Friday, 20 March 2009

Papermill Lock

Every cyclist is a weather prophet. They haunt websites for signs of a break in the cold; they share tips on where the most reliable forecasts reside; they invest in indoor/outdoor thermometers in the hope of gauging what they need to wear for their weekend jaunts. And still when they turn up for a ride half will claim to be under-dressed and the others will be over-heating.

The sun has decided to appear, the temperature is nudging towards double digits and the layers are slowly being peeled away. Like the first flowers of spring, those gaudy crocuses – the fair weather cyclists return to the fold, they have wintered out, gone skiing instead, gone jogging or just stayed in bed. The group has swelled once more and the good bikes are brought out of the bubble wrap.

However, there is still that ever present fear of the weather. The concern over the cold is replaced by bitter complaints about the spring winds. Half a ride can be spent disagreeing about which direction it is coming from, where it will be on the way home and the best route to take to avoid the worst of it. And yet the end of the ride is always spent breaking your heart into a howling gale on the sea front.

Then again there are the other times when the wind drops and we take off for somewhere new. Last weekend, we meet early, seven of us all with open ended passes. No need to rush back, kids taken care of by indulgent partners. We spin out past the usual routes, no Barling for us today. Instead it’s out to the north of the county. Before long we have the roads to ourselves, we ride two abreast, keeping an eye on the surfaces we roll along – the recent bad weather having opened up cavernous potholes which could snap a fork, puncture a tyre or even knock you off your bike.

We know it’s along one and for the first couple of hours we keep it sensible but it’s not long before CF charges off the front, then we are all scrambling to get a wheel the gentle 18 mph replaced by 24 and heavy breathing, the peleton spread all over the road and very few of us clear about where we are going.

Fortunately, we stop mid ride for a cuppa. The lads are good and merely have a teacake but I’m not turning down an opportunity to devour a rather delicious slice or two of Victoria sponge. The talk turns to the beauty of the location – Papermill Lock. A genuine working lock, complete with longboats and picture postcard looks. The only down side is that we are back down at sea level and have one of the largest hills in Essex to climb before we can even think about the next twenty-five miles home.

We lumber up, each picking a gear which will suffice – some go for the powering up approach, others go for the spinning gear – a big dinner plate on the back. All try to make sure it’s not their final gear – the granny gear still there in reserve. Then TLV decides to take off and it’s all on again. People swear as they clunk into the big chain ring and attempted to move from the slow regular rhythm of climbing into the high tempo churning of sprinting.

It is a devastation from which the peleton does not recover. We spend the next hour in pairs wondering where others have got to as we enter into the fourth and fifth hour of riding. CF and I put on a final spurt as we realise that no-one is near us. We push it through the lanes of Battlesbridge. Thighs now screaming with lactic build up. Laurent Fignon used to describe a particularly hard training ride as ‘Going to meet the man with the hammer’ and today I think I may well have glimpsed him as I finish my final water bottle and realise I am still forty minutes from home.

I stand up for the last slope, breathing deeply, my shoulders hurting as I start to grip the bike too hard and I hear CF’s chain come off. I slow turn to turn round but it’s not slipped off, it’s broken in two. The man with the hammer taking direct action. It’s some relief to stop and chat, eat a cereal bar and wait for Big D to turn up with his van. We review the ride, glorying in not merely doing the 70 miles but having such a lovely day to do it in.

The van arrives and I spurn the chance to put my bike in the back, instead I climb back on, the light of virtue in my eyes. I’m coming home under my own steam. Hammered but unbowed.