Commuter Challenge

Cycling Today, August & September 2000

Every time Frank visited my flat he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the trophy on the mantel. A long-shot in a field of battle-hardened competitors, I’d won it in ’97, before he’d even started commuting. That didn’t extinguish his jealousy. “You just got lucky,” he’d say, squinting quizzically at the scratch marks which nearly obliterate the nameplate, but he couldn’t possibly understand the anguished silence which always greeted his taunt.

Until one day he finally pushed me too far.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” I exploded, surprising him with my bitter rage. “So just… just listen. I’m going to tell you a little story. And when I’m done, I don’t want to hear any more about how ‘lucky’ I got. Do you understand? Do you?”

He backed away from the trophy, which I could never keep untarnished no matter how much I obsessively polished it, and sat down without a word. And waited.

That spring had been a revelation for me. I’d emerged from University, snagged a prestigious job in the City, buckled down for the long road to the good life. I took the cattle car in every morning, just like everybody else, and hated it, ditto. Except for the guy in the cubicle next to me. He always arrived looking alert and exhilarated.

“So, what’s the deal with you?” I finally asked him, a bit ill at his relentless good cheer. He’d just pointed to the helmet on the corner of his desk. Funny, I’d always thought without really thinking about it that it was some kind of weird modern art paperweight. I’d even asked him once how much he wanted for the ‘Giro’, but he’d just shook his head and laughed.

“I cycle in,” he said innocently. “You should try it sometime.”

“But isn’t it dangerous?” I’d countered.

“It’s not nearly as bad as it looks,” he’d said, warming to a possible convert. “Where do you live?”

It turned out we were practically neighbours in a sleepy bedroom community about 10 miles from work. By the end of the day he’d convinced me to join him, just as soon as I’d bought my own bike.

It was a beautiful thing, that bicycle. The paint job alone was to die for. Henry — that was his name; that’s what those scratch marks on the trophy Frank coveted really spelled — reminded me to buy a helmet, some gloves, and a water bottle, and showed up on my doorstep the next morning standing next to an earnest-looking Raleigh. “Ready?” he’d asked, with an infectious grin.

Turns out I was a natural. I’d been born to do this. I had the position; I had the moves; I had the undeniable panache. Henry trailed me all the way into work that first glorious morning, and, tremendous soul that he was, he didn’t hold it against me. He wasn’t capable of that.

We rode together as spring turned to summer, and although there weren’t many tricks that Henry could show me which I didn’t already seem to have imprinted on my DNA, he did introduce me to some of our fellow commuters: there was Freddy, and Larson, and the Gribbley brothers, and Amanda the reckless speed demon; Jacob the Elder and Jacob the Younger, insurance agents both; slow-as-a-slug Sturges, Prim Paul, and Watson with his ancient Pashley, which he’d rather unimaginatively nicknamed Sherlock. This is the crowd that left about the same time in the morning as Henry and me and worked in anonymous office buildings within a few blocks of each-other. They all seemed harmless enough.

To somebody who didn’t know better.

The Gribbley brothers, for example, were psychotic. Oh, you wouldn’t know it if you were disinterestedly glancing at them from behind the window of a car or a bus, but get in between them — Emil always kept about 20 feet ahead of Sherwood — and you’d feel their wrath. Emil would slow down and Sherwood would speed up until he was so close that you could smell him (which you really didn’t want to do; why do you think Emil kept upwind of him?) and in a practiced pincer movement wrenched you from whatever reverie you’d been enjoying and deposited you bruised onto the kerb, wondering at man’s inhumanity to man.

They all had their tricks. Freddy liked to startle the unwary with a sharp stick he kept in place of a frame pump. Amanda was simply demoralisingly fast, coming from behind and shocking you practically out of your saddle with a sonic boom, though she always tended to fade in the home stretch. Larson never waved back. Prim Paul always made every single light, no matter how unlikely. He cycled with a hand in his coat pocket, leading Henry to muse that he was fingering a device which controlled the traffic lights. Come to think of it, he did work in that government building…

Watson packed can of WD-40 in his front basket which he would spray at the rims of anybody who got within shooting distance. Jacob the Younger was following in his honourable father’s treads. They both always brought up the rear. Then there was Sturges. He was like the tortoise that won the race; you’d always spy him in the farthest reaches of your handlebar mirror, disappearing into a speck, only to smugly appear ahead of you right at the end. We all suspected, but could never prove, that he caught a ride when nobody was looking and then neatly inserted himself into the course just before the finish. The sneaky bastard did ride a Brompton, after all.

Henry, ever moderate, always kept to the middle of the pack, well away from the Gribbleys, Freddy, and Watson. He was unfailingly polite to all. After we’d been riding together for a month or so he casually mentioned the Commuter Challenge. It sounded intriguing…

Henry cycled for fun. I cycled for keeps. Henry knew this, which was why he told me about the Commuter Challenge despite his (until now) unfailing better judgement. Besides, I would’ve found out about it anyhow.

The Challenge was held every year on the last day of summer. It was open to anybody who was foolish enough to show up. The Jacobs always called in sick: “You don’t want any part of that foolishness,” the Elder would wisely counsel the Younger.

You see, M-F, 240-odd days a year, the same group of us would cycle in to work, not in any especial hurry but with a deceptively mild eye on the main chance. Sometimes Freddy won, sometimes Prim Paul. I suppose Sturges carried the best overall stats, cheating or no, but none of us took it too seriously. It was just commuting, we were just amateurs, and this was just England.

