Sunday, 27 February 2011

Radford and I

I usually wake just before the alarm goes off. I'll look over at the digital clock - 4.16, 4.17 - and close my eyes, savouring the next couple of minutes before the weekday morning's finely-tuned performance starts again. Beeping breaks the silence at 4.20am. I switch the alarm off, kiss Tam goodbye and get straight up, immediately escaping any temptation to turn over or snooze. I hobble into the bathroom - sore feet, stiff back, injury playing up - wash and brush my teeth. Down the stairs, into the kitchen. My clothes are in a pile by the cooker. They go on while the kettle's boiling. Two spoonfuls of coffee, two spoonfuls of sugar and a glug of milk go in the aluminium drinks bottle, before I top it up with the hot water. Jacket on, radio earphones in, helmet on, headtorch on, feet into cleated shoes. Grab my bottle and out the door. As I open the garage the 4.30 news report is starting on 5Live. Ten minutes from waking up to setting off. Another journey has begun.

Most of my closest friendships have followed a similar pattern. We'll meet, get to know each other and have adventures together. Eventually, for whatever reasons, we'll go our own ways. I'm useless at keeping in touch constantly - I don't particularly like talking on the phone, don't want to get too involved with Facebook, find texting a real chore. Moreover, I don't feel the need to keep in touch constantly. I'll see some of my closest friends only now and again. In some cases, years could have passed, but when we get together again, it's just the same as always. That, I guess, is the way it goes with true friends. That's certainly the way it goes with Radford and I.

There's no streetlights in the village. I clip into the pedals, click through to an easy gear and spin lazily down the slope, up through the tunnel and onto the main road at the top of Snape Hill. There's a slight headwind, but this first mile to the windmill is downhill and the going is good. In no time at all, I'm in Alford.

Our paths crossed in April 1999. The plans for my trans-Australia bike trip were coming together, and after working hard through the winter, I had saved enough money to purchase a bike. I'd last owned one over ten years before - a Haro Freestyler BMX that I'd bought whilst at university. I never got round to learning many tricks, and being so uncomfortable to ride over any long distances, I'd flogged it to a guy I worked with one summer at an amusement arcade.

The big new bike shop in town - Derek's - had just opened, but I headed to Ward's on High Street. It was an old shop and its business had obviously been affected by the new entrant to the market. However, in spite of its slightly run-down appearance, I'd heard it had a good range of bikes in stock. The clincher for me was the owner. Tom was well-known in the area and even in his 70's, I'd still see him out riding in the evenings and weekends. He obviously loved cycling - he'd be the right man to buy a bike from.

A bell rung as I opened the front door one afternoon. An elderly man, dressed in blue work overalls, was hunched over a key-cutting machine in the corner.
'Alright lad?' he said, looking up, 'Anything I can do for you?'
'Yeah,' I replied, 'I'm after a bike.'
'A bike, eh? You've come to the right place then.'
'I know,' I answered, feeling a little foolish.
'What's it for?' he went on.
'I'm biking across Australia,' I said.
'On-road or off-road?' he questioned, totally unimpressed.
'On the road,' I replied, 'Highway One from Sydney to Perth.'
'That one in the window'll do you,' he said and went back to finish cutting the key.

I couldn't see it from the inside of the shop, so I went back outside and looked in through the front window. A silver hybrid / mountain bike stood proudly on a stand. It looked a bit cheap to be honest. I couldn't see the make, and the gears were grip-shift. They might have been cutting edge on a Raleigh Grifter, but I'd recently read in a cycling magazine that it was best to steer clear.

I went back in.
'Well?' said Tom.
'Err, yeah,' I started, 'I was thinking more of something a bit more expensive. I'm doing this ride by myself - I need a good bike. I've got £1000 to spend.'
He took his glasses off and took a sip of tea from an old mug. 'Listen, lad. You're not riding in the Tour De France. That bike will do the job - you have my word on that. It's well-built, the parts are a fair spec and it'll cost you a couple of hundred quid. Of course, if you want to waste your money, I can show you a couple of bikes upstairs.

