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Every weekday morning at around seven thirty, me and ‘Ash the Angry’ (as I nick-named him) embarked on a very special race. One in which we were the only competitor. We raced time and the little numbers on the computer – they were the sole arbiter of success or failure. For three years, the daily race to and from his office had consumed Ash.
But I think he misunderstood. I think he thought that commute meant he could change a bicycle ride to work into a daily time trial; the outcome being that Ash, my thirty-six year old rider, treated everyone else on the road with complete and utter contempt – because they were either not in his race or they were getting in the way of his hot ride.
“Hey buddy – what’s with your rider?” It was another carbon road bike, a Cannondale, whose owners are invariably easy going. The particular rider in question had just shuffled his bike sideways like a teenager tuning out his teacher, after being scolded by Ash, as combustible as ever, whilst we all waited at the red light. “He’s very rude, you know.”
“Yes, who does he think he is?” Squeaked the pink Pendleton ladies bike with the wicker basket near the kerb; most other commuters treated her lady rider with the sort of respect that the art dealer from Mayfair was accustomed to; Ash, though, had bellowed at her rudely on several occasions previously.
“If I were you, I’d crash on purpose!” Now there was an amusing idea; Brompton’s always have a sparky sense of humour – I guess they need to with wheels that small.
“Mate!” I knew, without even looking, that it was the steel fixie bike whose rider was often a target for Ash’s scorching abuse when he pulled away too slowly from a set of lights, “mate, one day my rider is goin’ to do one to your guy – he takes the biscuit!” It sounded like a threat but I didn’t know what he thought he could do. Ash and I were quick – not the quickest – but on a good day he’d toast anyone. Not many could keep up with us on the Embankment – and certainly not the fat-tyred fixie.
The comments that day from the other bikes weren’t out of the ordinary; Ash had already issued commands to three mere ‘commuters’ who’d inadvertently strayed from their line at our first major set of lights; this was the set where the Garmin was given the ‘Go’; where Ash felt he’d warmed up enough – warming up was what he did in the first mile of the ride from the Common.
“Come on guys, you know what he’s like – it’s just the way he is.” I was fed up with making excuses for him but I actually enjoyed the attention. It wasn’t me that was being rude.
“That’s not an excuse – you mean he is always like this?” Pendleton was as indignant as ever.
“Yes, he is.” fixie wasn’t letting up, “and one day someone’s goin’ to put him out!”
I had to be the most hated bike in South West London. And do you know what? Ash didn’t even belong to a club or have any cycling friends. We never went for rides at the weekends or on the lovely summer evenings like the other bikes. As well as only ever riding alone, I think he lived alone; in fact, I think that I was his only real friend. Understandably, Ash never told me why he seemed to be in such a hurry – a perceptive hybrid once said that Ash was lonely and, oddly, that he looked as if he was all alone in life; I think it was wishful thinking from the ugly hybrid. But Ash’s disdain for the other riders was palpable. I think he must have spoken to other people when he was at work and when he was in his flat – I was left in the underground parking – but when we were on the road he never spoke to anyone.
I’m big for a bike – my frame is a 61 – and Ash is big too; not overly muscled, but long, lean and sinewy. The tall, pinched profile of his face, set hard from the constant effort of pushing his legs to the limit, was all that was seen by most other riders; a prominent adam’s apple matched the bump on his nose.
The ride that day took its usual course. Deep breaths on the line before accelerating away from the lights; then timing our runs to get the maximum chance of making the green traffic lights – whilst still abusing anyone in our way. Zebra crossings meant nothing to Ash – people crossing them were simply to be dodged; it seemed like he thought that they were doing it on purpose to slow us down. A week or so back, there were two bikes waiting next to a van as an elderly man with a terrier crossed the Kings Road in Chelsea. Ash wasn’t going to stop and barged his way through the two bikes and in front of the man; who then proceeded, walking-stick aloft, to berate the other two cyclists.
“You’re all the same you lot – no respect!” After he’d shepherded his dog onto the pavement, one of them decided to have it out with Ash and manfully gave chase and caught us at a later set of lights before the right turn on to the Embankment.
“Hey you – who do you think you are?” Ash didn’t bother to look – he never said anything when someone spoke to him. “Hey! What’s your problem – you can’t treat people like that?” Ash was watching the traffic light sequence with his usual intensity and simply rode away on the stroke of the amber with the other rider left standing dumbfounded in the middle of the road. I gave a nonchalant look back at his pretty little Colnago. We were off again and picked up the regular south westerly tail as we joined the road alongside the River Thames. The speed went up. Deftly moving into the stream of cars, we drafted up to 30 miles an hour before switching to the centre of the road as the traffic slowed for the next set of red lights. Perfect timing; we blazed through the standing hoardes of cyclists as the lights went amber. Ash was on fire; we knew how to nail this stretch.
