It is coldest before the dawn and I am
Hunched inside my jacket, braced against a recurring shoulder injury,
Cranking my crank, standing against the rising road
That leads up onto the great chalk ridge. Breaths
Drop into my toes now. I grunt against
The cold and effort. My jacket, a moment before not enough
Is now sweating, and my dynamo light dips
With my slowing roll against the reality
Of the gradient. Rather than striking through the fog
My light makes a lesser cocoon, barely picking out
Wan grasses that line the road. There is nothing beyond
the lifeboat of my presence, the thin line
Of being stretches out between low powerlines,
The staccato of road markings plucking my wheels
and the pointless calculations of time and distance
I am making to keep myself alert and away from
Hallucinations. Still I see things that leap
In the fog then fade. That might be a rolling badger
Or Batman or a giant dark hand
Swinging for me in the gloom. I need
To sleep but know I cannot. Stopping
Would turn me to ice and while it would dawn soon
The warming of the day was hours distant
And by then I would be done. And done in.
Nothing to do but push on, ignore
The truculent mental states, treat them like
A distant radio. Time to tune out
And let the pedals turn themselves.
‘Oh hello!’ Beside me, suddenly, a cheery voice.
I jolt in surprise - I had thought
My pace was enough that no one would be
Sitting on. 'Hello' I reply, curt and unwelcoming.
My abrupt objection to company on night like this
Might be hard to fathom, but someway back
I had decided this leg would be cold and hard
And all of the experience would be exclusively mine.
Forbearance greed is a sin of the modern adventurer -
There is nothing left to be discovered so we must go inwards
To find the traversable terrain. After ten minutes
I realised he was not going away; I sighed and looked
At his bike. Cyclists often look at the bike before
They look at the person. You want to know if the rider
Is a bore, a chore, or a new friend for life.
The truth is never in a marque, but it's a start .
‘Lovely Mercian’, I say, finding the short phrase
Hard to say in my current state of fatigue.
‘This old thing?’ He laughs, a long laugh
A very long laugh, so long I wonder how
He draws breath. But he is false, the bike looks
Brand new, as if the mist had condensed and hardened
Into mirror-bright tubes; And everything on his bike
Was silvery twinkle, a hymn to the reflection of light,
From the crankset to the spokes everything shone
As if lit from the inside. An obsessive, I decide
One of those who have time to clean bikes and have no life
To contrast the joy of riding with. And fixed.
Of course he had to be riding a fixed. And in that vein
He is wearing wool shorts, white socks, a black and white
striped shirt without a jacket. He could be Raphaman
But the clothes are old, the shoes have wooden soles.
If the bike is an object of perfection the man himself
Was its verb. He is a sleek animal, his body
still, his legs lithe and light; He is starlight on a bicycle.
And stranger yet than the minimal covering
Is the fact he carries nothing else. 'You don't
Carry much' I say. 'No need', he replies and I detect
A faint northern accent softened further with a smudge
Of welsh. 'I never get punctures' he adds
As if this were unremarkable. The pace seems
To have crept ever so slightly higher and I gasp
Out my next words, 'No route sheet either?' and
he laughs, again without apparent effort, 'Oh
I've done this route enough times, I don't need one.'
'Right' I manage to spit out, and lower my head for
A few seconds, long enough to see the paraphernalia
That covers my many geared machine; the disc brakes
The GPS and its purple line, the spare lights
And bar-bag full of just-in-case sweets and a camera and
money and everything a man traveling light
Could ever need. I feel dirty, morally overburdened
Like a banker confronted by the prospect
Of empathy. Again the pace lifts - though he seems
Not to pedal faster - and I make myself shift up
And placate my legs with an empty promise
Of rest and jelly babies. The bubble pulls in
As the temperature drops with the gaining height
And a wind promised for later sends a chilly slap.
The fog tightens again, deepens, climbs in
To my lungs and festers there, a festering wash of
Anesthesia. On my tongue the first metallic tang
Of the bonk. I can’t keep this up. My breaths
Drop ragged towards the fog that blankets the road
Feeding it espressos of spittle and blood. Now
Three lengths in front he churns on, seeming to offer
His wheel. It can’t be long to the top now, or to dawn,
So I look to his back mudguard and stand up.
Straining with effort, discounting the hundred
Of hills to come, willing myself to keep pace
With the blur in the fog, I alloy each muscular spasm
With will and pride, and grimly hang on.
