Today did not go as planned.
I woke to the sounds of my alarm clock, in the now unfamiliar comfort of my own bed. I allowed myself a lie in compared with the people at the base camp, who were planning on setting off at 6.30 for the longest stage, almost 130 miles to Fort William. I kissed Stephanie goodbye and took a taxi back to the camp, which I found eerily deserted. I had the same driver as yesterday. I felt my enthusiasm whither on receiving the confirmation text message and recognizing the licence plate. It was going to be a hard day, and I felt that it could only be improved by staying home and selling my bike.
After setting my campsite affairs in order, I briefly chatted to an Irish-sounding guy on the way to the start line. He bored the shit out of me by telling me about various endurance events he had participated in. It was a list in lieu of conversation, and no questions were asked of me. This is not an unusual experience in cycling. You do meet a lot of deeply boring people who talk in numbers and dates. Quantities of miles, weights of components, heart rates, power averages, model numbers, events, dates and placings. I know I am not entirely unguilty of these crimes, but I beg you allow me this hypocrisy.
Anyway, being about the last two in the camp, we set off at about the same time. I was in a lousy mood, you may have gathered, so when the Irish man tried to take my wheel I waved him by. I decided I would rather slow to a crawl and be one with my petty-nefarious thoughts. I figured that in time and in solitude they would either fade away or overwhelm me. I figured that in the company of bores they would overwhelm me. I took the least bad option and evaded the fool.
My mood wasn’t improved by getting caught in the Glaswegian commuter traffic, which meant frequent stops and starts and giving more attention to the road than I could really be bothered with. After an hour or so I caught up with some people from my office who were participating for the day. They had been involved in an altercation with a motorist. Nothing serious luckily – an impatient driver had tried to pull away too sharply when the traffic lights changed, and had struck my colleague’s rear wheel.
Unfortunately it was a carbon wheel, which looked very expensive and utterly irreparable. The errant motorist stood by his car, and all were awaiting something. A new wheel for the bike I suppose. I don’t know what the motorist needed. He looked very much like a line-dancin’ kin’ a’ man. Likes nothing better on a Saturday night than dressing like a cowboy, firing some pistols and saluting a Confederate flag. ‘That’s an expensive damage too,’ said his wife. There didn’t seem to be any point in responding. I noted a desire to keep my heart rate up and pressed on antisocially.
A little further on I reached the Crow Road, one of my home climbs. I was dancing up the hill, past all the early risers, when I saw my old friend from Eire just over half-way up. I rode by him and he again tried to take my wheel. So I rode erratically until we got to a steep bit and I made my escape. I understand that this is relatively strange behaviour.
After the Crow Road I was back in the crowd and setting a decent pace. This didn’t go unnoticed, and I kept picking up passengers. One group of four or five kept attaching to my wheel. I would pull them along then wave them by, then I would find they were unable to keep the pace. So I’d overtake them all, and again they would re-attach. I found this infuriating.
It was a relief when I caught up with my former restaurant-owning friend somewhere to the north east of Loch Lomond. It occurred to me that I hadn’t had a proper conversation all day. The odd exchanges that I had had were of the passive aggressive genre. But on seeing a friend my outlook changed. I was finally enjoying the ride as we took the slight descent towards Lochearnhead. An ambulance and a few police cars passed us with flashing lights. We agreed that that didn’t look good, but by the time we reached the climb out of Lochearnhead I’d more or less forgotten about it. Rudely, I shot off and left my friend on the hill, because that’s what I do.
It’s a lovely climb. To your left there is a magnificent old railway bridge, perilously attached to the side of the mountain, held up by arches. At the side of the bend there is a gang of cyclists waving you off the road. Quite angrily too for some reason. ‘Get off the road!’ They shout, and they seem surprised that you take a while to comply. There’s a couple of issues of course. You aren’t expecting it, and it’s hard to know what to do in such situations. You consider what form their authority takes. Who are they to give me instructions? You may even feel a bit put upon. Hey! I’m half-way up the hill! Let me finish. But I guess the clincher is: well I suppose if they have all stopped there must be a reason. So you do pull in. But you’re quite a few bike lengths further on than from where the shouting began.
I decided not to bother joining in with the shouts of ‘Get off the road.’ I noticed some cyclists never tire of it. Some people really love telling other people what to do. I think this must also have played into my desire to disobey. I’m not really all that down with obsequience. I don’t want to actualize these people.
