My friend John has a battered bike addiction. He buys old frames and old bike parts at antisocial hours on eBay. He is hooked on the adrenaline rush of the closing seconds of the auction, all for an ancient Rudge or historic Elswick. He also has a soft spot for retro Campagnolo, or Campag, parts. Is it any wonder why? I mean, look at them. Lumps of metal they may only be, but in their cold forged elegance is a pride in the art of engineering, in design, in Italian style when today’s products seem so fragile, so flimsy, so temporary. Here is a beauty that has longevity, solidity, permanence. And John gives it new life.
A looming grey morning by the river, mist whispering through the bent reeds and feather-ended grasses that wave, regally, breezily. Afar, a loose brush stroke of blue; a distant sun illuminating the lower Peaks flourescently; shining like a glint of silver on an old clock face.
The longnix, the grey predator, stands stock still on the river bank. Her movements are imperceptible; geologic, intent-filled. Statuesque, she eyes a river rock pool, flush with bright gravel and water-oiled cobbles; previously I had seen her nestling under an overhanging tor worn smooth by the persistent, urgent caresses of the wind, in the long grass, hard staring the opal black water. She is the hunter. Not a lion or wolf, but an assassin; she steps in and becomes the shadows; her neck is a spear gun, flaring, darting, incisive. A starter pistol, an instant reaction. The stickleback’s back is snapped back; then broken, swallowed, gone.
Disturbed; longnix is unruly, comical. The take-off strained; loping, curving, sagging; struggling to make altitude before at last she is away, wings spreading and eventual grace. Built for stillness or flight; the rest, awkward.
Unawares, she transmutes into a champion cyclist; “il campionissimo”; thin limbed and lithe, knees knocking, walking like a baby giraffe or foal – best when still; then on the bike, the longnix stands, unfurls, opens up, wings spreading, takes off. Built for stillness or for flight, the rest, awkward.
Whilst I am not a fair weather biker, winter cycling does challenge. Inevitably, boisterous walks with our dog or short intense, mist-shrouded runs take their place, exacerbated by a busy pre Christmas business schedule. Yesterday though I fitted in a short ride: really, it was a late Autumn ride: with a bite to the air and the fallen leaves now a levée of pulped compost damming up behind the kerbstones like snow drifting against an exposed hedge or drystone wall. I wasn’t there, but my dad’s recount of the banks of snow up near Tegg’s Nose in 1956 came to mind, so vivid they were in the telling. Towards the road centre, the leafocaust was less intense, here a collage wallpaper print, the maples particularly picturesque. My tyres were skittish. Later I would buy some new ones to find more grip.
In the evening, I read some old blog posts, one from a now defunct blog I had called ‘The Speed of Bike’. The contrast in this post was immediate: in a few short weeks the clouds of insects, the warm smells of cropped fields and plump, rich hedgerow fruits, gone, replaced by the clear starkness and broad horizons of winter. It is reposted below.
I have a circuit. If Map My Ride can be trusted it’s 15.3 miles but close enough for me to call it 15 allowing for rounding. It’s mainly flat, but not so flat to allow just a cruise. The initial 4 miles are a long drag, more than a false flat, less than a ‘categorised climb’, with a lumpy road surface and regular ripples across the road which make for an uncomfortable hammering for the hands. Then a long section, 8 miles which is flat cruising on resurfaced roads, before a final 3 miles that loops me back into the village. It’s my unthinking route – if I want a quick ride and don’t feel inspired to route plan, or just haven’t got the time, then I set off, happy to be unthinking.
That was my mode last night. A quick gap before tea for a breather. Autopilot on, concentrating on the sensations of the road not the ride itself – it may sound strange, but sometimes there’s equal pleasure in just turning over the pedals. Pulling up not just pushing down; counting revolutions as the tyres gently whirr on the tarmac; feeling the road through your handlebars. There’s a mesmeric intensity to it which takes me to another place.
Last night though, Mother Nature caught me out. Not by a blazing show of power – lightning; hail, brimstone. Rather through the gentle elongated light of Summer. As I pedalled, I tried to think of the words for this piece – but unlike my pedal strokes they didn’t flow in the ‘there and now’. It was a bigger, more holistic impression of ‘this is what makes the British countryside so special’. And it was the light most of all. Even two hours before sun down, the light was low. It stretched everything: trees ran across the fields like the bony hands of a skeleton; buildings were pulled outwards like play dough, with a soft shadow added from photoshop. And the air was still warm, melting away in front of me as I cycled – just like the butter my gran would melt on the side of the stove before dragged her bone-handled palette knife through it for the first round of toast.
