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‘The real cyclist cycles to work’. I remember this from a humorous article comparing the ‘amateur’, ‘professional’ and ‘real’ participants in various sports. I don’t cycle to work these days – my job is too far away – but I try to cycle to other events whenever I can. I prefer cycling to get somewhere.
On the night of the big storms, I cycled the six miles from Wokingham to Twyford - an easy ride I have done many times in fair weather and foul. In fact I nearly didn't. Emerging from the relative cool of the house to an airless 28 degrees, I was tempted to opt for the air conditioned comfort of the car, but my resolve prevailed and I set off.
It had been growing abnormally dark for a while and the sky to the south was a most ominous shade of black. Rain was on the way, but that did not worry me. Cycling in summer rain can be very pleasant. A good cape keeps your top dry with plenty of air underneath to keep you cool. Your trouser legs don't get wet if you are wearing shorts.
Within half a mile the gloom was engulfing and the wind appeared. It was a peculiarly wild and restless wind. It gusted and swirled. It blew up the dust in clouds ahead of me. But it was on my back and sped me effortlessly forwards. The first drops of rain fell before I had left the town. A fleeting thought crossed mind that perhaps I could ride ahead of the worst rain and avoid putting on my cape. Wearing what amounts to a large sail can make it hard to stay upright in a rough wind.
Soon the first drops of rain fell. A few more yards, not many more seconds, and the sight of the rain falling ahead as I rounded the bend to the long straight out into open county quickly dismissed my hesitation. I donned my cape quickly - I was already late and did not want more delay.
Thus began one of the most memorable journeys of my life. The rain released the scent locked up in the vegetation by the dry weather. I was riding through a torrent of intense, evocatively familiar aromas that tantalisingly I could not identify before the next one swept on me.
The rain became heavier. The wind tugged at the edge of my cape. The rain swirled this way and that. Occasional gusts hurled what felt like buckets-full into my eyes and it stung. Some even seemed to be carrying the dust the wind had been scouring high before the rain came.
It was clear this was no ordinary storm, but I sped on, pedals pounding and urged by the wind. For a couple of miles I dimly noticed familiar landmarks, half hidden not just by the gloom, but by the sheer volume of water in the air. I saw no living thing, nor human habitation. I was only aware of the storm, and me somewhere inside it.
The lightning had begun far behind me with deep growling thunder. I had notions of out-running the lightning. I did not want to be struck by it. I found myself imagining people's disapproval for being reckless if I were. I noticed I was still going quite fast – probably the adrenaline. I noticed the water streaming off the edge of my helmet. I had never seen that before.
Coming into Hurst, I saw a few cars. I was not worried about those coming from behind. A large yellow cape would be far more visible than anything else in these conditions. I did wonder slightly when I saw a car peering out of a side road, head-lamps glaring impotently into the solid mass of water. Would he see me? I certainly could not do an emergency stop with saturated brakes. I passed him and sped on.
Only a couple of miles now. The lightning was catching me up. All the flashes looked the same - they just lit up the rain in front of me - but now the thunder was nearer, first to the right, then to the left. I was determined to reach my goal before being struck down. More adrenaline; my legs pounded on.
All of a sudden I felt a drag on my wheels and weight against my legs. They had long since been soaked, and I was no longer conscious of the rain on them, but this was more than rain. I realised I was driving through several inches of standing water, hidden because the whole road looked like a sheet of water. As I entered into Twyford there was a violent flash to my left and a couple of seconds later the street lights came on. I had not noticed them before. They must have gone off with the strike.
The church tower stood out ahead of me, just beyond the railway. A colleague tooted as he passed me in his car. I had to think about changing gears. Running down the slope from the bridge towards the town, I kept my brakes on to try to dry them out. There was traffic again. It was still raining hard, but I was back in the real world. I turned into the church yard. I was late, but others were even later.
The storm went on for a while, but now it was just a storm. As I stood in the porch waiting and emptying water out of my shoes, I was elated. It took a long while to wear off. I thought about the ‘real cyclist’. The real cyclist cycles in the rain!
Copyright © 1994 John Harrison
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