Standing at the starting line with my right foot in a toe-clipped pedal. Bunting hangs over head. I am looking at the people around me, some lean athletic types, a novelty Dixon of Dock Green, a woman in high heels. Lots of merino wool and moustaches. I look back at my wife, she is looking at me with a strange mix of pride and fear; I realise I am feeling the same.
Quite unsure what I am about to do and how I got here. A tiny vertigo; this is not me, these are not my people, I hate crowds, I feel so unfit. Concerned that romance has got the better of me.
I bought my bike ten months ago – a fifty-pound racer from a disappointed man in Chesterfield – to see if I would enjoy riding again. A low cost trial. I had never ridden a racer before and not consistently been on a bike for a decade.
Since then I have cycled over twelve hundred miles, across the North Peak District, West Yorkshire and the city. I put my finger to a map and decide to ride there; there is water there, it is probably a good place for a rest. I imagine it is calm, as only a vast expanse of churning water can present to be.
Each weekend I find new favourite roads, blissful descents, exposed hills where bracken tussles with the knotted coats of fat sheep, hidden lakes, back paths that make me feel like an underperforming ibex. The occasional lay-by, purpose made for midnight frolics between masked people.
Always on my own. No music, no screens, no words. There is only me, my bicycle and the limitations of the two. Yet here I am, in this cabal of steel bikes, staring at a man in a top hat waving us off with a large flag. Fifty-five utterly bastard miles over hard hills and punishing gravel paths of Derbyshire lie ahead. Fifty-five isn’t a lot of miles, but these are hard ones.
Once we started moving out of Bakewell, cheered along with bells and tiny klaxons, I forget about all my anxieties. I always do when on my bike. It doesn’t take long to become part of the fluid group, ebbing and flowing, saving energy and pushing on. A new rhythm to work with, supported and encouraged by everyone around me. Strangers working together.
Twenty miles fly by, through the tunnels of the Monsal Trail, a heavy climb, intimidatingly rugged gravel, downhills through Hobbit land. Arriving in Hartington with my rattling headset seems unreal: a mass of coloured shirts and hats, classic Bianchi frames nestling alongside JW Wilson and Holdsworths; beer guts and lean athletes. Importantly, half of bitter and a jammy scone. I hadn’t expected this side of things, even though the silent nod camaraderie with cyclists is a favourite thing when out on the hills.
Refuelled, another twenty miles – off road down gruff land with chunky sleepers, across brooks, winding roads around The High Peak Trail, Cromford, through Lea next to John Smedley’s factory. A Derbyshire greatest hits set.
Ever onwards, mostly upwards.
It dawns that Chatsworth is only ten miles away. Five miles away. Two. Clapped along, I turn a bend and get ushered onto the estate’s drive. A long, smooth path to stretch out – an opportunity for a head-down sprint, to enjoy being on a flat road for a few minutes. A short refreshment break as I am handed a glass of English wine and another of Pimm’s. Neither last long against a blazing summer day’s thirst; exhausted and too eager to get to the finish line.
Those last three miles feel like forever. An unexpected and cruelly-positioned climb out of Chatsworth is unending. Pedalling against gravity with huge rocks for thighs until a sudden downhill that I know well as the entry to Bakewell revealed itself; I can see the festival site and finishing line beyond the trees.
I welled up a bit, suddenly overwhelmed by everything. Riding fifty-eight difficult miles became a symbol of fundamentally changing my life over the past year; of losing four stones, of challenging myself, putting myself in difficult situations. Getting to the end.
Mawkish, I know, but there are times when life completely fucking hits you and you should absolutely indulge in it – this was one of them.