For a while during my time in London I frequented the same pub as Shane MacGowan, the legendary hell-raiser and sometime lead singer of The Pogues. The passage of time had not been kind to the Irish Rover by that stage: sallow of complexion, shabby of dress, his feet so swollen that he no longer wore shoes, he was a (just about) living embodiment of the price that must eventually be paid for a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle*.
I never spoke to him directly, but if I had I might have asked why, with the damage he was clearly doing to himself, he continued to neck the drink down so unabashedly. I’m guessing the answer would have been two-worded, the second one being “off”, but ask the same question to anybody else in the house on one of those evenings and they’d surely have shrugged and answered: “He’s hooked too deep to give it up now”.
The point of that little anecdote is to try to put into context what appears an indecently hasty and, on the face of it, inexplicable decision to end my retirement from bike racing, little more than a week after deciding to call it a day.
What am I thinking? What earthly reason can there be to put myself back into a world where my ‘conservative’ (to put it charitably) attitude to personal safety is given such a thorough working over? Why throw all the good wishes and messages of understanding from friends and acquaintances right back into their faces with such a brazen U-turn?
The answer, as with Shane MacGowan’s boozing, is that I just can’t bring myself to leave the bike racing alone. I’m hooked too deep to give it up now.
For a moment there I was definitely quit, of that there’s no doubt. Thanks to a misalignment of various stars I’d tumbled into what – even for me – was a pretty dark place. More specifically, my bottle for bunch racing was well and truly gone and my motivation to continue putting myself in the danger zone was zero.
I’d even ordered a pair of clip-on tri bars ready to make my first foray into time trialling, a desperate reflex action to rescue some purpose for the substantial investment of time, money and effort I’ve made in the sport of cycling.
The tri bars duly arrived… and they didn’t fit any of my bikes, due to me specifying the wrong size clamp.
Sorely tempted to take out my – by now screaming – frustration on the tri bars with a claw hammer (I’d already built them up and stuck the armrest pads on, so there was no getting my money back), I eventually decided to hurt myself instead, while also getting in some desperately needed hard training miles.
At Hove Park. Of all places.
Readers who’ve been with me since the early days will recall I raced twice at Hove Park last season, getting lapped three times and then twice, on each occasion while riding in grim solitude after being dropped virtually from the gun.
Those experiences were the key to my return. It’s not really racing when I’m going to be shot out the back to huff and puff round on my own, is it? Decent logic on the face of it. What could possibly go wrong?
What went ‘wrong’ is that even by half distance, when about a third of the field had been unceremoniously shelled out in classic Hove Park style, I was still safely ensconced in the pack and feeling pretty pleased with myself.
We even started to lap some of the slower riders, an extraordinarily satisfying experience given my past history on this course. Though we had plenty of room I couldn’t resist a cheeky “riders coming right!” shout to one poor unfortunate, a moment of pure schadenfreude that can only be adequately explained if you read my first Hove Park race report from 2011.
As each lap ticked off I waited for the devastating burst of acceleration that would drop me; but it never came. The five laps to go board (the race distance being 35mins plus 5 laps) confirmed that I would get home in the lead bunch of about 13 riders – now it was time to think about finishing position!
I knew I had the measure of a few of my rivals on the final climb to the finish line, since we’d been up the bloody thing about a hundred times already. But to be honest I was so blown away by still being there or thereabouts that I probably didn’t position myself as prominently as I might have done during the final lap.
Instead, a rider from Brighton Excelsior – who’d previously been riding with me towards the rear – made his attack and motored away on the flat section before the last climb, the uptick of pace leaving me little room for manoeuvre as the climb began. Despite this, I passed a few riders on the hill, before running out of track as I approached another two, enabling them to cross the line a bike length ahead of me, two abreast, leaving me in 9th place.
If it sounds to you like I’m being a tad ungrateful with regards to my finishing position (and one BC point to boot!) then you have all the evidence you need as to why I couldn’t stay away from this ridiculous game. I may be taking part in bike racing’s lowliest category, but I can’t help a burning desire to do well, a savage competitive instinct that remains undimmed despite all the evidence amassed to date that I am, in fact, not good enough to justify it.
In many ways I wish it wasn’t so. But it is. See you at the Lewes Crits…
* It should be noted that MacGowan has since decamped to Ireland and appears to have at least arrested his decline…