The Bike and Other Stories
Cycling adventures around London, New York City, and Berlin.
Looking For Jens ☍
- 2020-09-26 00:40:33+02:00
It was while out on one of these cold rides that I got to musing first about pedalling, and then second, about what had been the coldest ride of the year, possibly the decade. Possibly ever?
Pedalling was pretty simple really. On my favourite sections of the Krone, the undulating but slightly resisting mostly uphill section coming back just where those two holes are before the speedy bit into Huttenweg I sort of experienced pedalling differently. Instead of pushing up and down I was suddenly turning, gurning maybe, heavy weights around and around and around, a heavy push, a follow through to get around the peak apex... it lasted a couple of minutes and then I couldn't hold it anymore and reverted to a more normal (for me) melange of thrust and follow through and small pull maybe and then spin and then change up a gear again and push and groan at a slower rotation... actually I can look smooth, elegant even, but only when not trying.
I was sweating, but this was a cold day, when the wind bites your face and brittle tree twigs look like they'd slash your board like cheeks open with a glance but to go home you have to do this anyway.
And anyway, it's not as cold as that night ride to Jens. That night when Jens had decided on his madcap scheme to “Everest,” Teufelsberg which meant some hundreds or even thousands was it, summits of Berlin's highest climb, the one that was built by the Trümmerfrauen after the war and features the remnants of a Cold War spy station at the top. So Jens was doing this and we were all invited, and that includes me, to accompany him.
I couldn't go during the day, although I saw some coverage of the event, you know, interview, lone rider against a stark copse of trees background and so forth, and resolved I would go that night and climb a bit with him. Family accepted it, Vincent was away or something, Sascha had to work or something. I was alone, underdressed maybe (but two jackets?) and doing what I never do: setting out after nightfall. In winter and the temperature dropping fast.
By the time I rounded Auerbach, by the S Bahn the road was starting to ice in patches and I was slowing down, nervous, but a guy came by who seemed to know how to ride these streets in these conditions – and whose back light was busted. I tagged on, lending my light as I followed his line through the suddenly unfamiliar corners and had him down as going to the same place as I. Once the road opened I went alongside and mentioned the light and we chatted a bit until he turned, apparently not interested in the antics of one crazy Jens on a seriously frozen night after all.
My tires hissed through the crystallised specks of moisture on the asphalt, some corners already hardening over. Time to be careful. I was in the last stretch down to the base of the climb where I could expect to find our hero Everesting to raise money for charity. I'd do my bit too! It was pitch black as I left the last street light behind, and almost immediately saw a gaggle of lights in a car park to the right, too short a distance to be the climb proper. I kept going, pausing only to adjust the front light from flashing to still so that my eyes could begin to adjust to the lack of light, and although nervous figured to soon arrive at some base camp of sorts.
I didn't. I was down at the gate to the eco farm, way too far. That lit up area must have been it. Nothing else to do but turn the bike and head north again. One could easily disappear here. One fall on the ice and a broken limb, stuck there inert, unconscious maybe – how long would you last in what was now an extreme freeze. And I was already cold because I was scared to move fast on this quick freezing road. And what if there were those far tougher than I, and more criminally minded, who fancied a bike (all lit up in an otherwise pitch black) and a wallet to possess? A police car came slowly into view, headlights wandering the road, I thought he would stop and interview me about what are you up to so crazy in this freezing night, oh Englander. Yes, mad dogs and Englishmen in the hard evening moon looking for imagined cycle events – but wait, slow now, the light gaggle was there again and clearly, actually, this was the base area for this ride. I went over and joined a scraggly crowd of adequately dressed individuals and enquired about the Jens. Oh yes he is there, will descend soon. Minutes passed, that felt like hours and then I overheard oh he's gone home for a break but he should be here soon. I waited on, chatted a little, was I wearing enough asked one fellow who purported to be a cycling naif. Yes was my reply, if I am moving but this stationary stuff.... just then there was a loud clatter by the ingress to the area we stood – a cargo bike over in the ice, the rider groaning on the tarmac. A few of us hastened, hesitantly he rose, we straightened his bike, he joined us, unhurt, but I was seriously cold by then, starting to tremor inside. Enough was enough, I would have to go without greeting the big man this time, as I needed to rescue myself and get home over these very obviously worsening conditions. I knew there was a coffee shop at the top of this road, that might save me, even enable a return to the event, although inwardly I felt done, and knew a hard return home awaited.
