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“Chaps, I have something tell you. If you could all gather round it would be perfect – but as you clearly can’t, then I suppose I will just have to speak up a bit.” We were all alone in the darkness so it seemed a good time to tell them. “I’m going to be leaving you all tomorrow.” There was a moments silence before Haro spoke.
“Man – no way you’re gonna leave us!” Haro was an American BMX bike so always spoke like that. Chopper joined in.
“But, but you’ve been here forever dude – even longer than me. Where you goin?” Chopper wasn’t American – he was made in Nottingham – but he always felt that he should have been.
I thought for a moment because I knew that if I lied to them, they’d know, but if I told the truth it was going to take some time to tell it.
The decision had been made by Jim and a man called Christopher a couple of weeks previously and I hadn’t had the heart to tell all my friends in the lock-up. Jim had put us all here over the last forty years and not one of us had ever left – but we’d had some great stories to tell; even if we had to tell the same stories all over again sometimes. Bicycle memories are usually short – except for mine, that is. But one thing was for certain; none of the others knew what had happened to me in the beginning. None of them knew about the adventures I had all those years ago. I think I always felt that it might sound like I was boasting if I told them where I’d been and who with. It was never good to boast.
Ti eventually spoke up. Ti was the quiet seventies racer, also from Nottingham, who’d once been sat on by Joop Zoetemelk for an advertising photograph. He was always rather snooty towards the rest of us and had developed a slightly sardonic air.
“Oh, have your lugs finally given out – or have they discovered that your made of enough steel to rebuild the Forth Bridge?” He’d been in one of his moods ever since Jim had moved him to the front of the garage for someone to look at him a month or so ago. Apparently it was draughty near the garage door and wasn’t good for his decals. I’d never risen to his provocations because I knew that Ti had never been ridden seriously like his brothers as his frame hadn’t been true enough for a professional racer. I’d heard Jim tell someone but I’d never told Ti that I knew.
There was only one bike older than me in the garage and she was in a very sorry state. Jim had dragged Auntie Penny, as we named her, from the top of a hayloft in Essex where she’d been leant against a wall for around a century. She looked sorry because the mice had chewed away most of her solid rubber wheels and her saddle looked nothing like it would have done when new. She was also down to a bare pitted metal surface – something she really hated about herself – but she still stood tall and flamingo-like next to us ordinary machines.
“Oh lucky you – I wish I could leave – please tell us where to? Is it going to be another adventure?”
“I’m not sure that it will be an adventure, Penny. I’m going to a museum.”
“You! Why you?” I might have guessed Ti wouldn’t be impressed.
“Morris?” Penny always used my name, “I hope you don’t mind me asking, but why are you going to a museum? Is there something we don’t know about?” She always had intuition about things – there was clearly something they didn’t know but she correctly guessed that it was something that, perhaps, I should have told them about. We were all good friends.
“OK, well this might take some time, but please bear with me. I haven’t told anyone about this, ever. You are going be the first to know.”
“But if you’re going to a museum then someone else must know?” Ti wasn’t giving up.
“Shh, you with the skinny little cross bar. Let Morris talk. I might be older than him but we all know he is the wisest in the garage. Morris knows a thing or two, you know. Now listen!” I always liked Auntie Penny.
“Thank you Penny. OK, look, this is not going to be easy and I know I should have told you all before.” I paused. “It all started in 1901.” I heard a couple of sharp intakes from the assembled bikes, some of whom were, in fact, sadly, disassembled; none of them had guessed that I was that old. “I was one of the last bicycles to be assembled by Mr Morris himself in his shop at 48 the High Street in Oxford. It was just before he got interested in motor-bicycles. He was a top cyclist was Mr Morris, champion of Oxford at one time. Anyway, he went onto better things – they eventually made him Lord Nuffield because he was so good at making cars and selling them. But I digress. So far this isn’t much of a story, I know, but it was what happened next that is probably more interesting.