But on that one day a year, everything changed. Henry never explained it, professing good natured disdain for competition in general and the Challenge in particular, but I suspect it had its origins in our lack of purpose in the Grand Scheme. Or maybe once upon a time Amanda got annoyed at Larson for not waving back, and decided to show him, which stirred him up sufficiently to catch the attention of the normally phlegmatic Freddy, who in turn spurred on Sturges… who knows these things. The point is, come autumnal equinox, the race was on, and I decided to be a part of it: In fact, to own it.

Last year’s champion was Watson, in a surprise upset. Annoyingly, he’d taken to carrying the battered trophy in his basket next to his can of WD-40 for all to see and envy. But Watson was an old man, at least 40, past his sell-by date. And I was anxious to lose my newcomer gloss.

I begged Henry to help me train. At first he refused, horrified at the way my eye would start twitching whenever I discussed my victory celebration, but at the same time he seemed strangely compelled by the possibility of seeing a close friend in the winner’s circle. Eventually I wore him down.

By now it was mid-summer. We hadn’t much time. He warned me not to be complacent about my rivals: they were experienced veterans. He insisted that we train in the evenings, and as the race drew nearer, every weekend. He stressed stamina and a good defence, and became uncomfortable whenever I pressed him on offensive strategies, though finally he gave in and showed me some techniques he’d claimed to have seen on Open University. When I can bear to think about it, I still remember those late night sessions; endlessly cycling from darkened flat to vacant office block, again and again until I wasn’t sure if it was all just a very strange dream. At times the sense of loss becomes large enough to send me scurrying to the off-license.

Finally Henry seemed satisfied. He blessed my endeavour over a curry the evening before the race, and wished me luck. He’d be commuting tomorrow as an observer only.

***

The following morning I have my customary raw eggs and whisky mixed with oxen blood, and wheel my Cannondale onto the tarmac. Everyone else is already there. Down the block I see a nervous fluttering of curtains; Jacob the Younger, unwillingly drawn to the contest. Everyone trusts Henry, so he is chosen to man the bicycle bell that rings out like a pistol shot in the cool a.m. air.

Amanda isn’t taking any chances. She’s down the block even before Sturges has his kickstand up. The Gribbleys quickly find their stride. Everyone else fans out, each in their own personal ‘zone’, watching, waiting for their opportunity.

Henry had taught me well. On our first day he’d said just three words: “Pedal. Don’t Stop.” He’d told me how it’s actually less tiring to keep pedalling than it is to freewheel half the time. He claimed this was why Sturges usually won: the guy’s legs just never quit.

Mile three: I notice that Freddy has his stick out and is threatening Larson. “A little friendliness never killed anyone!” he is keening in that high voice of his. He plunges the stick into Larson’s front tyre spokes but refuses to let go — it’s his favorite stick — so they both go down in a tangle of flesh and cro-moly.

Mile five: Henry radioes me that Sturges has been caught with his Brompton on the suburban line. I laugh out loud.

Mile six and a half: I see a small crowd gathered around a crumpled figure. Afraid that it might be Amanda, I gallantly slow down to offer my help, only to hear her maniacal laugh distorted by the Doppler Effect created by her sheer velocity as she rockets by. Enraged by her callous trickery, I start the chase, knowing she’ll eventually fade, like always.

I am a lean, mean, cycling machine. Every unnecessary ounce has been shaved off; I’ve drilled holes in the brake levers, replaced the front fork with resin-coated balsa wood, spent the wee hours of the night when I wasn’t training scraping the beloved paint from my bicycle.

My legs are pumping like pistons. I pass the clueless Watson, turn a corner and see Emil Gribbley dead ahead. But where is Sherwood? Suddenly I hear him behind me: taking a page from Amanda’s book, he’s been lying in wait down a side street. Emil slows, and I feel the relentless pincher start to close, but wait, Henry appears out of nowhere! He maneuvers me out of the Gribbley’s grasping claw, sacrificing himself! I brake frantically, but in my mirror I see him lying quite still in the green grass by the side of the road. Then I see Sherwood back up over him. Then I see nothing but red; all the world has turned red. I don’t care about anything anymore, except winning. I am going to win for Henry.

Mile nine. I haven’t seen the Gribbleys for some time. Blood lust has cost them their lead. Traffic is backed up. At the head of a queue I see Prim Paul lying face down in a zebra crossing. His luck has finally run out. His arm is outstretched, as if waving to some ants. His hand, the one that was always in his pocket, which we assumed was manipulating a device to control traffic lights, holds in its death grip nothing but a lollipop. A very, very old lollipop. Evidently his lucky lollipop. A small dog starts licking it.

I am terrified that Amanda has already crossed the finish line, which is simply a crosswalk from which we like to scatter pedestrians. I can see it in the distance. Then I see a policeman. He’s pulled over Amanda, and is writing her a speeding ticket. She has murder in her eye. She probably could’ve won it, this year. I glide over the crosswalk, upending a Queen Mother lookalike, and look to the sky. I have won. But what have I won?

Frank is very quiet. He peers at the trophy, shakes his head at my sorry attempts to scratch Henry’s name onto it. He’ll never understand.

“Take it,” I tell him.

“Really?” he asks, suspicious now. “After all that?”

“Yes,” I say. “Then Pedal. “Don’t stop.”

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