My forearms rest over the handlebars and my head is down. My body rocks from side to side and my legs keep turning over. I look ahead at the rising road and subdue a smile with gritted teeth.
In the pub last night, the guys propping up the bar all had the same response when they heard where I was heading: Puffed cheeks, shaking heads and a wry smile. Apparently there was a big hill ahead of me in the morning. I looked at the grid lines of my map which continued across the page oblivious to contours. Sixty five miles or so to Preston where a bed and friendly face awaited. Could I do that in a day?
Tomorrow I will be bigger.
Pulling out of the farmer’s field, I turn left and an elderly man stops his car on the other side of the road. He looks me up and down, stares coldly into my eyes and raises a thumb. I’m off.
The road sweeps round the side of rising hills into the mist with a feel of no man’s land and I press down on the pedals without relenting to the gradient. I summit, don another layer for the descent and stuff some chocolate. Coming down the far side I hit 25mph and swerve across the road as I glance at the speedo to confirm as such. My highest gear is seeing unprecedented levels of use this morning as my torso bobs up and down, making the most of gravity to aid the turning of cogs. There is a slight pressure in my head from the exertion and my eyes continually water but my body does not seem to be fading. I press on.
Cars honk their support and passersby wave.
“Keep it up!”, cries a woman flying past me downhill in the opposite direction.
“Hey!”, shouts another, caught off guard but enthusiastic nonetheless.
“Hey”, I offer in response but I’m not looking at him. I’m staring dead ahead.
They’re not cheering because I’m working hard. They’re not willing me to make the distance, maintain the speed, rise to the challenge. They’re cheering because I’m riding a bright yellow rickshaw that clearly weighs a ton and is festooned with banners and a flag. The sentiment is appreciated but today I am fuelled by thoughts of progress and that rare and blissful sense that your body is capable of whatever your mind can put it to.
Today I am stronger.
A fly crawls across the map I have wedged under bungee cords on the front seat. Lazily it walks across the page making a mockery of my efforts, ignorant to my dilemma and oblivious to the heat of my gaze. I maneuver my right wheel around a pot hole and when I look back it’s gone.
Ahead of me, a sign indicates toilets at the next junction but assessing the distance as I sail round the roundabout, I determine it to be a waste of precious seconds, vital yards, and continue to the nearest roadside bush. Before getting back into the saddle I open my food bag and moments later find myself 1,300 calories heavier. I pedal furiously back into traffic and sink another litre from my water bottle.
I am setting no records here. The speeds I’m achieving are laughable. I can’t even catch the granny on a mobility scooter before she turns off to post her letters and every other cyclist on the road passes me with ease. But that is irrelevant. This is about me. I have contrived a sense of challenge and I am relishing it. My body is responding perfectly to the stimulus and it feels good.
I check the speedo as I have done every 30-seconds throughout the day. The impact of each ascent and descent on my average speed obviously lessens as the day goes on but it doesn’t stop me monitoring every minute change.
8.72mph. 25% up on yesterday.
Today I am faster.
I know I’m on the home straight but I’m out of gas. Before my mind makes the decision, my body steers me into a bus stop and I sprawl myself over the front seat and bury my head, almost literally, in a giant bag of Doritos. I don’t have the energy even to maintain a facial expression and the crumbs of tortilla chips spill all over my top as I crunch lazily, staring into nothingness. I mount once more and follow the directions I’ve been given, my glucose-deprived world narrowed to the width of a single lane.
I often find social situations awkward and greetings are some of the worst. When do you shake hands? When do you hug and kiss cheeks, and when do you just stand two yards apart and say “Alright?”. Waiting in the driveway out the front of his house with the garage door propped open, Steve makes the decision easy by spreading his arms out wide and I’m not ashamed to say I fell straight into them.