Tuesday, 20 August 2013

A War of Attrition

This is the closest I can get to a photo of me having direct dealings
with Attrition, taken Oct 3, 1954 in the Worcs. CA Hill Climb up
Beacon Hill, Lickey. Time 2min 43.8 sec. Only a cyclist will know
just how much agony you can pack in to less than three minutes effort. By
the look on my face I'm at the stage when red-hot needles are being
 jabbed in to my thighs I'm gasping for air, can taste blood in my
throat and I just want it all to stop. Great when it's over!

My sixty-plus years association with the bicycle has always had more than a touch of love/hate about it. Even the act of taking the bike from the shed has always carried a certain amount of nervous apprehension, wondering what the day had in store, and if a race, or hard training ride was involved, I often achieved a high state of anxiety, as my body anticipated its merciless subjection to a great deal of pain and suffering that it would much rather do without.

Once in to the ride, the early anxiety was replaced by the grim reality of the moment: the need to hold the wheel of the rider in front, to react to the attacks of those who would seek to rip your legs off by increasing the pace to inflict unbearable levels of pain, while you pedalled through the agony, whimpering inwardly, desperately straining to keep your front wheel no more than six inches from the wheel in front, because you knew that if that ‘elastic’ broke and the gap widened to a foot, a yard, a bike length, that your race was over and you were dead, buried, and in your own mind at least, deeply humiliated.

At least it was nice when it was over, and if you were in at the finish with the chance of a high placing, there was a certain satisfaction to it all, the fact that you had not only competed successfully with others, but that you had won the battle with yourself, pushed your body far past its comfort zone. I suppose I enjoyed it. Sort of.

Fifty odd years on from those days, I still feel that apprehension before I hoist my 77-year-old arse on to the saddle. Though I mainly ride alone now, it doesn’t mean I can bumble about willy-nilly. There are pedal revs to maintain, average speeds to aim for and hills to climb. Some hills, once relished as challenges, no longer feature in my ride plans, but unfortunately other climbs are now appearing in places where climbs never before existed. Apologies for hills, some not more than 100 metres long  that I would once have taken in the big chainring, but which now, week by week, with a display of shameless malevolence, seem to develop ever-steeper gradients.

I once enjoyed hills, the steeper the better. When I was young, and 9 stone wringing wet, I enjoyed powering my way to the top, mostly leaving my bigger companions in my wake. There was an exhilaration to be had in dancing on the pedals, pushing yourself through the pain to top the rise, a great sense of achievement. These days, fifty years down the line, and, for various reasons, weighing in at 13stone, even a long drag or minor climb becomes my personal War of Attrition.

No pedal dancing now, sit back on the saddle, grab the brake hoods, select a gear that you can turn reasonably comfortably, and on no account look at the top of the hill. Instead, fix your eyes on something a little way ahead, a drain cover, a telegraph pole, and ride to it. Just before you reach it, select another point a little further on, and move towards that. If the gradient steepens, change down a gear and Think of England, but concentrate on pushing the pedals round, and try to ignore the red hot needles penetrating your thighs and the apparent death-rattle that is your breathing. Swear as loudly and as often as necessary. Repeat gear changes until no further sprockets are available and then whimper pathetically, pray and redouble your efforts while willing the bike upwards. On no account look for the top of the hill, just keep pedalling, gasping and swearing. Eventually the gradient will ease, you've reached the top and you may permit yourself a laugh of triumph or a sob of pain, dependent on your mood.

I have to admit that I keep away from major hills now, no point in being stupid, and in the reasonably benign terrain I use, there's nothing I can't get up, albeit sometimes in a state geriatric disrepair. But I do know, realistically, that one day, next year, the year after, on one hill or another,I'm going to have to climb off and give it best. That will be traumatic, and will set off some soul-searching as to where I go from there.

But right now, I still enjoy it. Sort of.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

An Old Grudge Remembered

I shall be operating the Welford-on-Avon Control at Beacon RCC’s Cotswold Audaxes on Sunday week. I’d intended riding the 110 km. event but a lack of miles in my elderly legs persuaded me to run the check, an activity allowing access to unlimited cake and coffee and enabling me to hand out unwanted cheer and advice to the legless and luckless as they pass through Welford.

      I’ve successfully completed this event many times, although not always without personal trauma. At the start, a few years ago, I momentarily thought I had been struck partially blind, before realising that the problem was the surprising absence of the right-hand lens of my reading glasses, which I needed to follow the details on the route card, clipped on my handlebars.

