We weren’t really cyclists, but we were close enough…

by Peter Cossins

Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by SWpix.com

This is an extract from a book that a friend of mine was writing about his cycling experiences, tales of which always had me in fits of laughter. Unfortunately, he’s been laid low by a string of illnesses over the last 18 months and hasn’t been able to continue with it, but I’m posting this because I think it should be seen by a bigger audience and also because I’m hoping that it will generate a good response, which may in turn give him a lift. I think it’s great, I hope you agree. If you do, let us know and I’ll pass on all positive feedback. Peter Cossins

All of this happened.

We weren’t kids, we were in our late 30s.

We weren’t idiots, but we were capable of idiocy.

We weren’t clowns, but we were close.

We weren’t really cyclists, but we were close enough.

We didn’t have much, but we had each other.

We were five working class lads from Leeds. Products of housing estates and perfunctory education.

Me, Woodsy, Col and Pat Sealey had played football together for many years and enjoyed the crack, the company and the competitive spirit. As our powers on the field waned and our knees exploded like a firework display, we increasingly took to cycling as a way of maintaining some level of fitness and, inevitably, competition. The other lad was a mate of Sealey’s – Super Dave.  We didn’t know much about Super Dave. He was called Super Dave because, after vising his local gym and trying out the static rowing machines he proceeded to shatter all UK and Commonwealth records seemingly at will. His cardio-vascular powers were legendary. His cognitive capacity less so. He seemed to be in thrall to Sealey for some reason, so whenever an agreement or a decision was made as a group, he would always turn blankly to him and say, ‘What do you think Pat?’

This wouldn’t have been a bad tactic if Pat had in any way been a deep thinker able to weigh up the pros and cons of a situation and come to a reasonable conclusion. His usual response to a group dilemma in terms of directions or course of action after some disaster, confrontation or serious mechanical was, ‘Fuck it. It’s fucking fucked.’ That, in a nutshell, was what Pat thought.

Col was my oldest friend. We’d grown up together on a housing estate near Leeds town centre. He had a fantastic sense of humour and grasp of the absurd. He too was a product of his surroundings. He told things as they were and didn’t fret too much about offending anyone. He’d taken to the mechanical side of cycling and was a whizz on the paraphernalia of chainsets, shifters, cabling and all of the other minutiae of cycling that those not of a similar vein just hoped didn’t go wrong.

As the internet became more established in the late 1990s, Col became adept at wheeling and dealing on eBay, constantly upgrading his bikes by bartering and swapping, and swooping on fantastic deals us mere mortals couldn’t grasp the significance of. There were times when he built up complete bikes that were almost works of art – he calculated that one of them was worth £4,500 when all of the components were added up. Sometimes he built a bike up and didn’t even ride it, but sold it on to finance more eBay swoops. There was nothing Kev didn’t know about components and the shiny trinketry that mesmerises many a weekend cyclist.

He was a good cyclist too, small, compact and a great climber when he was fit. On top form it was almost a pleasure to see him skipping up East Chevin as if the 20% gradient was billiard table flat. I say almost a pleasure. The fact that he was skipping up and disappearing from view emphasised the fact that I was, as ever, wheezing like a leaky space hopper with pleurisy, battling against Newton’s hideous second law of motion: Force = Mass x Acceleration. I had a lot of Mass and had to produce prodigious amounts of Force to achieve any acceleration. Throw in a bit of power-to-weight ratio stuff and it leads us to Newton’s third law: ‘For every pig, there is an equal and opposite hog’.

No doubt many reading this will have trodden this path. We began as mountain bikers, growing in skills and confidence as we took advantage of the wide range of fantastic mountain bike circuits Wharfedale offered. On occasion, we would venture a little further, with boozy trips to Hawes, Beverley and Bridlington punctuated by manic bunch sprints at the various village signs that we encountered along the way. We did the Scotland and England off-road coast-to-coast routes, sprinting for town and village signs whenever the opportunity arose.

