Photo: Amy Charles

The roundness of 12

– Gasping for air when you cannot get enough, an unnerving experience.

Your shoulders heaving, up and down, trying to suck in the oxygen. Your lungs burning. You feel like their going to set your whole body on fire. It doesn’t matter how much you gulp in, in won’t stop.

– Your heart, that only moments ago was beating 100 miles an hour, can barely now manage a single beat. Your blood has slowed down, dragging itself up the hills of your arteries. Because you have pushed yourself too far.

– Your feet are numb. They are red roar with calluses, but that doesn’t matter because you cant feel them can you? And your thighs, contracting and swelling in agonizing spasms, because you pushed yourself too far.

– And the daggers that run down your back… slipping each spine as it goes, your ears are buzzing and your whole body trembles in a way that you cannot control, because you pushed yourself too far. Your emotions are shredded. You want to scream. To curl up into a little ball and cry.

– Why? Why did you do this to yourself? Why would you put your body through so much pain? Oh … to win? To be stronger, faster? To go further. Its pathetic. You don’t remember why you do this do you? You cannot remember what you like about it.

Hitting the wall. Or the bonk? As cyclists like to call it. Can happen to anybody. It is the moment in a race, maybe and hour or 2 hours, where the body just says stop. I cannot do any more. Stop. It’s a safety valve, your brain protecting your body. You can actually do more. And you can usually overcome it psychologically. Will power. You tell yourself you can do more and you will do more. But the harder you train, the harder you push yourself, the harder the wall you hit. And the harder it is to break through. In extreme cases, in this instance, it can lead to anxiety, panic attacks, mood swings. And depression. Because you’ve pushed yourself too far.

Jonny is three days away from the biggest race of his career. He wants to do better than he has ever done before. He just can’t remember why. He tries to block out the world around him, and he searches through his mind. To the darkest depths, to find the one thing that he knows will comfort him. His metronome. That clack, clack clack clack…. Echoing faintly in his head. It’s always been there. It has been there since he was 14 years old. And it is a comfort blanket. He focuses on the sound. And he remembers that it’s the sound of a time machine that he used to have. And as he listens he starts to go backwards. He goes past race wins, violent crashes, and awkward family weddings. Teenage adventures, young love that didn’t involve 2 wheels. His first bike. And then he opens his eyes. He is nine years old. And it’s Christmas day. There is fresh wrapping paper strewn across the room. And in his hand, his new deck of top trumps, bicycles obviously. And he’s staring out the window and he’s smiling. And he is looking at something that he will always associate with Christmas. Children riding brand new bikes. Bright colourful bikes. Red, yellow, green blue, orange, purple. And he smiles to himself, because he knows that one day. That will be him. One day he will get a bike, all of his own.

2) Jonny didn’t need to wait until next Christmas. He got his first bike on his next birthday. A brilliant blue fixed gear BMX with bright white pads across the frame and white spokes in the wheels, that if you cycled fast enough became a blurred disc of motion. It wasn’t strictly what he had in his head, but it was HIS. And it was exceptional. He just needed to learn how to ride it. Now we all have our memories of riding a bike, they usually involve white knuckles on the handle bars, and nervous glances over your shoulder, to make sure your mum or your dad is holding the saddle running along beside you. Then the fear when you realise that they’re not. The pride and the smile in the distance, as they fade away. And then the elation, the joy, the uncontrollable joy that you are cycling, you can do this on your own. And it’s easy. And then the fear again when you realise slowly that, this is easy as long as you’re going forwards. But stopping is a little bit trickier. Then there’s usually a hedge, or a wall or a ditch. Non of that happened to Jonny. When jonny got his bike, his dad promised “I will teach you to ride when I come back from work tonight”. Jonny was so excited, he could not contain his nerves. He didn’t know what to do with himself. He wanted to be the best. And so he thought he would practice his practicing. And so he took out his bike, and practiced how to ride a bike so that when his dad got home, he would be amazing. And when his dad did get home, full of excitement for the bonding experience he was about to have with his son. His jaw dropped as he pulled in to see jonny riding towards him as though he had been doing it for years. His mum declared him a natural. His dad ruffled his hair, slightly disappointed. Jonny didn’t tell them about the bruises and the scrapes, and the grazes he had all over his body. He must have fallen off that bike about 50 times. Until finally he realized, he worked it out. Cycling is about balance. Its not just about the boy balancing on the bike. It’s about the boy and the bike balancing on the road.

