People often ask me about my friend Bernard, who appears in these pages more often than he would prefer.
“Dr Hutch,” these people say, “why do you spend so much of your time riding with this man when you would so clearly like to drown him in a roadside ditch, frisk his jersey pockets for your stolen possessions, and leave his body pegged out in a field for the crows to eat?”
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It is a reasonable question, and one to which I don’t have an entirely good answer. All I can really say is that I’ve tried to do better, but he still seems to be the best I can find.
There have been other riding companions. For instance, a couple of years ago, for a few weeks I shared rides with a man called Mike, who was insanely competitive. He attacked on climbs, and shirked his share of the work into a headwind so he could outsprint me at a finishing line that only he could see. Every outing was like this.
I finally lost patience on a long ride when I got hunger-knock. It was no one’s fault but mine — I just hadn’t eaten enough. “Any chance of a gel? I’m running on fumes here,” I said. “Sorry mate, don’t have any,” he said, despite the fact I could see a couple poking out of his pocket.
I sat on his wheel, gasping. He slowly wound up the pace, glancing back to see how I was doing. Eventually I cracked. He rode off. And he never came back. Instead I crept homewards, seeing stars. About five miles from safety I got a text. It was Mike. “Hahahahaha!” it said. And a smiley face. And an emoji banana.
At least he didn’t complain about things. Most bike riders like to moan — we’re the only group who measure the success of our hobby by the misery and suffering we experience: “I was so hungry it was like being concussed! I couldn’t feel my arms! I’ve never been so miserable in my life! It was brilliant!”
But it’s an art. I only want to hear you complain under the terms of the cyclists’ joy through unhappiness paradox. I am not remotely interested if the carefully curated misery is actually making you miserable.
I rejected one former riding companion after he announced, “I’m cold, wet and miserable. I bloody hate cycling, this is a stupid route, and I can’t believe you were too dense to check the forecast before we left,” and failed to follow up with an expression of deep joy.
“Cheer up!” I said. “Only another couple of hours! And there’s a big black cloud coming over!”
He took out his mobile phone, and put it to his ear. “Hello? Yes, dear, can you come and pick me up? No, just me.” He gave me a scowl.
I never suggested another ride.
There was another who, despite three attempts to meet for a ride, never actually turned up at all. And a different one who arrived at the appointed spot so drunk that when he stopped he failed to unclip, fell over, giggled for a bit and then went to sleep.
Another got there with his helmet on backwards and, when this was pointed out to him said (and I quote accurately here, because if you’d been there you’d never forget it either), “Does it really matter which way round it is?”
And so to Bernard. Bernard is capable of any and all of the above actions. He could probably do all of them simultaneously. And therein is his… I was going to say ‘charm’ but I couldn’t quite force it out.
Let’s instead say variety. I never know how he’ll annoy me next, and in a world of predictable irritation, there’s something to be said for that. It’s not much, but it’s enough.