On Sunday mornings all over the country, riders leave disbelieving families in their beds to take a kind of two-wheeled communion. Part of the credo that joins this peculiar congregation requires strangers to doff a helmet or exchange nods or waves. On solo rides, a nod sometimes turns into chat. I usually limit those exchanges to pleasantries, but on a recent morning in Kent, I was picked up by a 50-something Frenchman.
I had been pedalling fast, halfway into a 60-mile circuit through the North Downs of Kent, when a whippet-like man whirred past with enviable souplesse, a blur of Lycra and tanned forearms. He quickly opened a gap but I tried to keep him in sight – at least for as long as I could. We turned out to be following the same route and, as I approached the Pilgrim's Way near Sevenoaks, I saw that he had stopped at a deserted junction.
Preparing to give him the obligatory nod and, feeling relatively friendly, a "Morning!", I realised he was waiting for me. "'Allo," he said as I unclipped a shoe. "If you want, I can show you some 'ills." Some hills? Wow, er, yes, why not? I'll follow you. And so the French guy was off. The lanes too narrow to ride in a pair, I sat on his wheel in a strange silence during which Denis (we did at least introduce ourselves) seemed to be building up speed.
The kindred relationship between cyclists is usually coupled with an unspoken, fierce sense of competition. I got the sense Denis was testing me and a pointless sense of pride wasn't going to let me fail. After half a mile or so, during which my heart rate had already risen, he got out of his saddle and dropped through the gears as he took a sharp left up a steep ribbon of asphalt.
In our only other exchange beyond sharing names, I learned that Denis spends his summers back home, hauling himself up proper hills in the Alps. That and a significant weight advantage left me fighting to stay with him. I managed – just – and, failing to hide my breathlessness at the top, a serene Denis looked at me and said, "Okay. Good. I go zis way. You can go zat way." And that was that – he sprinted south and I plodded home, leaving behind the weird world of road cycling for another weekend. Back in London, the day was just beginning.
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