      There followed a voluble, if forgivable, tantrum. I could just about read the route provided I peered through the remaining lens and kept the other eye shut, but it was obvious that riding one-eyed, for 70 miles, was impractical, hazardous and potentially terminal, so I needed to ride with someone capable of reading the sheet. However, my friends, unaware of my plight, were long gone, and after a few miles I found myself alone at a junction, borderline berserk and vainly trying to decipher the route sheet hieroglyphics. But just as I decided to call it quits and go back, Johnny showed up.

      Johnny is older than me, a long-ago pro racer of considerable reputation. (he was reserve for the Great Britain Tour de France team in 1955) He was alone, having suffered a Senior Moment at the start, turning right instead of left from the HQ and ending up well down the wrong road before he realised his error. (The previous year he’d locked his car keys in his car at the headquarters, and had to break the window to get in, but that’s embarrassing for him, so I won’t mention it)

     Anyway, his eyesight was adequate, so we teamed up, and made good time to the first check at Honeybourne and on up the nasty little climb past Hidcote. I faltered a bit towards the top, but Johnny kept going, and as I watched him go I was mentally transported back almost fifty years to a road race, which incorporated two very hard laps of our club’s Little Mountain Time Trial course. 

      On the first long climb, up Stanford Bank, the bunch split in two, and I found myself in the wrong half, along with Johnny and twenty-odd others. After we’d topped the climb, a chase got going and we were moving well, though the leading group were out of sight. Thirteen miles on, at Knightwick, our bunch was still intact, but the long, steep, climb up Ankerdine followed by the hard grind to Gt, Witley, created havoc, and by the time we started up Stanford Bank for the second time, Johnny and me had dropped everyone else, and we could see the leading group about half a minute ahead of us on the climb, I congratulated myself on being back in the race with a chance, unaware that I was about to witness the darker side of human nature.

      I’d just upped my pace slightly, to steadily close the leaders down, when Johnny came past, out of the saddle and sprinting. Before I reacted he’d bridged the gap and joined the leaders, leaving me wallowing indignantly down the road. The whole group was out of sight again before I reached the top, and I didn’t see another soul until the finish at Hartlebury, 30 miles and a lifetime of suffering later. 

      Johnny did wait for me in the Audax, though, well, at least until that nasty drag up the last six miles when my legs expired quite spectacularly, but then, what’s the point of finishing an event not feeling knackered? If I’m paying nine quid for a ride, I feel it incumbent upon the organiser to provide me with my moneys-worth of pain. As I’ve got older, long rides have become a war of attrition, the objective being not to go belly up before the finish, but to feel quietly smug because you haven’t. Therein lies the enjoyment, possibly.

      At the Audax finish, I reminded Johnny of his un-gentlemanly conduct on Stanford Bank all those years ago. He claimed not to remember it, but I do, and it’s there, right at the top of my long list of cycling grudges. 

      I’ll save the others for later.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

A Nice Night Out

The entrance to RAF Habbaniya
The long window of the restaurant at the RAF Habbaniya Social Club abutted the chicken run.  These window tables were popular with airmen because, sometimes, while locked in combat with a pugnacious  steak sandwich, you might be lucky enough to witness a newly-decapitated chicken, neck thrust forward, hurtling past in headless denial of its imminent appointment with the chef .
Apart from playing cricket in temperatures of 120+F, this was just about as exciting as things got at 'Hab'.

OK, there was the cinema and the swimming pool, and the NAAFI was located just yards from our billet, well within staaggering distance after a heavy night on Younger's Double Century. The NAAFI, though, had its limitations; no girls, the inevitability of Jock Sneddon getting legless and singing mournful Scottish songs until dawn, and with only the dubious 'closing time' pleasure of  spraying fire extinguishers over the slumbering occupants of adjacent billets after 'lights out'.
Myself,(left) and Gordon Benbow, relaxing at the YMCA before
 moving out to Cabaret Andalus for the night's action.

 Now and again though, we did manage a night out in the fleshpots of Baghdad, which meant an overnight stay at the YMCA.

Before my first Baghdad visit, I'd written to tell my mother, a devout and 'proper' Methodist lady, about the trip. Her reply contained dire warnings of the appalling disasters, mostly involving unspeakable diseases, that could befall a young innocent who might be tempted to venture in to one of the lust filled drinking dens known to abound in Oriental cities. I felt no need to respond to this.

There were four of us on the trip, all Baghdad 'virgins', but  psyched up by other comrades' tales of exotic nocturnal experiences with beautiful women, which essentially confirmed mother's warnings, but in a much more acceptable way. Thus, brimming with testosterone, we made our way to the Cabaret Andalus, highly recommended as a treasure house of feminine delights.