Bike dumped outside by the cafe window, inside I gulped as best as I could scalding hot chocolate and attempted to warm from the centre out. This was not frozen outer reaches in a wind, this was serious deep freeze. There was no way I was going back to that mountain, this evening, in fact I wondered if I was getting home on a bike at all, but there seemed to be no other realistic way. Whatever I did I was frozen, surely it was best to be moving? I'd had enough, more cocoa and I'd need to pee on the way; it was time to be moving. Back down through the Siedlung, past the stadium, shuddering, tires hissing, legs seeking to turn, eyes alert to the street light sparks and blinding beam headlights of cars. I opted to ride through the station underpass, instead of the usual extra 500 metres, barely moving, freewheeling through in the hope of some shelter such as there is not from this kind of sheer cold, Even here a couple of station employees admonished me, “better next time walk,” to add to my misery, wearily I agreed “next time,” and waved as I passed avoiding discussion. Once emerged into the city side I found the street not so icy. There'd been a real drop of temperature in the forest compared to the city area this night. I got home, and after a long hot shower sat for a long long time.
- 2020-09-18 23:04:47+02:00
The moment came, and despite the lowering sky and near frigid temperature I went for it. Mysteriously my back tire was flat, but not so mysteriously as I knew that the valve was dodgy, and so re inflated the tube and it held. My phone was charged but then I remembered I was out of credit. A quick test confirmed this: I could receive calls but not place them. No taxi home today then whatever happened. I could call an ambulance though. Hmm. I had two tubes with me, although did not want to face a road side change in this weather. If I left in a hurry maybe I'd meet Sascha who'd left earlier coming back and join him for a few k. Maybe. About an hour of daylight proper left.
The wind was in my teeth as I worked, out the saddle, then in a tuck attempted aerodynamic shape, but none of it made the journey easier. The sky was lower and was that spitting snow I was feeling? Pushed on, surely if I hustled I'd find Sascha or at least get down to Schwani, but the weather increased and so did a certain nervousness. A couple of potential wrongs are fine, but here presented four.
Potential flat tire owing to not having changed the back tube before leaving. Imminent darkness.
Unable to call home or a taxi (well, that wouldn't have been a factor decades back but times change). Potential weather thickening, quickening. First and fourth especially, offered a depressing combination if such was evoked, as two advanced inexorably.
After about 30 minutes I called it off, and reversed for home, as fast as I reasonably could do so. Win some, lose some, get to ride another day. Saw no sign of Sascha, presumably safe and warm recovering after nifty moments on the hills. Snow attempted to skim my face, the road was hissing damp. Car lights glistened. Decorations were up on the Ku-damm, this first Sunday in Advent.
8th and Broadway (Bikes Borrowed and Stolen)☍
- 2020-09-07 23:22:31+02:00
“But I thought you were only going round the lake?”
Yes, the lake. The mysterious reservoir of Chew Magna, a five mile circuit of mist shrouded, low cloud engulfed spirit house. The taken by fiat ride of the village boys, during the pause before dinner to build an appetite or skip homework in the name of fitness.
Also the first miles of a journey to Weston, or in an alternative direction, Bristol.
I was not a village boy, though I longed to be.
Like the village boys I had gone to Weston that way once, past the northern half of the lake. To meet friends and friends of friends and hang out at the Technical college and pretend I was and aspire to be a student there. To be anything other than the South London escapee who was all too soon to be returned to that environment where he did not wish to be.
When my turn came I too slipped past the lake to West Harptree and carried on down the wavy ribbon road that drove through the flat fields, hinter lands and ribbon villages that adorned the path to college.