And the bugs. Millions of nameless, swirling, random insects pinging off my jacket, leaving small pok-marks as their exoskeleton performed its protective task. So many that at times I had to turn my head away and steer through eyes askance down the road. If there is a Maker and we are all to be judged then I’ll need to confess my sins for the number I unintentionally snuck up and spat out.
At last, home. As the brakes ease me to a standstill, and I clip out of the pedals, the sense of sadness that comes from riding on a long summer evening. Like the Summer evenings of our youth, there is just the lingering desire for it to carry on forever.
An early start to Herefordshire, and the first sense that Summer ebbs as Autumn flows. From the broad valley with the Cotswolds on one side, and the Malverns the other, the M50 is the apple route. It becomes immediately more rural, and grassy. Rather than illuminated signs telling you to “use hard shoulder when busy” here they just say “Soft Verges”, a polite warning not to break down as the hedgerows will swallow you up. Then, outside Ledbury, the apple trees begin, defiant, proud, spiky despite huge stands that map the rolling lie of the land. They are heavy with fruit.
With a strange circularity today, I meet an old colleague Giles. He worked for an advertising agency in Edinburgh who my old company used, and in 2001, we were up in the Scottish capital in a ‘pre production’ meeting, a critical stage in making an advert where everything about the forthcoming shoot gets agreed. During the meeting we heard the whispers. ‘Have you heard what’s going on in New York?’. Diverting the focus of the meeting, we watched transfixed. When the towers fell, it was impossible to comprehend what was going on. The setting was so familiar, so much like a movie set, watching it felt like one. But it was only in the taxi on the way to the airport and the flight home, that what had happened sunk in. We flew home.
The Plane trees in London are beginning to hunker down in preparation for winter. Leaf edges are curling up and turning cello brown. Some fall early; walking between parallel rows, the gravity of expectation is almost palpable. I don’t know why Planes are so named; but I have a soft spot for their versatility and constitution. Their fruit hanging like posh Christmas decorations, bulbous, glittering and furry; unlike conkers they don’t seem to fall. The Planes have adapted to thrive, like urban foxes.
I wait for my train at the British Library. To work at the library café it seems you must have an Apple computer, but they seem to sell very few apples at the counter, only cakes and excessively crusty sandwiches. It is though, to paraphrase ‘the restoration man’, George Clarke, ‘a great space’ and time passes quickly.
I ride 62 miles on my bike, but feel unwell throughout. The land however is bursting with health and vibrancy. Climbing over the Chase under trees, I glance up at the canopies overhead. With the strong light behind, the canopies form patterns like fancy pants wallpaper, Laura Ashley, Farrow & Ball.
With the passing of the Autumn Equinox the daily stride towards darkness begins. And so too the bustle of Autumn, everywhere activity. As the sap in the tree falls as the days shorten, so the wind can starts its ironic late Spring clean, loosening the leaves’ attachment to their home.
The light lingers long now, backlit, iridescent. A short walk against brooding dark skies sees the hills lit up with spotlights. Greens are greener; the autumn colours commence, duns, browns, burgundies, reds. And the puffs of falling leaves have started. The horse chestnuts are letting go all around, a leafy mulch on the pavements. Other are less forthcoming, the oaks are still green, the little coins of the beech are preparing.
This morning, low mist hangs over the fields and in places hill tops jut through, floating on the clouds. The sun is low. Bright reflections and long shadows of a leggy man striding across the fields. Squinting. And in the distance a swan, wing up, preens, preparing to hunker down.
Just the other week, I had a genuine shock, one of those stop you dead moments (if you are a person of a certain age at least): my youngest informed me that Blue Peter had finished. Blue Peter. Most notable perhaps for the combustible Advent Crown and early product placement in the form of the use of industrial quantities of double sided sticky tape (why could you never get it in Woolies?). I however, remember it for the tits. And starlings, and blackbirds and maybe, just maybe, a cuckoo. Every year, Blue Peter, in conjunction with the RSPB ran a bird count. The idea was that you’d throw ‘Supersize Me’ quantities of nuts and seeds on to your lawn then over the course of the whole weekend count all the birds. We used to squat in semi darkness in my Mum and Dad’s bedroom, binoculars to hand, peeking through a gap in the curtains so as not to frighten the wretched things, and work on a rota system, roping in all wings of the clan. We were highly democratic: there was no pecking order. Anyway, as it turns out, Blue Peter is now on the C Beebies channel. We can all sleep calmly in our beds.