Even to us dopes, it became obvious that the lads with the thinner tyres and lighter bikes were enjoying a distinct advantage over longer distances. No amount of spirit and/or heart could overcome the vumm vumm vumm of our tractor tyres on the tarmac, so hardtails became cyclo-cross rigs, then audax and, gradually, road bikes appeared and we were set.

Even to us dopes, it became obvious that the lads with the thinner tyres and lighter bikes were enjoying a distinct advantage over longer distances. No amount of spirit and/or heart could overcome the vumm vumm vumm of our tractor tyres on the tarmac, so hardtails became cyclo-cross rigs, then audax and, gradually, road bikes appeared and we were set.

We were all big Tour de France fans. The sheer colour and madness of the Tour when it could be found on an obscure slot on Channel 4 was magical for us. We became quasi-experts on Greg LeMond’s time trial tactics and the size of ‘Big Mig’s’ lung capacity. So, it was decided that in the late spring of 1999 we would take a leap of faith and attempt a few of the cols we had read up on or seen on TV, although we’d still not entirely grasped their sheer enormity. A familiar shout in those days was, ‘One more col. How hard can it be?’

Our stars had crossed with the emergence of budget airlines, including Leeds’s own Jet2 brand, so everything was suddenly possible. However, for our first venture, we opted for what seemed, on paper, to be a more convenient means of reaching the mountains. One of the lads discovered that a bus with a trailer for bikes operated from Middlesbrough every week to Barcelona. We could get on that and get off at Perpignan at the eastern end of the Pyrenees, not far from the Mediterranean. From Perpignan, we could head due west and get to the other side of France at Biarritz. Navigation wouldn’t be an issue – just keep going west until you got your feet wet. Best news yet – the bus company ran a sister service that originated in Biarritz and went north up to Bordeaux, through France and back home.

After a few meetings in the pub, a nascent route was formed from several sections, each increasingly and outrageously ambitious, based on nothing more solid than the fact that we had ridden to Whitby a few times. What could be harder than that? That’s the bloody North Yorks Moors you go over there, mate! There are animals up there that were long classified as extinct. A sunny ride up a few switchbacks followed by a chilled glass of 1664 and a whiff of Gauloise? Bring it on. How hard could it be? This attitude was later accurately depicted in a pen portrait of us giving the Michelin maps the fingers in the Oxford Illustrated Dictionary of Big Talk.

We liked the idea of an A to B adventure, rather than have a base and cycle around from that. The main reason for this is that the base would have been a condemned stink pit within three minutes of us walking through the door and, at the end of the day, there’s always a ‘get-out clause’ if you’re struggling. Taking on the A to B option meant that we had to press on to get to our destination and lift home. Also, if it turned out that the base wasn’t very good, there were almost certainly going to be, er… incidents. We ran the risk of flogging ourselves during the day only to end up murdering each other through boredom at night. We were drinkers, not thinkers. Geezers, not readers. Athletes* not aesthetes.

(*Obviously not athletes)

I started preparing for the trip by having an inventory of my cycling gear. It was mostly threadbare Halfords rubbish. I had a pair of seen-better-days mountain bike boots that weren’t easy to walk in and would probably have disintegrated given the task they were potentially being asked to do. I visited the local bike Mecca, Chevin Cycles in Otley, and drooled at the sleek ‘trainer-type’ cycling shoes with an inset sole that allowed the clips to stay more or less inside the sole and, therefore, make walking easier. Also, they looked great. At that time, however, big cycling had not quite taken hold and the paucity of choice fed the law of supply and demand, meaning that the super-duper trainers I craved were way out of my price range.

I ruminated on this, considering the usual options: theft – but my knees and, therefore, getaway speed had gone; saving up – cash flow was tight with a one-year-old baby to feed and clothe; sell something else to fund the purchase – the only thing of value I had was my one-year-old son. My two insane dogs were not even suitable for vivisection, so that pathway was closed down.

