I was out for a ride with my good friend Bernard last week. It was early evening, cool and a little blustery. We were doing a bit of through-and-off, mainly to liven up a ride where we’d run out of insults to exchange, when we caught up with a stranger on a Trek who latched on to us.
To his credit, he did a couple of turns. It meant that when we slowed down behind a tractor, he and Bernard ended up together on the front, with me behind. There was an uncomfortable silence between them.
“Nice evening,” said the stranger.
“No it’s not,” said Bernard.
“At least the wind is behind us,” said the stranger brightly. He really hadn’t worked out who he was dealing with.
“Until we turn round,” said Bernard.
As a final gambit, the stranger said: “So, um, what gear are you riding in there?”
Bernard looked over at him in what I knew to be disbelief, but which I think our new friend missed entirely.
“Well, gosh, I don’t know,” said Bernard. “But let’s see. The back wheel I borrowed off know-nothing Hutch the non-wonder cyclist here, and he thinks his manhood is in direct proportion to the size of his gears, so let’s assume the little sprocket is an 11. I’m about halfway up the block, so that probably makes it about a 16.”
He paused, then called back over his shoulder: “Hey, Hutch, what’s the chainring on this, do you reckon?”
He stole the chainset from me last month. “It’s a 53,” I said.
“His ability with things like that is a marvel,” Bernard confided in the stranger. “He’s like one of those horses that can do sums.”
Despite his initial hostility, Bernard was bonding with his new friend. He could be rude about me, which is something he always enjoys, and the stranger was clearly impressed with Bernard’s man-of-the-long-road routine and retro equipment — though personally I feel it’s only properly ‘retro’ if you stopped using it at some point since it was new and then started again. Otherwise it’s just ‘old’.
Watch: Dr Hutch’s Guide to Waving
“I’ll tell you something else about him,” said Bernie, gesturing back towards me. “He carries a bit of string in his wallet that’s cut to the exact length of his saddle height. It’s a weird obsessive-compulsive thing, so he can check his saddle height when he’s on the train and things like that.”
He glanced back at me. “Isn’t that right?”
“I’ve got a bit of string, but…”
I didn’t get a chance to finish. Bernard was already telling him about the time I bought a micrometer to check all my Allen keys were actually the marked size.
The string, incidentally, is so I can get the saddle height right on a borrowed or hired bike, or an exercise bike in hotel gym. I think it’s a brilliant idea, but I concede it has obsessive-compulsive elements to it. I have a second bit of string for handlebar reach, but I’ve never admitted it to Bernard.
By this point, the pair of them were laughing away at me like old mates. The stranger’s mirth was if anything as unconstrained as Bernard’s. This was doubly galling, because he had his saddle set about 6cm too high.
At the bottom of the pedal stroke his leg was so straight and his toe so pointed it would have won plaudits at the Royal Ballet. And, of course, I couldn’t say anything about it without looking obsessed with saddle heights. Nor could I now mention his 50rpm cadence, or the dreadful buckle in his back wheel.
I dropped back, and let them slide away up the road, still nodding and laughing to each other. I hoped they would be very happy together.