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Houston, we have a problem!
Turning on to Main Road, it was clear that all was not well. When Wet Wipe signalled left to pull over, I thought that he had a technical issue. He did; the machine that is Wet Wipe was breaking down.
Looking at Mooga and I with a pained – almost panicked – expression on his face, he simply said, “I’m in a bad place”. Given that Wet Wipe is one of our strongest riders and
a cornerstone of the SMCC, this was serious. He went on, “I’m bonking – badly! There’s a gel in my pocket – can someone get it for me?”
At this point, Mooga offered a gel from his own emergency reserves. But, Wet Wipe would hear none of it. Despite Mooga’s insistence that Wet Wipe accept his offer I knew that, in Wet Wipe’s mind, there was only one fix – the gel that was tucked away in his back pocket. Reaching across Mooga, I delved into his Jersey pocket and handed him the liquid lifesaver he’d dragged around these fifty or so frozen, sodden, merciless miles.
So depleted were his reserves at this point that he could barely manage to bite the top off of the sachet. After a struggle, he managed it and the relief as the foul-tasting mixture made it’s way down his throat was plain to see.
Although gels are specifically engineered to be quickly absorbed, they do still take a while to have an effect. Notwithstanding this, the psychological lift that it had given him was almost immediate. Temporary fix accomplished, we pushed on.
Where are we now; where are we now?
Entering the steady climb to Rettendon, I stayed with him. He struggled; he really struggled. Watching my mate Wet Wipe struggle on this hill was like the moment recently when I saw a photo of David Bowie – and realised he’s growing old; what I was seeing did not fit with my personal reality; this was Wet Wipe – hill-climber extraordinaire – he couldn’t be digging deep here; I refused to believe it. With speeds in single figures, I decided to push in front and give him a tow.
Positioning him in my wheel, I constantly looked over my shoulder to check that he was still there. But inch-by-inch; yard-by-yard, he crept further away. I knew that simply holding back was not the answer – the man still has his self-respect and, at this point, I could feel my core temperature dropping too. Staying with this, in this manner, could result in Mooga having two riders to save. Pushing on, I caught Mooga just before the top. We pulled over to wait and watched as Wet Wipe rolled painfully past; physically on the edge – but mentally as strong as ever.
Mercifully, the next mile or so to the coffee stop was all downhill. But into a fierce headwind, with bodies frozen to the core and clothing now heavy with water, even this was an effort.
The coffee stop was like an oasis in a desert. Making our way inside, a wall of warmth welcomed and cossetted us; the smell of fresh coffee becoming the smell of hope. After fifty miles into driving rain with temperatures only one degree above freezing the whole way around, the warmth of a mug of fresh coffee, gently cupped in frozen hands was bliss. Gradually, sensation returned to my fingers and, although, my feet were still no more than numb blocks of ice at the ends of my legs, I’d happily live with that – as long as I could feel my fingers again. Feet simply pound pedals; fingers finesse controls – they really can be the difference between life and death.
Wet Wipe was in a better place now too. I watched as, uncharacteristically, he added sugar to his coffee and the life returned to his face. The experience had bitten him though. When Mooga suggested that we get another round of coffee in, Wet Wipe was the first to agree. Despite our recovering state, poor Mooga knew that if he got his hands out of his gloves, he would never get them back in. Wet Wipe stepped in – diving back out into the cold to retrieve Mooga’s ‘Tiffin’ money from his seat pack.
The second coffee went down better than the first and then it was time to go back out into the cold. Stepping out of the sanctuary of the Tea Rooms, the cold bit harder than before. Core temperatures were now higher but muscles had cooled; legs like lead and every turn of the cranks exponentially harder than it had been before the stop.
Remind me; why do we do this?
Back at the meet point, we reflected on the ride. Other rides this winter had tested us, but this was different. This ride went beyond challenge; it had been punishment, plain and simple. Wet Wipe had bonked – but to be fair, it could have happened to any one of us.
But, through it all, we had stuck together – and that’s what cycling with a group is all about. We even managed to have a laugh when we stopped to try and get some feeling back into our hands (see the video clip for the Mooga ‘Windmill’ technique and a rather suspect practice that Wet Wipe showed to us). And despite everything we all; to a man; would rather have been doing this than languishing on a sofa or under a duvet.
Competition or camaraderie….
I guess that groups fall into two main types – the committed hard-core aspiring racers and the less-committed, more social pack. The SMCC tends more toward the latter. But, whether it is competition or companionship that you seek, the one thread that runs through all cycling groups is camaraderie. The SMCC, like all the other groups I have ridden with (without exception),would never leave a rider down. Even when the group is pushing, there will always be one eye on the pack – to see if someone is getting dropped or has disappeared. Should a rider go off radar, a scout is immediately dispatched to find them. This is most definitely the ethos of the SMCC. And, it is what sets cycling apart from other recreational activities or sports (in my humble opinion).
Much like the time when Mooga broke a spoke w few weeks back, the moment that Wet Wipe hit the wall really demonstrated what the SMCC – and countless other informal groups around the country are all about. It’s the time when the ride becomes less important than seeing your mate safely home. It is about taking more pleasure from a shared experience with a few good friends; rather than beating yourself up because you did not win any bragging rights today.
Don’t get me wrong though; we can all run at a reasonable pace when we want to – and we do. On long summer (and winter) training rides, we are no strangers to the flick of the elbow and a pull on the front. It’s just that we don’t let this define us. We all love the challenge of pushing a little harder, going a little faster and being a little stronger on every ride but, you know what, if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen; and we won’t beat ourselves up over it.
The noblest sport…
I would like to think that there are parallels with our professional idols, too. The pro-peloton is a purely competitive environment, but competitive in a way you don’t find in any other sport. The Domestiques gladly suffer in order that their man will win the day. They do this knowing that although it is them who won the race, another will stand on the podium and don the jersey. There is no better example of this than the moment on the ramp up to Peyragudes, during the 2012 Tour, when Froome dutifully watched a stage win escape him in the final kilometres in order to see his leader safely across the line.
I’m a lucky man; I love my cycling and I genuinely enjoy the company of my friends. The SMCC lets me combine both. The trade-off for my regular 05:30 Sunday morning alarm call and prolonged suffering riding through the worst that winter (and sometimes summer) can throw at us is a head full of memories made from challenges tackled as a team and, more importantly, golden moments full of laughter that are the high-point of any SMCC ride.
Wet Wipe suffered yesterday and we saw him through. One week, it will be my turn and, when it is, there will be no one else I’d rather have around me than the fine men of the SMCC. Naturally, over coffee later, they’ll all ruthlessly take the p!ss – but, it’s all about balance, isn’t it!!!