Somewhere in my minds eye, I have an image of myself cycling. I’m lean, tanned, muscular. Pedalling effortlessly over an Alpine col, immaculately dressed, in an abnormally clean and glowing white jersey. My gloves are fingerless track mitts, white on the back, black on the palms, with a very fine red stitching. Normal black shorts, but somehow more than usually perfectly fitting. White socks and spotlessly clean black shoes complete the clothing. My hair is somehow immaculately styled. There is a fine layer of sweat over my face, but I’m in perfect control of my breathing and physical exertion. My heart rate is somewhere in the 150s as I climb out of the shade of some trees, and into the Italian sunshine, high above a lake glistening below. The smell is of the pine trees, and thin, fresh, high mountain air. The bike is easy to describe, as I already own it, so there’s no need to change anything about that part of the image.
It’s pretty detailed, I admit, but, that’s an image I carry around with me, summing up my perfect cycling moment. At times I’ll add bits to it, like maybe hearing birdsong, or savouring the taste of an espresso that I’d stopped to drink by a roadside cafe a few kms back. But the image remains essentially the same.
I pondered on this on Saturday morning. I am fat and unfit from a winters hibernation. Pasty and scrawny with a pot belly. My hair hasn’t seen the attention of a barber now for about six months. In short, I was in pretty normal condition really. I was wearing about twelve layers of ill-fitting clothes, and my mud-spattered shoes completed the look of someone who should be working in a pigsty. My breathing was laboured, by face probably bright red, and my heart rate was up in the 170s. Snot streamed up my glasses, from an ill-timed attempt to clear my blocked sinuses a few minutes back. I was grinding along at about 17km/h into a howling headwind and high rain. In short, I wanted to be anywhere else. I hated what I was doing, and wondered why I was doing it at that moment. I knew that later I’d look back on it as character building, and just laugh it off, but at that moment, I would gladly just have climbed off the bike, and sat in a muddy ditch to stop the suffering.
And then I remembered The Image. And why I was carrying on. You see, in order to appreciate the Good Times, I feel I need to suffer. Whether this is a product of a catholic education I don’t know. But I need to feel that I’ve paid my dues, and done the hard miles. Then I can really enjoy the good bits without feeling guilty. And you know what? When the sun finally comes out this year, I’ll be heading off for a haircut, putting on my white jersey, and for a few moments, even though I’ll still be in The Fens, just for a few moments I’ll allow my mind to wander again to a faraway place where everything is perfect. And I’ll know that I’ll thoroughly deserve it when I finally get there.