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.


  1. What a fascinating insight into your reasons for cycling all your life. It's a kind of addiction, isn't it? Addiction to pain, to pushing yourself beyond the limit. Have you thought of sending this article to a cycling magazine?

  2. I have a bicycle, but I'm definitely in the bumbly about willy nilly category.

  3. Fabulous piece of writing, imo.