Michael Hutchinson is a writer, journalist and former professional cyclist. His Dr Hutch columns appears in every issue of Cycling Weekly magazine.
Old churchyards, at least in flat areas like the one I live in, are often noticeably higher than the surrounding land. This is because of the sheer number of bodies and coffins that have been buried over the centuries. I find this rather comforting – you’re never really gone, you just become part of the landscape. One day you might even be part of a very small climb.
I suspect that my garden is undergoing a similar uplift. Sometimes I return from a winter ride with so much mud stuck to my bike that I’m surprised I’m not being pursued by a tractor convoy of local farmers, under suspicion of stealing their loam and taking it home.
My exaggeration is only marginal – I was puzzled by why weeds grow only in one very small area of my gravelled front garden, until I realised that that was the spot where I wash my bike, and that while underneath the surrounding gravel there is nothing but sand, below that spot there is rich agricultural soil carried home by bike.
There are double standards in the world of bike cleaning. “Your bike is a disgrace; mine is well used.” Or, “Your bike is a disgrace; this one, on the other hand, was used to win Paris-Roubaix, so what you’re looking at here, my boy, is historically important mud.”
I’ll admit that when I saw a mud-encrusted Paris-Roubaix winning bike at a bike show I had a very strong urge to clean it. Or, more honestly, I had a very strong urge to find someone else to clean it. For this is another double standard – I like bikes to be clean, but there is almost nothing in the world I dislike more than cleaning them. I’ve done a six-hour turbo ride for no reason other than to avoid the cleaning I’d have to do if I rode outside.
My extreme cleaning-resistance started when I lived in a second-floor flat. Cleaning a bike there was a long, painstaking process of transferring the dirt from the bike onto every surface of the kitchen, including the ceiling and inside the cupboards. Years later I watched a 90-minute police forensics documentary about spatter marks, and it contained nothing that was new to me.
If you don’t live somewhere quite so unhelpful, you can improve a bike’s condition from mobile potato farm to 95% of showroom condition in about 10 minutes, with practice. How deeply ingrained must my resistance be that I’d still choose the six-hour turbo instead?
It also makes me a manic avoider of dirty roads. In winter I select routes based on the amount of mud I’ll encounter. In County Down over Christmas I simply gave up on one of my favourite rides (to St. John’s Point lighthouse) because of the state of the roads. The lighthouse, the rocks and the crashing waves might make you feel alive, but if there’s mud involved the deal’s off. (In rural Co. Down you would probably score yourself lucky if any of the brown stuff on the road was anything as innocent as mud – this does not make it better.)
And I’ve carried bikes over stretches of mud, as if I was carrying a bride across a flooded churchyard. There have been times I’ve been in the midst of this when I’ve noticed the bike I’m carrying is in such a terrible state that anyone watching me would assume that what I was trying to do was keep the road clean.
I’ve resolved time and time again that I’ll become a bike-cleaner. Every New Year, every autumn and every rainy spring-training season. I’ll ride the roads I want, I’ll ride the days I want, and I’ll just be a grown-up about it. But I’m beginning to think that it isn’t going to happen.
In related news, if any major bike brands feel like giving me a nice, new, clean bike, well, you know where to find me. But no offers of cyclo-cross bikes, please.
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