Consequently, in the best traditions of British pluck and ingenuity, my only option was to make my own. I took a fairly old pair of Adidas Samba trainers, cut a recess out of the sole measured closely so as to accommodate my cleats. I was all set, apart from having something to stiffen the sole to give the cleats some rigidity and enable efficient power transfer. I found some old aluminium sheeting, then took the insoles out of the trainers so that I could use them as templates to draw onto the aluminium. A friendly techy at work helped me cut the metal and advised me to get busy with a file to round the edges to avoid them slicing the canvass of the trainers to pieces. So far so good. I drilled some holes and bolted on the cleats, then inserted them into the trainers and replaced the insoles over the top. Blimey, could it really be this easy?

When I put them on, it became obvious it wasn’t. The aluminium was ridiculously hard on the soles of my feet, making every step agonising. Despite my urgings for ‘one more col’ in the planning meetings, I had a reasonable idea that at some point the ability to walk might be a distinct advantage.

A light bulb moment. What I needed was some lightweight, moulded material that would fit the contours of the bottom of my foot and not be too brittle, hard, sharp and expensive. The answer, of course, was right there in front of me. I cut out the insole of my mountain bike boots, re-affixed the cleats and placed these into my trainers. After a little bit of alteration of the cleats’ aperture, I was away. Replacing the insoles, I put the trainers on and jumped for joy with pride and a strange sense of achievement. I had made my own super cool cycling trainers.

I went out for a spin on my bike to try them out. Hmmm – a bit of lateral movement that felt a bit unsafe and unsure and shit and temporary. As luck would have it, it had recently been raining and water splashing up from the road went straight into the soles and rendered my feet sodden and freezing in milliseconds.  What I needed was some powerful adhesive to both fix the sole to the shoe and act as a seal or water repellent. Sitting in my shed musing over this conundrum, I looked up and the ‘answer’ was almost biblically staring me straight in the face.

The person who had the house before us had obviously been attempting some DIY on the roof of the shed because there were a couple of sheets of roof sheeting rolled up in the corner. Peeping out from behind these was an ancient can of bitumen. The Gods of prudence, thrift, stupidity and dumb luck were looking down on me. I took the tin and prised the lid off to unleash the tarry, petrol-like aromas that had been confined therein for many a year. No matter, I got a stick and started giving the gloopy, molasses-like liquid a bit of a stir. Despite being nearly overcome by the pungent fumes, this bollocks might just work.

I found an old paintbrush, dismantled my homemade cycling trainers and painted the bitumen onto both sides of the touching surface area. Having no clamps or vices I found a couple of old paving slabs to lay on top to help the mixture to bond. When I came back the next day – hooray, the bloody thing had worked and during the trial run there was no lateral movement, while I also had similar levels of comfort to those afforded by my old mountain bike boots. There was, however, still quite an alarming smell of strong chemicals. I decided that, with further exposure to the great outdoors, this odour would dissipate and I could rejoin the world not over-encumbered by smelling like the forecourt of the local Shell garage.

The day before the trip I had the genius idea of dying my hair pure white in a nod to Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty character in Blade Runner. That was my intention, but a lack of experience in hair dying, allied to a failure to understand the principle that ‘you get what you pay for’ saw me buying a cheap dye from Superdrug that turned my hair from mousey blond to bright orange. As a result, rather than beginning the journey looking like the dystopian combat replicant from a future Earth, I actually resembled Beaker from the Muppets…

With 26 hours scheduled travel time to Perpignan, we were already full to the gills on bacon and Sprite, and hadn’t even reached Barnsley.

The journey south was largely uneventful and consisted of us largely depleting the stewardess of every scrap of bacon she had by way of buying up her entire stock of bacon sandwiches. This prompted grumbles and groans from our fellow passengers as the confined smell of the bacon became an ungraspable chimera due to being sold out less than one metre from the back of the bus. I did feel a little sorry for our co-passengers, but this passed thanks to a heart-threatening stupor of bacon, butter and doughy white bread. With 26 hours scheduled travel time to Perpignan, we were already full to the gills on bacon and Sprite, and hadn’t even reached Barnsley.

