My home-town supports a genuine cycling community. We’ve got the great roads, for starters, but also a couple of good bike shops, three or four thriving cycling clubs, a handful of semi-famous riders in the area, and a general (though not universal) feeling of cycling goodwill.
But when you’ve got a community, you also get gossip, tittle-tattle, anecdotes and rumours.
Most of which passes straight over my head, except – and I’m careful who I trust when it comes to this subject – when word gets around that one of our many rutted and potholed road surfaces has been re-laid with a wonderful, black, shiny ribbon of silk….
Sorry, I mean tarmac.
Got carried away there for a minute.
Often the rumours promise much but deliver little. You’ll hear mention that, “such n’ such reckons that the Sedburgh road has been fully re-laid, he was out that way last week”, to which my immediate response is, “right, quick, I’m off for a ride who’s comin’?”
Only to arrive at said road to find that some of the worst bits have been beautifully re-surfaced, but they’ve left long stretches in-between which creates a patchwork effect of lumps, bumps, and short bursts of perfection. Somehow, by doing it this way, the beautifully smooth new bits only serve to accentuate the nerve jangling uneven-ness of the bits in-between.
This is common. There are only a select group of discerning cyclists who I will trust on hearing a road being described a ‘completely re-surfaced’. Apart from anything, economic times are still hard, and we’re led to believe that great swathes of the UK are awash with a backlog of potholed roads awaiting attention.
It was always unlikely that the road to Sedburgh was going to have been re-surfaced from end to end, but I still get sucked in to these rumours like a gullible child.
On the basis that a stretch of pristine tarmac a few hundred yards in length is the best it’s going to get, it’s always better to stumble across these unknown pleasures without warning, which makes 300 yards of cycling heaven a joyful bonus.
A friend and I were recently the first cyclists ever to ride upon one particular stretch just 10 miles from my front door. We know that for a fact, because as we approached the closed road, hoping to sneak through unnoticed, the site foreman was in the process of checking that the pristine new surface had set sufficiently hard, before removing the cones, dismantling the temporary traffic lights, and waving us through: “on your way lads, we’re all done here now.”
What an honour.
We thought about having a plaque put up by the roadside to commemorate the moment, but decided instead to keep it as our little secret; it’s enough to know that we christened that stretch of virgin tarmac in the name of cyclists and fellow road surface enthusiasts everywhere.
My near obsession with the smooth road surface dates back to the first time I ever rode a bike in France. The pinnacle of that holiday was the mighty Mont Ventoux; a huge lump of rock, known as the giant of Provence, which is surrounded by cycling myth and legend. For a first ride up a big French mountain, Ventoux is no walk in the park.
Having dragged myself up its great flanks to an altitude that left my novice lungs flapping around and begging for mercy, I felt pretty happy with my day’s work. At this point I hadn’t given a moment’s thought to the quality of the tarmac which had led me up to the moonscape which tops Mont Ventoux.
But then came the descent…
Initially, the famous howling wind which batters this great landmark was the only feature to focus the mind as we headed downwards, but as we dropped from the exposed slopes and into the forest which carpets much of Ventoux, I became aware of a whooshing, swooshing sound, the like of which I had never experienced.
It was the sound of two bicycle wheels engaged in a joyous union with smooth, pristine French tarmac.
Barely a bump or a judder was transmitted up to my hands as they braced on the handlebars, and every movement and corner was predictable. There was no adjusting for cracks or potholes, no hanging on grimly across rutted bumps, and the amount of grip available was not up for debate.
It took me a few moments to realise the complete state of relaxation I was in; travelling at 35mph by bike and heading down the side of a huge French mountain.
I’m led to believe that any piece of road which is used regularly as part of the Tour de France will produce that same smooth sensation, as the road gets re-laid regularly for the benefit of a peloton full of the world’s top cyclists, and to give the right impression on the TV.
Since that day I have made many a vain attempt to recreate that state of zen-like-tarmac-related-bliss which I achieved on the punishing gradient of Mont Ventoux. Alas, here in the north of England, that’s easier said than done.
Until I head back for another crack at Mont Ventoux I suppose I will have to make do with the odd 300 metre stretch here and there, and the occasional Sunday morning surprise in amongst the pot-holes and the gravel. At least I have the knowledge that one local stretch of road bears my tyre tracks as the first lucky cyclist to pedal across it.
The foreman was wrong, you see: as those tracks prove, that new tarmac hadn’t quite set hard after all.