I was bought by a man called Mr Thomas Chapman who called himself Mr Lawrence after his mistress’s father – you with me? In those days you couldn’t leave your wife for someone else very easily and simply move in with her without pretending you were married. So that is what they did – and because he was sort of landed gentry – an Irish Baronet, in fact – he had to move about so that no one recognised him. Anyway, he and his mistress, Sarah, lived in Oxford and they had five sons. He bought me for his son Ned, the second eldest, when he was around sixteen years old.
Ned was a bit of an odd boy who didn’t have many friends, but he did enjoy cycling around the lanes of Oxfordshire with his Father who never seemed to have to go to work. During the summers of 1906 and 1907 he took me on long trips with his one friend, Cyril, to take brass rubbings and look at churches.”
“Where is this story going Morris?”
“Bear with me, please, Ti?” I knew it would take a while. “I’m sorry, but this part is quite important. Eventually, young Ned went to Oxford University to study History which, like Archeology, had been a subject dear to his fathers heart. It was there that he hatched his plan to cycle me around France to visit the Crusaders castles there. I think the challenge of riding a bike for such a long way meant as much to him as his need to write something for his studies. Anyway, in July 1908 we set off for the channel ferry and a 3200 mile ride. I don’t think he knew it at the time, but the commencement of our trip was just a week or so behind the third running of the famous Tour de France – and we went in roughly the same direction around the country.”
“So you went on a long trip – is that it?”
“No, listen – look, I had to tell you those bits so that you would get the background to what happened next.” I took another deliberate pause; one which felt quite long in the darkness.
“Morris?” Penny was getting concerned that I hadn’t spoken.
“We’d been going for some weeks; Ned was very strong and we were averaging 75 miles a day including the few days when we stopped over for him to write letters to his mother back home. Every day followed a similar pattern; up at 6, large breakfast and on the bike by 6.30. We’d ride through till 1pm and then stop at a castle – he’d worked out his route quite carefully before we’d left. There he would write a little and take photographs before eating again and then pushing on to the next destination where he’d find a cheap hotel – they cost around 2 francs for a room and another 2 francs for the dinner – something he rarely enjoyed because cheap French food didn’t suit him.
After a month or so, we’d stopped for the night in a small hamlet called Cuq-Toulsa just north from Carcassonne in the south of France. He’d headed north at this point because he wanted to see a small town called Montgey where, in 1211, a French land owners’ soldiers and the local villagers had routed a passing army of ‘crusaders’. There was a small plaque to commemorate the event which read ‘Ici et aux environs reposent 6000 Croises surprisen embuscade fin d’Avril 1211’. Six thousand mainly German and Frisian crusaders were massacred by the hands of blood thirsty local inhabitants who came out willingly to help the local militia. Even then Ned loved the idea of the oppressed rising up against an evil aggressor who sought the higher moral ground as a reason for invading someone elses domain. Ned has spent time walking around the area of the ancient battle as if picturing the scenes of villagers stoning and clubbing to death the strangely un-armoured and unready foe. None of them survived the onslaught.
The following morning we set out on the dusty N126 heading for Toulouse where Ned had planned a couple of days rest. I knew he was still thinking about the events of the previous day as he was even quieter than usual. Up ahead we spotted another bicycle. The rider was leaned over the bars in a determined fashion; a pair of spare tyres criss-crossed the narrow back and dark woolen shorts – much longer than those you’d see a cyclist wearing today – concealed rangy muscular legs that pumped a regular rythmn though a fixed wheel racing machine. I felt Ned increase his pace. Ned liked a challenge.
‘Bonjour monsieur!’ Ned’s French was competent but not very elegant. The reply was in English and slightly curt.
‘Good morning to you, sir.’ The rider was, to Ned’s amazement, a woman. She was a bit older than him, probably in her early 30’s, and sported a tough, rugged figure and a dirt-stained face; her cap was stained with sweat and the small goggles perched on the top were dark with dust.