3) The first few years of Jonny’s bicycle ownership were fantastic. But if he was honest he didn’t really care for all the stunts his bike was built for. He wanted speed. It isn’t about how fast you can go, but how far you can go. So secretly He coveted his big sisters racing bike. A white Peugeot racing bike with drop down handle bars, 16 gears, 32 inch wheels with 26 intertwining spokes and 1 inch racing tyres. It was a thing of beauty. And horribly neglected. His sister hadn’t looked at it for years. It was chained to the wall in their garage. Collecting dust. Jonny couldn’t believe it. To him this bike was a bull chained to a fence. It should be outside exploring the world. He would ask and ask but his sister would always say no. “its mine. You’re not allowed to ride it.’. So he would sit there and stare. And he would start to imagine what the bike would see. The dark, gloom and loneliness of the garage. Punctuated by moments of blinding light when the door would open and somebody would walk in. The bike would get excited, and then have its hopes dashed as sister walked past. Not batting an eyelid. Or his younger would grab a skateboard instead. Or one time his mother just pilled up boxes in front. He watched as its tyres deflated. And then one day, when he was alone. He decided he would change the tyres. Just the tyres. They hadn’t said he couldn’t do that. So he got his dads tools.

6 hours past. They had been looking everywhere for him. It was way past bedtime. They found him sat crossed legged in the middle of the garage. The now completely dismantled white Peugeot racer, surrounded him on the floor. 63 individual pieces in total. And jonny had cleaned ever single one. Covered every single one in grease and himself. Pieces that were alien to him beforehand suddenly made sense. He understood how they fit the bike. He was in his element. His sister of course cried blue murder. And demanded he be told off. How dare her brother destroy the bike, she never rides? His parents though they saw his curiosity. His dedication. And so they told him to build the bike again. And he did. Perfectly. Better than before. And a week later as a reward they gave him the white Peugeot racer. Instantly he wanted to dispel the memory of his sister. So he ran upstairs and grabbed his deck of cards. He took one out and he attached it to the frame of the bike. Within an hour he was miles away from home, the wind was rushing through his hair. His legs were burning with adrenaline as they pushed the pedals around and turned the wheels to make the bike go faster and faster and faster. The wind competed with the sound of his cards… clack.. a metronome in his head. His bike was a time machine, every pedal sent him into the future. He was invincible, he was an adventurer, he was Eliot in ET and the Goonies all rolled into one.

He cycled until he couldn’t cycle anymore. Till his legs couldn’t turn the pedals. With a smile on his face the whole way and when he finally stopped, he collapsed on a grass verge, with his bike next to him. And he looked up at the sky and he couldn’t wipe the smile off of his face. He had never felt so good in his life. He wanted to share this with someone. So he decided to ring his mum. He went to a phone box, but he had no money so he called her collect. He never got to tell his mum how he felt because when the operator connected the call she told his mum where he was. He was 32 miles away from home. 12 years old and 32 miles away from home. His mum was furious. His dad was sent out to collect him. A huge lecture the whole way back about safety and biking and things like that, but Jonny didn’t hear any of it. He just sat in the back staring at his white Peugeot bike, the front wheel pointing towards the sky. Turning slowly with a clack, clack, clack. He smiled and the bike smiled back. And the world had changed forever.

3) By the time Jonny was 16, his parents had embraced his obsession. They loved him and they would let him ride his bike every day. But it was the weekends that he loved best. He would wake up at the crack of dawn before anybody else was stirring, he would pull his cycling gear over a body, that was quickly changing and adapting to fit his bike better. He would tiptoe down stairs, and jump the creaking step. He would get his packed lunch box and his bottle of water from the fridge, and then he would go into the garage and he would grab his white Peugeot racer and gently clack, clack, clack out onto the road. They would canter through a ghost town. Through sleeping houses and tall offices, with nobody around. Until they would get to the countryside. Jonny knew every way to go to get there. And each weekend he would point himself in a different direction, put his head down and go. The first couple of hours every morning were his favourite, because there was no one else around. There was just Jonny, his bike and the landscape. And at first he was surrounded by the mountains. They were an obstacle. They were something that penned him in. But Jonny being Jonny, just kept trying to ride up them. Until they stopped being mountains and the just became undulations. They were just ways for the road to go. Things to see. And he would ride them, faster and faster every day. He could cover counties. But all he felt was the contact. Between Jonny and his bike and the bike and the road. He wasn’t cycling. They were just inseparable.

4) Jonny didn’t hear them at first, he was so consumed with the metronome in his head. He didn’t hear the thunder on the road behind him. And before he did, it was too late. Before he could turn around he was consumed by hundreds and hundreds of cyclists. Flying up the hill. Within seconds they had surrounded him. He was trapped in the middle of a pelotan. Colours flashing through his eyes, red jerseys, yellow jerseys, green, orange, blue. He was nervous, but it was incredible. He couldn’t believe how close the rider’s wheels were. He focused on the one in front. He was trapped in the middle and he just kept pedaling. And his fear started to subside. He started to enjoy himself. And then he noticed something. These racers. These professional racers weren’t just competing with each other. They were helping each other. Each rider would take in turns to lead the pack forwards. They were a shoulder of ??? they were more than that, they were a single entity moving through the landscape. And Jonny was in the middle of them. He listened to the clacking of his wheels. His time machine was taking him into the future. Surrounded by all these other cyclists. His legs were tired, but he focused on the wheel in front and he pedaled with all his heart. And for almost 40 miles. 16 year old Jonny kept pace with a professional peloton. He loved every minute of it. And he knew that he was home.

End

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