There comes a time when normally sane middle aged men go on a diet and take up a cause, and on its behalf, run, swim, walk or bike a silly distance, preferably up and over equally silly obstacles, and, inexplicably, compete against each other by trying to do it in the fastest time.
The most recent, and probably my last, was The Yorkshire Rider Mountain Bike Challenge, September 2001.
It began after practice one night in June when one of the basses sidled up to me, smiling as if he knew something I didn’t and not quite looking me in the eye. ‘Would you like to do a bike ride,’ he asked, ‘its for “Sightsavers”. They do a hundred eye operations in an afternoon, in a tent in the middle of the Indian desert, for five quid.’
I’d never heard of them and I was allergic to collecting money. But, despite being 54, I could ride a bike for about an hour on the road, and up hills too, so I said yes, but don’t expect too much dosh. The topic wasn’t discussed again, and I forgot about it.
The summer of 2001wasn’t particularly steamy or long and hot, but the reassuring seasonal rituals recurred reassuringly. Between the numerous dot balls, my steady opening bat snicked and tickled ones and twos to fine leg and third man, decorated by the occasional rush of blood to the head for either the maximum or LBW.
Two weeks before the event, the bass with the bright ideas had another one. Let’s have some practice rides – oh, yes, goody. Coincidentally, the following day, a pal popped round to replace my bedroom window. We talked over coffee, lunch, tea and any other excuse to talk and drink. ‘Oh, aye, we did that, ‘ he said. ‘It were easy. I could’ve gone round again.’
Can’t be all bad I thought, but why was he limping?
So we practiced. The bass with the bright ideas planned the routes. I reminded him of my poor record with money, but he didn’t seem unduly worried. ‘Its only for charity,’ he said. ‘I’ve got £200 do far, but its what I like doing.’ Ah, the inveterate organiser. He can’t stop himself from running something. Mobilising the troops. Geoff’s a cyclist, he’ll come. What about Barry? Dave will do it. The hell I will, and yet I did. I realized that the bass with the bright ideas had transformed into our leader.
The training rides were on mountain bikes, and all I had was my Claude Butler, a decent enough road bike. I’d only been on a track for five minutes when the chain broke. A long walk home and the expense of a chain repair kit – a worthwhile investment as it happened. It was the second ride that proved I couldn’t do it. The bike wasn’t appropriate and it would die, and me with it. After a two minutes on a mildly undulating strip of mud and rocks, I lost my grip and fell off, injuring my elbow and busting a toe strap. I remounted and my heart and several other internal organs sank as I heard the sound of ominous rattles and scraping noises. My rear mech was engaging with the wheel spokes. Haven’t you got a mountain bike our leader asked? Wasn’t that the daftest question? Do I hit him now or shall I savour the moment?
I changed my mind then. I wasn’t going to do it. But, I’d already got thirty quids worth of sponsorship. Sheila bless her, my child bride, had baked a cake for work. Have a piece and sponsor this idiot. Can’t you hear their chuckling staff room sense of fun?
‘They’ll want to know if you’ve done it,’ she said.
It was a double-edged sword upon which I was about to fall. On the one hand, this was money in the bank. I can’t bear getting sponsorship. Its like selling raffle tickets – I usually end up buying them all myself. On the other hand, if I didn’t ride, what’ll I do with the money? I know, I’ll give it back. No, I’ll do half and give half back. Oh, shoot, I’ll have to do it.
I needed a mountain bike? Maybe I couldn’t do it after all. When I shared this sad news with the team at choir practice, Geoff, bless him, the eternal optimist and good samaritan, offered me one of his machines. He didn’t appreciate the benefits of my long and very old-fashioned look. The rear brake was a bit sticky and the chain slips so I’ve borrowed another one from a mate, he said.
‘Well if you’re not riding it, neither am I.’
‘It only needs a bit doing to it.’
‘What makes you think I can do it?’ Our first tiff. I was actually shouting at our leader, who was blissfully ignorant over in the bass section. Now, I was emotionally as well as financially up the creek. Geoff’s charity had tied me in for the duration.
There is only one shop in Huddersfield that hires mountain bikes, and that’s in Scisset. I gave them a ring. You can have a twenty-inch something, cost you £20. I’d already paid £12 to enter the ride and £7.50 for a chain repair kit. Shows how pathetic I am. Collect it Saturday. I took my wrecked road bike in for repair on the way.
