A Century before Lunch

“I once saw Walter Brearley, the fast bowler, hit Fry on the hand; and Fry walked almost to the fence on the square-leg boundary shaking his bruised finger, with not any loss of dignity at all, not to announce his agony to the world; he was simply absorbed, like a student of metaphysics, in the problem of pain.” (Neville Cardus, Manchester Guardian, early 20th century)

Having made my decision, I went back to bed. But there was no sleep, no rest even, to be found there. Just the pain, like a frozen blade inserted into the back of my wrist, and the voice of a chess acquaintance of mine echoing around my head. On his surprise to see me appear to control the Essex Open Championship last year, he greeted me with the cheerful and encouraging “Hello Peter! I thought you were on the scrap-heap.” No, Norman, I’m not!

Even if a 200-mile driven round trip to the Sussex Corker was out of the question, I had to conquer this demon. But if I was going to do so, I’d make sure I was on home territory and that it was a level playing field, not an away match in sloping Sussex where the odds were seriously stacked against me. Even the seemingly simple task of securing the bike onto the carrier would have presented problems for me this morning.

I had to refit my saddlebag. I had taken it off last night in preparation for the Corker, cutting out as much weight as I could. I probably didn’t need it today, but its presence was somehow reassuring and I prefer it to be there. Not logical, but I put a waterproof and a warm top in there, even though the weather forecast deemed them unnecessary. I even put my marmite sandwiches in my front bag.

I didn’t have a route planned as such, and I didn’t take a map, but I headed towards Battlesbridge, the Gateway to Everywhere Else. It was tough going. I was angry at having to change my plans. The legs were working OK but even the slightest unevenness in the road surface twisted the demon’s blade. I found, though, that I could change gear if I wrapped my thumb and forefinger very lightly round the twist-grip and moved my arm from the shoulder. Surprisingly, braking was easier. The first time I applied the front brake I winced, but then felt a fool: it hadn’t hurt nearly as much as I expected.

That’s the curious thing with pain: a great deal of it is in the mind. I am expecting my arthritis to hurt me so it does. When I’m lying awake at 5 a.m., it is my total, my only occupation. Like Charles Burgess Fry, arguably the greatest all-round sportsman the world has ever seen, I was totally preoccupied with the problem of pain. The purpose of being in bed is to sleep, so the demon wins every time. I’m awake and my wrist is all I can feel. To win the battle with the demon, you have to do other things. Today, all the other joints were in order, so why let the right wrist dominate the rest of the body?

By the time I reached the roundabout on the borough boundary, I began to notice my surroundings. There were two baby rabbits playing “chicken”. The first ran out in front of a car, the second waited until I arrived and then ran out in front of me. Both won that time. After the roundabout, though, there was gory pile of hedgehog bits which had lost. I crossed the Roach river bridge and saw a little egret paddling around in the water and of all things, there were three mallards strolling up Rochford High Street. “Good morning m’llard’”, I said in suitable deference, but they didn’t reply.

My computer was making very optimistic work of the 3-mile trip to Rochford and it dawned on me: that was because I had set it to display kilometres last night in preparation for today’s Audax. You can’t switch the Cateye Micro to imperial from metric and vice versa when it’s got a trip in memory, so I was stuck with it. Never mind, thought I, lets ride 100k anyway because that’s what I would have done in Sussex, albeit at about half the speed. I think that was when I made up my mind: I would go to Bradwell and then work my way back to Battlesbridge and on home. That should make a good 100k ride.

There were two beautiful fields of hemp growing near Doggetts Farm and the air smelt like a dodgy party as I rode through, yesterday’s rain still bringing out the morning scents. On my right a whitethroat warbled its sandpapery song and was answered by a chaffinch on my left. The a wren provided the descant from a willow tree on the right. I sailed easily past the llamas’ field in Hyde Wood Road and as I approached a terrace of cottages on the Canewdon Road, I thought “That’s a large swallow”, having seen a bird of the right outline perched on a wire. A closer inspection revealed it to be not a swallow at all something a bit parrotish, perhaps a cockatiel, but without doubt an escapee of some kind. I understand that there is a fairly large parakeet presence in parts of London, but if I remember correctly parakeets are green and this certainly wasn’t.

