Christmas Eve. 36k down. South of Cape Egmont, New Zealand. A ditch outside a rural tennis club.
We’d rolled out from home and headed south, a light tail-wind kicking at our heels. Alright, it was going to be harder coming back, but there were two of us, and stomping the last leg into a headwind seemed like a declaration of intent for the week ahead. We covered the first ten miles at a brisk pace, kicking up the steep rolling hills on the way to Okato, sometimes backing off at the top, but more often not. There the road turns onto the coast proper. Turn right at any point: next stop Chile, nine thousand kilometres of southern ocean away. With a short hop between the road and the sea, it’s a wind-scoured, shelterless stretch that on any average day can be a soul destroying slog. Today though, the breeze goaded us on, and soon we were time-trialling south, a steady pace in the forties.
Thirty minutes later we turned inland. There’s a lane I’d found a month or so before that I wanted to show Andy. It twists between hedges of box thorn, the crown of the road is green and gravelled. Add a couple of psychotic, half-starved farm collies that have to chase if they want to eat, and we could almost be back in my native Cornwall.
By mutual consent, we dropped in side-by-side and sat up.
“It’s around here somewhere.” I said.
”I’ve got a stiff back after that.” Andy said. “Getting home could be fun.”
I stood up in the pedals to look over a hedge, and then an thunderbolt of pain went down one side – back and leg. I came to a grinding halt and for a long, long time, the air was blue with swearing. I tried a few, ginger revolutions, and – to labour the thunderbolt metaphor, Thor took a few preparatory swings, just to let me know what would be coming my way if I persisted. I wasn’t pedalling anywhere: my back had gone, right on schedule – just as the osteopath had gone on holiday.
Andy left me on a small patch of grass outside the Rahotu Tennis club and headed inland. The northerly breeze was whipping itself into something much more interested, and the signs were that once again, the weather forecast – northerly breeze later was going to be another of MetService’s gloriously horrible understatements. I sheltered in the lee of the clubhouse where it was warm and still. I tried a little yoga – dog shit peppered the grass, my knees dug into invisible gravel. The pain lessened, a little. I dozed, and then international rescue arrived, my wife and the car.
That, I thought, was that. I drunk a beer or two and tried to be philosophical about it. I broke it fifteen years ago and compared to the view from there that I thought would be my future – the possibility of a life permanently curtailed, pain a daily constant – I’ve nothing to moan about, even if I swear a bit during the daily yoga that’s part of the deal.
I slept in the shape of a question mark; I got out of bed and fell over. The thing won’t get better on its own, so I hobbled the block to the beach and back. A fifteen-degree list is ten by the time I’m home, and I passed the bike in the hallway and allowed myself to think: a spin might help – just a gentle one.
The subject was broached.
It’s your own bloody fault if it goes. Why are you such a stubborn arse?
And then – I’m not driving that far again. Stay close to home.
I spun for an hour and a bit – in the sense of one-legged clod walloping being spinning – then climbed off and lay for another twenty minutes in the shade of a kowhai tree, waiting for my body to get used to the idea of being straight-ish again. A pair of Tui argued around me; the dogs came and licked my legs.
That afternoon, I did it again. It hadn’t killed me, I said. More might make it better I said. And then I didn’t say I was only fifteen kilometres behind festive 500 par – one thing at a time.
And so, that’s how my 500 started – a series of recovery rides, not too far from home. Recovery rides turned, day by day, into something else. To the same loops, I tacked on road-ends I’d never visited, places not on the way to or from anywhere else. I found the best fruit ice-cream, sold from a pink caravan that overlooks the sea, fifteen kilometres from home – often passed, never stopped. The lady there told me I’d missed a pair of humpbacks travelling north by less than an hour, so stopping became a daily ritual, a sugar-and-fat hit while scouring the horizon. I found that the track to the old gold mine at Boar’s Head was closed, that the beetle sculpture that used to raise a smile on the commute never died, it just moved. I logged miles with my son: we sat on the stoop of a village shop washing down a snickers with milk, just as I did when I was his age – on the days when Will Broome used to smash me to pieces on the back road past Hellingly Hospital, half a world away. No, the pain never receded, and the kink never really straightened until New Year’s Day, and a day off. And no, I didn’t end up with the kind of supercharged legs I was looking for, or smash the thing in three rides, but in a very real way I reconnected with the greatest bit of cycling that – amongst all the races, and the time-crunched training, the talk of junk miles, and chasing segments – I’d almost forgotten was there.