Fit in my 40s: phew, a group bike ride that stops often enough for me to catch up
I’ve done enough group cycling in my life to say this with authority: it’s impossible for someone at my level, which is to say competent but not a grafter. Cycling clubs tend to be wonderfully inclusive and will meet you wherever you are (metaphorically speaking; literally, you have to meet them wherever they are, which is usually at the top of a really big hill). Whatever it takes, they’ll wait for you. Consequently, even on a leisure ride, a portion will be spent in profound embarrassment that some poor schmuck has to hang back for you. So you go a bit too fast, and the embarrassment commingles with cardiac discomfort until your face and every other part of you is bright red. The alternative is the complete beginner’s ride, with someone well-meaning explaining how to indicate.
I solved this by hitching my apple wagon to my brother-in-law’s mishmash of a group; so informal that they’re unbranded, so fit that they cycle in France (the hilly bits), but – here’s the kicker – so nature-loving, so whimsical, that they will stop for anything. They’ll stop if they see an unseasonably large toad. They’ll stop for a baby owl, or a field of poppies rolling across the eyeline like a red rash. I, too, would like to stop for these things, but it’s a chance for me to catch up, which I grab with both hands.
We were taking a circular route in Kent, starting at Shoreham station, going through Lullingstone and Eynsford. Unrelated to any fitness deficit, I am unable to cycle too closely to anyone’s back wheel. I just find it too spooky, imagining what would happen if they braked suddenly. There’s no reason why they should, it’s just that I don’t trust myself to maintain a steady pace, so why would I trust anyone else? This makes me as good as useless as a team player; that’s half the point, that you cycle very close so one person soaks up the headwind, then swap over. It’s a physics hack, and I am too cowardly to make use of it.
Fortunately, when you’re with a bunch of people who will stop at a commemorative fountain for Edward VII’s coronation because they like the pretty tiles, it doesn’t matter whether you’re lagging behind, and nobody seemed to care how little I’d helped on the headwind. The only problem is, I’m more tired than everyone else, but that’s fine, I don’t need to stop. I don’t care about tiles.
Lullingstone country park is pretty famous, by the standards of Darent Valley; the slopes are shallow, the botany is glorious, and so long as nobody makes you go to a Roman villa – which of course nobody did, it’s a bike ride – you’re golden.
But I also need to be honest with myself about what’s occurring, here: this is not a group cycle in the classic sense, forging forth together on a mission for speed and self-betterment. This is more like a touring cycle from the early trade union movement, where the point isn’t the sport, it’s the freedom, and the nascent political awakening, and the sandwiches. Which is absolutely fine.
What I learned
If you have time, detour to Tom Hart Dyke’s world garden at Lullingstone Castle – it’s like Kew on amphetamines.