The swan was still asleep, sitting on her eggs with her head somewhere under her wing, as I crossed the Crouch at Battlesbridge, and after the railway bridge, where I often hit 30mph when coming in the opposite direction, I just stood up on the pedals and had no trouble at all, my speed hardly dipping below 15kph. I used the cycle lanes to negotiate the roundabouts, which even at that time in the morning were busy, and sped towards Woodham Ferrers.

Now my route was in my mind, I was set on getting there. Workhouse Lane led to Edwins Hall Road, up Bushey hill to Edwin’s Hall, where a performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is to take place at the end of the month, tickets £20, and along to Flambird’s Farm. No traffic here, of course, and it was a very surprised hare which loped towards me, not spotting me until I was close to, then, like a middle-distance runner, finding a gear I hadn’t got and disappearing round the bend in the road. I thought I might get another glimpse of him, but no: instead, so surprised to see me that they didn’t take off, a pair of red-legged partridges, no more than three feet away, gorgeous little birds with very distinct colouring and white throats.

After passing the water tower at Cold Norton I came across another cyclist so we rode together for a mile or two. She was riding to Danbury hills so that she could go for a run. That struck me as a bit odd: why ride a bike so that you can go for a run? but I didn’t express my opinion out loud. I told her that I ought to have been in Sussex and she had heard of Audax but had never got involved. I mentioned the Three Coasts 600 going on as we rode, and she became very interested “That sounds exactly like my kind of thing!” I just had time to tell her about the Audax website and then our routes diverged, as she headed north to Danbury and I took the easterly road out towards the Dengie and Bradwell-on-Sea.

I was still going well, and when St. Lawrence Hill appeared in front of me, still smarting from its demotion and lost chevron, I couldn’t resist and up I went. “I am climbing well today!” I said to myself, and although I did eventually engage bottom gear, my legs were spinning like Catherine Wheels until I finally ran out of steam and ground my way up the last few metres. After that there was a lovely long descent where I almost came a cropper: a car had the temerity to come in the opposite direction just as I was leaning over to take a sharp bend. A quick wiggle and I was OK, but it was a slightly unnerving moment for both the driver and me.

As I reached the Bradwell road, I could see a cyclist in the distance. My levels of fitness must be picking up, because at one time if I saw someone in the distance it wasn’t for long as they had disappeared over the horizon. This time I gained on them, for tandemists they were, and eventually caught them. They were riding a beautiful blue Mercian of a late 1980s vintage but without a mark on it. The Wolber Champion rims shone as though freshly forged and it was a veritable jewel of a bike. They had recently bought it second hand from a couple in North Yorkshire, who were the original owners and had had it purpose built for their retirement and then had not used it much. “There are lots of good tandems like that: this one was kept in their front room under a cloth cover and it’s hardly been ridden!” the pilot told me proudly.

We chatted amiably about this and that: LEJOG (“I quite fancy that” said the Stoker); WNBR; Audax, and of course anothercyclingforum.com. Then we went our separate ways. I headed south through Bradwell Village, where I noted that the village shop has ceased trading, and then Tillingham, where one of the pubs has opened a very small coffee shop. One Beans on toast and coffee later, and I felt as though I could phone Jan to let her know where I was. “You’ve left your helmet and gloves behind,” she said reproachfully, but I reassured her that I was wearing my Tilley hat and my Pearl Izumi gloves. I’d already done 67k so I should be home about 1 o’clock.

Once again off I went but avoided Southminster by taking Green Lane. Latchingdon, Cold Norton, Stow Maries and then into Woodham Ferrers by the “over 40s” route and back onto the Battlesbridge road. Just over 50kph going down the hill towards the railway and then the irksome pest of motorists overtaking me  – I was still doing over 30kph – just so that they could stop in a queue for the single-lane bridge. I didn’t bother to waste my breath on them but just slipped round the outside and over the bridge. I took Coventry Hill (I wonder why they call it that?) by storm and kept up a very respectable speed all the way to Ashingdon. Back past the llamas, through Doggetts where Dan Squier himself was riding the lawn mower. He appears to be a dying breed – a gentleman farmer – and he gave me a very cheerful smile as I whizzed past. Then it was through Rochford, without mallards, up Sutton road and home. The demon had been exorcised – this time.
Distance: 116.51k
Riding time:5h 31m 43s
Average: 21 kph
Max speed: 50.4 kph

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