There comes a time when normally sane middle aged men take up some cause, and on its behalf, run, swim, walk or bike a silly distance, preferably up and over equally silly obstacles, and, inexplicably, compete against each other by trying to do it in the fastest time. Now what is that all about?
I’ve done it myself on several occasions, the latest of which was The Yorkshire Rider Mountain Bike Challenge, September 2001.
A fellow choir member comes up to me after practice, one night in June, and says would I like to do a bike ride. It's for ‘Sightsavers’, you know, those guys who do a hundred eye operations in an afternoon, in a tent in the middle of the Indian desert, for five quid. I’d never heard of them and I’m allergic to collecting money anyway. But and I’m 54, and can ride a bike for about an hour on the road, and up hills too, so I says yes, but don’t expect too much dosh. This was my first impetuous decision. The topic isn’t discussed again, and I forget about it. It's not a steamy long hot summer of your romantic novelist, but the reassuring seasonal rituals recur reassuringly and, between the numerous dot balls, my steady opening bat snicks and tickles ones and twos to fine leg and third man, decorated by the occasional rush of blood to the head, which usually results in either the maximum or LBW. Two weeks before the event, up comes my fellow choir member. Let's have some practice rides - oh, yes, what a good idea. The following day a pal pops round to put some sticking plaster on my decaying pile; he replaces my bedroom window. We talk over coffee, lunch, tea and any other excuse to talk and drink. ‘Oh, aye, we did that. It were easy. I could’ve gone round again.’
Can’t be all bad I thought, but why is he limping?
The choir is at its most gloriously inept when organising the sporting event. I’ll ring you. Well you forgot. You weren’t in. I definitely said 7.30. He forgot to book it. The list of why we didn’t play, run or whatever is endless. And the things that can go wrong. My own list includes pulled calf muscle, tennis elbow, broken rear mech, ruptured chain and bruised ego.
So we practise. My fellow choir member, who has now become our leader, organises the route. I remind him of my poor record with money, but he doesn’t seem unduly worried. It's only a charity, he says. I’ve got £200 do far, he says, but its what I like doing. Ah, I recognise the inveterate organiser. He can’t stop himself from running something. Mobilising the troops. Geoff’s a cyclist, he’ll come. What about Barry? Dave will do it. The hell I will, and yet I did. I bet he cuddles his mobile phone. Does he ever wonder why people don’t love him?
The training rides were to be on mountain bikes, and there I was on my Claude Butler, a decent enough road bike. I’d only been on a track for five minutes when the chain broke. A long walk home and the expense of a chain repair kit - a worthwhile investment as it happens. It was the second ride that proved I couldn’t do it. The bike wasn’t appropriate and it would die, and me with it. After a two minutes on a mildly undulating strip of mud and rocks, I’d lost my grip and fallen off, injuring my elbow and busting a toestrap. I remounted and my heart and several other internal organs sank as I heard the sound of ominous rattles and scraping noises. My rear mech was engaging with the rear wheel spokes. Haven’t you got a mountain bike our leader asks? Isn’t that the daftest question? Do I hit him now or shall I savour the moment?
I wasn’t going to do it. This was my second decision. But, I’d already got thirty quids worth of sponsorship. Sheila, my child bride, had baked a cake for work. Have a piece and sponsor this idiot. Can’t you hear their chuckling staff room sense of fun? ‘They’ll want to know if you’ve done it,’ she says. It was a double-edged sword upon which I was about to fall. On the one hand, this was money in the bank. I can’t bear getting sponsorship; its as bad as selling raffle tickets - I usually end up buying them all myself. On the other hand, if I didn’t ride, what’ll I do with the money. I know, I’ll give it back. No, I’ll do half and give half back. Oh, shoot, I’ll have to do it. My third and final decision.
I needed a mountain bike? Maybe I can’t do it after all. Geoff, bless him, the eternal optimist and good samaritan, offered me his machine. He received the benefit of one of my long and very old fashioned looks. The rear brake was a bit sticky and the chain slips so I’ve borrowed this other one from a mate, he says. ‘Well if you’re not riding it, neither am I.’
‘It only needs a bit doing to it.’
‘What makes you think I can do it?’ Our first tiff. I think I was actually shouting at our leader, who was blissfully ignorant over in the bass section. We baritones are a feisty lot. Now, I was emotionally as well as financially up the creek. Geoff’s charity had tied me in for the duration.