Blasted sparrows. That’s my main memory. Small and dull, with a touch of brown on their brown bodies, set off by their brown beak and brown eyes. And they were fast movers with a pugnacity which meant they didn’t brook any nonsense from their winged brethren, no matter the size of adversary. They were like flocks of dwarf bouncers orchestrating the other birds around the feeding zone to their will. Or rather, to their quantity: no birds dared mess with the sparrows, because force of numbers alone meant they wouldn’t win. Sparrows ruled. End of.
Not today. Today you’ll be lucky if you spot a sparrow in your garden. The rise in the number of house cats is typically cited. I’m not so sure: admittedly, I’m not that attuned to cats but there don’t seem to be demonstrably more or less than a few years ago. And I don’t remember the last time I saw a moggy wandering around with a clutch of sparrows hanging from its jaws, ready to barbecue or enjoyed as a carpaccio.
Link this if you will to the game of ‘beer can market share’. This highly entertaining game is best played from a push bike. Essentially, as you ride along, simply count up the number and type of beer cans in the verge; keep a mental note and then convert to a rough market share at the end of the ride. Stella Artois, Carling and Fosters seem to be the main winners, unsurprisingly, with pockets of San Miguel or Kronenbourg, generally in more urban areas, and more surprisingly, Carlsberg Special Brew which no longer seems to be the ‘on street drinkers’ beverage of choice, yet remains popular, verge-side. Recently though, I have converted this game to that of Roadkill Counting. This isn’t some sick festish. It’s just come into my consciousness: there simply seems to be more dead animals in the road. In a car you wouldn’t notice – let’s be honest, the animal is probably smoking the radiator as you hum along to Elbow and the kids in the back are distracting you from the badger you’ve just taken out.
And here’s cause of the sparrow decline. Pigeons. These are the new barrow boys of the bird world. Wheeler dealing for some knock off Trill and ganging up on the jackdaws for pecking rights in the manor. I know this. I know this due to the roadkill count. Pigeons are right up there you see, and truth be told it’s quite sad. For the artless pigeon doesn’t take death in its stride. No, the hapless things are generally lying, splayed in the road with a look of abject bemusement and surprise, rather like Arthur Dent reacting to the Vogons arrival on Earth. And their wings seem to take on statuesque shape and proportion. One, just last week had managed to land on the road, pecking for some titbit I suspect, just at the moment a Landie came along with its rather thin wheels and took it out in a graceful body shot. Rigamortis quickly set in, leaving the bird’s wings protruding up in the air, as if ready for take-off with its body level with the road. Thor’s helmet came to mind.
But there are no sparrows. There are badgers; hedgehogs (many); the occasional fox, pheasants of course (they’re the jumbo jets of the avian world – long slow take off. Alas, their flightpath is too often across a busy carriageway) and even birds of prey (mid swoop take out?). But no, the answer to the decline of the sparrow is this: pigeon eats sparrow; car eats pigeon.
November 2012. Musings of a long distance commuter.
The Principle of Selective Attention. That was it. You know how you can walk the world oblivious to something – then somehow it’s brought to your attention and you see it all the time? That was it. Just like when my wife decided to buy a new Beetle. Apparently there had been a big launch, loads of press and PR, but it had passed me by. Until my wife saw one in the street: “There!” she said, “There’s one!” You couldn’t miss it at the time – unlike anything else on the road – and that was the moment. The Principle of Selection Attention (let’s call it ‘The PSA’ as he’s an old friend now) – the new Beetle – everywhere.
And that was it with Bromptons too. In fairness, as a cyclist, obviously I knew about Brompton’s. Ugly thing. Fold. Weird handlebars. Commuters. But they had never sunk in. A mere bike-shaped shadow passing across my consciousness; not cutting through; not managing to prioritise itself above the millions of other, more important things. Not now though.