Eventually we were over the Channel and heading south. We swerved Paris on whatever périphérique does that job. We played ‘guess the landmark’ as we skirted Paris, with Super Dave convinced he’d identified the Eiffel Tower in at least three different locations. ‘Yeah, you’re right Super Dave,’ I reassured him. ‘They made three so that they would always have a spare if the other two fell down.’ He nodded sagely: ‘Good thinking, Frenchie,’ he conceded.

Around mid-morning the next day, when we were still a good 100km from our drop-off, a number of our fellow passengers started to grumble audibly and dart furtive glances back in our direction. One of them got up and made his way down to the front to converse with the driver. We were completely clueless as to what the problem might be. We could see that we’d created a bit of a cess pit mess, with crisps, pieces of pasta, bacon rind and empty Sprite cans around us in some sort of weird carbohydrate landfill, but apart from that couldn’t work out what was going on. The bus swerved off the road and into a layby.

The driver got out from behind the wheel and made his way up to the back where we were sitting. ‘All right lads,’ he said amicably. ‘Sorry to bother you but some of the passengers are complaining of a strong petrol smell coming from the back of the bus and I’m here to see what’s what.’

‘Oh, all right, mate,’ we said and shifted around a bit so the driver could gain access to the emergency exit and, presumably, the fuel tank. ‘Blimey, there’s certainly a strong stench of petrol,’ he confirmed to the concerned passenger now peering over his shoulder. ‘I’d best get out and take a look. We’re a long way from home and don’t want any problems.’ At this, he turned and went outside and then round to the back of the bus, then opened up the massive cowling that concealed some engine part or fuel tank. As he was occupied, Woodsy dug me in the ribs and whispered conspiratorially: ‘It’s you!’

‘What you on about?’ I said in all innocence.

‘Look down at your feet. The fucking bitumen that you used to make your shoes is leaking and it’s on the floor and soaking your socks.’ I looked down to see actual smears of tar on the floor of the bus and, fair play, that my socks that had been brand new on and virginal white were a sort of chocolatey brown. The heat of my feet and the lack of flowing air must have combined to alter the chemical process of the bitumen and it wasn’t having it. ‘Fuck me!’ I said, ‘I’d better go and tell the lad so we can get on.’ I made my way down aisle of the bus, becoming aware for the first time of a faint squelching in my shoes. I went around to the back to find the driver doing his best Oliver Hardy impression, scratching his head with one hand and his other hand on his hip.

There was no way of soft soaping this. ‘All right mate,’ I said, ‘I think I know what the problem is.’ He looked at me quizzically, covered as I was in crisp rubble and bacon fat and having palpably had no sleep. ‘Oh yeah, you a mechanic then?’ He asked not unreasonably.

‘Err, no, but I’m pretty sure I know what’s causing the strong petrol smell.’

‘Go on then,’ he responded, clearly not massively convinced that I did.

‘Well, it’s me feet,’ I said with a touch of embarrassment while at the same time trying to invoke a ‘you know that old problem’ vibe.

‘What you on about fella?’ His mild Teeside accent betraying just a tad of scepticism.

I looked down at my feet and pointed at my Brent Crude socks.

‘Fookin’ hell, what’s going on there?’ he chuckled. I explained my great money-saving experiment and he threw his head back laughing and proceeded back to the front of the bus, leaving a ‘Fucking daft twat!’ ringing in my ears. He said that he’d been on the verge of contacting a pick-up or rescue firm that would have delayed us for hours and cost his company ‘beaucoup euros’. As he settled back into the driving seat, he got on the PA to explain the situation to the rest of the passengers, which left me with the walk of shame up the aisle to the back of the bus. It seemed that every row of seats had coordinated some form of negative comment to direct towards me because none of them were repeated. Over the course of 12 rows of seating I was variously ‘a clown’, ‘a dickhead’, ‘a daft twat’, ‘a fucking time waster’, ‘an embarrassment and ‘a waste of time’. Fair comments all.

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