Tom is the anti-Dolly Parton; living a five-to-nine lifestyle, squeezing in time on the bike before and after work. What he lacks in talent and fitness he makes up for with optimism and a high pain threshold. He’s one of Singletrack’s Grinder test team, but doesn’t let that get in the way of his enjoyment of a good ride. Here he writes about something we’re probably all looking forward to re-discovering soon: the joy of an after-work hoon around the woods in daylight…
It is 12th March 2015. The time is 15:30.
Military time, military precision, not a minute to waste. I was in the office before 07:00, specifically so I could leave early enough to get in this ride. It’s an important one. It is my first post-work-ride-completed-entirely-in-daylight-of-the-year.
By the time I open the front door to our home, I am already unbuttoning my shirt. It is 16:00, and I feverishly strip then redress, hopping around on one leg while I wrestle with twisted Lycra, pull on a baselayer, then pull it on again, the right way round this time. Striding out of the bedroom, I leave my trousers piled on the floor exactly where I stepped out of them. Physically I have left behind the desk jockey and become the bike rider.
16:15: I roll the bike out of the front door. Unusually for me, it is already lubed; the blinky lights charged and fitted. I start my Garmin, point myself downhill, click cleat to pedal and push off. The acceleration is palpable. A day’s worth of pent up energy is released in pops with each pedal stroke. 16:15:09 and I am at the end of our short street. I scrub off enough speed to check for traffic and boot out another kick of power. This isn’t a time-triallist’s efficient conversion of muscular energy to forward motion; I am a child on a BMX, bars wagging from side to side, bike pendulum-ing excitedly, like a grandfather clock with a dicky ticker.
16:15:35 and my body reminds me that I need to breathe. Hard. Not long after and my previously sedentary legs whisper muted complaints. 16:18, I’ve taken the shortest possible route to any off-road, and my front wheel hits trail. It is compact and dry, beech nuts still littering the surface. I float, slide, settle, sprint, smile. My body language is exaggerated as I corner. My inside knee drops, and an elbow flicks out. I feel my outside knee brush the top tube as my hips push through. I hug the apex, trying to hold momentum as the trail rises abruptly. Up out of the saddle, I push a too-big gear, my rear wheel scrabbling for traction. I feel a rush of heat in my cheeks and my skin prickles as my aerobic system tries to respond to the demands that are being made of it. Sitting down as the gradient eases, my still-tight quads feel wooden, but I resist the urge to change down. After a couple of slow, heavy crank revolutions, I’m back on top of the gear and keep pushing.
Over the course of the next hour so (precision is less important now I have escaped), this pattern is repeated. I link tatty ribbons of suburban dirt. Woodland, park edges, brownfield, forgotten paths and sunken bridleways. I ride on instinct, ride hard, ride for fun. An unseasonably dry couple weeks has left many of my local trails quicker than they have been since the autumn. My efforts are rewarded with more speed, more momentum, more grip. So I ride harder.
Lingering patches of mud grab at my wheels forcing concentration and a light touch to steering. Trails that are overgrown by mid-spring are still free of leg and arm-grabbing foliage, allowing me to take the tightest, quickest lines. Each section of trail lasts just long enough for my legs and lungs to reach exploding point before I reach a stretch of tarmac to recover. Except I don’t. I can’t. It is 17:20 and the light is already beginning to die in a heavy, overcast sky, and I still have to complete my loop.
17:25: I realise that I haven’t ridden this quickly in a long while. I’m not really in shape, but most importantly, I haven’t wanted to ride at this speed until now. I’ve either wanted to think, cruise and flow, or have been out with friends and more interested in socialising than pace. I have a few weeks’ worth of endorphins effervescing in my system. I’m genuinely enjoying the effort, and it is still effort, despite the fun.
17:45. I stop in the middle of the wood. I’m 10 minutes away from home. Until now, all my mental energy has been absorbed in the activity. I don’t want to rush any more. I want to savour being outside. I want to indulge the intermingled memories of springs past. While I physically became a bike rider when I got changed, only now have I psychologically noted the switch. My thoughts for the last one and a half hours have been consumed by line choice, speed, braking, apexes, gradients, surfaces, body positioning, breathing. I don’t want this to be over. In a few weeks, it needn’t be, but for now I must turn home.
Given all day to do something, I have a preponderance to postpone and prevaricate, and often fail altogether. Given a tight little window, I grab the opportunity. If I didn’t need to rush, maybe I wouldn’t have bunnyhopped the log, or been going fast enough to two-wheel drift the corner. Maybe I wouldn’t be standing here, feeling satiated and joyful. Maybe I wouldn’t keep up that pace as I turn for home, hitting the road and fighting the flow of traffic. Maybe I would be one of those commuters, with an already broken promise to get some miles in later. Maybe I would stare guiltily at the turbo trainer as I put my feet up with a beer that I felt I hadn’t earned.
I finish as I started, sprinting into the corner to our road. Hopping on to the kerb, I exhale. I stop my Garmin, less than two hours after I started riding. 17:55, and the sky is Guinness-like. Weighty clouds are weakly illuminated. There has been no glorious sunset, and there doesn’t need to be. As I close my front door and drop sticky mud through the house, I am rejuvenated.