Theft and the Tragic Cycle

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The thing about coincidences is that they do tend to happen, if only by coincidence. Take my daughter’s bike for example; as somebody did the other day.

In the great pantheon of stealing, bike theft comes in at a very low ranking.

If Aristotle was to pronounce upon it, he would state that bikes in themselves cannot be seen as tragic. Bikes are not high status and therefore do not deserve to be invested with tragic qualities. The theft of a bike is the taking of a shell from the seashore.

Shakespeare, on the other hand, may have been a secret cyclist, if they had had them in his day. He could have written a play about Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France wins and his tragic flaw. A working title could have been, Measure for Measure in Plastic Bags. Other great writers may have also wanted to add to the genre with EM Forster and his Froome With A View, Alan Silitoe and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning Ride, and Robert Pirsig’s, Men and The Art of Road Bike Maintenance. How the world would have spun on its axle.

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And this is where coincidence rears its expected head. As well as being a coincidence that these great writers of our shared cultural past did not write one word on the travails of  turning the wheels (or having them stolen), it was a coincidence that on the morning of the bike theft that my wife and I deleted photographs of the bike in question from my iPhone. They had been there in order to sell it. It didn’t sell, but we don’t have to worry about that now – do we?

One last addition to the growing list of Tour de Force literature could well have been Lord of the Big Ring by a bloke called Tolkien.

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I do hope that bike burglar meets his Mordor.

Win At All Costs! Or Not…

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Eugene Christophe Tour de France

I always associate the Tour de France with colour. Firstly, there are the colourful fields of sunflowers that have come to symbolise this yearly adventure and then there are the team kits. In 1919, just after the slaughter of the Great War, the Tour set about its pilgrimage around the departments of France. As money was in short supply and industry had not yet recovered from the black and white of conflict, dyes, ironically, were not in abundance. So, the decision was made to wear grey. The problem here was that if everyone looked the same, how could anybody identify the race leader as the peloton flashed past? The answer was to kit the leader out in a different coloured shirt, yellow.

It was the Frenchman, Eugene Christophe who was presented with the first ever maillot jaune after he had led the race for several stages with only five to go. Some in the watching crowd thought this rather amusing as the poor bicyclist looked like a canary so, they laughed. Christophe was non-too impressed. This, after all, was his renaissance as he had been denied victory in the 1913 race through an unfortunate series of events. Christophe had taken the lead from Odile Defraye of Belgium and was building a commanding overall lead when he was hit by a stray motorcar. Remember that this was 1913.

Anyway, the upshot of this was that Christophe was unhurt, but his front fork had been snapped in two. As many cyclists appreciate, bodies can heal themselves but bikes cannot. I’ve seen plenty of cyclists take a tumble, tear off skin, splinter bones, and bleed, but the first thing many of them do is to check that their bike is alright. Cyclists are a selfless sect.

Poor old Christophe’s race was run, but he was accepting non of it. Instead of throwing in the towel, he threw his injured bike onto his back and ran eight-and-a-half to the next village, where he found a forge. Like many of his ilk, he was a skilled mechanic and was able to forge a new fork. He ought to have received a jersey just for that! However, he made the mistake of asking a seven-year-old boy to work the bellows that fed the flames. Never play with flames in the Tour de France unless you wish to be caught and punished (eventually…ask Lance Armstrong).  As a result of his ingenuity, Christophe was penalised 10-minutes for using outside assistance.

You would think that this story deserved a happy ending, but it didn’t get one. In the 1919 race he broke his forks and came third. Again, in 1922, he was in the top three contending the race when…guess what? Yup, the bloody fork snapped again. It would appear that no matter how hard you try, no mater how good you are, or how unlucky you have been, sometimes destiny does not smile on you.

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Going nowhere on a tragic cycle…

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The problem with tragedy is that it never has a happy ending.

Tragedy ends in death.

It starts with a bad decision, leads on to disgrace and downfall, scrapes you through a period of suffering that appears never likely to end before there is a realisation, ‘Fuck, that’s what I did wrong’ or, ‘Fuck, I still don’t know what I did wrong.’ Regardless of self-awareness or not, the tragic circle wants to play itself out.