Rumours bounced about for an age, but it was soon clear there would be no more riding. We hung around at the top of the hill for a while, then we rolled back down the hill to a pub called the Clachan. It was not prepared for 400 cyclists, but we arrived nonetheless. In the four or so hours that I was there, sitting outside on the wall, I managed to get a single pint of beer. The bar even closed for an hour. The owner had no entrepreneurial esprit.
I can only commend Threshold, the organizers, who managed to find a whole bunch of coaches and pasties and tins of lager, and got us all to Fort William by about 9PM. I thought the police were heavy handed in closing the road down however. If they had let the bikes through they could have avoided the logistical problem. I have some sympathy for their reasoning in not doing this, but when there are 800 people on the road in the highlands and there is effectively no other route, the action they took risked causing a minor humanitarian crisis.
The rescue was a long time coming though. A long time sitting on that wall, and I am pretty lean at the time of writing. I could really have done with a cushion. It was bone on stone. A day off the bike and the pain’s only worse. The food took a while to arrive, but when it did come it was in cornucopian quantities. I engorged myself on crisps, chocolate bars and pasties. I even ate some fruit. There was not a lot to do.
I was surrounded by Londoners, who mainly chatted about London cycle clubs. I had nothing to offer this conversation, so I read my book on the kindle app on my iPhone until the battery died, which didn’t take all that long. From that point on it was food and looking at things. I found my eyes continually drawn to one particular cyclist, who I could only describe as spectacularly ugly. His hideousness was ageless. Big beaked nose and canyonic laughter lines, skinny wee arms and a little boy’s haircut. I found him deeply upsetting. I longed to have my book back.
The other topic of conversation was the accident. Nobody knew anything obviously, so people speculated about the ride. They said things like, ‘it’s a big decision if it goes ahead tomorrow.’ People say things like this a lot I think. I am fairly certain nobody really means them though.
I feel bad for the injured rider – nobody wants that. And if I’d witnessed it I doubt I’d continue, because it would be all I thought about. But I don’t believe that cancelling everyone’s holidays / fundraising events / personal achievement that they’ve been training for all year will make anything better for anyone. It would only make things worse. We would all look back on it and see it as meaningless.
And I think everyone must feel this way. So I wonder why they pretend they don’t. I suppose they are trying to say that some things are more important than other things. Lives are more important than cycles. But nothing changes what happened, so we may as well carry on.
On the bus to the camp I drink two or three tins of lager, and I look out of the window at the route we would have ridden. The sun is still out when we are collected, but its dark when we arrive at the camp. I do think of the injured rider – whose name I now know is Sally. As we ride towards Crianlarich, I think: how much better things would be if she had made it this far. How much easier this day would have been, how light-hearted our chats at the camp would have been, how accomplished we would all feel after cycling 127 miles, through Glencoe and into the Highlands. How thoughtless we could have been. How selfishly we could have complained about our torment, our trial, without having to consider how much worse it is for Sally and her family and her colleagues.
I have no idea who she is. I am very glad of this. If I could picture her, or I had spoken with her, or smiled at her, or ridden with her, then I think I would be quite upset. But this way it is not fully real to me.
We passed a group of cyclists taking a crepuscular ride through Glencoe. I was impressed by their intransigent and intrepid desire to ride every inch or road between Land’s End and John O’Groats, whether they could see or not. I imagine they must have been shitting themselves. Thirty-five miles from the base camp on unlit roads, and people don’t drive sensibly in the Highlands. A woman on my coach, who was in the repetitive stages of inebriation, derided them for ‘making fools of all of us’ and phoned race control to complain. I didn’t follow her argument, verbally at least. But I knew what she really meant. She meant ‘I’m jealous’. I was jealous too. I didn’t hold it against them though. I knew if I was with them I’d be shitting it so hard, telling myself over and over ‘this will be a good anecdote tomorrow. Tomorrow.’ I felt a lot safer drinking beer in the bus.
Back at the camp, to my relief, it was announced that we would indeed carry on. For some reason I ate a full three course dinner, despite suffering from no hunger having only completed about 100km of the planned 204, and having already stuffed my face only a couple of hours ago. The evening speeches were delivered solemnly and skilllessly. There was an appeal to prayer—or, if not prayer, at least ‘thoughts’. I know this is meant harmlessly, but this mystification always astounds me. Accepting I do not pray, in what way are my thoughts going to change anything?
But obviously I do think about Sally. I think it would have been a lot better if she hand’t crashed.