on them, making my profile as small as possible. My speedometer reads 16mph. I push down hard, thighs complaining, and the speed goes up to 19mph. I hold it there, for now.
My mouth is dry, tongue like woodbark. I can feel the strength being drained by the wind, the cold, and I don’t want to do it anymore. I almost wish Power Ranger would just come past and get it over with, but then I think of the riders chasing him, the long line of riders hunting each other down, hunting me.
Don’t let anyone pass.
The miles take forever to tick by, and now there’s the occasional spectator, muffled against the cold.
“Go on, lad!”
“Keep it up!”
“Allez allez allez!”
I think of those sixties hardmen chasing a decent time on a bike made of gas pipes, fingers turning blue on the bare metal bars.
Six and a half.
I can see other riders hurtling along across the duel carriageway, bright coloured lycra and alien helmets, a world away from the faded black and white photos I used to study, a world of wool and sweat and grit.
My speed dips to 16mph again as the wind rises and I try harder but there’s nothing left. I keep the tempo, hold my position and hang on.
Where is Power Ranger? I imagine his aero helmet and bike slicing the wind like butter, meters from my back wheel, ready to pounce.
I hang on.
I squint into the distance, eyes streaming in the cold wind. There is a flurry of snow, sharp and crystalline. Glass dust.
I can see a group of three at the roadside. One holding a flag, one holding a watch, one bellowing muffled encouragement.
There’s no way I’m letting Power Ranger past, not now.
I press down harder, pouring whatever strength I’ve got left into my trembling legs, sprinting towards the little group, not daring to look back.
A hundred yards, eighty, fifty, twenty…
And I’m done.
I keep riding, momentum carrying me. I’m gasping like a drowning man and the cold air is horrible, like salt water. I keep spinning, speed dropping to 10 mph, and I pull off onto the slip road and head back towards the golf club, bike weaving slightly.
I feel a hand touch my shoulder lightly.
I look round and see Power Ranger riding next to me.
He looks grey, with a patch of red on each cheek. He is gasping for breath.
He says, “I just couldn’t bloody catch you. I… I just couldn’t…”
I lift my hand from the bars and we shake hands clumsily. He rides past, on to the club house.
I chuck my bike in car and pull on a fleece. I drink the last of the tea and it is cold but I don’t care.
Other riders return. Some have injuries, one a broken collar bone. Many fell on the roundabout turn that is covered in ice but many others make it ok.
Kirky and Alan return, slapping my back when they hear I didn’t let anyone past.
I feel proud, but I’m also empty. I have never felt this empty, before or since.
I get in the car and go home, watching out for exhausted riders on the road.
Later, I check my time on the computer.
I came in halfway down the field, beaten by half of them, beating half of them.
Exactly In the middle. Medium.
A medium gear.
I take the bike apart and sell the parts on Ebay.
I never ride a time trial again.