I was taken aback by his honesty. It didn't take long to make up my mind. I paid for the bike and arranged to come back in a couple of days. He'd make sure the frame size was right and help me set it up. In the meantime, he said, he'd give it a thorough going-over - after all, he'd given me his word that it wouldn't let me down. As I turned to leave the shop, he called out to me, 'Should be a smashing trip that, lad - something I'd like to do before I get too old. I'm glad you decided to come here.'
'Me too,' I replied, 'I'll see you soon.'

Outside the shop, I looked back into the front window. My bike stood proudly on a stand. Plain silver frame, grip-shift gears ( I'd always wanted a Raleigh Grifter as a kid, but my mum could never afford one ). And a small badge on the front tube - a crest with two words below it - 'Radford England.'

Despite the ungodly hour, my mind's alive by the time I reach the town centre. Past the chip shop. The club's fastest runner works there. I laugh out loud as I remember a story he told me at Saturday night's party. Past the lane where my fell-running comrade lives. He's in the Lakes this week and I think of the long days in the hills we'll enjoy later in the year. Past the Fire Station. Memories of that fraught night in 2002 when twenty grand in uninsured stock went up in smoke as our shop unit burnt to the ground. The highs and lows of life flick through my thoughts as I pedal out on the Willoughby Road and into the darkness beyond.

I picked up Radford a couple of days later. There was a new sticker on the frame - large, black and circular, it read 'Serviced by Ward's of Skegness.' I rode it back to my chalet at Anderby Creek and used in every day for the next seven months. I'd pop into the shop every couple of weeks for a chat. We'd talk about great rides in Lincolnshire, make lists of essential tools I might need for the trip. Tom would help me fit racks, recommend the most robust panniers and steer me through the trickier bits of cycle maintenance. My confidence in my ability to complete the trip grew over the months, and with excitement rising, the day of my flight neared. There was a sadness as I left the shop for the last time. Tom had brought us together, but from now on it would be down to just Radford and I.

Turning the bend into Willoughby village, I reach down and grab my drinks bottle. The coffee's at a drinkable temperature. I swig half of it down - can't beat that first cuppa of the day - and stick the bottle back in the holder. No-one's around to see me ride the red light near the Primary School. The Gunby road takes me out of Willoughby and gives me my unofficial time check. If the 5 o'clock news bulletin starts by the time I reach the 'Sloothby' signpost, I'm going too slowly. If I can reach the white house on the first corner, I'm about on track. If I can reach the new house on the second bend, I'm flying. Another thought flicks through my mind at this point. This new house was built on the site of a previous one that burnt down. Whether it was this event that caused its owner to lose his way, I don't know, but weeks later, after failing to murder a long-time friend, he successfully blew his head off with a shotgun. What if.... I think every morning.... what if I come round this corner and come face-to-face with The Headless Gunman's ghost? 

Our adventure together was amazing. True to Tom's word, Radford was more than fit for the job. I suffered only a single puncture in the entire trip and had no mechanical glitches at all. On our endless days together I'd plan other crazy schemes we could attempt in the future. We were a great team, but the relationship was to turn sour. It's a cliche that once a woman comes into your life, it's your friends that go out the window first. But, in this case, it was true. After proposing to Tammy at the end of the ride, my plans with Radford didn't seem as important any more. On returning to the UK, I had a new career to build, a wedding to plan, a house to buy - I simply didn't have time for riding a bike! Radford moved from his indoors spot under the hall-way stairs to the back of the garage. After spending a couple of lonely years in there, a steady accumulation of family junk lead to the ultimate betrayal of our once precious friendship. There was no room for Radford in the garage any longer - from now on, he'd be stored, unused and unloved in the brick coal-house at the bottom of the garden.

I take a second drink of coffee as I approach Welton. I'm in the mizzle now - the wintry cocktail of mist and rain that rebounds the light from my headtorch and makes it almost impossible, in the darkness, to see the edges of the road. Despite the thick gloves and inners, my fingers are frozen. I give each hand a shake and buckle down for the long climb to Welton Top. My quads are suffering as I reach the summit, but I've a lengthy freewheel into Gunby Roundabout in which to recover. The roundabout itself is a nightmare. A couple of times over the last few weeks, I've almost been run down. Commuting drivers obviously don't look right at 5.15 in the morning. At least not to look for a cyclist.