This next time though, I wanted Bristol. An action unannounced even to me until I suddenly sought a journey to my birth city and scene of my first eight years, a sign and symbol for all my longing for relief from the (I felt) much too hard vicissitude of that particular South London I lived with.
I borrowed the bike, said my goodbye and see you soon, and left with no pump no tube no knowledge of how to remove a wheel, just went.
I’d gone into Chew and turned my back on the lake segment. Instead, on a hunch I followed a sign right, one that claimed Bristol was 11 miles away. I’d ride down there, do a turn and come back. At least I could say I’d visited the city this trip.
The road, a sinewy course of battleship grey tarmac climbed out of the village, with the usual guiding middle stripe, occasional stone farmhouse and drywall couching a spinny of trees, broken farm machinery and posh car. I pedalled further, it generally climbed even as it negotiated dips and valleys. After each descent, I would stand in the saddle and churn up the other side. I sped past a mother and daughter out for a stroll, and gasped and snorted noisily in order to underline my strength for them. Look, see me, how good I am… a last effort, surely now I’d see the city. And I did, working my way up a long slope to a sign and there it was spread below, a miasma strewn glitter pulsing in the thick light of oncoming evensong. How far? I screwed my neck around in order to read the sign. Eleven miles. 11 Miles!? Something wasn’t right - I must have made a false turn or mis-reading something on my way.
I considered going on, down the hill to the welcome below that certainly looked a lot closer than 11 miles but I couldn’t risk a mistake again.
Dusk hovered in the hedges, banked above the lanes. Reluctantly I turned, retraced to Bishop Sutton in the gloaming. On my borrowed bike.
But I thought you were going round the lake….. is all I recall of the telling off I got from the mother of the boy who’s had loaned the bike.
A couple of years later, back in London I scored Vicki’s bike. Vicki was kind of the it girl at school - also “Head Girl” - busty, blonde, American, and talented. She spent much of her spare time in the Art Department, working on textiles. I decided to emulate her - somehow this possibility of staying on after classes were officially over hadn’t occurred to me before she led the way. I would work on my painting or occasionally stained glass, and then later as time progressed we took to going back to her house for more academic studies.
I needed the bike for my commute to a summer job as the tea-boy on an inaccessible building site in Crystal Palace sports centre. No lake to circle instead came a climb and a descent in both directions. The bike was an orange racer with ten gears. The first time I rode up Crystal Palace hill, well, I didn’t. Instead I was forced into the ignominy of walking the steepest section as I had left the bike in the biggest, a sprinter’s say, gear. I learned though, and kept the bike through the summer, only reluctantly surrendering it to its rightful owner as winter adumbrated the turning year.
The third, and the first that stuck, was a Falcon, also orange (or was it gold?), bought in the early eighties from Lou’s shop in Penge for my commute to the Elephant. I learnt to climb hills on it. Crystal Palace, Anerley, Dog Kennel, College Road, Streatham, Sydenham, Denmark, all encountered at various times during those commutes. Over time all eased from leg numbingly hard into smooth and easy, familiar and welcome. Sharp short and demanding, I’d race up them against cars and cyclists alike. Every morning I was greeted with a hill. I got better, went further until this bike, replete with mudguards also rode the evening ten out on the A 21, usually needing about 25 minutes to complete the undulating circuit which while not a top three time was considered a decent outing on that course. It wasn’t Sean Yates who during this period went under 20 minutes, down near Tonbridge. A national record.
I do not remember the eventual demise of this bike, but I did manage to collect some insurance money and augment that with enough to buy a Roy Thame. Light, with butted tubing and removable mudguards this became the fourth bike. One I rode for a while, a regular commute across South London to Avery Hill, then a not so regular commute to the Laban Centre at New Cross as I increasingly opted to take the train in to my musician work at the Centre. Eventually she was stolen. Embarrassingly, left outside a seemingly deserted Penge West station and I think, stolen by the only other customer I saw there that day as I bought my monthly train ticket. Of them all that got away, that is the one I still grieve and hope to replace. More on that see the story “Lou”.
