Occasionally I get invited to an event to talk about things. Sometimes it’s a shindig, some kind of degenerate bike party, and other times it’s a club dinner. I might be overegging the pudding here, I think I’ve done three club dinners in 7 years, and one of those was Bristol South and wasn’t really a club dinner, it was a meeting that I hijacked for my own ends.
Anyway, the lovely people at Reading C.C. asked me to speak at their do in “the party room” at Zizzi’s. This was in the main because they are organising the national hill climb this year on Streatley and thought my ‘expertise’ might come in useful.
I’d come across Clive Pugh before, a Reading Wheeler who came third behind Alf Engers and Les West in the National 50 in 1976. He appears in a sequence of photos taken by the amazing Dave Pountney, one of which made the cover of the Alf book. I love the way he looks, so unassuming and and so amateur, in the most brilliant way. John Woodburn also had a strong connection with the club and lived in the area for some time.
Reading C.C. is a bellwether for cycling as a whole. The town had two pre war clubs, the Wheelers and Les Bon Amis, who amalgamated in the hard times in the 1970s. After struggling through the dark years, the club now has over 200 members, with a tangible increase in female members and an inclusive approach.
I made the most of the opportunity for a longer ride, breathing in the helpful support of a humongous westerly wind to ride there on Saturday. It was a bit of a classic, I felt good, the legs were good, the wind was brilliant. I went through Avebury and was left wide-eyed by the prehistoric architecture, circles and rows of stones, ditches and banks. The area is ethereal and time seems to dissolve amongst the timeless sarsen megaliths.
I avoided the grotfest that is the Kennet and Avon canal in winter. One poor piece of mapwork had me riding through a farmer’s field but it was at least rideable. Most of it was on the A4 which is a big and old road, in some way a monument to the past, to coaching routes and journeys that took days, not hours. There are beautiful old mile markers which can be exciting or dispiriting, depending which way you look at them. It’s also the setting for lots of time trials in the past, most obviously the Bath Road 100. It is still used but like every other road everywhere, has been limited over time by rampant traffic growth and density, traffic lights and the primacy of the motor car.
The first red kite appeared at Axford, two of them drifting against the wind with a hooked talon hanging down, scaring the wood pigeons for fun. Nearer Reading and they were everywhere it seemed, gliding over housing estates, or tilting into the breeze at a junction before vying with crows for a tattered mess of roadkill. Near Marlborough I stumbled across a field of Aberdeen Angus cattle, accompanied by a flock of cattle egrets. They took to the air as one, a strobing, syncopated cloud of white wings. It was 82 lovely miles, and a quick run in to Reading. The last half is more or less downhill.
The talk seemed well-received. It is hard talking to a room of strangers, even if there is a connecting thread. It is hard to judge. I may have used the words “eyeball popping out”, “hernia” and “prolapse”, with the last one getting a collective groan of horror as people tucked into their chocolate fondant and it ruptured oozing brown liquid out of the gaping hole forced in the side.
I think I rescued it with talk of emotions and feelings and the amateur spirit, creating and taking opportunities, how life is in the doing. It’s in the decision to get up and make things happen, and in taking on this spectacular event Reading C.C. are creating the framework for people to live their very best lives, to experience what it is like to ride up a hill through a wall of people, to have their Dutch Corner on Streatley, and to experience an emotional intensity that doesn’t happen anywhere else.
I also spoke about the simplicity of the event. There is change, but the type of technological change in this event is minimal. It’s as close to the original spirit of cycling as you can get: you can’t diminish the primal force of a hill through slipperiness. It’s a diamond frame, fixed wheel, drillium, box section, round profiles, these are the weapons against time and gravity. Granville Sydney would recognise the winner’s bicycle, marvel perhaps at the lightness, but see it as a part of the same continuum; whereas Stan Higginson or Frank Southall would be baffled by a modern TT frame. Malcolm Elliot’s course record on Monsal still lingers on, as does Phil Mason’s on Catford.
The national hill climb presents an opportunity for everyone involved, a chance to live life to the very fullest, at its most intense and most vivid.
I think these sentiments went across better than “hill climbs make you shit yourself and your eye comes out”.