The calls have been made, the important “I haven’t ridden in months” uttered and lie-in times negotiated. We meet outside Herne Hill’s historic velodrome at 8am (I didn’t fair too well in the negotiations).
The low February sun floods the street, it’s glare bouncing off Range Rovers windscreens in unison, pointedly reminding me about the few too many beers last night.
Disturbing the sleepy suburban street with bright colours, snapping cleats and hissing brakes come the riders I’ll be alongside today. Hand shakes exchanged, we quickly winch our way up the climb to Crystal Palace where Cadence Cycles – and more importantly, coffee – await.
We’re the first riders to arrive so sling our bikes onto the rack outside, clip-clop merrily to the warmth inside and get in line for espressos. Sitting down among carbon bikes, the sound of a workshop next to us and people getting their early-morning sweat on in the studio above, it’s a chance for any strays (…just me then) to introduce themselves.
Of the 4 guys here, I know only one, Bryan – my friend whom I’ve spent my first years in London riding with. The other two also work at Rapha whilst the fourth is an architect, and by all intents a mean cyclist, having turned up on a singlespeed. We discuss jobs, excuses for poor legs and rides that we’ve all got planned for the year ahead. I try my best to downplay the week in Girona that I’ve got lined up but the smile at the corner of my mouth says it all. The others are all focussed on a nearer target, having signed up to the closed road Velothon Wales ride and they invite me along – I’m tempted but keen to see just how fast this friendly bunch are first.
As coffees are finished and a vague route pieced together, our fifth rider turns up, Dan. I’ve ridden with Dan before, a lovely guy who’s come from the fixed gear scene. A scene which he clearly isn’t eager to leave behind – he swings his leg over his bars and strolls into the cafe wearing a pair of faded, ripped skinny jeans and a waterproof – the courier uniform. Legend.
The cafe begins to fill and we head off, freezing as we fly down the hill and away from London. We soon find the Kent lanes, following shouts from Bryan behind us. It feels great to be out in the sun and zipping along; my bike immaculate, posh wheels on and gears snapping away perfectly.
Three of us have been a little overly eager and set too ambitious a pace, soon realising that the others have dropped back and out of sight. We ease up until they make it back to us, overtaken by the masses of other Sunday riders out for their slice of the sunny roads.
Dan isn’t feeling brilliant, an ongoing knee issue is rearing its head after months away from the bike. Agreeing that three of us will ride on in the direction of the cafe at Idehill, stopping at any major junctions to regroup, and so we bolt off, punching our way up the hills that Kent has on offer. Idehill’s community shop/cafe is an absolute haven for cyclists. The Brixton CC guys have beaten us to it, though and fill the seats inside the warm grotto. Having stocked up on bananas and kindly had our bottles re-filled (but why always only 3/4 full?!) we wait for our slot at the tables.
Cafe stops are the best. They’re a chance to re-run the preceding ride highlights as if a TdF stage on Eurosport, to plan future rides or just have a good laugh, all of which we did.
As we get ready to leave the car park of the cafe, all neatly over to one side and stationary, a little VW turned in, nearly grazing its whole side down a post of the gigantic entrance. Bloody cyclists.
Onwards we go and after a short while Dan has to pull the plug with his knee in agony. We ride in convoy to Seven Oaks train station and say our goodbyes to Dan – a short detour of 3 or so miles which we made up for whilst rejoining the route home.
And this is when it starts to happen.
For me, today, with my undertrained, underdressed February legs, cycling’s middle finger began protruding at around 45 miles – a flutter of cramp runs through both legs. My pace drops accordingly and I soft pedal, side by side next to Bryan who also seems to be slowing slightly. “All okay mate?” I ask. “Yeah, great, and you?” “Absolutely cooked” I reply with a grin. We both laugh “same – I’m so tired!” admits Bryan. The classic lies that we cyclists tell to one another are quickly exposed.
55 miles and we were on the flat, straight road into London – Crystal Palace’s mini Eiffel Tower staring down on us. It was here that I really had to grit my teeth and just stare at the wheel of Serge ahead who nailed us along that road for about 3 miles with no letup in the 25mph+ pace. Ouch.
For anyone who knows South London, or cycling, you’ll be all too familiar with this part of the Love/Hate relationship. The bit where cycling drops an absolute steamer on you.
You’re 5 miles from home – 20 minutes on a normal day – but today the road rises, and rises, and you crack. You completely crack. Legs are gone – all that you can feel from them is the hint of lactic acid trying to crunch your quads into a spasm. You’re in the easiest gear on the block, barely moving. Head is bowed and the rest of your torso follows into a slump over your bike. All you’re trying to focus on is the next ten meters and pleading with you legs to not stop. Lorries brush past you but you’re too wrecked to even notice. This is the longest 2 miles of your life and it’s about to get longer. The deep grey sky which was, only half an hour ago a perfect clear blue, drops its weight all at once. First light rain, then it gets heavy and then hail. Oh and the headwind, of course, the headwind. Cycling absolutely hates you.
After coasting by empty kebab shops, gazing at the rotating carcasses with dead eyes, less than a mile from home I relent and, fearing that I might pass out, stumble into an empty Subway. “Sorry bruv, no bikes in here”… Ohhhh piss off – “But there’s no one in here. I’ll be quick. Please”. The guy looks at me, a little shocked, and accepts. “You been far?… Cheese and toasted?”. I nod to both. It’s easier than, “actually, no. Not incredibly far – about 60 miles. But I haven’t ridden in months. This sort of ride wouldn’t have phased me last year. I’m a mess. And no, just toasted, I could do with losing about 6kg”. But I just nod and sit there, craning a foot long sub and three cookies down my throat instead. The roll home was short and I was soon showered and on the sofa with a coffee, Strava uploading in the background. My whole body feels punished, I still can’t feel my hands, arse aching and legs drained. And yet, I can’t wait to get back on my bike. I begin furiously planning the next ride – “chaps, anyone up for another casual one next weekend?” reads my Whatsapp group message.
Cycling may hate you, but you love it enough for the two of you.