In Holland, naturally I had a borrowed Dutch Bike, an uprightly serene and stately galleon that I propelled, (although at times it propelled me) through the clanging trams and shopping areas of Kralingen to the dance class gigs I then played, to Delfthaven for the long medical I had to have in order to start that gig, or to the Hal 4 in the Waterwerk where I first met Joke. More on her later.
I was stopped once by the police for riding without lights. Luckily I was able to play the innocent foreigner well enough to be let off with a warning although I understood enough Dutch to realise that they were wondering if I was a Dutch guy taking the piss by pretending to be English.
That winter I left from Groningen (where I had no bike but a friend) for Berlin (where I eventually acquired both). The bus to the border crossed endless mist and wet roadways, and when I reached Germany the sky darkened noticeably. I drank acrid coffee, and stared through the rain at the first hills I had seen for several months.
Here I had some no name racer that I never rode far. That I eventually sold before moving to NYC. I recall no bike shops, no rural routes, no flat tires. I don’t remember buying it. I do recall taking it to Cologne on the train. and then onto Rotterdam, where it arrived separately some days after I left to return to Berlin. I recall the light on the Ku-Damm and Kantstr and Kreuzberg. The barking of the dustbin men and the clatter of bins heard but not seen from our balcony. The pillow case pink clouds as the sun rose on the long walk home early morning after the late gigs out. For some reason I rode the bike but little there. In the early eighties it was for me, that kind of time.
8th and Broadway
In New York came the orange Flandria. Procured by the girlfriend when she made the ex boyfriend return it. I had it serviced in a shop on 8th and Broadway where they flatteringly asked if I would be racing next season. My heart leaped at the idea, but my brain busily counted the fiscal reality of getting set up for that. Besides, I had a budding music career to tend.
This bike did some erranding though, from my eyrie on West 10th up to the Graham School on E 63rd or across the Village to NYU Tisch on 2nd ave. Over Westwards to Cunningham regularly one brief Summer. It was under constant threat of being stolen away from me, and eventually was nicked, along with the girl I shared life with then. In both cases the result of my laziness and in-attendance. And something of an echo of how the Roy Thame was stolen, or maybe more apt is that the loss of the Roy Thame adumbrated the loss of the Flandria:
Generally I hooked the bike over my shoulder and hoofed it up the five floors to the apartment door. Generally I locked it on the landing by our front door.
One afternoon I neglected to lock it, but some instinct caused me to check out there just as a guy had it hooked on his shoulder and was disappearing down the second flight of stairs. I tore after him, but he was fast, as fast as I was in pursuit, until without shoes but wearing socks I lost my footing and fell after him, my feet ricocheting on the rubber tread of the pine stairwell. Muffled but loud drumming echoed as I clattered and battered, fell like a skier feet first close to his back as he panicked and threw the bike down and ran the last passage way for the door with my property between us. My heel was bruised for months.
The bike was safe, at least for a few more months until a stupid afternoon. Returning from one errand, but knowing I had another shortly, and understanding that this was dangerous I locked the bike with a weak cable to the fence and climbed the stairs alone.
Of course I returned down to that ghastly empty space of mourning where the bike had been. Casting about like a hound searching a spoor, I refused to believe my own memory of how I’d left her, searched for the joke or joker to end this bad dream. Then realising life goes on even if the bike doesn’t live in your hands anymore and that there was no point stopping to report the loss I turned towards 5th ave and resumed the day.
After the debacle of the Roy Thame at Penge West station a couple of years earlier I should have known better. And this time there was no comfort of insurance for the immigrant musician in NYC 1985.
8th and Broadway
The cacophony of drums and shouts and large vehicle traffic, the scurry and hurry of an alienated lonely crowd in haste. The sound of a woman’s voice - quintessentially English - serenely pushes, cleaves, calmly through, nostalgia aching on very vowel.
