The Unexpected Randonneur
I quite often like to jump on my bike after work and pootle about town. Working in a bike shop, there’s not much time to actually ride the damn things. So on a nice day I’ll take my road bike into work, make sure she’s good to go and head straight out after locking up the shop. Head east, maybe do a few laps of Regent’s Park, an unspecified number of ascents up Swain’s Lane (aka the Alp d’Highgate), a ride south into Soho for a coffee and cake.
It’s the times when I think to myself that ‘I should head north’ that the world becomes more interesting and infinity more painful.
Cycling is an odd hobby. Some rides will be utterly unmemorable, others will burn themselves into ones neurons for life. The sights, the smells! See the magnificent Ikea, the glorious Tottenham substation, the enormous Matalan at Brimsdown! Experience the heady aromas of Hackney municipal dump!
Sometimes, this is all I see: London in all its disgusting, but very beautifully human, glory.
But there are times, the odd time, when a small alley or lane catches ones eye and I am pulled towards it, intrigued by the promise of the unknown. Without warning, I find myself tumbling down the rabbit hole and being sucked into the magnificent world of *le rouleur*.
I took one such turn earlier, and as the busy main road fell away, the landscape melted almost instantly into the kind of scene that would make Nigel Farage shed a single tear and salute a pint of warm bitter.
The willows formed an arch across the road, a single track that wound it’s way west from Enfield. The few houses are collecting moss and fallen twigs on their roofs. the owner carrying in firewood for the evening.
I push on, finding my legs in this novel summer evening sun. Short hedges enclose the road, half concealing the miles of rolling fields on either side. A line of electricity pylons snakes across the landscape, disappearing far into the distance on my right.
That such sights can be found within the m25 astounds me, it leads me to explore and discover more and more. It draws me in, pushes me to ride further and further.
Before I know it, it’s 9pm, the sun is setting and, most disturbingly, my ipod is showing signs that it’s not been charged in a while. My front light cuts a path in the badly potholed near-dirt tracks, the rising full moon, almost orange in the sky, casts a warm glow over the rollings fields either side of the road.
The thrill of discovery is beginning to be offset by a cold wind.
I roll into Potters Bar with numb fingers. I should eat something, I’ve not had anything since lunch. A BLT and a packet of fruit pastilles from the Co-Op, and a lucozade to refill my energy bottle – having consulted the gps, I’m ready to go again.
Now this is a race. The cold is setting in, I’m in short bibs and short sleeve jersey. My feet are numbing from the wind. I need to move fast, to build heat and to get home before the worst of the night takes hold. Cadence must be high, speed must be high, effort must be high. I smack up a few gears and start working my quads. Knees out, sweeping through arcing turns, illuminated by the light of the moon my legs pump in time with the symphony in my ears (Elgar’s Planets, for the interested). A fork in the road. Stop, check Google maps. Go.
Cut through little hamlets, houses solitary with wood fires burning, visible through the front windows as I power past, a red and white streak in the night.
It’s hard to explain why or when I started to panic. I knew where I was going, but the cold and the tiredness and the fact that I’m 20 miles minimum from home took its toll. While I was skirting the m25, this village world around me felt like I was riding hundreds of miles from home with nowhere to stay and no way to get back. Stop, check gps. No, I took a wrong turn a while back there. Turn around or find another route?
When I finally find myself in Radlett, which while far from home, is at least on an old training route of mine, and therefore familiar, it’s the boost I needed. Turning south, I know I’m on the home straight. I can ride to Stanmore and jump the tube back to Kilburn from there.
Hills that used to have me panting in the granny ring are now stomped at 21mph. I have conquered, and everything will be ok. Then, without warning, my front light turns off. The cold has shorted the switch and it’s now flicking through the settings, cycling between 100 and 500 lumens. I power onwards into the night.
The transformation from gentle rise to powerful sprint is not something I resent (especially now I’ve had a chance to warm up!). There are many sides to cycling. Relaxing in the warm evening sun and belting through the freezing night air are two completely different angles on an activity that seems to have as many faces as it does riders.
Riding fixed, single speed, town riding, commuting, randonneuring, audax, touring, sportive, racing, polo, 4 cross, downhill, bmx – hundreds of ways of enjoying the simple sensations of riding a bike.
Needless to say I got home. My light switching off on the final descent into Stanmore was interesting. I was travelling at 40mph with no helmet, no goggles and now, no light. But it switched on at the bottom. The stop start all the way home (do you really think I’d have caught the tube?) was offset by the warm London air (heated by 7 million people’s bodily emissions). My iPod held on to the bitter end, finally running out as I rolled into my estate. Front light was on and off, but I survived with my 10 lumen backup. All in, 59 miles or 95 kilometres in 3 and a half hours. Not too shabby for a quick ride after work.
While great training for the long rides I have planned this year, something more profound hit me. The beauty of riding is dulled by working the shop, selling people the idea of what I’ve just done. The freedom, the sunshine, the exploration of nature’s wonder.
Unlike other professions where romanticised ideals are used to sell, in cycling I have a hobby that can take me out of my front door and show me that ideal – and make me fall in love with it all over again. For that, I am truly grateful!