Crystal Palace is the great landmark for south London cyclists. The twin transmitters, shaped with quaint modernity like scaled-down Eiffel Towers, are visible for miles along the North Downs, a beacon drawing on back towards the capital. The long climb to the top of the hill where the great iron and glass pavilion once stood was always the last obstacle for the weary-legged cyclist nearing the end of a ride. From there, you knew, it was downhill all the way home.
Crystal Palace was a landmark for cyclists for another reason. All through the racing season, as long as daylight allowed from May to September, there would be a weekly meet in the park. This was referred to by the contraction Palace — as in, Are you doing Palace tonight? The course made use of part of the old motor-racing circuit; though less than a mile long, it made imaginative use of the contours of the hill. Raced anti-clockwise, it consisted of a flat straight ending in a brutal left-handed hairpin, followed by a sharp right-hander giving on to a fast downhill section which ended with a sweeping left-hand bend with an adverse camber, and finally a steep climb back to the finishing straight.
It was a fast, technical circuit, which foxed you for the first few times out. You had to learn how to keep as much momentum as possible into the hairpin, lean the bike over as far as you dared and keep a tight line among all the other riders.
Ideally, you wanted to be on the inside, your shoulder and helmet brushing the fronds of a weeping willow that, with an almost comic sense of the picturesque, marked the centre of the turn’s radius. But the trick was to carry as much speed through the corner as possible: if you let too much speed scrub off, it was tempting to start pedalling too soon and risk grounding a pedal. Instead, you tried to keep your speed and then sprint, out of the saddle, as soon as you’d straightened up. Almost immediately you’d be at the next corner, the right-hander, and then swooping down the hill. When you reached the bottom, you had to learn to brake as little as possible before turning in to an intimidating left-hand curve where the road fell away down a steep grassy bank on the right. To get round it at maximum speed, you had to hit the apex, shaving a picket fence with your left shoulder. The camber was against you and the surface down there beneath overhanging trees would sometimes be so dusty, that if you got off line at all you might feel your tyres twitch as the bike went fractionally sideways before gripping again. It took a modicum of courage every lap, even in the dry. In the wet, like many others, I wouldn’t race at all. A damp surface always drew a gang of spectators down from the finishing straight to watch the inevitable fallers overcooking the corner or finding a slippery patch under the trees.
If it was unexpectedly threatening rain right before a race, you would see the smarter riders fiddle with the valves on their wheels, let out a short hiss of air and then check the pressure by squeezing the tyre between finger and thumb. The idea was to give yourself just a little more margin by running on softer tyres then you normally would: releasing a little air would slightly increase the impression that each tyre would make on the road. This was a compromise judged by feel alone. You didn’t want to run with too soft a tyre: too soft and there would be more rolling resistance. Too hard and you would sacrifice that vital extra grip.
Only in the wet did the absurdity of the bicycle’s dynamics strike one: the fact of 75 kilos of rider and 10 kilos of bike staying upright round corners supported only by skinny pneumatic tyres — tyres that might provide an area of contact with the road no greater than a pair of thumb-prints. Suddenly, it seemed like a losing proposition. Improbable, impossible, more a matter of faith and magic than of scientifically verifiable laws of motion: a cyclist in the rain suffers a kind of existential doubt.
But the circuit’s greatest challenge was the climb through the trees and back to the straight. It was not especially long, nor horribly steep; just relentless. The circuit was so short, you would hit that gradient every two minutes, your legs still burning, lungs tortured, from the last time round. The climb was always taken at full tilt, with everyone on the big ring. Invariably someone would attack or put in a hard turn at the front. Sometimes, if you were feeling good, you might take that turn yourself because it could often be better to be at the head of affairs dictating the pace, hurting yourself as much as you dared, but hurting everyone else too. But you had to judge it finely, keeping a little in reserve. Or you could find yourself stuffed just at the top when someone would take advantage of your work by timing their jump just there. Generally, you tried to stay near the front but you followed wheels. Diligently, desperately, as though nothing else in the world mattered more.
It was a merciless circuit: if you weren’t fully fit, it found you out very quickly. Even without an attack, the race pace was so implacably high that a selection would take place every lap. Someone would blow up, let go the wheel of the rider in front with a last gasp or grunt of defeat. To be at the back of the group was not where you wanted to be, for if someone let go in front of you, you would have to sprint to re-establish contact with the last wheel in the group. Early in the race, when there was still a large group, not yet shaken out, one rider like this might take out two or three more following his wheel.
The game you had to learn in all racing was that your resources were finite; you had to save your effort for when it was vital and for then alone.
© Matt Seaton
The Escape Artist is published by Fourth Estate
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