My cycling partner is running late.
I fiddle around in the garage and contemplate another cup of coffee, my breath cloudy in the freezing temperatures. I think about ringing him…“nah, he’s probably just lost his gloves”, I decide. He had. Daughter number one had hidden them in the schoolbag of daughter number two. Obviously.
It took me an age to get my kit on this morning, as it always does in the winter, but mercifully my gloves were on a high shelf away from children.
He arrives half an hour late, sheepish. I try and fake annoyance but I can’t keep it up. After what feels like several solid years of wind and rain (…probably about four days) the prospect of a ride in the sun, however cold, has cheered me up. It’s a flat ride today, too cold to risk the hills, and as we head out across the coastal flats we rattle along at a good pace.
When I say we ‘rattle’, I mean we rattle; we’re on the winter bikes which are cheaper, older, and noisier.
“You know we’ve got a tailwind, don’t you?” I grin to him.
“And I just thought I was riding well…we’re gonna’ pay for this on the way back.”
We’re wrapped in layers and neck-warmers, with thick gloves and headbands, and we’ve got an eye on the café an hour and a half in. Nothing’s been said, but we both know that’s where we’re heading. The roads are awash with cyclists. It seems we’d all spotted this crisp weekend weather window between the wind and the rain. Some look overdressed, some under, but everyone has that mid-ride café look about them.
We head down Killcrash Lane, past the barking Border Collie lashed to it’s usual gate post, on a road surface that resembles Paris-Roubaix: all ruts and potholes, with an icy drainage trench running parallel. We say Paris-Roubaix in the same way that Sean Kelly does – Par-IS rather than Par-EE – before trailing off into rambling Kelly impressions.
It’s rare that a bike ride goes by that doesn’t involve at least one attempt at a Sean Kelly.
Occasionally the sun dips behind a large cloud, for minutes at a time, and the sudden temperature drop is alarming. “Don’t get a puncture, don’t get a puncture, don’t…” rolls on a mental loop, as the thought of fixing one with cold claw-like hands puts me on high alert. Despite being the most coldly logical person I know, I know better than to provoke the puncture fairy.
“Whats up?” asks my friend.
I’m spending too much time looking down at my tyres. Paranoid.
“Nothing. It’s fine.”
We’re both thinking about the ‘P’ word.
Well chilled, we roll into the café courtyard. We are greeted by a hundred or more bikes propped against the wall, the fence, and each other. This is known as a cyclist’s café but still, the number of bikes is incredible. Everyone is out for a ride, and everyone has stopped for coffee and flap-jack.
We’re in Ribble Cycles territory here, and it seems one in three bikes is a Ribble. There must be thirty royal blue Ribble winter training bikes. There’ll be people riding home on the wrong bike today in the confusion.
Fed and watered, the curse of the winter café stop strikes. We stopped because an hour and a half on freezing country lanes is plenty, and we got café warm, but café warm is different to cycling warm. The arms, legs and face might be toasty, but the engine has cooled, and once you get back on the bike you know about it.
“Ready for that headwind?” my mate says, with a crooked grin.
We arch our bodies into the wind, pedalling hard to generate some warmth, but it’s cold now. Cold cold. The sun has gone and a hot shower and a bowl of soup is now the goal. Toes and fingers are stinging, leg muscles are tight, and the continuous cold blast of air on the face has set my expression to a kind of gormless surprise.
These are the days that etch lines on the faces of cyclists.
But we didn’t puncture. And it’s not raining. And we didn’t leave the café on the wrong bike.