The Race

Last weekend, I was cycling through Oxford, as I do, enjoying a reasonably leisurely pace. I say leisurely, but it’s been my experience that compared to the cyclists in Aberystwyth, where the city planners decided to build every single road on the side of a hill, the cyclists in Oxford are somewhat… wussy. They’re numerous, certainly, but very few of them actually put their backs into the activity, instead preferring to crawl around at a frankly pedestrian speed along their overcrowded cycle paths.

On several occasions, I’ve routinely seen people get off their bikes and push to get up even mild to moderate slopes like that outside the hospital, around the corner from Earth. The slope is long, certainly, but these people aren’t even giving up half-way… they’re giving up at the bottom! It just makes me want to send them to Aber for a few years to learn what real hills look like.

The hill up to Headington: at it's most-severe, a gentle slope that shouldn't put an experienced cyclist out of breath (and shouldn't require getting off and pushing from anything but a complete beginner).

So there I was, cycling into the city centre, overtaking other cyclists as I went, when another cyclist… overtook me! This was only the second time this had ever happened to me since I moved to Oxford last summer. The other time, like this one, the perpetrator was a fit, lean young man, clad from the neck downwards in skin-tight lycra, donned with a streamlined helmet and riding a bike that just screamed out that it wanted to be raced. It was almost begging me to give it a challenge. So I did.

I raced.

I guess part of me was offended that he happened to have come across me on a day when I was taking it easy. Traveling to and from work, for example, I’ve been pushing myself: the other week, I beat my personal best, making the 2.4 mile journey from the Bodleian‘s bike sheds to my garage door in just a little over seven and a half minutes. How dare this… enthusiast… overtake me when I’m just on a gentle meander in the sun.

I raced.

We were just pulling into high street when he passed me, buzzing past in his fancy orange-and-black cycling shorts like a bumblebee riding a bullet. Ahead, cars and buses were coming to walking pace, backed up as far as I could see as the bank holiday traffic ground what was once a trunk road into little more than a car park. Between the vehicles, cycles picked their way around, darting in and out of the lanes of traffic. This was to be our arena.

My pedals span as I dropped back into a less-comfortable gear, picking up speed and pulling around a police van to get right onto the tail of my opponent. His speed advantage had been reduced by having to evade a taxi cab, and within a few seconds I was able to pull up into the wake of his slipsteam. Ahead, a bus began to pull away from a stop, and he overtook it. Seeing my chance as the bus began to indicate, I went around the inside, pulling almost alongside him as we streaked across the first of the pelican crossings and into the next block of traffic. Car, car, van, car, bus… we passed each one on one side or the other, and I occasionally caught a glimpse of the young man with whom I was competing.

Up ahead, the second pelican crossing switched to red, and we pulled up to the line together. Surprised at having somebody alongside him, I think, he looked across at me, and looked even more surprised when he recognised me as the person he’d overtaken a little while back. He eyed up my bike, as if he were assessing his chances. He seemed confident: and why not – he was riding a lightweight racing bike, designed to make the most of every bit of its rider’s strength to propel it along. I was on a mountain bike, designed to be rugged and durable – multi-purpose, nowadays. Weighed down by mudguards and pannier frames, I didn’t fancy my chances either. But my bike was running very well – I’d recently stripped it down to its component parts, washed and re-greased each, rebuilt it and fine-tuned it – and if ever it was set up to take on this racer, today was the day.

The lights changed, and we were off. He wasn’t holding back, now, and by the time we were half-way to the junction with St. Aldates I was panting, gulping down air to feed to my legs, pumping away beneath me.  Our routes sometimes put us side-by-side or one behind the other, sometimes put us on the other sides of lines of stationary cars, but always kept us in sight of one another. This was going to be close.

The lights at the junction were in our favour, and we both rocketed around into the downhill section at St. Aldates. Buses crawled along the street, but there was plenty of room on the wide, slick surface, so we accelerated as we shot down the centre of the road. Ahead, heat haze made the black surface glisten like oil, and I was suddenly aware of how much I was sweating. Summoning all of my strength, I stood up and leant forwards, searching for just another half a mile an hour to catch up with him; his slender bike and slender body cutting through the headwind and pulling away from me. It worked: by the bottom of the road, I was alongside him again, and we were almost to my destination: the bridge at the bottom.

“My stop!” I called out, holding my arm out to indicate (mostly to him; there were no cars behind us at even close to our speed) where I was to go. I came to a halt, glad that I’d thought to tune up the brakes during my recent maintenance. He pulled alongside me, and for a moment I wondered if he perhaps had the same destination as me.

“Are you in a cycling club?” he asked, and I noticed that he, too, was beginning to get out of breath – although not so badly as I was.

“No,” I replied.

“You should be!” he said, “That kind of speed, on a bike like… that…” He gestured to my bike.

As he sped away and I started to look for a place to lock up my bike, I felt a great sense of satisfaction and pride. I didn’t know that I’d be able to match pace with him, but through sheer grit and determination, I’d managed. And then, just as I was chaining my bike to a conveniently nearby fence, another thought occurred:

I was still holding the letter that I’d meant to post on my way here. The postbox was back at about the beginning of the race… you know; where I was slowing down to begin with.