Thursday, July 22, 2010


Never mind the Tour de France, those guys don't know the half of it. They should ride a tandem. When I die I should have my sweaty ashes sprinkled at the side of the road at that point, about three quarters of the way up the hill to Mount Biggs, where I wanted to throw up.

As a hill it was no big deal. Cars whizzed up it. On a tandem it was a different story. Grinding up that hill always made me wonder why we rode a tandem at all. It was hard work. The wind was "variable" which was Met-speak for "always in your face". We made children laugh, frightened the fetlocks off horses, and could scatter livestock faster than a pack of rogue dogs.

The approach to Mount Biggs was along bush-lined roads that rolled upwards so gently that we hardly noticed. Paddocks on either side were fiercely green and lumpy, and soggy with standing water. Sheep, which never looked up when trucks and motorbikes snarled past, clacked away in panicky mobs through the mud when we swished by. Fences climbed impossibly steep banks, and baby trees planted in neat rows looked like new hair transplants.

There was a hysterical bitser that rushed out from the house with the twee windmill in the garden, and together we bellowed at him: "Get out of it!" It was well-enough trained and hauled itself up with a screech of brakes, but it was scary to be threatened by forty kilos of roaring muscle and teeth.

We coasted through goat alley; more tethered goats cropping the verge than there were fence posts. Swooped down towards the pig farm with its rich, pungent smells. We passed a council truck parked by the roadside. Two men in the cab were smoking and reading the paper, too late for smoko and too early for lunch. One of them shouted, "Hey, she's not pedalling!" Somebody always did.

Motorists barped horns as they twisted past, too fast and too close. The captain - the one on the front of the tandem - dared not take his hands off the handlebars. A truck full of leaking cattle skimmed by, creating a dangerous vacuum and we slipped back so we could pick our way through the smelly mess left on the road. The stoker - that was me, the one on the back sobbing - saw more of the back of the captain's neck than the scenery. "Look at that!" he might shout as we sailed past a paddock full of calves in blue plastic jackets, gambolling like huge puppies. Or perhaps "A-a-a-h!" at a covered heap of tiny, still, frail bodies, the night's bleak casualties waiting for the knacker's ute.

At the foot of Mount Biggs there was a field of Joseph's sheep - many-coloured and haughty, as though aware of their rarity. The captain, with an evil chuckle, announced a serious gear change downwards. The back of his neck was impervious to the blistering looks I directed at it.

The hill started deceptively, but a quarter of the way up the captain's communications degenerated into grunts, with the occasional bark: "Have you stopped pedalling or what?" Halfway up and the tandem moved so slowly that it yawed from side to side as we pushed down on the pedals. Every few metres I looked up at the mop-headed cabbage trees apparently leaning back as the road tipped crazily upwards. We reached the steepest part. The tandem was hardly moving.
Three quarters up the hill I could hear the children shrieking in the playground at the top. I was still pedalling although my contribution was minimal. But as we rounded the bend we gathered up the remaining shreds of will and sinew and sprinted the last twenty metres. The children rushed to the fence, pointed and laughed.

At the top, as we caught our breath and began to glide along the rim of the hills with rolling green slopes falling away beside the road, and the big, big sky all around us - we knew why we rode a tandem and we shouted out: "We knocked the bastard off - again!"

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