“To be in England in the summertime, with my love, close to the edge”
The jeep runs the light, hangs left at Astor Place.
8th and Broadway
“He hurt me,” she suddenly cried. “He dug his elbow in here,” pointing at her right breast. We stopped, I put my arm around her, soft protective. She whimpered. Suddenly the rage took me. Am I a man? I left her suddenly, ran and kicked out, thumped his head, then turned back. To her. We kept walking, south, and he did also, north. I think.
At the end of the eighties I was back in London, where another bike I loved and lost was the Dutch bike I bought from Imbert as he moved to the USA. It served me faithfully between Falconer’s studio and various Camden night clubs to my girlfriend’s flat in Hammersmith and Rambert Academy in Richmond, to my rooms in Kennington and the Central London Subud group.
In the late night small hours the exhilaration of coursing down wide monumental Central London streets under the summer half light glow over smooth asphalt was a complete sensation.
Eventually the studio expanded into two locations with the acquisition of the Firehouse studio as Falconer 2 in Kentish Town and I left the bike there as a Taxi for anyone to use between the two locations.
I was heading back to NYC.
I have few memories of the silver steed I briefly had there this time and no idea of how I acquired it. Perhaps a salient moment was when I decided to get involved with the ad hoc racing in Central Park. I tried to grab a wheel, hang on the tails of the first fast group to come by, just as the circuit turned to cross the northern edge - I remember a small rise? - but I couldn’t hold the pace and I thrashed out of the saddle to get back in as the group parted then closed again to absorb and circumvent smaller family groups out pleasure riding. I nearly sideswiped someone as we thrashed on. “What are you guys doing?” screamed a voice from behind and I knew I had been a culprit. I had terrorised a small child perhaps, or nearly smacked a father busy with his brood.
I was dangerous! Not fit, not tuned, not ready.
I lent it to a friend from England, who turned the handle bars and ruined the ride position for me who had no tools available to fix it and then it went to a mutual friend in Brooklyn who described nearly ramming parked cars while tottering along astride the beast.
Her working days were over.
There was one other, again silver, a too small for me that I bought for my eldest daughter that I later commandeered to commute from the East Village to the Cunningham Studio in Westbeth. My knees near scraping the bars I would sprint buses on ninth street or totter with a guitar on my back along Bleecker Street. Occasionally I tried riding uptown but that was when I discovered just how gridlocked NYC had become. No urban warrior and my daughter also disinterested we hung up the wheels in the basement until we moved to Berlin
Well first there are the workhorses - aluminium a battered old tanks with panniers and racks, an old steel single speed that in its heyday was a more than decent track machine, the children’s bikes and the two carbon framed road machines that I drive through Grunewald on my thrice weekly quest for fitness and food for the heart. More later….
- 2020-09-04 22:21:43+02:00
I’m flagging, I need a hare.
Don’t worry one will come.
I don’t see one.
Then I will do it.
Said my shadow.
I will lay down in front of you and unflagging match your pace, echo your cadence even as you speed up and catch me and seek to go by me I will leg sapping and mind numbing match you stroke for stroke until we are home.
But wait - what do we do when I have to turn and come back down, the light glaring in my eyes?
Then I will chase you, teeth bared.
- 2020-09-03 21:18:27+02:00
Rode home at dusk, a balmy warm summer evening, past a garden party spilling out onto the road, the feeling of endless summer everywhere. A few more turnings on then I glanced at the sky to see the first ragged V formation of birds wheeling towards the south-west.
Post Stroke Muse☍
- 2020-08-30 21:11:50+02:00
On the bike earlier when the weather was grey and the wind stiff enough to make me want to get off and check the machinery because I was sure it is was not working properly, I had moments of questioning why I was there at all.
Later in the warmth of recovery it all made sense again.
One aspect is that the fitness level contributed to my body's handling of the stroke in October.
I'm now feeling close to where I was, physically.
I still feel like an observer as some functions are being remapped neurologically, but basically it is all there. I don't feel close to being exploded into a thousand particles of inchoate energy and light anymore, as I was in the days and sometimes weeks after it happened..
