Sunday, 10 July 2011

A Reason to Ride

For a start, I am small. After a physically exuberant early childhood in which I ran and jumped and wrestled like a puppy, I discovered that I could not compete with other boys. The race was indeed with the swift, and I was not one of them.
So I grew up with the expectation that I would never do anything marvellous with my body. As a grown man of 5 foot 2 and 130 pounds, I did challenge that through hatha yoga, hill walking and cycling for periods in my 20s and 30s. But the conviction that I was a natural sloth settled deep in me. After marriage I acquired the 'married person's allowance' of an extra stone in weight and a slacker rounder girth.
For another, I am now 60. If I was ever going to be a real cyclist like my father, who had a silver cup for his achievements -- and a sore leg -- then it would have been earlier than this.
When he was the age I am now the old black bicycle on which he had taken his sons to school had long disappeared. I doubt he was ever on it after the age of about 50. Yet I remember observing that he had a natural complicity with his bicycle that I could only dream of achieving with any person or machine. He seemed able to command it to stand erect and roll forward at the slightest touch when he stepped on to the near pedal with his left foot and swung the right over the bar. This was almost like a dance step, that left foot crossing in front of his right shin and the right leg arching behind him as the centre of gravity was appropriated from the bike to be shared with the body.
Perhaps it was in observing this kind of movement in another that Flann O'Brien concluded that a man might merge with his bicycle, the premise of the humour in The Third Policeman.
Neither my father nor I turned into the 60-year-olds that we expected to be. He should have been cycling to the pub and home along some broken boreen, the way his uncle Dan did into his 90s.
I enter my seventh decade a little trimmer than the recent trajectory of my life anticipated.
At 59 I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and told that I should lose weight, by a doctor who gave this news to men my age everyday and expected none of them to do anything about it.
With the incentive of reducing my prospects of heart disease and maintaining the span of life I had set that heart on, I set myself a target of losing two stone in six months and achieved that, learning to think of peckishness after a small meal as confirmation that my body was happily consuming its own fat. I had only to pick up a bale of peat briquettes to be reminded that my normality of a year before was to be carrying this load everywhere, like leaden smudge all over my body but more densely concentrated in the abdomen.
An additional benefit of slimming was that I could now comfortably ride a bicycle again. The last time I got on one, about 10 years before, my knees, as I pedalled, pressed into my gut when I raised them, not only finding their movement restricted but also pumping vital snatched breath back out of me. Merged with a bicycle, we made a good bellows but a poor system of the locomotion.
That had now changed, so I decided to start cycling again, having discovered that my body could be restored to what it was earlier -- or at least to the shape it was -- and I wanted to see if it could be really fit again.

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