I always feel that January is the most wonderful time of the year. After all, we are cyclists, and what we like best is misery. How else could someone have got rich using a logo of a man apparently weeping blood as a means of selling a turbo-training aid? The only two groups in the world to whom that image is a selling point are the CIA’s interrogation team, and us.
This time of year is perfect. The weather is dreadful. The summer is too far away to really look forward to. Any nice new kit you may have been hoping for from the family at Christmas has now either turned out not to be as good as the advert said it would be, had the novelty rubbed off it, or was not received at all because it was (and I believe I’m quoting accurately), “£250 for a bloody polyester jumper with a zip up the front and a teeny-tiny logo on the chest that might as well have said ‘This man thinks his family are eejits’.”
And so my friend Bernard is in his element. He was ill over Christmas, which made him very happy indeed, since he felt it absolved him of any obligation to even pretend he was having a nice time.
His illness, though very mild and most of a fortnight gone now, is still making him happy. You may have heard of the term ‘winter racer’. This is a rider whose favoured competitive outlet is beating up the winter group rides.
He attacks on every hill, sprints for every village sign, and generally makes a nuisance of himself (it’s always a he) at every opportunity. Come the proper season he is of course nowhere to be seen. Bernard, in his younger days, was such a rider. But he’s no longer able to cut it in the front group of idiocy. But his infection has inspired the invention of something new. He’s a ‘winter improver’.
What he wants is not for us to be impressed in any absolute sense with his strength and fitness. That would be too much like hard work. He wants us to be impressed with how he has improved. He wants to hear compliments in the spring about how much better he is then than he was now, and he’s not too stupid to have worked out that the worse he is now, the easier that’s going to be.
“I’ve been ill, you know,” he said, when he finally catches up with some of us who’ve waited for him at the top of a hill. “I’ve been ill, you know,” he said as he misses his turn on the front. He faked a coughing fit last weekend that prompted a young and impressionable member of the ride to fix his puncture.
He does this thing where he half-wheels you in reverse — rather than the traditional winter-racer tactic of always pressing on an annoying half-a-wheel in front of you when you’re supposed to be riding alongside each other, he sags back. You feel sorry for him, so you slow down. So does he. You both end up practically stationary. “I’ve been ill, you know,” he says.
I know he’s faking it. But I can’t convince anyone else. I don’t know what annoys me more, waiting for him atop windy summits, or knowing how impressed everyone will be with him come April.
“Leave him,” I finally snapped. “There’s damn all wrong with him. Let’s just get on with the ride and let him look after himself. He’ll be fine.”
“He’s been ill, you know,” said someone.
I suppose I may one day have to repeat this conversation in an apologetic tone of voice to a coroner. But I’m inclined to take my chances.