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Controlling

Almost half past 4, officially open.

We wait.

Stroll up the street to cable tie AUK Control signs to lamp posts. Wander back to the sports club…

and wait.

Scan the start list for familiar names, a few. Stare out of the window…

and wait.

The first rider pulls into the car park, wheels his bike through the door. Check time, scribble it next to the name on the list, and on the brevet card, stamp card. He’s on a fast one and heads off immediately. A few minutes later four more. Stamp cards, offer tea, coffee, food. Chatter. Water bottles refilled and they’re off. Another rider arrives, water top up is all that is needed.

Look out of the window, wait some more.

A slow trickle of people starts, pairs and trios, the occasional solo rider. Matching club jerseys and groups that have coalesced on the road for company and a wheel to sit on occasionally. Some stay, some leave as soon as their card is marked. Make cups of tea and coffee, heat up soup. The room slowly fills with conversations. Riders appear at shortening intervals.

Having a good ride? Stamp card, tick another name off, flick kettle on, make tea, make coffee. Would you like food? What have you got? Sweet potato and pepper soup with a bread roll, flapjack with fruit. Yes please all of that. Make more tea, run out of cups, clear tables, wash up cups, dry up cups, refill kettle.

The sun is starting to set. A steady influx of riders now. Count the spaces with no times, forty riders through, eighty left. A few more arrive. Bikes lean against walls and radiators. Carbon, aluminum, steel. Deep section rims and dynamo hubs. Aero bars and Carradice saddlebags. A powerpack taped to a top tube. A rear wheel is removed, the tube pulled out and replaced. Another rider appears at the door.

How are you? Stamp card, tick another name off, flick kettle on, make tea, make coffee. Would you like food? What have you got? Sweet potato and pepper soup with a bread roll, flapjack with fruit. Yes please all of that. Make more tea, run out of cups, clear tables, wash up cups, dry up cups, refill kettle.

Sugar in tea for those who don’t usually have sugar in tea. Where have all the teaspoons gone? Hoik a teabag out with a fork. It’s dark outside. LED lumens flash through the window. Count the lights…one, two, three, four more. Lean over and flick the kettle back on. Names of DNFs texted through, cross them off the list. Knee warmers, jackets, buffs, gloves, all tugged from framebags. Getting cold out now. Lend my down jacket to a woman who can’t get warm. Someone rolls himself in a foil blanket and crashes out on the floor. There’s the low hum of snoring from the corner of the room. Bodies lie next to phones plugged into sockets. I’d quite like to sit down. A few more riders wheel bikes through the door.

How you doing? Stamp card, tick another name off, flick kettle on, make tea, make coffee. Would you like food? What have you got? Sweet potato and pepper soup with a bread roll, flapjack with fruit. Yes please all of that. Make more tea, run out of cups, clear tables, wash up cups, dry up cups, refill kettle.

Count the gaps on the start sheet, about thirty left. People are slumped on tables or leaning back and staring into space. Someone is asleep under a table, another has his feet up on a windowsill. Thousand yard stares. Gentle snoring. A broken freehub. A long wait for a friend with a car. A rear mech failure, stuck on the 11. Frayed cable doesn’t look like it’ll take much more, wind the screw in so at least the chain sits a couple of cogs up. The big hills are out of the way.

Midnight. Waiting for about twenty more. Dribs and drabs. The gaps between ticking off names lengthens again. Empty gel wrappers and half eaten bags of peanuts left on tables. Another couple of lights in the street outside.

How you doing? Stamp card, tick another name off, flick kettle on, make tea, make coffee. Would you like food? What have you got? Sweet potato and pepper soup with a bread roll, flapjack with fruit. Yes please all of that. Make more tea, run out of cups, clear tables, wash up cups, dry up cups, refill kettle.

Two in the morning, only an hour left, three names left. Have they scratched? Did someone forget to get their card stamped? Are they out there somewhere? They’re pushing right up against the time limit. I don’t fancy their chances of finishing on time if they’re not here yet. More importantly I’d like to go to bed now. Stack chairs around the sleeping guy waiting for a taxi back to London.

Eight minutes past three. Officially closed. Those three missing names remain on the list.

Wash up, dry up. Sweep the floor. Switch off the lights. Lock the doors.

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