What compels a man in his 40s to embrace the mud, sweat and years missed out on cycling to do it all again?
My back wheel skids out from under me on the rain soaked leaves, my body lunges forward as the pedals spin freely in the split second it takes the tire to find fresh purchase, I brace myself in the drops, stiffening my arms and arrest my fall. My balls come to rest millimetres from the crossbar. Leg muscles that have laid dormant for more than twenty years have screamed back to life, pain courses through my calves, my thighs, my abdominal muscles, my back, my forearms, my lungs. Fuck, everywhere hurts. Long Hill Road is kicking my arse, again. I’m soaked, a mixture of sweat and rain, covered in mud, the obligatory wet stripe from my ar*e to the nape of my neck, cold and hot at the same time, short of breath, despite swallowing up great gulps of precious, beautiful, polluted New Jersey air. Strangely, I feel more alive than I have in years.
At 44, I’m back in the saddle. After years, hell, decades of struggling to justify spending the best part of a week’s wage on a bike I finally bit the bullet and put down $800s on a steel framed road bike. A retro styled number from Bianchi. Cages on the pedals and down tube mounted shifters mean it’s not that different to the bikes I rode in my teens and early twenties. But, even though it’s the base model in the Gran Fondo - Italian for Big Fondo, I guess? - range, it’s by far and away the best bike I’ve ever owned. Until a few weeks ago that last sentence would of ended, ‘...by far and away the best bike I will ever own,’ but I’m hooked, I know this is just the start. After a few short months I’ve extended my average ride from 10 to 20 miles. My day feels incomplete without a ride - there’s a joke in there somewhere my Mrs may or may not appreciate. I feel the healthiest I have in years, despite the pain which, in fairness, is temporary, I’m sleeping better, much better and, rather than altering my diet, I’ve developed a twisted logic that means I can justify fry ups, curries and the like by virtue of exercising excess calories away. Life, as those cheesy t-shirts smug fuckers everywhere wear is good.
Top of the hill, halfway there. The pain ends and fear takes over. Twenty years ago I’d have relished this moment but not now, these days long steep descents scare the crap out of me. Long Hill Road is just that, a fucking big, long bastard of a hill. I wipe my brow then cover my brakes, a few quick turns of the pedals and I’m away. Houses, cars, everything blurs in my peripheral vision, my speed increases and my brakes prove mostly ineffective as they squeak on wet rims. Fuck it. The inner kid, it’s in all men, buried deeper in some than in others, surfaces. I let go of the brake levers, duck down moving my chin close to the handle bars and begin to pedal hard but it makes no difference. There’s nothing I can do to increase my speed. Mud splashes my face and clarity returns to my thoughts as the Stop sign at the T junction at the bottom of the hill hurtles towards me. I jam on the brakes. Hard. The whole bike slides sideways, wet gravel sprays from under my wheels, I put my left foot out to steady myself, I somehow manage to remain upright and make a mental note to lock the inner child in me in a big fucking box.
Maybe one day I will change the pedals, fuck, I know I will, like I said at the top, I’m hooked, but for now they’ll do. Shorts. I’ve absolutely zero desire to subject New Jersey to the sight of me in spandex.
Buying a bike was an experience. There’s a lot of snobbery to this cycling lark. Those pricks that used to work in record shops and sneer at your musical selections have nothing on some of the winners who work in bike stores. They may be competent local riders to a man but it’s not like I was dealing with Eddy Merckx. I knew what I wanted, a steel frame, drop handled bars, 10 speed, nothing flash. Solid not spectacular. I’m not planning an attempt at Paris Robuix anytime soon. Unfortunately, what I wanted was at odds with what Lance Armstrong in my local bike store (LBS to use the language of the many cycling internet forums I checked out prior to setting off shopping) wanted to sell me. Remember when you used to ask the barber for short back and sides and he’d want to cut you something from A Flock of Seagulls? It was like that. I’ve lost count of the many aluminium bikes I’ve been shown. Carbon fork? What? It’s surprising too how many different sized frames were ‘just right’ for me and in stock. One superstar openly sneered at my budget of $1000s informing me that I’d need a minimum of $2000s to get started. Eh?
I’m sobered on Upper Mountain Avenue as I cycle past a makeshift memorial for the victim of a recent hit and run. I’ve mapped out many different circuits of varying lengths, most of which bring me along this road. Maybe I should rethink and use an alternate? It’s food for thought. Most days I ride past Holstien’s, a local landmark made famous in the final scene of The Sopranos. I’ll go through the park but I tend not to do laps with the other cyclists, I like to ride the roads. I used to run round this park before I fucked my back up. I know it intimately. It will always be where I used to run. I ride on up to Montclair State Uni., past my gaffer’s house, past Brick Lane curry house, past the union hall, though not at night, too many deer wondering around. I reckon you could seriously hurt yourself if you ran into one of them. I ride past places where I know people or know I can find a sympathetic ear should I get stuck. I carry a spare inner tube and tire levers but what if I get two punctures? It can happen. At least once a week I call in at The Pie Store (www.thepiestorenj.com) on my way home. It’s run by a friend of ours, an English girl who stocks all you could ever want from home and makes delicious sausage rolls. I stop for at least one and a can of pop. You can keep your energy bars and Gatorade.