‘I’m sorry,’ Ned stammered although he didn’t explain why he was apologising. ‘May we ride together?’ It was a strange request as we’d not ridden with anyone else in all the miles we’d covered in France. Perhaps there was something about this athletic woman that intrigued young Ned. She could certainly move her bike well. She nodded with a shrug, and Ned settled alongside her with his hands, like hers, down on the bars – both us bikes had the then modern ‘dropped’ handlebars; I, though, had one of the new three-speed Sturmey-Archer rear hubs which made things a little easier on the hills. She didn’t seem to be in the mood to speak so Ned didn’t say anything.
I spoke to the bike – a new Peugeot machine crafted with that little bit of that Gallic flair that Mr Morris just didn’t possess. Even with her dust covered tubes and slightly squeaky chain, she just looked more racy than I did.
‘Hi!’ Bikes don’t do languages – we just talk bike. ‘How are things – are you going far?’ Mme Peugeot looked at me slightly haughtily.
‘We’re doing the Tour de France.’ I couldn’t help myself.
‘Oh, excuse me, but aren’t you a little bit behind the others?…’.
‘No! we started after them because they wouldn’t let Marie take part’.
‘Oh, why not?’
‘Because they only want men in their race.’ Oops, seems like I’d ridden across a piece of rocky rue.
‘Oh, I am so sorry to hear that. We’re doing a sort of Tour de France ourself – but in a different way. Ned, my rider, is bicycling around France to look at old castles’.
‘Well, he’s moving at quite a pace – can he keep this up?’
‘Oh, yes, he can keep this up all day – he’s very strong you know.’ I was proud of my Ned.
After a couple of hours at the same breakneck pace, Marie finally spoke.
‘I’m stopping for some rest soon. Do you want to stop with me?’ It didn’t seem like an easy question for her to ask, but on the basis that Ned had sat, apparently easily, alongside her for many kilometres in the rising heat with a woolen jacket and hat on, she was left with no other choice than to ask him.
‘That would be lovely – sorry, miss, what is your name? Mine is Ned.’
“Marie – Marie Marvingt.’
Peugeot and I were propped up against a wall in the shade and Ned and Marie sat opposite each other at a small round wooden table and they talked. And they talked and they talked; they talked about France and the Tour; Marie talked about her unbelievable sporting exploits and her flying.
‘I have never thought about flying – what is it like?’ Ned was sounding interested. I thought that secretly he didn’t actually believe her stories of hunting for seals in the Arctic and swimming through Paris in the Seine – but he didn’t show it.
‘You have never flown ? Why not? It is so delicious to fly like a bird – the most wonderful thing I have ever done. One day I will fly my own aeroplane. It is the only true freedom.’ There was something heroically French in the way she spoke; Ned had met what seemed to him like a real-life Jean d’Arc.
Ned then talked about his interest in the Castles of the Crusades – but this seemed to bore her quite quickly so he adroitly switched to asking where she was from.
‘I’m originally from Metz.’
‘So, you are a German?’
‘No! of course I’m not! No one in Metz is German – they might think we are part of their country, but we are all French, and have always been so.’ Ned looked slightly embarrassed. He knew the history of the disputed Alace Lorraine area between France and Germany but didn’t know that even after all this time the feeling was still so strong.
‘Sorry – I didn’t mean to sound rude.’
‘You weren’t – it’s just something we’re very sensitive about. Besides I don’t live there anymore – since my Father died my family have lived in Nancy.’ She was very matter of fact. ‘I am surprised you English people aren’t a little bit more supportive of us French – surely you must know that Germany is looking to expand and we’re likely to be invaded.’
‘Do you think so? I’m aware that the British Government has been making moves towards a greater entente with your Prime Minister, Mr Clemenceau – but I fear that he is a little radical for most of them.’
They went on like this for ages. Ned’s natural charm and soft demeanor kept things going – he was clearly enjoying her company and she seemed intrigued by the determined little man from England who cycled so easily and seemed to know so much about French history.
‘So, you say that the French peasants massacred 6,000 Germans just a few miles from here in antiquity? Vive la France! I’m afraid that we, the French people, might have to do so again soon.’
Finally, we set of again on the road to Toulouse – once again Marie set a blistering pace and, again, Ned sat obligingly next to her without threatening the pace but staying resolutely on it. Peugeot was impressed.