You, if you be the tragic hero, have been brought low for a reason: hubris, peripeteia, anagnorisis, hamartia, or just the fact that the unknown gods are wanting to have a bit of fun with your oh-so-mortal concerns, once it happens, you are doomed.

And then you die.

Not fair, but then apart from democracy what did the Greeks ever do for fairness? As far as I can see, they spent their time in white sheets, bestriding the known world, creating stories that spoke of our eventual doom, admiring each others’ butts and keeping their wives in a state of servitude that made slavery look humanitarian. Deeply flawed themselves, the enlisted a guy called Aristotle to run out a series of rules that would govern the purity of tragedy. It wasn’t the Bee Gees but it did stay at number one for an awful long time.

So, Mr Morbid philosopher, why is it that you are so interested with me at this moment in time?

Reminders of tragedy surround me. I walk into a school or college and Macbeth springs out. Willy Loman makes a dramatic entrance or Tess Durbeyfield ambles along. And at the back of all this is me, the witless teacher who is being employed to stand in front of groups of young people and explain the importance of the tragic. Some deep irony, I am thinking.

Now, if what Aristotle says is to be believed, there is no way out for me; I’m as good as a gonna already. What’s the point?

The point is that I have to earn my right to be released into the dark embrace of an even darker infinity of complete darkness. Why struggle when the fisherman of fate has got you, hook, line and sinker, and he’s pulling you from the waters of Styx by your very own testicles. What a ball-ache? No wonder we are leaving the Common Agricultural Policy – it’s got Greek written all over it! Tragic.

So, back to me and my little problem with being trapped in the role of a tragic character.

I am not a hero, never wanted to be, not even when I had a Jesus complex. I have not committed any great error of judgement, unless one thinks that going into the teaching profession was significantly grave to determine that I should be staked out on the bare rock of Mount Olympus in order to have my eyes eaten out and my liver exhumed (only for it to be played out again at the next day’s matinee showing).

Yet here I am, standing at the foot of some great precipice, staring up at dark clouds that are threatening to dump their even darker load of shit upon me just for the sake of theatrical rules. It is simply not fair.

I am an ordinary man. I have had moments (usually sleep or drug induced) when I may have thought otherwise, but after much self-evaluation and expert analysis, I can sadly say that I am normal. So, why, why, why am I being employed as a plaything of the Gods?

And what makes it ever so galling is that these bloody gods are not my gods or anyone else’s gods as they have been bloody well dead for centuries. It’s like being stalked by a ghost of somebody who was, in life, and agnostic a non believer, a sceptic. You don’t bloody exist, this tragic wheel on which I have been tethered does not exist, these coincidences of literature that my students are studying do not exist in the way that a non-existent Fate would have them exist. But when I look at my arms, I realise that the reason that I can’t move them is that they are tied to some forever turning wheel that will not let me get off unless I completely check-out.

Reminder to self: what strategies can I use to get out of tragic proceedings?                    

 

The Wheel Of Fortune

When Cyclists Made Up an Entire Political Bloc

The League of American Wheelmen was originally intended to spread bicycle appreciation. The 1896 presidential election changed all that.

 

Today, a love of bicycles might imply an obsession with exercise or a hipster lifestyle, but back in the day wheels could tell you how someone was likely to vote. Historian Michael Taylor describes the nineteenth-century “bicycle bloc,” a political faction made up of men on bikes.

During the 1890s, bicycle ridership boomed in the United States. Thanks in part to tweaks in bicycle design, everyone seemed to be falling in love with bikes. Some worried that bicycles constituted a moral peril; most went ahead and coveted a two-wheeled conveyance anyway. But for one group of American men, cycling wasn’t just a fun pastime. Thanks to savvy wrangling by the Republican party, bicycles turned into a political statement.

It made sense for the GOP to appeal to cyclists, Taylor notes. The Democrats had begun a whistle-stop tour the likes of which had never been seen before, and Republican strategists looking to elect William McKinley had to find a way to fight back. The GOP sought ways to address “the vast geographic expanse of the American interior, widespread economic and psychological depression, and not least of all, the Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan.”