When the next bike trip came round in 2006, Radford didn't even get a look in. I'd planned a 12 day, 1300 mile ride between the cardinal points of the British mainland - Dunnet Head (north) to Ardnamuchan Point (west) to Ness Point (east) to Lizard Point (south). I'd travel super-light, taking only a small backpack containing some cash, a couple of inner tubes, a multi-tool, one change of clothes and a pair of flip-flops. I'd cover more than 100 miles each day and stay overnight at pre-booked B and B's. I'd need a road bike - lightweight frame, skinny wheels, indexed gears - not the old bike in the coal shed. I didn't bother with Ward's of Skegness - I could get a much better deal off the internet. When my BH mean-machine arrived by courier, I was blown away - it looked spectacular, weighed almost nothing. However, training miles were awkward - I'd a suspicion that the frame was slightly too small - I couldn't get a comfortable riding position no matter what tweaks I made to the set-up. Buying from the shop might have been the wisest choice after all.

The first day of the trip was a disaster. In the process of attaching the quick-release front wheel at John O'Groats, the spindle snapped. Two hours later, after a trip along the coast to Thurso to buy the necessary part, I eventually set off. I bade farewell to Tammy as she started the long drive back to Lincolnshire. The weather, breezy at dawn, had deteriorated rapidly. By the time I was five miles from Dunnet Head, it was blowing a gale and raining incessantly. Cue first puncture. I took it in my stride, replacing the tube with a new one. Cue second puncture. Same again. As I rode towards Wick into the oncoming gale, I cursed my bad luck. Cue third puncture. This was more serious. I'd no more good tubes - I'd have to patch one if I was to continue. I found a modicum of shelter on the desolate landscape and tried, in vain, to keep a tube dry while I fixed it. An hour later - cold, shivering, wet-through - I stopped trying. I rang Tammy, now at Inverness, and begged her to turn around and pick me up. Wisely, she refused, telling me it was a rash decision that I'd live to regret. I hung up and started pushing the bike along the road-side. Wick was 10 miles, two and a half hours away. The BH had let me down. I thought of Radford, abandoned in the coal shed and felt like crying.

I follow the Lincoln road off the roundabout and then turn left, heading past the Gunby Hall Estate in the direction of Firsby. Before long, I'm on the long straight bordering RAF Spilsby. The following wind enables me to change up the gears. I'm moving now. The mist has cleared and I can hear birdsong behind 'Morning Reports'. The journey's almost done.

The Cardinal Points Trip could only get better. By the time I'd reached Land's End, any longing to be reunited with Radford had been forgotten.

Over the next four years, my running became more serious again. As a firm believer in specificity, cycling was strictly off limits. There was little evidence to show that cycling improved running performance, so I stuck to running. However, over Christmas, things started going awry. A niggle turned into a 'need a couple of days off' injury. The injury deteriorated into 'something's definitely not quite right'. A visit to my GP confirmed my fears - I would need surgery - nothing major but enough to do me in for a few months. To maintain my fitness, maybe cycling to work and back each day - 30 miles - might be the answer. I weighed up the pro's and cons. Early, early starts and the possibilty of early morning punctures on the road bike? It wouldn't work. 'But what about that old bike in the coal shed?' Tammy said.

Radford was buried beneath a mini-trampoline, a kid's scooter and seven huge rolls of loft insulation. I pulled him out, polished him up and shod him with new tyres and tubes. My old best friend was back.

'Wake up to Money' starts as I struggle up the last hill into Spilsby. Time to get my head into work mode. It's 5.40 as I open the gate to the factory yard and the printing lads'll be arriving soon. I push the bike to the unit's front door, buoyed by the buzz of the morning's ride. I turn off it's lights and lean it up against the wall. Never lets me down I think.

If every life is a pile of good things and bad things, Radford certainly belongs in the good pile. We're alike now in so many ways. Whilst not built for speed, we can both plod on forever. We may both need a little patching up from time to time, and our best days are probably behind us now. But there's one thing I'm sure of - I'm definitely looking forward to our days in front.

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