The Bike and Other Stories
Cycling adventures around London, New York City, and Berlin.
Geoffrey Armes
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The Bonk
Geoffrey Armes - 2020-08-14 23:12:26+02:00

That CTC (Cyclists Touring Club) run suggested by Lou was my first excursion into the Kent Weald, On a freezing foggy day of low visibility and hands sealed to the bars by iced windchill at a 15kh pace appropriate for “sightseeing,” we left the meeting place at an I just couldn't ride that slow pace. Not on such a day as my circulation both blood and foot on pedal about seized up. I could see the hedges and not much more.

I tried to enjoy.

Eventually I found the courage to explain my predicament to our no doubt very decent guide and leader. I couldn't hack it, please don't be offended but I need to get home at a decent I mean faster pace and be warmer as I go, yes I know the way (I didn't but I could follow signs and needed to move move move).

A few days later, back in the shop I told Lou, and begrudgingly perhaps, he opened the door to the Club Run. Hence I found myself early one Sunday morning in tepid Spring sunshine somewhere in Bromley at what I learned to be a standard meeting point with the lads straddling their two wheeled steeds and me more or less having the right gear. Mudguards yes, not sporty perhaps but considerate of my fellows, tights maybe, I do not recall how cold it may have been, and this being the nineteen seventies my “bonk bag,” a loosely based on the professional's “musette” shoulder bag in which I carried my spare tube (I was on pressures not tubulars, if you had the latter then your spare was tied up under the saddle with an old toe strap) and indeed, theoretically my Bonk rations. I also, of course, had a bottle full of water sat in the cage on the downtube.

“Alright, shall we get this moving then?” called some wag in mock authoritarian tones and with similarly mock grumbling our feet found pedals, nimbly kicking into the straps, some clicking if they had cleats as well, all bending at some point to tighten the strap as we went two abreast, out of London, dropping down the scarp to begin the long opposing dip into Kent and the Weald. Frost rose from the grassy fields and surrounding hedgerows, we had the lanes to ourselves. It was Sunday morning; sensible people were still asleep! Legs working, some sporadic conversation and I could feel the first hills push back at me, and loved it.

We pressed on, curving past spring flower loaded lanes as only Britain can provide, past copses, thickets, quiet farm houses, moisture laden verdant fields. The first real climb entered under our wheels and as we pointed upwards a couple of older riders, including our mouthy friend began to slip back. “This is where I fall off lads,” quoth he, his barrel torso rolling, some sweat starting to appear. I felt fine, willing the pace on even, wanting to test my strength further. The ride regrouped at the top, and we descended into some village somewhere that had an open cafe. Bikes casually slung against each other and a wall, no locks required, we adjourned. To my surprise my legs were almost stiff, but I wasn't hungry, which I thought a good thing as I had enough for a coffee and a biscuit, no more. I couldn't have faced the carbo-loading my compatriots were doing at that point, my adrenalin was too active.

When we left my legs protested, but I soon conquered my natural laziness as we began to climb again, a short burst that turned into flatter territory.There was some discussion of routes until someone declared for all, “We're gonna go up such and such a hill,” a name I have now long forgotten, but not the slope that was leg sappingly steep and stubbornly convex as the horizon stayed away and the group split into sweating and cursing riders who couldn't hold the pace of the first few, one of whom, Rafe, I'd exchanged a few words with earlier. A few years older than myself, with experience in his eyes and scrawny legs I could see him bouncing side to side, sometimes leading the group or sitting just behind... I slowly let go and fell into a kind of no mans land between groups, still others scattered grumbling far behind, the front pulling away, this road rising against you forever, the slopes to the side beckoning you down if you failed, legs stilled and unbalanced, slowly toppling away, sun blinking through trees and sweat refracted eyes....

My first taste of real climbing.

Suddenly, finally, I crested the summit, and with the frontrunners waited for the panting ride to regroup. I emptied my water bottle. I also checked my bag for food, although I already knew there was nothing. No matter, we were heading home now.

As later I learnt happens often with these kinds of excursions, the group began to disintegrate once it arrived at the homebound roads. Some turned east towards alternative routes, others dropped off elsewhere or surged ahead or went where ever, I don't know, but unexpectedly I found myself with Rafe as we headed for the bottom of Reigate Hill. We talked a little, I moaned about my abilities, fishing for compliments and hit pay dirt in that I was reminded that I was the second group up the climb earlier. Not bad. We pedalled on in silence. My legs finally began to tire after the distance... but his did not. He seemed to surge, then surge again, but he wasn't, it was my legs weakening, as an emptiness streamed into my body rendering me almost translucent with lack of vigour, I stood up in the saddle once again to catch his wheel, but his legs, trenchant, monotonously kept turning the cranks whereas mine, now starting to tremble, did not. To my horror, he, remorseless, disappeared up the road.

I was alone.

The bike had had enough of me, and let me know definitively by hauling hard on my legs with each pedal stroke, dragging my seat deeper into an already sharpened saddle. Also my arms refused to absorb any more of the road chatter that now was able to shake my entire being. I had to get off.

Pulling over I could barely lift my leg over the cross bar, but somehow managed and let the bike drop. I dropped too, into a grassy verge and spreadeagled gazed at the sky. I'll be alright in a minute, I just need a pause.

Another cyclist rode by, cheerily called something about “That's the good life, take it easy,”. I weakly raised my arm to wave and croak a greeting, but he was gone.

The trees blocked the sun, the grass grew on, minutes that felt like hours passed and I knew I'd probably recuperated as much as possible. Trembling, I brought the bike to the curb, straddled and pressed a wobbling leg into a toestrap. My jelly legs and will urged the pedals to turn, turn again, turn, as I ached my way up the ever steepening road, at a speed almost certainly slower than the slighted CTC ride of a few weeks ago. I was truly bonked.

The Bonk. Hitting the wall. Bike legend. Notoriety. Basically Glycogen loss, blood sugar loss, a crushing emptiness that requires instant carbohydrate loading i.e. eating, to recover. I was 25k from home. Maybe more. I had no food. I had no money. A little bit of legs. How much Will?

I fought for the hill, grappling with every section gained, thinking that I could freewheel down, down into Croydon, maybe get some recovery there, but by the time the road tilted in the right direction my body was on fire again just from sitting on the bike.... I stopped briefly, wobbled to a man trimming a hedge in front of a small suburban terrace house and begged for water. He gave me a strange look but took my bottle and reemerged with the precious liquid. I demurred to ask for food, I could see the confused, maybe less than welcoming countenance of my unwilling benefactor....

Somehow I made it through Croydon, and the only other detail I remember is asking a bus driver if I could get on. I must have paused, waited at the bus stop, in vain of course, as bikes are not allowed on buses, however Sunday empty they are.

When I saw Rafe a few weeks later, I got up the courage and asked him. “Why did you leave me stranded the other day?”

“Oh, I thought 'he knows what he is doing,' and just kept pushing on...”

“Oh...” I had no reply. I must have liked looking like I knew what I was doing.

I've never bonked again, although I've come close. Always take enough food and liquid for the ride, and some cash as well. When that weakness tanks down into your legs, fuel up!