Now I work in London. Now, loathe though I am to admit it, I am a London commuter myself. And Bromptons are everywhere. Like a pestilent storm of locusts, gnashing, chomping, biting at the periphery of my vision. Swooping; darting; nipping. Next to me on the platform. There when I look out of the window. Folded under a table in a cafe. Peeking at me. Teasing me. Black ones mainly. And red. And yellow. And a few white ones. Even a pink one down Margaret Street. Then the varnished bare metal one with nice golden brazing. Seen a few of them now.
And handlebars. Not all weird, up turned zig-zag affairs. Some just weirdly straight. Or only mildly bent. They even have gears. And Brooks saddles. And a bell with a particular tone. Not too effeminate that you ignore it; not too deeply resonant that it gets lost in all the urban background noise. Just right – mid tone, on the edge of annoying yet bullseye for ‘getting you noticed’. Suspension too. Old school – a massive elastomer (rubber bung) on the back wheel, for soaking up the speed bumps, potholes and inattentive pedestrian. A reflection perhaps on the svelte urbanites with low body fat who actually need some extra padding.
Oh, and the engineering. These are not machines built to fail; they are built to last you a lifetime. The quality of the welding; the choice of material; the ingenuity and solidity – the beauty even – of the various folding mechanisms. And discovery. Couples pedalling across the US on Bromptons. Lands End to John o’Groats – of course; been there, done it, too late my friend. You Tube clips now being sent to me of trick riders doing moves clearly in breach of the manufacturer’s warranty. And…..damn it! I want one.
July 2014. E Bay
I went on to the Brompton website to ‘build my own’. £1,200 or thereabouts. £1,200. Cor. Next stop: e bay; placed a bid on a second hand one. Right at the last minute, clever me. Lost out by £50. Right at the last minute. Cor. ©
Morning Mister Magpie
This blog was written just after the announcement – better, confirmation – that Lance Armstrong, like most of his contemporaries had drugged his way to victory in the Tours de France. As someone who had followed his story; the revelation, though unsurprising, indeed anticipated, still left an open, raw, feeling.
So we were living a lie then, all of us. The whole Lance Armstrong thang. Of course, it’s not the ‘Lance Armstrong thing’ of course, is it? It seems they were all in on the pop, every team, every nation, team Principals, oily rags… possibly to the very top of the sport (we shall see). The Festina Scandal of 1988 didn’t make any difference. Pantani sprinting up hills like he’s got wind behind him across the Polders of Holland time triallist, getting caught in the Giro at his moment of glory, eventually dying in his hotel room – didn’t make any difference. Athletes dying in the middle of the night as their hearts slowed to a standstill with their blood as thick as gazpacho – didn’t make any difference. No, it seems Lance and his partners just took it to a whole new level, and give him his due, did it well – 7 years of domination, pummelling, awesome rides as an individual and as team… all it seems powered by Kool Aid.
So where does it leave our memories, my memories? The year he returned from a cancer that had every right to kill him? He brought new attitude, new technology, new gear (his Time Trial helmet was like the head of the creature from the Alien movies), new swagger. I wanted him to win. To dominate. An English speaker, brushing away the cobwebs of fustiness and out-dated tradition. His mountain time trial epic on Alpe d’Huez as he sprinted past Ivan Basso. The year he almost lost, felled by a child’s musette, then slipping off his pedal to win by seconds in the final time trial against Jan ‘also on the pop’ Ulrich.
And what about Landis, and stage 17. Down and out, a proper ‘bonk’ the day before, dropping 10 minutes, to make a foolhardy attack 16 kilometres into a mountain stage… that stuck. Testosterone or no, it will be a ride that sticks in my memory. Because I can’t erase them. Those moments were real. They happened and yes, I am now disappointed, but the truth is they did happen and I watched them, right there, in the moment. I can’t go back, supplant them with something else. I can’t change the context. When Landis rode that stage, I kept on popping out of a day-long meeting like I had the runs, I had to see it, it was that gripping.
So now I have to draw a veil of guilty feeling across my mind separating the politically correctness of knowing that Armstrong is a swindler, with the other half, the devilish bit that knows how exciting it was back then and how he just raised the bar.
Or maybe there is a third way. Maybe over time my memories will fade and ‘truth’ and ‘perception’ will merge into a new reality. I can always hope can’t I?
© Morning Mister Magpie