After being abused in various bike stores I wasn’t particularly relishing the prospect of entering Bike Land (www.bikeland-nj.com), the Bianchi dealer up in Caldwell. If the guys selling Trek, Giant and Specialized bikes were so judgemental what the f**k were the people dealing in the famous celeste green machines going to be like? I can be a cunt at times so if they were going to get all stupid it would be no big deal for me to respond in kind. I’d done enough searching, narrowed it down to three bikes I wanted to try out. A Bianchi a Masi and a Surly. The latter two were proving hard to track down, indeed, I’ve yet to see a Surly. The guys in the store couldn’t have been more helpful if they’d just given me a bike and let me ride off. Actually, that’s exactly what they did. I told them what I wanted, they showed me what they had. Then they literally pushed me out the back door on a $1200 bike reasoning that should I choose to steal it they’d be more than fit enough to catch an out of shape geezer like me. They were right. I think they could have caught me jogging. The bike, a Volpe model, was a thing of beauty. It’s not hard to see why so many lust after these Italian rides, even though they are mostly made in Taiwan these days. Truth be told it was too much bike for me. Maybe one day but for now all I need is the most simple bike I can find. I looked at the base model of the steel framed line and ordered it. No sneering just a delivery date and the promise of a year’s free tune ups, and a discount. My kind of bike shop.
Round here there’s more than just traffic lights and cars to worry about. So far I’ve either run over or had to swerve around the carcasses of numerous squirrels.
I love Ridge Road, Glen Ridge. It pretty much is Glen Ridge save for a few side streets. It’s a money town, the property taxes for some of these houses dwarf my yearly income. The road is billiard table smooth with a whole lane that appears to be reserved for cyclists and joggers. You feel safe riding here despite the throng of SUVs passing by. It’s a long road, not too many traffic lights and almost uniformly flat, consequently, it’s possible to really hammer it for a few miles. And hammer it I have, maybe it’s that inner child thing again? Speed’s okay as long as you can stop quickly. You never know when you’re going to have to slam all on. Round here there’s more than just traffic lights and cars to worry about. So far I’ve either run over or had to swerve around the carcasses of numerous squirrels, two raccoons, a possum and a skunk all in various states of decay. It’s the last one that worries me the most. I developed a fear, not totally irrational in my opinion, of been on the receiving end of one final spray of skunk mist should I fail to ride round some fresh black and white striped road kill. They say you can get rid of the smell with tomato juice but who the fuck wants to take a bath in tomato juice?
The joker who reckoned I’d need $2000s to get started, I ride past his shop from time to time a give him the V’s. His breakdown was $1500s for a bike (despite the fact he sells Treks and Specialized both of which sell good road bikes for much less) and another $500 for jerseys, shorts, helmet, pedals, shoes, water bottles and f**k knows what else. I was shocked to learn most bikes these days come without pedals. Most cyclists seem to accept this, the rational seeming to be that you’ll want your own individual favourite pedals on your ride. Fair enough I suppose but I can’t help thinking this is an idea that’s come from the industry and somehow or other the masses have been brain washed to accept it as valid. Why stop at pedals? Why not tires if you’re going to go down that road? Saddles? Loads swap out their saddles straight away. I’m hankering after a Brooks B-17 already. Helmet. Personal choice and I accept I’m not been the brightest but I don’t wear one. Maybe one day but for now it just doesn’t feel right. I get disapproving looks from other cyclists and I can see their point but I just don’t see that one would help much should I be in a head on with a Ford F-350 truck. Shoes, I guess they go with the pedals. For now I plough round in an old pair of Gazelles. They slip in and out of my factory installed toe cages (my bike did come with pedals). Maybe one day I will change the pedals, f*uck, I know I will, like I said at the top, I’m hooked, but for now they’ll do. Shorts. I’ve absolutely zero desire to subject New Jersey to the sight of me in spandex. Absolutely zero. What the fuck is that all about? Again, you’re in the Tour De France, go for it but if you’re just pottering about the highways and byways get copped on, spare a thought for your fellow man. I wear a pair of Zoic mountain biking shorts. They’re sound, they have a liner inside with a chamis padding which is beneficial on the longer rides but you don’t look a tw*t in them should you get off your bike and stop at a cafe for a tea or a sarnie. Fucking spandex... Cycling jerseys, like the shorts, can really bring out the Spiderman in some. I don’t go for tight clothes and I’ve never cared for bright colours either. I understand the need to be seen so you’ll never catch me mocking someone in a fluorescent yellow top but I don’t get dressing like you’re on a pro team. Grown men riding round in replica shirts covered in sponsorship endorsements just look daft to me. Rapha (www.Rapha.cc) make some seriously good looking kit, understated and functional but beyond my budget. I searched the sale picks on Realcylist.com and settled on a merino wool effort from Cutter. It’s plain, one colour, a little less form fitting than most jerseys and seems to balance warmth and wicking nicely. A water bottle was $6s. A vanity purchase in Bianchi celeste to set off the all black frame of my bike.
I’m in it for the long haul, definitely got the bug. A mate who was a bike messenger many years ago laughs at me, tells me I’ll start taking things off the bike soon, trying to shave weight. I’m not sure about that but I do think after more than twenty years between bikes the next one will come along much quicker. One of the guys in the bike shop does Cyclocross. It looks awesome. It looks fucking mental to be honest. I’m off to see a race next Sunday in Morristown, looking forward to it. I can do without the incessant cow bell ringing (it gets on your tits like that old lass who used to go to Maine Road) but the racing and the mud and the falls and the ale look strangely enticing. I’m under no illusions that I’m fit enough to try it. I’ve tried riding my bike off road and the hills just fucking kill you, like riding into a wall. Lad in the shop said just get on and give it a go, take your bike with you, when you see the competition you might not feel so bad but no matter how hard others find it it won’t mean I find it any easier. I’ve contemplated lying about my age. Adding a year so I can sneak in the masters class but I think I’ll just watch for now. A year on the roads and I’ll be stronger for next season, it’ll give me time to save up for another bike too. I’ll let you know how I get on.
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