We did not ride as a team and there was no identifiable peloton. Team Carlos-Weltschmerz did not have a sprinter in its ranks, and the circumstances would not have allowed for one anyway. We stopped twice. I had wanted to stop only once. Our attire was commanded by the cool weather, and so the resplendence of our raiment could only be fully revealed on Brighton’s waterfront when the cloud cover broke up and it became warm enough for short sleeves. Only two of us could be seen to be wearing cycling shorts. Alcohol was consumed. People had to push their bikes up steep hills. I didn’t even find time to eat my sickly energy bar. (I did so later, which is how I can testify to its nectarous property.)
I invented a challenge that wasn’t there, a race by proxy. I roped in colleagues. I encouraged immersion. I stipulated behaviour, imagined scenarios, avoided truths – deliberately. I focussed in on things. My bicycle became something else – it was my bicycle, just for me, and it looked the part.
The London to Brighton IS NOT A RACE, but, descending down narrow leafy lanes, or riding through village high streets with the field well spread out, there were moments – brief moments – that it felt… like how I wanted it to feel. The act of it being relentless and unfolding, and of happening quickly, was pleasantly rewarding.
Was my obstinate insistence on riding a steel bike tenable? A case could be made, should one feel the need to defend against it. Let’s be clear: for the most part, I would have profited from riding a carbon bicycle. The course gradually ramps up towards the South Downs. The roads gravitate upwards. Going up the steeper hills, there’s no doubt that the inherent lack of density particular to carbon would have been to my benefit.
On the levels, too, a carbon bike has the edge – unless there’s a cross-wind. Then, the carbon rider will be required to expend energy keeping their bike on course, whereas on steel (or aluminium), I imagine it’s easier to hanker down and ride on throw it.
It’s on the descents that I might feel a sense of vindication, almost by default. It’s not so much that I gained from riding steel than my carbon friends lost out. I weigh a little over 10 stone – there’s only so much weight I can carry. On the descents, a rider’s weight can contribute towards their forward momentum. Ergo, however aggressively I might choose to ride, I’m inherently less capable of reaching certain speeds than my heavier opponents. Under these circumstances, steel becomes my leveller. Whereas their modern bikes aid them on the climbs, that will count for nothing going downhill. My metallic form of propulsion, then, compensates for its lighter load, allowing me to compete on the declines.
There aren’t a huge amount of descents from London to Brighton, but there are enough to have rewarded my sentimentality. It makes more sense, now, to think of all those people, on often the most unlikely bikes, hurtling down country lanes, apparently fearless. Mountain bikes, aluminium hybrids, BMXs and tourers were all giving it a solid go and reached velocities that implied it didn’t really matter what material one rides.
Even if I had wanted to ride carbon I couldn’t have really afforded to; £440 doesn’t get you much on the carbon market. It does – and did – buy me something half-decent in Columbus moulded steel, and a very pretty bike to boot. Two pretty bikes, in fact, except I had to sell one to fund the other. I would like to have kept the inimitable Carlos, but it was not to be.
The Carlos left its mark on this project in other ways, namely on my team’s name: Team Carlos-Weltschmerz. As silly as the appellation might sound to some, the Weltschmerz component was not as flippant as one might think: it summed up perfectly the physical constraints of the exercise in hand: fantastical, nugatory and unsound.
Do I go anywhere from here? Probably. Because of its geographical delineation, the London to Brighton comes across as a greater test than it actually is; at 54 miles, it’s not – or shouldn’t be – too much of a physical challenge. That’s not to detract from the people who took part who thought that it was – and to an extent, Ditchling Beacon is deserving of its fearsome reputation – but 54 miles is little more than a ‘club run’ for many cyclists. There are people who cycle from London to Brighton and back just as a fun day out. When I started all of this, cycling in and out of London seemed like a big deal. Now I’m rarely content with a loop of anything less than 30 miles. I’m not sure if I fancy cycling all the way to Brighton and back, but I am thinking about heftier challenges; maybe the 75 mile Sussex Surrey Scramble?
I don’t think I’ll begin to emerge as a particularly good cyclist – above average at best. Despite a staminal tenacity, I’ve never been strong or powerful enough to really excel at any sport, and I respect those who can and do. Which is a shame because I think it must be a great way to earns one’s keep. That said, it quite boggles the mind what professional cyclists must go through – ascents ten times as long as Ditchling Beacon and just as steep – and I can begin to understand why they sometimes throw up the moment they cross the finishing line.
In truth, it’s an elite few who can push their bodies to such limits. Even those cyclists who applied themselves from an early age, and were fortunate enough to have the support, circumstances and wherewithal to prosper, most of them never win a stage at a grand tour, and content themselves with the role of domestique – or ‘water carrier’ – for the duration of their sporting career. So as much as the peripatetic nature of being a professional sportsman appeals, I guess it’s mostly hard work. But still…
Cycling has brought with it an extra dimension of interest. It has reminded me of being 15 again, when I was consumed by football and troubled myself with all its trappings. My favourite book back then was Simon Ingles’s The Football Grounds of Europe. I became obsessed with stadium architecture, so much so that I used to design my own. I possessed at least five football tops, three of which were Italian (Internazionale away, and Torino and Fiorentina home). I could name Everton’s preferred first-eleven. I knew which country had won every World Cup and in what nation it had been hosted. I even owned a pair of goal-keeping gloves. But I was 15 and at that age such behaviour is acceptable. You may even be lauded for it. I am 38.
The Tour de France is on. Chris Froome is the favourite to win. By the time you’ve read this he may well have been crowned champion. Contador has yet to propose any serious opposition. Valverde’s hanging in there. Cadel Evans looks well out of it.
And so has begun another flourish of enthusiasm akin to that which accompanied the Vuelta a Espana last year and set me on my quest to find an appropriate bicycle. I look forward to reacquainting myself with Gary Imlach. Gary Imlach is as good a presenter as one could hope for – slick, amusing and well informed. He should probably think about letting go of his hair, and exhibits quite a hangdog kind of look, but what does that matter?
I like it best when I’ve been out drinking and I return home to top the evening out with the Tour highlights and a beer. And then, the next day, I’m out on my bike again, although a pain in my right knee is preventing me from pushing as hard as I did through May and June. Cycling has become an inveterate interest, just something I do, and only persistent injury and bad weather will stand in my way.