About eight years ago I found myself dressed in the best gear Burtons could supply travelling back from London after the usual series of unproductive business meetings. Bored and fed up, I entertained myself by eavesdropping upon the surrounding conversations. Mobile phones had yet to intrude the commuter’s routine. Most failed to catch my ear, until I overheard a frustrated couple discussing the crossword.
“A member of two unions simultaneously,” the husband repeated whilst impatiently drumming his fingers against the window. His wife rapidly emptied her cranial thesaurus and began to freeform around the names of British trade unions. I knew the answer instantly – ‘bigamist’. I’m hopeless at crosswords, I doubt I’ve ever completed one in my life, but for once I’d unravelled a clue. Imagine my torment, torn between proudly announcing the answer or keeping it to myself in a self-satisfied smug smile folded arms sort of way. A few minutes later I blurted it out. The wife politely thanked me whilst her husband tinged red and furiously attempted to disprove my theory. He couldn’t and the word ‘bigamist’ has stuck in my mind ever since.
Eight years later and I’ve finally put the word into practice. Not in my love life I hasten to add. Bigamy would be very difficult for one with my appearance and table manners. However, were marriage law to be applied to cycling then I would quickly find myself answering charges of first degree bigamy. I’ve got a road bike and a mountain bike and I love them both the same.
In order to explain my crime, I need to give you some background. So lets start with mountain biking and how it led me down the aisle.
I bought my first mountain bike in 1998. My friends were buying them and my knees were insisting that cross -ountry running had played its role more than adequately in removing my thirty-year-old puppy fat. Being a slightly obsessive character I set out to ride it as often and as fast as I could. The bike led to 4four others, a myriad of accessories, a darker section of my front drive, an increased mileage on both my car and camper van and a number of pocket-draining holidays in the USA. Mountain biking was certainly my first cycling love, kindled over the ruts and chalk of the Wiltshire Ridgeway but set alight in the English forests and Welsh mountain passes.
Whilst mountain biking I have collected a whole new group of friends and plenty of material to bore my grandchildren senseless with as I descend into senility. I’ve raced, I’ve explored, I’ve been lost and found as well. I’ve had nasty injuries and seen friends put out of action completely. I’ve joined a club and stayed up till early hours drinking and giggling incoherently. I’ve bought a rainforest’s worth of magazines and wasted hours on internet forums. I’ve taken photographs and written reports. I’ve nodded knowingly and laughed at the reports of others. I’ve ridden alone and in groups, night and day in every season. I’ve tested myself, won and lost. I’ve felt frustration, elation, apathy, empathy, and on certain occasions a belief that nobody in the world is having a better time than I.
I’ve catalogued volumes of new knowledge, learned new skills and techniques and maybe even matured a bit along the way. Mountain biking has taken me to some of the most scenic corners of Britain, it has given me views that only the minority will glimpse. If I think about it hard enough the essence of my mountain biking is that which surrounds me whilst I’m doing it. Be that companionship, scenery, weather conditions or the lack of a certain problem that’s been weighing me down.
So, that seems like a perfectly reasonable seduction. Who wouldn’t be happy in a marriage that delivers those characteristics and why on earth would anybody hanker for more? Well, as stated earlier I’m a slightly obsessive character. I find it hard to sit still and equally hard to sit back without any attempt to improve. Mountain biking has delivered a new degree of fitness for me, however, in true 21st century male fashion, I’m not satisfied and I want some more.
That’s why I’ve recently had an affair with road biking, which has now escalated out of control to the point that we nipped down the registry office a few months back and signed on the line. Or put another way, I’ve joined a road club. “Why?” I hear the committed mud warrior cry, “Surely you could get fitter and ride your mountain bike at the same time?” Well I’ve been thinking about that.
Every mountain bike ride offers me the opportunity to stop, take a breath, look around, read a plaque on a memorial, admire a sunset or wonder “What was that?” and wish I’d not come out alone in the dark. Every ride has a hint of uncertainty about it and I’d hate to turn up the opportunity to view a naked couple romping as my training schedule forbade it. Put simply, I’m not about to ruin my mountain biking with rigour, schedule, targets or monitoring. So I joined a road club.
Now you understand my reasoning, I imagine that you are still confused. Bigamists have two marriages. It’s clear where the love for mountain biking comes from, but surely road biking is purgatory punctuated with angry motorists, boring routes and miserable companions. Isn’t it more akin to a mother-in-law rather than a second bride?
Well, no. I really enjoy road biking and joining the club has only served to increase that pleasure. I’ll try and explain that, too.
The essence of a road club is the club run, a regular ride often run at weekends and usually covering a fair distance. Our club run sets off on Sunday mornings and covers between 60 and 70 miles around the back-roads of rural Wiltshire. The Sunday club run is billed as the “fast” one and usually averages a pace of somewhere between 17-19mph over the distance. Between seven and ten riders usually turn out all wearing the club colours. From the outset we ride in formation, a mini peleton designed to be as aerodynamic and energy efficient as possible. The peleton has a life and dynamic of its own as we flatten out to let motorists pass or re-order to take tired riders off the front and replace them with a fresh set of legs.
We ride close together and a blithe banter ripples up and down the group. Riders at the front unconsciously point out hazards in the road to those behind such as potholes or pedestrians. The statement that road cyclists are unskilled is a myth. Precise bike handling skills are necessary in order to remain within inches of the wheel of another whilst ridiculing the shameful chat-up lines they produced during the previous evening’s drinking session.
Occasionally a road sign or boundary marker causes conversation to cease, followed by a rattling of chains and a marked increase in the pace of the group. It’s a club run sprint, the objective of every rider is to be first to the marker, and it’s taken me a while to be able to play this game. The first time it happened, I dashed enthusiastically off the front of the group only to descend into a ragged hell of lactic acid and cramp as the rest of the group cruised effortlessly past. This was followed by a quick and efficient burst of speed from the winner to claim the sprint. I hold back now, I can’t win the sprints on the flat but the hill climbs are a different matter (mountain bike legs, you see).
Some sprints are traditional, others are spontaneous. If we’re honest we’re imitating our heros in the major races. But it certainly adds flavour and interest to the Sunday run.
Every cyclist we pass is waved at and any overtaken are invited to climb on for a tow. I’ve read so many things about bad-tempered roadies, but can’t find them in my club. After a few hours we stop to refuel. The conversations round the table echo those I encounter whilst mountain biking, invariably descending to base male subjects centred around alcohol, women or sporting prowess but sprinkled with sarcasm and self-deprecation.
Not a looker
Admittedly the scenery’s not as good as that found off-road. But I’ve had sunny winter panoramics of the Cotswolds, frost-nipped rolling Wiltshire downs and guest appearances from the Mendips on one particularly long ride.
Our club runs are deliberately run at a pace and they’re demanding. We all turn up to get fitter or maintain whatever fitness we have. We share that objective and we work hard yet collectively to ensure that we all end the ride together having maximised our workout. I recently descended further into the freemasonary of road riding by completing my first time trial. But that’s another story altogether.
Whilst my bigamy has no excuse, the reasons are clearly understandable. Both of my marriages are strong because they have been entered into for entirely different reasons. Mountain biking feeds my soul and delivers the antidote necessary to survive some of the darker side effects of modern existence. Road riding feeds my ambition to be a better and faster rider and participation within a road club pushes me harder towards that ambition.
I wouldn’t for a second advise that every cyclist become a bigamist. My route has been formed by a connection of synapses within my head that are peculiar to me. What lights my candle may well extinguish your forest fire. But give it a try – you might just like it…