Gather round, mes amis, and I will tell you of my nemesis. Cycling is a sport built on great rivalries – Lemond and Hinault, Wiggins and Froome, Amrstrong and Pantani. My own sworn enemy resides in a nearby village. Opposite the church, by a shady grove of trees. About 18 inches out from the verge. Packed with malevolence, reeking of greed and violence, there is a pothole.
Ironically, it is near the Cambridge University radio telescopes. Not long ago, they were consumed with the excitement of seeing the first hours of the birth of a supernova. They seem to care little for the phenomenon that’s on their doorstep. For this pothole has a gravitational pull that allows nothing to escape.
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It is an empty space that has, apparently, an almost infinite mass. If you asked a recently arrived alien what my hobby was, he would tell you that I go out on my bicycle each day and take a 30-mile run up at hitting this pothole as hard as I can.
This is despite knowing it’s there. I know exactly where it is. I can even see the damn thing on Google Earth. But when I ride through the village in question I am powerless to resist.
As soon as I get into its aura, my mind goes blank, I forget the terribly important thing I’d been repeating to myself for the previous three miles, and the next thing I’m aware of is a bang, a severe shock to the wrists and my bars slipping in the stem.
So far it’s accounted for at least eight tyres, rather more inner tubes, a snapped stem bolt (and let me tell you, there are few things in cycling more bowel-loosening than seeing the head of a stem bolt pinging off into the verge) and a broken saddle rail, not to mention jarred shoulders and a bruised undercarriage.
There was even an embarrassing incident where my helmet fell over my eyes and for a few milliseconds I honestly thought the impact had made me go blind. It didn’t seem unreasonable.
There is a driveway just after this mouth of hell where I regularly stand to get my breath back, assess the damage, and make repairs. The last time I was there I could see the marks on the mud by the verge made by my own cleats a couple of days earlier, and from at least three other sets of cleats as well.
But I already knew I wasn’t alone — only a few days earlier I’d been going through the village in the opposite direction, and there was a rider in the driveway with a pretzelled wheel. “The bastard got you too?” I shouted. “Oh, yes,” he replied wearily, as if it wasn’t his first time either.
I know what you’re thinking, dear reader. You’re thinking, “Why doesn’t he report it and get it fixed instead of moaning to us?”
I have done so on as many occasions as I’ve stood in that drive. And indeed, once or twice the hole has shown signs that someone has attempted a repair. But the evidence suggests that as soon as the council van drives off, the road-mender’s tar and gravel explodes angrily out of the hole, powered by a dark and angry force, to lie scattered around on the carriageway surface.
I sometimes wonder if we ought to sacrifice things to it in appeasement: inner tubes, wrist splints, or maybe even virgins. (Like I said, it’s outside the astronomy department: there are plenty of suitable astrophysicists to hand.)
But I know that none of it would really help. This is an unequal struggle against something that is bigger and more powerful. If I’m missing from the magazine next week, you will know what happened. And please, don’t come to look for me. Save yourselves. I beg you.