And he starts to chat now, about old rides, about
Multiple 1000s; about twilight Nordic adventures
and fixing his frame with cheese squares and sweat;
About Mont Ventoux fives times in a day, on a fixed
Borrowed from a peasant with a basket full
Of lavender, charcuterie and a dozen bottles of
Vintage Champagne. Everything to do with riding
And nothing to do with a life beyond. Where my life
Was about days in an office wanting to taste adventure
He was always here, pedaling the countryside beneath him -
A man without use or want for the ordinary. What manner
Of man was this? He seemed like flesh and yet
He was so much part of his bike that his bike
Had become him. And vice versa. A mix of natures -
A hybrid being at once both elegant and obscene.
It was then I formed the notion that he was the man
Who kept the world turning, that he was fixed
Not only in gear but time and space; that our orb
Was driven towards another dawn by his ceaseless toil
And that I should be grateful. But yet
I hated him. As the first rag of dawn rubbed
The lamp of the East, as the fog loosened into mist
And the gradient eased; At this moment I should
be buoyed and vital with the new day. In truth
I was broken. At the crest my legs
Finally refused motion and the rider moved on
Picking up speed as the road flattened
Still tapping out the same cadence, it seemed he had
The perfect gear. As I slowed and he flowed on
I noticed one last detail - I could swear the cable
Running from his dynamo hub to his ancient
But unaccountably bright light was severed.
I stopped and unclipped and rested on my bars.
My sweat instantly cold, I started to shiver
And shake like some cheap junkie craving a hit.
I crammed my mouth with the carcasses of babies
Waiting for the sugar to flare in me. I looked
Back down the incline. The mist had gone.
It was just a road. I was just a tired rider
With a hundred to go. There was nothing unusual
About my state but I was sapped of verve.
My imagination had been pierced by the encounter.
Imagination? No, my pride. Knowing I could never
Attain the Audax perfection I had just encountered
It all felt like an empty exercise, a game
Where I was only good on Strava and in forums
And in the shallow reaches of my vanity. I clipped in
And completed the ride, mostly in silence, barely
Muttering a cranky hello to riders I knew well
Who wanted to ride with me, or offered to pull
Me along on their wheel. I spurned them all, a crisis
Doubled with exhaustion wrapped in a foul mood.
I couldn’t stop thinking of him. Perfect bike
Silky style endless palmares. The hatred grew
Eating my own cadence. It took some time to realise
That what was bothering me was not the man
But the face. I couldn’t shake the notion
That the face was mine. Not merely close, but exact -
That the man could have been mistaken for my twin
Were it not for one thing. The white beard.
Sipping tea at the end of it, registering
The concerned looks of riders around me, I realised
I was muttering. A random string of words
That made no sense, nor even to me.
One of the Ancien sat beside me then, offered
tea-biscuits and subtly examined me as he talked.
A wise man, kind and experienced, he asked me
About my ride and I told him about the rider.
He patiently listened as the words lined up
And nodded and smiled and his encouragement
Unlocked my mood and let me confess my fear
And the morbid detail of his matching visage.
‘Ghost Beard’ the Ancien said, as if he were
Talking about spotting a rare animal, a known
But seldom seen bird. ‘You have seen Ghost Beard.’
I stopped then, aware the room of twenty was silent
And waiting. ‘What is Ghost Beard?’ I ask, feeling
That all but I know the answer, that knowing the answer
Will somehow change me forever. The Ancien looks
Both sad and pleased, like a father welcoming his son
To the marvelous complications of manhood.
‘Ghost Beard is you.’ He said simply. ‘It’s you.’
‘Me?’ I replied, astonished. 'Ghost Beard is
The fantasy you have of yourself as a rider’.
I could see that he was right. I wasn’t sure
Whether I would laugh or cry, and I looked to the room
For some sign of what I was meant to feel. Relief
That I knew who the phantom was, or horror
That my some rich part of me had been consumed
By this ridiculous pursuit and become flesh?
‘But’ I gasped, ‘He was so pleasant, so nice, so
perfect... it was horrible.’ I flinched
Knowing that he was me to an extreme.
‘That’s the Ghost Beard.’ Said the Ancien
A smile playing on his face, 'It means you are ready.'
‘Ready for what?’ I asked. ‘Ready to be the rider
That you are and not the one you think you should be.’
I was almost ashamed to have taken so many years
To see the truth of it. To get better, to enjoy this
I needed to move on from ideas of perfection.
I needed to cast off ideas of there being a right way
Or wrong way to ride a bike a long way
For no good reason. There was no way
But my own sweet stagger. I nodded then
And with that the room turned back to their biscuits,
Discussions of gearing and milage and what
The next ride was. A room full of people
Being the riders that they were, not what
Someone else told them to be, not blur lines
In a fantasy of speed, not victors, not
Children dreaming of conquering - just plain adults
And me among them suddenly older, and happier.