Standing under the heating vent inside Sainsbury’s Local in Crowborough, whilst a puddle of water forms at my feet, I stare at the map on my phone looking for the shortest way back to Lewes. I decided 5 kilometres back that I was going to give up at the next control. Little did I realise the resolve of my riding companions was also wavering. As soon as I mentioned I was bailing it slowly became apparent the others had had enough too. The unaminous decision is made to head back to Lewes and warm up and dry out in the pub.
I’ve been off the bike with illness for the best part of a month. I already failed to make the start of the Hills & Mills audax, the first of the calendar Grimpeurs du Sud rides, getting my excuses in a day or two before, and not even bothering with the pretence of showing up to the start. When I saw the forecast for today, the day chosen for The Reliable permanent, I contemplated not bothering to make the start again.
I did set the alarm though, and awoke to drag myself into all the warm and waterproof kit I could find. Uncertainty still loomed in my mind, but I also know if I make it to the start of something I’ll at least make an effort of getting all the way round. So at 8.30am I was sat with a pot of tea in the cafe with Mark and Vic, awaiting George and Adam. At 9am we were all ordering a second round of drinks hoping that the rain outside might stop. We knew it wouldn’t, it was a futile delaying tactic.
I’ve done enough rides in awful weather to not need to do this. It’s not being done out of some misguided notion of the epic or vain sufference. I know there’s that romance of “Remember that ride?” (and indeed, Mark and I did reminisce about one of those rides on the way back) and all those legendary hard men who rode the spring classics (but lest we forget, it was their job, they got paid to ride). For the rest of us it’s just a bike ride, no matter what we tell ourselves. We don’t have to do it. If anything today was more about just wanting to go out with my mates after a month of being ill and a handful of short solo rides. Even if I only made it as far as the first meeting place at least I could sit in a cafe in lycra chatting the usual shite, and everything would seem back to normal. Anyway, there’s always that annoyance that you might be missing out on something. That’s the problem with the internet and Twitter and Instagram, the instant recognition that your mates are doing something you’re not. And they are probably having a laugh doing it.
Therefore we set off in the freezing rain, heading away from home, into the hills of the high weald, where the isopleths are tight and sunlight barely touches the tarmac. In winter the sun is too low to make it over the hills into the deep holloways and ghyll lanes. [In summer when it arcs high enough the light is defracted and deflected through layers of green as the lanes wend their way through tunnels seemingly made of tree roots and branches]. The surface of these lanes is scattered with gravel and twigs, potholes and puddles. On days like this water runs down the muddy gutters and across the tarmac under your wheels. Leaning into corners you’re never sure what awaits you around the curve, but you can be certain that mud and gravel will be involved. Bunnyhopping potholes becomes the norm.
It soon becomes apparent to me that my legs are useless and my head elsewhere. I know I’m with my mates, and there has been some laughing, but I would quite happily miss this level of dismal miserable cold dampness. There seems to be puddles of freezing water in the finger tips of my gloves and I can’t feel my feet. Every time the road angles up I slowly drop off the back, out of the saddle, hauling my tired, cold, wet body over the gradients. Finally, on the last drag before Crowborough, 30km into the audax, my mind is made up, I’ve had enough.