There was no room to ride, because of the box on the backpack on my back
I wasn’t sure if the peloton was getting away from me, or the riders were changing their order. I pedalled a little harder to stay with it, but it pulled further away.
Something was holding me up.
It was the ironmongery.
The box was too big to fit into my backpack, so I strapped it to the outside making myself look like a cubist snail — a large man, with a backpack, attached to a large box that towers over his head as he rides.
Then the guy in the yellow wet-weather togs eased past. I had hated him as soon as I saw him, as he rode through the pedestrian crossing outside Turnmills. Something in the rhythm of his pedalling and his new looking, ultra-professional kit irked me. That and the fact that he was wearing rain gear without rain.
What was that? Wishful thinking?
And now he had passed me, and I hated him the most for the confident way he pulled in front of me after passing — as if he knew that I would never get ahead of him again.
I could stand losing the peloton, but Yellow Man wasn’t going to win.
I pushed harder. We were neck and neck as we approached the narrow bit outside the Knights of St John. I pushed harder still, drawing level and finally passing, where I let a car force me to the left, in front of him — trapping him behind me, with a parked van on one side and, a taxi on the other. He chickened out and touched his brakes as the space around him decreased, and that gave me my edge. I powered onto the wide straight towards the lights at Goswell Road knowing that he could not regain what he had lost.
He slowed further, and turned left into Goswell Road.
Spurred on, I stood on the pedals to catch the peloton again, feeling the surge of speed. The wind whistled past the box on the pack on my back. The knobbly tyres whirred on the road. Vibration came through the handlebars as the front suspension absorbed some manhole covers. I flicked a glance back to check for taxis and flew into the bus lane. The lights at the pedestrian crossing were green. I put on another surge as the calibration lines for the Old Street speed camera came closer. I could see the picture now, a large man with a box on a pack, on his back, buttocks raised in a 35mph salute to the tyranny of speed cameras— a one man speed camera protest — and there is nothing they can do but watch.
I raced into the camera’s field of view and braced myself for the flash.
A taxi slowed, veered into the bus lane ahead of me and turned left. I must have only been doing 25mph. Again. I crossed the intersection, flicked another glance over my shoulder, overtook the number 55 bus and there was the peloton — patiently waiting at the traffic lights on Old Street roundabout. I slowed, threaded my way between the cars and took my place at the back of the starting grid.
The lights changed.
We were off. Bicycles first, motorcycles weaving between us and the cars hot on our tails.
We rounded our segment of roundabout, accelerating towards the back of a car, waiting at the red light where City Road feeds onto the circuit. That’s a RED light. I hesitated. The Peloton did not. The lights changed as they hit the stop line.
My hesitation had cost me. Again.
Defeated, I slowed to a more comfortable pace, and finally wound through the back streets of Hoxton to the organic supermarket on Kingsland Road. I got funny looks as I stuffed the bread into the pack under the box on my back.
Further up Kingsland Road I turned homeward onto the canal towpath. It is narrow in places, with ruts and cracks that catch your tyres, so passing pedestrians and cyclists can be hazardous. Darkness was closing in as the bridge approached. I rang my bell as I took the dogleg onto the narrow path under the curving brickwork beneath the road.
A bell rang on the other side.
It was too late to do anything.
“Look out, I’m coming through!” I called, as the bell rang again.
I saw a light at the other end of the underpass and heard the whine of brakes — they had stopped.
It was only then that I noticed the tension in my arms and back. My hunch forwards, ready to take evasive action. I relaxed and lifted my head slightly to take a deep breath.
Suddenly my shoulders jerked to the right — towards the water. There was a scraping sound above and behind me. I wobbled, my front wheel hit a crack and I wobbled again. Instinctively I leaned away from the water. My shoulder met resistance again. There was scraping again. My right handlebar was actually over the water. The thought flashed through my head that this was the reason for all those bike carcasses in the canal.
Then, a moment of clarity…
The box was scraping on the underside of the bridge. The curved brick was too low on the left to take me, my bike, my pack and the box on the pack on my back.
I crouched lower.
The roof got lower.
The path curved towards the left — towards an even lower part of the the bridge. There was no room to stop — if I stopped I would fall in. There was no room to ride, because of the box on the backpack on my back. I crouched lower still — almost touching my chin to the handlebars. A bump in the path nearly sent my teeth through my nose. I reached the corner, I turned, I closed my eyes, ready for the impact.
That was stupid.
I opened them again and wobbled slightly as I passed a woman standing calmly beside her folding bike, about four metres away from the bridge. The blinking front and back lights on her bike appeared to mock me. She turned to look at me. The blinking light on the front of her helmet mocked me further. My voice trembled as I bade her a cheery good evening and continued on my way. Slightly slower. Slightly lower. Slightly shaken.
I stretched my gaze along the darkened canal ahead of me.
Halfway down the canal I saw a gap in the fence between the canal and the housing estate. I climbed through and dragged the bike behind me — the backpack and box wobbling on my back like the bobble on a beanie. I rode my bike through a housing estate in Hackney.
I found Queensbridge Road. I found our street. I found Our Albion.
I put down my pack and went to find my drill.
It was time to fit the letter cage.
Copyright © Damian Clarke, 2019. Original post first published on the Our Albion blog, 29 November 2006.