Ghost Beard
January 2017
A semi-serious narrative poem about encountering your own expectations when out riding

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.