Republicans found a new strategy in an unexpected place. The League of American Wheelmen (LAW), a cycling organization founded in 1880, was originally intended to spread bicycle appreciation. In 1896 it had over 70,000 members. Members pressured politicians for bike-friendly laws, and the nonpartisan group quickly turned into what Taylor calls “a large body of swing voters who were willing to play a game of tit-for-tat.” LAW members were willing to trade their votes for pro-cycling laws, and soon they were being courted by members of both parties.

 

Indiana Magazine of History, Vol. 104, No. 3 (SEPTEMBER 2008), pp. 213-240
Indiana University Press

The Summer Of 76…

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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…”

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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.

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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.

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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… 

 

The Importance Of Night

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Almost twenty-minutes past three and I am sittng here in the darkness, without my glasses, whilst my wife and daughters sleep upstairs.

I woke thinking.

Now someway into my veritable older years, though the boy inside me queries this, I have those nocturnal meanderings that lead to a gnawingly inward frustration.

It’s over two-years since I finally wobbled beyond wise words. My ‘burnout’ was a forest fire that destroyed everything that I had come to depend upon in my daily existence and spiritual certainty. Even then, I still had a belief in the whole business of God.

I was a character in some cosmic saga and my lines were being written in a sympathetic ‘it will all work out in the final chapters’ manner. It was a nice thought, but it was a thought that gently drowned me into inactivity. Why should I bother to make the hard decisions when they had possibly already been made for me?

It takes many deaths before we awaken to the possibility of our own.   

I think the fifties decade is the one that begins to place the Grim Reaper before us on an ever more frequent basis. People die. It’s not just people we vaguely know or celebrities we have grown up with. No, those now dying are our friends and our family. At this point, life stops being endless, ceases to be something that will happen tomorrow, and starts becoming a little urgent.

We have just returned from holiday in the past week and yesterday I was talking to my wife and commented on how full ‘holiday days’ are compared to non ‘holiday days’.

We were camping in France and we based our stay around the beautiful Lake Annecy. Our camping was a mixture of hard and soft camping with ten days being spent in mobile homes whilst the other eight was real camping in tents. We had our bikes (five people in my immediate clan) and the car was full to bursting with everything that we were to need and lots of things that we had forgotten that we would need. But we were on holiday and that meant that the days were ours and needed the respect that they deserved. So, instead of just letting them drift by, we filled them full of ourselves. Cycling, walking, talking, cooking, meeting, talking some more, seeing, site-seeing, BEING! We did it all.

Like most of our best holidays, the weeks were book-ended by potentially disastrous events. The car broke down, badly, and or final dash for the ferry saw us driving through the most torrential of storms which demanded my wife and daughters’ abject fear and my 1000 percent concentration. We survived both. When we got home we were well and truly knackered, but we had done it; we had filled the days of our holidays with meaning. We ‘did’ rather than procrastinate. It made sense. Back home the doing seems to get pushed to one side for that great big empty balloon of a thing called ‘everyday life’. And that is what we genrally do (or don’t).

Have you ever been to a funeral and said to yourself, “This is too important to waste”, then gone straight back to wasting it the next day and the day after that and the one after that…infinitum? It’s the holiday thing. We have a brief epiphany, a break from the everyday, a glimpse of what could be, then the blinds come down and we are back in the darkness of the mundane.

The thing with the mundane, the everyday, the normal world, is that it’s not taxing. It may be ultimately a stealth-tax but we don’t immediately feel it. We are not left exhausted by our attempts to seize the day and don’t feel the need to stuff all of our energies into a few weeks that will come to an end.  Unlike life, holidays are finite. And that is ‘rub’. Life does end. It’s a holiday that starts with a breakdown and finishes with a dramatic storm that threatens to derail everybody’s safe passage.

So after those fine words, I am still confused as to what my true holiday should contain.  

I have a decision to make in the next few days.

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I can’t put it off. The clock is ticking.