On BBC Breakfast Carol predicts a weekend of sunshine. Before she has finished handing back to Dan and Sally in the studio my chap has flipped open his laptop.
“Fancy a bike ride?” he says, already tapping keys to bring up his route planner of choice.
When I was a child I went on bike rides with my best friend Mary. We would pack our sandwiches into the white shoe box thing with the flip over lid on the back of my bike, well, my older sister’s actually, and cycle off together for a great adventure. We never planned a route, but more often than not we would make it to a patch of grass by a side road down the hill from my house, decide that we had travelled quite far enough, and tuck into our cheese sarnies. These days things are a little different, generally involving a lot more gears, satnav, and shorts with a built-in bottom.
My chap is a keen cyclist and an avid follower of professional cycling. He cycles to work, come rain or shine, on his commuting bike, the one with no chain, but is happiest when weather and days off align and he can go for a much longer, faster, more scenically pleasing ride on his road bike, the one with the skinny tyres. Donning his Lycra and helmet he tucks a couple of bananas into the pocket on the back of his cycling top, and disappears for hours at a time. Alternatively, a route is plotted and he’ll ride with a pack of fellow MAMIL (Middle Aged Men In Lycra), for a more sociable outing, or with the MYMIL (Much Younger Men In Lycra), for a more hard-core cycle, when his most recent bike, the one with the electric assist, comes into its own.
Going on bike rides with my chap is a relatively new venture, what with not having owned a bike since my early teens, and upon acquiring a bike as a grown-up it quickly became clear to me that a very particular kind of padding was required, in order to preserve my womanhood. I needed some of those special shorts. Theoretically that might make me a MAWIL, but as I have yet to succumb to the full Lycra suit, I think not. Once one accepts the fit of the shorts as being not dissimilar to a very basic ill-fitting sanitary towel, without wings, they are surprisingly wearable, although, not for every day.
My favourite kind of bike ride is reminiscent of my Mary cycling days – good company and refreshments. The promise of a treat half way through, or something equally delicious at the end, were critical considerations when bike riding as a child, and remain so today. Although my tastes have since matured – I’d rather have a pint or a Mr. Whippy ice-cream than a cheese sandwich these days. I’m pretty sure Mary would also agree that a scenic route with no hills is a must. My chap is understanding of my requirements, and my meagre twenty-five-kilometre leg tiring limit, but we do differ in our interpretation of hills. I now know that if he describes a route as ‘pan flat,’ to expect some hills, which he will call ‘gentle rises,’ which aren’t steep enough to warrant being described as anything other than ‘pan flat.’ Similarly, my legs and I are wary of ‘undulations’ – a benign sounding word with turbulent possibilities.
Carol’s accurate, as ever, sunny predictions, result in the plotting of a twenty-five-kilometre loop along country lanes, ending at a café favoured by cyclists from miles around for its excellent cycle friendly layout and equally excellent pit stop menu. My chap points out the profile of the course on his laptop screen. If you are a serious cyclist this can look like a particularly terrifying hospital heart rate chart, or resemble a digital craggy mountain range with massive peaks, middling peaks and smaller peaks with very little flatness in between. The outline on my chap’s laptop looks the opposite of any professional riding terrain, being reassuringly levelish, with a few teeny bumps. My chap assures me that this bespoke route is mostly pan flat, no hills and the merest of rises. Hmmm. We take a wheel off each bike in order to fit them into the car, pile everything in and forty minutes later we are unloading in a picturesque English village.
There is something just so very lovely about a sunny day in the countryside. Cycling along twisty, nearly empty roads, birds singing their heads off, the smell of cut grass, the general feel-good factor of being in England’s green and pleasant land. Even when the road surface becomes lumpy and potholey and my bones rattle and my boobs and my sports bra fight each other for supremacy, and I try not to put my whole weight on the saddle because my special shorts are not special enough, I still enjoy the ride. And the people you pass by are smiley and you can’t help but say hello to them all. A couple and their dog out for a run come into view, “good morning fellow athletes,” calls out the man, in his slightly too snug fluorescent yellow top. We call back cheerily. I thought this very jolly, although, with hindsight his irony may have been aimed at just us, rather than himself… We even say good morning to a lady on a horse, as we overtake, ‘slow and wide,’ as per the highway code. Extra wide, in the case of my chap, he’s allergic. To horses, not ladies.