The atmosphere was exciting. Smoky and noisy, with Oriental music and belly dancing that had our teenage tongues lolling helplessly. Eventually, oh joy!,  some gorgeous girls came to our table and got cosy. Which turned out to be a problem, because they were all downing 'shorts' at our expense, and with beer at 45p a bottle and us lads on four quid a week, our ability to entertain was limited. The ladies, however, maintained good humour, even when the cash ran out. Benbow's chick even had a smile on her face when she gave him a playful push in the face, that sent him and the chair toppling over, an incident which resulted in us being forcibly removed to the street by the bouncers.

Things didn't get much better after that. We got lost, and arrived back at the YMCA about 3.00am, skint, a bit pissed and somewhat downcast by our brief and humiliating skirmish with the ladies of the town.
This lady,  posing on the banks of the river Tigris, was not
 present  at the Cabaret Andalus humiliation.

The gate to the YMCA was locked, and the surrounding wall must have been eight feet high, so as I was the smallest, I was elected to be bunked over to see if I could open the gate from the inside I was dropped twice, and there was a lot of swearing, but just as I was about to get over, a night watchman came bursting out of the shadows, shouting and waving a 303 rifle in our direction. My support team, predictably, panicked and dropped me hard on the ground, knocking the wind out of me, and I lay there helpless while the shouting, and rifle-waving continued around me. In the middle of this fracas, a taxi drew up, the passenger got out, rang the bell on the YMCA gate, which was opened almost immediately, and the guy disappeared inside.

After an internal dispute as to who should have seen the bell, we made our peace with the watchman and got in to the YMCA, a thoroughly ignominious ending to a totally ignominious evening. Of course, back at camp we told our mates what a fantastic time we'd had and how gorgeous the girls were. We went to Baghdad again on several more successful, occasions,  but steered well clear of Cabaret Andalus.

I can laugh about it, now.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

The Bequest

The late David Roberts, my brother-in-law, painted this water-colour of a
 creperie in Locronan, Brittany, where we had lunch one summer day.

We chose it from among the pictures he left after his death.

The coffin containing the mortal remains of Gertrude Gillespie, (1920-2013. R.I.P.) disappeared behind the crematorium curtain, and the congregation filed out behind the grieving family.
Outside, I exchanged condolences with other mourners, while edging my way towards Julia, Gertrude’s great niece, and reaching her, gently squeezed her arm.
“My sympathies, my dear,” my voice betrayed emotion. “I’m Peter Wallace. Your aunt greatly influenced my life for the better when I was a young man .”
“You must be one of Aunty’s good works,” said Julia, smiling weepily. “She was always famous for helping young people.”
“I’ve always been very grateful to her. I feel so guilty that I lost touch over the years.”
“Then it’s so nice that you came to say goodbye. Please join us back at the house afterwards, I‘m sure there‘ll be people that you know.”
The big room was tastefully furnished, with numerous works of art. There was a beautiful finger buffet and red and white wine, and I took a glass of red, loaded my plate and mingled with the mourners, many of whom were exchanging amusing anecdotes about the old lady.  I was savouring a spicy chicken drumstick, when a large blonde lady of indistinguishable age, and heavily embellished with rings and golden bracelets, approached me.
“ Lovely house isn’t it?”
“Indeed, and perfectly reflecting dear Gertrude’s excellent artistic taste .”
The blonde lady smiled a twisted smile. “Come off it,” she hissed, “you didn’t know dear Gertrude from Adam, this is the fifth funeral I‘ve seen you at this month. You lie your way in to up-market wakes for the chicken drumsticks and the free booze.”
I‘d been rumbled!. “Please don’t make a scene,” I pleaded, “I’ll leave at once, quietly.”
My accuser smirked, slyly. “Don’t panic, I lie my way in as well. A posh funeral’s the perfect way of spending an afternoon. Always a good free buffet and, if you’re smart, the chance of turning a profit.”
“What do you mean?”
“Follow me,” she said, grinning, and we sauntered casually up the room, examining the late Gertrude's pictures and ornaments as we went. We paused, a few feet from Julia, to admire a beautiful water-colour, my blonde began weeping, gently, and Julia came across to comfort her.
“I loved this picture,” sniffled my companion. “I often admired it when visiting Gertrude. She promised I should have it, one day, but I suppose she forgot. I’m so glad to have seen it, just once more.”
“Oh dear,” said Julia, “this is among the items left to me, I think, but an old friend like you is surely entitled to a little keepsake.”
         I left the house with the picture under one arm and Helga, my new friend, on the other. “We should get at least £200 for this,” she said, “and I noticed the funeral of old Mrs Havelock from The Grange is booked for Thursday. We can do a few quid there as well,  if we‘re smart.”
        I nodded, happily. It had been a perfect afternoon, and a whole new life lay before me.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