‘You were right – your rider belies his looks. He is a strong man. But I take it that he hasn’t heard of Marie before?’
‘No, should he have? I can see she is a great sportswoman, but, no, I don’t think he has.’
“Marie Marvingt is a legend in France – she is one of the greatest sports people to have lived – not letting her ride in the Tour is a travesty; such is her prowess, she would beat most of the men in the race.’ I doubted this but didn’t say anything. ‘Mon coureur, Marie, will be world famous one day – I think she could be a saviour of women and even France itself.’ No I decided that Peugeot had gone a little too far – but I did like her.
‘Well, my rider Ned is also a man that is destined for great things.’ I didn’t really believe it but I had to counter Peugeot somehow.”
“So what happened bud? Did Ned and Marie do great things?” Haro was clearly excited at the prospect.
“Did Marie really save women and all of France?” Penny was old enough to know better but had clearly missed out on a lot with her years in the barn. I could feel a rising enthusiasm in the cold garage. Even Ti was a bit more positive.
“So was this Ned really famous?”
“Oh yes, he became one of the most famous people in the country who was feted wherever he went.”
“So what did he do?” I paused again. Not for any other reason than to work out what to say next.
I decided to go back to the road to Toulouse.
“We rode late into the evening with the large orange sun setting gently in our faces. Ned, tanned from his days in the saddle and Marie with her single minded, single-speed approach to her mission, ploughed on to the City which rose from the flat-lands ahead. Ned liked it when the roads were flat. I think he always felt that wide open spaces suited him better. Many years later after his time in Arabia he spoke about having enjoyed his time in France but having not truly understood the soul of the country. Arabia, he said, was different. The wide open spaces teemed with hidden resources and, as well as dominating the trade routes of the colonial powers of Europe, were ruled by people who loved their country; people who were to be so rudely set upon by the Turks and then let down by the Colonial powers at the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War. Ned, better known by then as Lawrence of Arabia, never got over what he saw as the betrayal of the Arab state he’d fought so hard for.
That night we stayed at a small hotel near the centre of the City. Ned and Marie had dinner in a small café; Peugeot and I were left, nestled together, behind the kitchens. It was warm in Toulouse.
‘What do you think will happen tomorrow, Morris?’ Peugeot was sleepy after the long day on the road and her bearings sat tight with the grime of the southern French roads. She said that Marie would attend to them in the morning with her special lubrication.
‘Who knows. Perhaps we’ll all be together – or perhaps Ned will want to go a different route to Marie.’
‘That would be a shame – it’s been nice riding with you today – you have a lovely rouleur who is good for Marie.’ As the warmth of the day cooled on the Atlantic breeze, I felt my crossbar touching the still warm steel of the racy little French bike.”
“So then what happened dude?” Someone, well, Chopper, was getting impatient.
“Nothing happened – we just waited till the morning – what did you think would happen?”
“Oh Morris, it all sounds so wonderful with Ned and Marie having dinner and you and that saucy little bike together for the night. Did the two of you talk all night?”
“No, I was tired – as I expect Ned was. We all needed sleep.”
“Oh, I just thought that, perhaps…no, nothing.”
“OK, look, the next day Ned came down at the usual time and we left. I never saw Marie again. I never saw little Peugeot again.” I think my voice might have betrayed me a little right at the end.
“I’m sorry Morris – it could have been so very different.”
“I have to say that this isn’t what I was going to tell you about. I wanted to tell you about the years after the war with Ned when he bought his motorbikes and we settled again in the south of England and he played with the motorboats in the Solent. I was going to tell you about how he died so tragically. I wanted to tell you all so much. But all I’ve done is told you about the beautiful bike I met in France.” There was silence in the garage.
The next day I was taken to a new cycling museum in Oxford and, after being cleaned up, was placed on a stand next another old relic from history. Her name, it turned out, was Peugeot. We were to be together again; this time Ned couldn’t ride me away.
Simon’s Cycle Shorts are now available to buy in both paperback (£8.39) and Kindle (£2.99) versions from Amazon. HERE
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