And then, my thighs start to burn because the pan flat road is not pan flat, but is actually a hill in disguise, a never-ending incline where I either use the gears that make my legs spin round at top speed like in a cartoon and feel like I’m cycling on the spot, but my legs don’t scream so loudly – or else push my legs slower, with very screaming legs, and move like a heavy tortoise, but feel that I must be getting somewhere. Whilst alternating between these two options and telling my chap, through gasps of breath, that this is definitely a hill, not a rise, and is most definitely not pan flat, it suddenly flattens out again.
My legs are my own once more and I’m enjoying the scenery and thinking that I may need to unwind the dial on the back of my helmet a bit, as it’s starting to feel a little snug, and I don’t want an unattractive dent in my forehead when I take it off, when my chap shouts out to me.
“You might want to drop down a few gears for the hill.”
Hill?! I snap out of my reverie and concentrate on the road ahead. I see the tarmac rearing up in front of me, like the upward climb of a rollercoaster. I can’t see the top. My legs are doing the cartoon pedalling, my thighs are on fire. My chap cycles next to me to give moral support. “Well this is more of a climb than I thought,” he says matter of factly, not out of breath at all, his legs going round leisurely. “Definitely a hill,” he adds, mischievously. I shake my head at him, red faced and panting. I feel like I may not actually get to the top of this thing, the humiliation of having to stop would just be too awful. “I don’t…think…I… can…” I am interrupted, mid wheeze, by my chap spurring me on, encouraging me – then reciting the menu of the café to which we are heading, asking me what I’ll have, in an effort to distract me from my agony. He doesn’t really expect an answer, which is just as well.
To my mind, the single only good thing about pedalling up an exceedingly steep hill, is freewheeling down the other side. The rush of wind in my ears, the sheer exhilarating speed, this is what flying must feel like. I take my feet off the pedals and stick my legs out like I used to when I was a child. I wobble alarmingly, and hurriedly regain control of my bike before I fall off. The professionals cycling in the Tour de France and such like pedal on the downhills, reaching crazy speeds, even though you’d have thought they could treat themselves to free-wheeling all the way, after they’ve cycled up an actual mountain! The only thing I have in common with those elite athletes is shaved legs.
Despite my lack of uphill prowess it has been a great cycle, but I am ready to dismount and sit on something a little broader that requires no leg effort. The café is a welcome sight, and quite marvellous. There are masses of cycle racks in which to park your precious steed and lots of outdoor seating, perfect for a sunny cycling day, there is even a cleat cleaning station. I can only dream of being proficient enough to warrant the purchase of such cycling shoe exotica. The number of customers wearing brightly coloured cycling attire is amazing, a plethora of Lycra clad acronyms all in one place, like some exotic species convening around a watering hole. The place has a friendly buzz about it, and hums with convivial chatter. It is very lovely to be off my bike, although I feel that I’m wearing someone else’s legs, like Wallace in The Wrong Trousers, and do a kind of strange staggery walk, whilst trying to look normal.
I take off my helmet and ruffle my hair with my fingers. My forehead practically sighs with relief, released from the rather vice like grip of the helmet. We order bacon and egg cobs, as per the vocalised menu from the hill of horror, mine with brown sauce, his with red. It is the most delicious bacon and egg cob I’ve eaten in years, possibly even ever.
By the time we arrive back home my legs are my own and the dent in my forehead has just about popped back out. No sooner have we unloaded the car than my chap scoops up a banana from the kitchen worktop announcing that he is now “off for a proper ride.” I can’t decide whether to be offended or impressed, as I watch him and his bike disappear through the garden gate – the lone MAMIL, headed for his natural habitat.