For England and my memories, that was the hottest summer that I can remember. It remains tall as standpipes gushing fountains of memories into buckets and bowls.
The whole of the street would meet every morning and evening to quench their needs. The clear stuff was rationed to an hour during each of these times, but the queue chatted as if there was nothing odd about their gathering. They were collecting aqua vitae while the time ticked by.
That summer gave us the last blaze of our younger youth. My mates and I had reached the giddy heights of fourteen-years old. We were hungry for the attentions of the opposite sex, but the opposite sex was aware of this and stayed well away. As the eternal sunshine had driven off all but he continual swarms of ladybirds (rumour had it that they had become carnivores and were attacking humans rather than plants), we took to cycling.
Eddy Merckx was the then all-conquering cyclist from Belgium and he was threatening to win the Tour de France to add to his five previous titles. Eddy, like us, suffered from getting too sore in the saddle, so he pulled out of the race that year. We were at the age when heroes were to be followed and we all became Merckx disciples. Our day-long rides would always end with a bunch-sprint of sorts and each of us would run the commentary of,
“And Merckx, the unbeatable Belgium, takes the lead. The French are not happy (appy), but there he goes…”
Sometimes there would be a touch of wheels, a scream of metal, and the inevitable grunts of despair as bikes would collide and riders would be off-loaded. Tarmac rash was common for us, but in 1976 the heat had worked itself upon the roads and had delivered melted and more forgiving surfaces for us to scrape across. Blood came freely yet it was blood that was the mark of sportsmen (boys) and that was a badge worth wearing.
As the summer wore on and our encounters with females became at thing of ancient-myth, our rides started to take on a more serious aspect. We cycled further, climbed bigger hills, raced faster. There was a hierarchy emerging and as the weeks went by a few of our group began to fall off the pace whilst finding other distractions to relieve their interests. Family holidays were kicking in for a number of my friends and I secretly envied them for the luxury of being able to go to places that were so very different from our homes. One of our number went to France, another to Mallorca, and another to Cornwall. My family didn’t take holidays so I leant my time to the task of turning myself into a future Tour winner.
In the other world, Bjorn Borg won the Wimbledon Men’s for the first time whilst Chris Evert won the Women’s. I immediately took up the two-handed style that Borg had used so effectively and started to grow my hair a little. We all, to a man and boy, fancied Chris Evert which had a negative affect upon our rapidly declining self-esteem. Never, ever would Chris Evert fancy us, so we kept on cycling (those that were not on holiday).
My friendship group was a rather wondrous collection of almost-fits. We were what would have been Grammar-school boys if Grammars had not been phased out. Instead, we all attended the local comprehensive and managed to muddle our way through without serious consequences to our lives or our learning. Being bright boys, we thought that that was enough. O Levels would later remind us of the need to work hard at our studies, but that was still in the future.
The gang was:
Col: excellent sportsman and girl-magnate and marksman;
Spec: excellent mate and one that only wore spectacles for about three months when he was 6;
Haguey: an excellent teller of all-tales and developer of odd songs (chew a catty-chew, yeh);
Danny: an excellent bow-in who joined our band even though he went to a Catholic school;
Biggy: an excellent tall kid who had a dry comedian’s delivery;
Woody: an excellent sportsman and holder of an excellent head of ginger hair;
Picky: an excellent eccentric whose intelligence could not be ignored whilst some of his odd behaviour had to be;
Evansy: a younger me.
If Stephen King had known us back then, he would have modelled his various Losers’ Gangs on us. We were nice kids who were neither bullies nor victims, scruffs nor toffs, cool nor uncool. As such, we were material for the dark master to build his stories upon. Amongst the things that we didn’t do that summer was to find a body in the woods, but our treks into the countryside were of the same epic quality as one of those adventures.
I remember one particular incident with a dog in the nearby countryside when Danny, Haguey and Picky were on the ride. I was past the driveway of an isolated house first. I had descended at speed and was then on the upward run of the dip. From out of the pages of a horror tale came this vicious, snarling mutt whose intention was to chase, bite, an impede any passing cyclists. At that moment, I was Merckx leading the pack and I was unaware of the incident behind until I stopped at the sound of crashing bikes.
Bikes were heavier in those days which helped them to hurt more when you fell off them and they fell onto and into you. Collisions were more serious as nobody wore helmets. It would seem that most young people’s heads were already thick enough to absorb any impact. On the subject of bikes, people mainly rode Raleighs with the posher ones riding Carltons. I had a Raleigh Nimrod, Danny had a BSA (short for Birmingham Small Arms- gun metal), Picky had a Dawes (I think) and Rob had a Carlton as his dad was a Town and Country Planner and his mum was our History teacher. So, when I heard this sudden volley of barking, snapshot swearing, and then metal on metal, skin on road, more snapshot swearing, I realised that something was not right.
The dog continued to bark, even after some straightforward instructions to go forth and multiply, but the rest of the world was silent apart from the rather calming sound of freely-spinning wheels that were now not in contact with the earth…