Sun on skin. Warm air rushing past. Saddle and handlebars radiating heat. Finally, when all hope of such conditions had passed, a summer ride.
This is not even the midday sun beloved of mad dogs and Englishmen. This is a post-Tour ride, begun with the nation’s most infrequent visitor already far advanced in its westward journey.
A throwback to teen years, to two-wheeled adventures inspired by the colour and drama of the French race and conducted to an internal soundtrack of Liggett and Sherwen, this ride is testimony to the enduring appeal of the Tour and of the bike.
The machinery has changed, of course. The once cherished Peugeot Perthus Pro, a beautiful collage of Reynolds 753, Shimano 600, and Mavic MA40, has long departed, and this evening’s partner is the RCUK winter bike – a Kinesis Racelight TK3 – stripped of its mudguards, and newly shod with summer rubber.
Once in every 1,000 or so rides, the air is entirely still. Today is that longed for day, when headwinds are miraculously absent, and every input is rewarded by unhindered progress. We glide together, the Kinesis and I, along country lanes, dance up hills, and scythe through corners. We have known worse conditions, but tonight we are free.
I am solar powered. Tonight, nothing is tiring. The stillness helps, of course, but the sun is a life force, radiating free energy, and I attack the usual test loop with a greater drive than on any other ride so far this year, pedaling onwards into glorious delusion. I am Contador, dancing up the climbs, upright behind the handlebars; on the flat, I am Jens, surging ahead of the imaginary peloton on another courageous but doomed attack; I am Kiryienka, motionless, hands on hoods, elbows bent and locked, my legs a component of the bike rather than my own.
The high hedgerows either side are the massed crowds of my imagination, roaring me on, and my shadow, racing ahead of me along their green walls, my breakaway companion
Riding clear of the town in double quick time, the countryside provides a further sensory hit. I am high on the scenery, the astonishing beauty of rural England in summertime. Its cherished lanes are a joy to ride, entirely empty on this weekday evening. The high hedgerows either side are the massed crowds of my imagination, roaring me on, and my shadow, racing ahead of me along their green walls, my breakaway companion.
The sun is blinding as I sweep westwards into its glare, depriving me of any vision until obscured by the tree line. The expensive glasses protect my eyes, but offer me a view of the road perhaps no further than 30 metres ahead, such is the might of the sun.
Time trialists, out on the Tuesday night ‘25’, sweep past, one by one, in the opposite direction, accompanied by the noise of deep section carbon rims cutting the air, a low, rhythmic, rushing sound that testifies to their efforts. Their faces are contorted with pain, and the outsider might wonder how such endeavor can ever be made for fun, for these are clubmen, not professionals, but cyclists will understand the satisfaction of pushing hard on a warm summer’s evening. “Dig in!” shouts the old fellow I pass two miles further on, perhaps mistaking me for one of their number.
The next of the white wooden sign posts passed is bathed in orange. I have ridden further than planned, shunning each of the possible routes back into town for a few more joyful miles in the most perfect conditions for at least two years. I am experienced enough not to ignore the warning of the dipping sun, however, and push harder, determined not to be on darkening roads without lights.
“Good ride?” I am asked on my return. What to say? How to distill the extraordinary pleasure of riding on a perfect evening through picture book scenery on a perfectly fitted steed whose idiosyncrasies are as familiar as one’s own? “Really good, thanks,” I reply, and head for the shower. The spell is broken. The fantasies of the road are left on the road. Reality resumes. But for two-and-a-half hours, I was there, alongside Froomey, and Purito, and Cav, and the men of the road whose efforts in France each July have inspired me for more than half a lifetime. The Tour was my first cycling love, and its allure, in this hundredth edition, is undimmed.