Two lads, neither older than 30, needed humour transplants or two terms at a charm school. Maybe some sessions in the child bride’s staff room? They soon discovered I was harmless and warmed to me. That’ll be £50 deposit. One of them swiped my card and I was now down £89.50. Still it was a brand new mountain bike. The other one gave me a tutorial on how to take the wheels off – why should I need to know that? Here’s the repair kit, tyre levers and a spare inner tube – oh shoot, what had I done? I was confused. Was my fifty quid deposit safe? Should I be doing this?
I had a trial ride on the road in front of our house. Easy, gears here, yes the brakes work, seat’s a bit low and needs adjusting. Five minutes and I’ve got it. Ha, that’s what I thought?
The child bride got me to the start, armed with Mars bars and water. The bike and my go-faster clothing seemed in keeping with the occasion. All ages, not a lot of women. Where’s your front brake, Dave? Shit I’m sure I had one yesterday. No cantilevers. How am I going to stop then? I see the cable to the front wheel hub; ah, a disc brake, now we’re cooking. We’ll set off from the second row says our leader.
The third row was past me before I’d got to the end of the start. Right up the first track and I was slowly sinking – the saddle post was loose. I got off, tightened it and couldn’t get back on. The gear I was in was too low. I couldn’t get any purchase on the pedal and I kept falling off. Until I got on I couldn’t change gear. It was a Yossarian moment. All the women and children on the fourth row had overtaken me by the time I remounted.
The next track I knew and I actually enjoyed myself. Then I went downhill. It was like being in a fight: with the bike, with the stones, with the steepness. Every muscle in my arms was engaged in the struggle. I began to see why we needed a repair kit, and to prove it, round the next corner, frantic repairs. It was a sight that was to be repeated every two or three miles. A small group bunched around an upended bike, tools and grease everywhere. There was even a guy with a broken chain.
Holme Moss was the first serious ascent. As I climbed, my saddle suddenly lurched forward. Not only was the post loose but the saddle itself was slack. I was riding a sea-saw. Half way up, our leader passed me coming down. I think he shouted something encouraging. What a motivator.
Barry and Geoff waited for me at the top of Holme Moss. Two smiley hairless men. I crumpled behind a wall and ate a Mars bar, surveying the lovely views in fine, sunny and windy weather. Barry had a large rucksack full of tools and the right sized screwdriver, what a man. My morale almost recovered.
Saddle fixed, Barry and I managed the next ten miles without further problems. Geoff went ahead at Blackpool Bridge, just before the photographer, who asked us to smile. Pratt. There were regular chocolate bar and water stations, where stewards ticked us off as having arrived, and then wished us well as we left. I even took a risk on the downhills and released the brakes a fraction. I passed our house and a Holmfirth Harriers road race. These were the only things I passed.
Barry had his own personal fan club, which lurked round corners. We knew they were there, because they kept shouting, ‘Come on Barry,’ at the tops of their voices. It was a “ Summer Wine” moment.
At sixteen miles, I simply ran out of gas. Walking up the hills, in fear of my life down the tracks, wobbling up and down on the saddle, legs and arms aching, bum sore. Getting angrier by the mile. I was speechless at the finish and ignored our leader who tried to say all the right things. A marshal lost one of my checkpoint ticks and blamed me. He won’t do it again. It was four hours, forty minutes since I’d lined up on the second row of the grid. The winner, who was over 50, did it in two hours, eight minutes – obscene. If he’d’ve gone round again, he’d’ve lapped me.
I had to get home and play cricket at 2.30. It was 1.30. The child bride was busy. Geoff gave me a lift, lovely boy. There were two fliers under the windscreen wipers inviting us to take part in races the following month. I tore them up. Apart from something rude and incomprehensible to the marshal I still hadn’t spoken. Our leader came over, ‘Can I put you down for next year?’
‘Ooo, let me think . . . ,‘ I said. Even the most irrepressible of organizers know when to give it a rest and quietly walk away.
Geoff drove off. I turned to him, ‘Do you know I could be in Philadephia this time next year.’
Since 2001 I’ve had chance to reflect. It was a good cause and we need leaders or nothing would ever get done. I haven’t done the race again though.