One for the Road

My old friend is in need of TLC and pewter polish. No
expense will be spared.
 I have, by good fortune, rediscovered an old friend.   Ferreting in a cupboard, among  the detritus of abandoned cruet sets and gravy boats, I came across my old pewter tankard, the loyal companion of my early manhood, and silent witness to the sometimes deplorable progress of my youthful rites of passage.

     I first met my friend, strangely, in Baghdad, during my National Service in 1956, and felt an instant attraction. Inside, on the glass bottom, was etched what I thought was an ancient Mesopotamian hieroglyphic, but which turned out to be a dartboard. Thereafter, my tankard accompanied me nightly to the NAAFI, variously accommodating Carlsbergs, Tuborgs and William Younger's Double Century, and adding, I felt, a certain je ne sais qoi to my image and establishing my credentials as a would-be exhibitionist.

     On return to 'civvie street',  my tankard joined in wholeheartedly with my cycling activities, Attached outside my saddlebag, it would bounce along quite happily on club-runs to the lunchtime pub stop, the lid clattering excitedly over uneven surfaces, and be ready for use again when we arrived for the Sunday evening pub session. And, of course, it was an invaluable accessory in the cycling-club party scene, a popular feature of the 'social season' in the early 1960's, and an activity which received my enthusiastic support.
This is my tankard in action in its halcyon days. Am I making a brilliant
intellectual point to someone? Or am I rat-arsed?

     On party nights I would leave home attired in my best Italian suit, winkle-pickers, and 'Frank Sinatra' trilby, clutching my tankard and with a Party Seven beer can tucked under my arm.

     Party Sevens were the forerunner of today's dinky little lager cans, cans that don't hold more than a gnats' wotsitful. As the name implies, a Party Seven contained seven pints of beer, and as each party-goer was honour bound to provide one, we never ran short. However, the 'Seven' did have certain drawbacks, the first being that it was almost impossible to open. There was nothing as fancy as a ring-pull, and it was necessary to make two holes in the top to get at the beer. This top, I swear, was constructed completely from war-surplus armour plating, and the only way in was using hammer and punch, necessitating powerful smiting and a liberal use of deleted expletives, offering considerable danger to kitchen work tops and tiled floors. The reward for success was invariably a reluctant trickle of fizzy, metallic-tasting, liquid which somehow managed to go flat before it hit the bottom of the tankard. Only the most dedicated party-goer could drink the stuff, and glass demi-johns of rough cider were a favoured alternative. The girls, of course, utterly refused to drink the beer. God knows what they drank, I never took them anything.

      I can't remember when I split up with my tankard. When I got married I suppose, lots of things change when you get married, not always for the best, though perhaps I shouldn't say that. All I know is, it wasn't me that stuffed it in the cupboard with the old cruets.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

The Little Bus to Anywhere

This could be Anywhere, but it's actually the Castle Hotel at Rhayader, the
scene of numerous miss-spent cycling weekends in my younger days.
Stopped off with the intention of enjoying a nostalgic lunch, while passing
 through Rhayader, recently, but it had the appearance of having been closed
for some time. Not a stop-off for the Little Bus.
Just back from a lovely weekend at my niece's seaside idyll. The occasion was to celebrate my elder brother's 87th birthday, although he was only with us in spirit, so to speak, having passed through this vale of tears some six years ago, aged 81.

     As always, my niece provided a great lunch of red wine and Cava, punctuated by frequent outbreaks of Tapas, after which, we decided to go and socialise at the village pub for an hour or so, and as it was a fair step, and the effects of the red wine and Cava prohibited driving, we decided to patronise the little bus that periodically passes the bottom of the drive.

     The bus was totally empty when it arrived, and the driver refused our proffered fares. My niece and her husband are apparently 'regulars', and  he doesn't bother to charge them, so we traveled free by association, and were dropped off right outside the pub. Two or three pints later, the bus came back for us, and along with another free-loading local, we started back to my niece's, on the way stopping to pick up, as I thought, a guy standing at the end of his driveway. There then ensued a conversation between the driver, the free-loading local, my niece and her husband and the guy in the driveway, who made no effort to board. Eventually, curious, and beginning to want the loo, I enquired if our new friend had any intention of getting on, to which he replied, "No."