A gift is a new enthusiasm to play guitar. And from the relief of survival flows a drive to be purposeful. In those earlier scattered exploded moments I was able to formulate the reasons I should be back here, so I seek to honour that intention.
2016 February Berlin
To The Bridge Yet Again☍
- 2020-08-30 00:48:27+02:00
Went down to the bridge, did all the little hills, the 10%, the 8%, saw what you don't want to see which is an accident, nursed my gammy right leg, saw a tree work vehicle at rest, passed many many cyclists ranging from smooth and fast training roadies (I hung out in the wheels for a few k) to family groups wobbling down the Krone...
- 2020-08-28 18:54:16+02:00
Just got burned by a guy on a TT bike, well, I stayed with him long enough to see him pull over up the road and puke, presumably from the effort. I kept going. Best ride for a very long time.
Another day in Grunewald☍
- 2020-08-24 18:58:22+02:00
18 May 2020
Another day in Grunewald when my legs sort of felt apart but managed to structure themselves again for the return, err, leg. The roads were busy, proper warm sun brought loads out, including serried ranks of hipsters who were heading to a rave on the normally tranquil Lindwerder island. Also, as I rounded Postfennn and Angerburgerallee I could hear the crowd roar at Olympia Stadion, the last game of the football season. Me, I kept going, solitary, churning pedals.
3rd September 2020
A grey slab of sky picks out the dark flecks in the cobbles. Autumn is nigh.
- 2020-08-20 21:28:53+02:00
Back in Berlin after a week without bike. Saturday afternoon. Twenty degrees, clouds, showers. Rain jacket stuffed in back – no, rain jacket on back. Get warm first. Sweat, jacket clings to the skin. Harder than anticipated, glad not to be talking. What is wrong with me, do I have a cold?
Down at the bottom, stop, stretch the gammy leg, remove the jacket, pee, decision about where next.
Decision made – bridge – remount.
Gotta move on. Breeze is cold, I am not working so hard but am making steady progress into a wind, monitoring the leg, the chest, spinning, I'm back, back in Berlin, back on the bike, finding my way. Clouds grey overhead. Keep moving, I don't need the jacket. Or do I? No, I'm turning to the houses, the first low hills, taking the corners well, nimble progress, up and away, down again, the little patch of off-road and then the second batch of hill, a long shallow drag just enough to test the legs before descending to the little roundabout that marks the bottom of Moorlake proper. I do those pretty well, the 8%, the Russian church, the walkers, the cars. I'm not gonna scare any other riders but it seems, cautiously, like it might be a good day after all. Cold still.
Bridge. Sunshine. Pictures for Facebook. Back on bike, along by the water, careful of the walkers and family cyclists now, keep turning pedals but stay alert past the cafe/restaurant/coffee stop/toilet we never use and hit the 10% at a decent pace and remarkably, keep going. No traffic, can zig zag, making decent pace, glad I went alone, no one to disabuse me of my fantasies.... but I'm smooth and still able to work once up there and the road gets eaten by my wheels and I'm alright down the highway and the bit where you really need to speed with the traffic if you want to turn with the traffic and I'm first at the light and up towards the forest but the sky is starting to spit and sure enough the spit becomes a shower but I want to get back to the bench where I stopped before before stopping to adjust anything although it is thickening maybe. Maybe. Maybe yes. Keep working forward. Through the rain.
At the the bench and stretch. Again. Don jacket although under the trees maybe I won't need it. Immediately sweat but ride anyway, back up the Krone, past the two little holes, over the ruggedly ribbed section, through Huttenweg and accelerate up the little slope before hitting the patch for an “endspurt,” that I don't really have but I sort of vaguely stand up anyway and the rain has stopped but I keep the jacket on not sure if I am sweating or have a cold or whatever, doesn't matter now, stay alert, cross the main roads and slip downhill towards home, another ride booked, another step in the holding the body well task, now in hand. Sleep later.