I was brought up in factory where everyone started out largely the same. Different bikes were given different levels of trim – some had carbon this and that extras, and others were made for a ‘lower price point’. But underneath, we were all from the same factory and all our frames were made by the same group of people. Everyone got on and no one really cared about how different we looked on the outside. Being sold to a person was deemed to be the highlight of our lives – just to be wanted and loved by a cyclist was all we craved. But once I was bought and taken out of the shop and away from the other unsold bikes I became conscious how different some of the other bikes looked to me and how being owned by people had changed them. They seemed to lose the personalities they’d had back in the factory where we all treated each other in such a friendly way. They had been subsumed into the men and women who sat on their saddles. I’m pretty sure that Pendleton didn’t talk with that accent in the factory in Taiwan – and fixie sounded as if he’d been playing street polo for years, when I knew for a fact that he been bought from Evans Cycles only six months previously. And, strangely, they didn’t seem to have a choice – their owners controlled them; they caressed them; they abused them; they won or lost races with them; bikes became just like their owners. But it wasn’t the same with me; I was the same bike I’d always been. I might have enjoyed his riding, but I still thought Ash was a cretin like everyone else.
And this is why, when something quite unbelievable happened that day, I think that it was because, from the very beginning, I had been made slightly differently. The events that followed that sunny morning on the Embankment that resulted in Ash becoming, well, more like everyone else, were all down to me. I still don’t know if it was just how I felt about him at the time, or it was just me wanting to be liked by all the other bikes, but I do know that the outcome was to change everything.
We were sat at the lights on the entrance to Parliament Square – our time was good that day – Ash, hot, alert and counting the seconds to the next change, was blowing hard. I was looking ahead; away from the other bikes as they drew alongside; some of them had been shouted at by him only minutes previously as we sped past them.
“Keep left!”, “Coming through!”, Idiot!” It was all perfectly normal for our ride to work.
Still looking ahead so as not to catch the eye of any of the other bikes, I saw an old woman on the other side of the square; I noticed her faltering walk – no one walking around Parliament Square at 7.45am ever faltered; this was the place of leaders and flunkies. Everyone is important when they walk around Parliament Square before nine – something was wrong. As the lights changed and we moved forwards, I did something that I never done before – I momentarily squeezed my head bearings tight. I still don’t know why I did it but, as Ash’s balance was slightly thrown as the steering refused to turn and his foot missed its connection with the pedal, I felt myself giggle. He cursed out loud and pushed away again. This time I relaxed the gear cable enough to let the gear slip down a cog or two. Now we were being overtaken by all the other commuters. Ash smarted and piled huge pressure onto the pedals and, within seconds, we were ahead of them. As we rounded the first bend of the square the old woman came into view once again. Now, with all the effort I could produce, I squeezed my brake blocks onto the rims – which is really hard to do! Now there was now a huge laughing smile inside me.
Suddenly, I was aware that Ash, though manfully trying to oppose my unexpected braking, had seen her too. I knew it because I felt the pressure ease through the pedals and his hands lighten on the bars. Did seeing her bring back a recollection of something? Ash stared unblinkingly across the square. We slowed. Surely, my little games didn’t mean that he was actually going to stop – Ash never stopped. The bent-over figure stopped too, and an ashen face looked up with pearly eyes. At that moment, her foot faltered at the edge of a paving stone and she collapsed forwards onto the pavement like a pack of last years cards. None of the other pedestrians seemed to notice her on their path; one even stepped over her feet as he continued on his executive journey.
We stopped next to the kerb and Ash dismounted.
“What’s up – got a flat? Ha ha – couldn’t happen to a bigger loser!” Fixie passed by with a steely grin and a swaggering cadence. There wasn’t time to reply.
Ash, clearly oblivious, was towering over her. Surprisingly tenderly, he lifted her grey hand and spoke to her.
“Are you OK love? – do you hurt?” His voice was softer than I had ever heard it. I could see her smile a little and shake her head from side to side.
“If I could just sit down for a moment?” Ash looked around. As he did so, he realised that a small posse of people had suddenly surrounded them. Someone importantly pushed through.
“Excuse me – I’m a nurse?” Before Ash could say anything, the bystanders became helpers and he was slowly removed away from her as if a man wearing lycra shouldn’t be so close. He stood watching helplessly as they took over.
“Will she be OK?” Please?”
“Yes, there’s nothing to see now – she’ll be fine – no need to stare.” After a minute he seemed to realise that there was nothing more he would be allowed to do, so he walked back to me.
The rest of the ride into work was slow. The Garmin was switched to ‘Off’ and I felt a genuine chilling in Ash. This wasn’t him. That evening ride home was similarly slow and he spoke to no one. None of the other bikes spoke to me either – even those that knew me. It was as if they knew something had happened – well, either that or they just didn’t notice us when we were riding slowly like the rest of them.
I never found out why the fire went out in Ash. Yes, I had tried to sabotage his ride just after I saw the old lady, but I didn’t ‘make’ him stop. But we never raced into work again.
I miss the daily race. No one ever talks to me any more. We’re just commuters, like all the others, going through the daily drudgery of riding to work. Sometimes, on the way home, we stop at a small block of flats opposite Battersea Power Station and Ash knocks on a door. The little old lady from Parliament Square always opens the door with the same question.
“Hello my love – fancy a Rosie Lee?”
Simon’s Cycle Shorts are now available to buy in both paperback (£8.39) and Kindle (£2.99) versions from Amazon. HERE
Copyright © 2016 by Simon Bever. All Rights Reserved