     Apparently, stopping for a chat with the guy in the driveway is a fairly regular occurrence, even in the summer months, when the bus is carrying holiday-makers. One day last year a chat was in progress when a holiday-maker needed the loo, and she was taken up the  house, to be followed by several others who immediately decided they needed the loo as well. On another occasion, the bus backed up my niece's long drive and in to the stable yard,  with the sole intention of allowing the passengers an unrestricted view of my niece's new conservatory, although she wasn't actually on the bus.

     Outside the holiday season the little bus is very flexible in its operation. It will drop you off at any pub of your choice along its route, (or reasonably close to its route) and pick you up, by arrangement, at an entirely different one, and even if you're not lucky enough to live directly on its route, it will drop you off outside your door.

     This is obviously the way forward for public transport, and I think everyone should have access to a bus to Anywhere, preferably free of charge, although I haven't yet worked out how the driver accounts for doing a days work without a single paying passenger.

     I have concealed the location of this story, the name of the driver and freeloading passengers, in order to protect the guilty.

Monday, 18 February 2013

A Trip to the Seaside

My Weston-and-Back Medal

Spent a pleasant Saturday morning in a riverside cafe at Evesham, running the control for the Beacon RCC's  annual Sunrise and Snowdrop  Audax endurance cycle rides, about 110 km.

The morning started with freezing fog, but later developed in to a lovely, early spring day, the best conditions we've had for this event for some years, and I sat there, wolfing a bacon sarnie, along with unlimited free coffee, feeling very old and very envious of all these fit guys,(and girls) who could cope with 110 km at this time of the year.

There was, of course, a time when I could, and did, and way back in the 1950's, not long after the cycling world had rejected the Penny-farthing in favour of two wheels the same size, it was generally accepted that the only way to prepare for the racing season was first to 'knock off the rough edges' caused by too much winter booze, by grinding out long, hard, miles in the cold, snow and rain, preferably on a single fixed gear, and possibly with a house-brick in your saddlebag to make it hurt more. (This never really caught on) Consequently, in February 1954, The Beacon  RCC Birmingham to Weston-Super-Mare and back 200 mile Reliability Trial first saw the light of day, or rather, the dark of night, because it started at Saturday midnight from the Gents Urinal at Rubery, an iconic, castellated, iron structure, (later demolished in the name of progress and a flyover) and resplendent in Birmingham Corporation green paint. From here the riders sped through the night, down the A38, (not much traffic then) to Gloucester, Bristol and thence to the pier at Weston Super Mare, arriving about 7.00am  to be checked in, before turning round and hightailing it back to Brum.

Of course, being February, the weather was usually unpleasant, and I can remember getting very wet in 1954, emerging from a soaking sea-mist to be greeted by a tattered poster at the pier entrance informing me that 'Happy Days Are Here Again'.  It had been a fairly uneventful ride down, apart from the wet and cold,and the incident in which the top of my Ever Ready front lamp catapulted itself in to the air somewhere in Gloucester, which resulted in me groping around on the A38 in the pitch-black looking for the bits. Oh, and there was also the guy who passed out in the soup queue, at about 4.00am, in the Black and White Cafe at Patchway. We were all cold and knackered, and as he wasn't in our club, we just stepped over him and moved one place up the queue. I heard later, that his dad threatened to sue the club, but I don't think he did. I got back to the finish just after 2.00pm, 14 hours 6 minutes after I'd set off, and with an hour to spare on my time limit.

 I was doing my National Service the following year, but I was on leave the weekend of the Weston and Back, and rode down to Worcester to 'encourage' my particular mates on the last twenty miles to the finish. It had been a bitterly cold night, and when my friends came through, around mid-day, they looked close to death. The contents of their water bottles had frozen solid, and I shall take to my grave the memory of my mate, Trevor, who seemed to be radiating a ghostly blue translucence, as he stood blinking at me with all the cognitive passion of a giant, frozen prawn. I'm not sure to this day if he ever thawed out properly.

I never rode this event again, figuring it was best to ride down to Weston on the Saturday, get a bed and breakfast, sink a few beers on the Saturday night and turn up at the pier to sign the cards on the Sunday. I was always very astute with my training methods.

At the height of its popularity, the Weston and Back attracted as many as three hundred entrants, but eventually, as training methods changed, and cycling dwindled in popularity, it ceased to be, and now lives on only in the memories of the dwindling band of cheerful eccentrics who laughed and grumbled their way through the winters night.