There is only one shop in Huddersfield that hires mountain bikes, and that’s in Scisset which is not really in Huddersfield. I give them a ring. You can have a twenty inch something, cost you £20. I’d already paid £12 to enter the ride and £7.50 for a chain repair kit, more than the sponsorship I’d been promised. Shows how pathetic I am. Collect it Saturday. I take my wrecked road bike in for repair on the way. Two lads, neither more than thirty, and both with a developmental need for conversational skills are serving on. Two terms at a charm school, perhaps? Maybe some sessions in the child bride’s staff room? They soon discover I’m harmless and warm to me. That’ll be £50 deposit and one of them swipes my card. I’m now down £89.50. Still it’s a brand new mountain bike. The other one gives me a tutorial how to take the wheels off - why should I need to know that? Here’s the repair kit, tyre levers and a spare inner tube - oh, dear, what have I done? I’m confused. Was my fifty quid deposit safe? I’m beginning to sense my second decision - not to do it - was the right one. I have a trial ride on the road in front of the house. Easy this, gears here, yes the brakes work, seat’s a bit low, needs adjusting. Five minutes and I’ve got it; ha, that’s what you think?
The child bride gets me to the start, armed with Mars bars and water. I don’t look too out of place, the bike and my clothing seem in keeping with the occasion. All ages, not a lot of women. Where’s your front brake, Dave? Shit I’m sure I had one yesterday. No cantilevers. How am I stopping then? I see the cable to the front wheel hub; ah, a disc brake, now we’re cooking. We’ll set off from the second row says our leader. The third row was past me before I’d got to the end of the start. Right, up the first track and I’m slowly sinking - the saddle’s loose and dropping. I get off and tighten it. I can’t get going again. The gear I’m in is too low and I can’t get any purchase on the pedal, it just keeps going round and I keep falling off. It's a Yossarian moment. Until I get on I can’t change gear. By the time I’m back on, all the women and children on the fourth row have overtaken me.
The next track I know and enjoy, until the downhill bit that is. I feel as though I’m in a fight: with the bike, with the stones, with the steepness. Every muscle in my arms is engaged in the struggle. The reason for needing the repair kit began to dawn on me and just to prove it, round the next corner, frantic repairs. It was a sight that was to be repeated every two or three miles. A small group bunched around an upended bike, tools and grease everywhere. There was even a guy with a broken chain. Now I was an expert at that.
A second tenor and a bass are waiting at the top of Holme Moss and I’m grateful. The view’s lovely and the weather fine sunny and windy. As I’m climbing, my saddle suddenly lurches forward; not only is it getting lower, it's loose. I’m riding a sea-saw. Half way up, our leader passes me coming down and I think he shouts something encouraging. He’s been reading the management textbooks again. On the top of Holme Moss, Barry has the right screw driver and fixes the saddle. He has a large rucksack full of tools, what a man. He also has his own personal fan club, which lurks round corners, but we know they are there, because they keep shouting, ‘Come on Barry,’ at the tops of their voices. I feel I’m in an episode of “Last of the Summer Wine”.
Life is not too unpleasant for the first fourteen miles. There are regular chocolate bar and water stations, where they they tick you off as having arrived, and then wish you well as you remount. I even take a risk on the downhills and release the brakes a fraction. I pass our house. I pass a Holmfirth Harriers road race. They are the only things I pass, apart from expletives and the checkpoints.
At sixteen miles, I simply run out of gas. The last ten miles is a blur. Walking up the hills, in fear of my life down the tracks, wobbling up and down on the saddle, legs and arms aching, bum sore. Getting angrier by the mile. I’m speechless at the finish and ignore our leader who is trying to say all the right things. A marshal loses one of my checkpoint ticks and tries to blame me. He won’t do it again. The winner is over 50 and does it in two hours, eight minutes - obscene. It was four hours, forty minutes since I’d lined up on the second row of the grid. If he’d’ve gone round again, he’d’ve lapped me.
I have to get home and play cricket at 2.30. It's 1.30. The child bride is busy. Geoff is going to me a lift, lovely boy. There are two fliers under the windscreen wipers inviting us to take part in races the following month. I tear them up. Apart from something rude and incomprehensible I said to the marshal I still haven’t spoken. Our leader comes over. ‘Can I put you down for next year?’
‘Ooo, let me think . . . ‘ Even the most irrepressible of do-gooders would have known to give it a rest and quietly walk away.
Geoff drives off. I turn to him, ‘Do you know I could be in Philadephia this time next year.’
The eloquent and literary bike shop owners give me back my £50. One of them engages me in friendly banter, ‘My mate did it last year, came seventh and in fixed gear, takes some doing that.’ I bet it did. My face felt stiff as a tried to contort it into some sort of smile. I think rictus is the word.
Is all this suffering good for you? Are there any good reasons for walking, running, biking or swimming long distances in the quickest times? And what has it got to do with male voice choirs?
Exercise is, as yet, one of the few things not contained in the medical or new labour list of banned activities and substances. It's actually one of those rare items that is positively recommended. But, forgive me for not assuming that this means it's good for you. It's simply that the risk of litigation or appearing in the tabloids is acceptably low if exercise results in death and disability. But watch this space, ‘Yuppie gym instructor sued. She did not tell me I would get addicted, says young executive. I’ve lost my girlfriend, my free time, everything’, or ‘Minister resigns. Outed as couch potato’.
So what are the benefits? An increase in feeling tone, which, after a long session, like Yorkshire Rider, tends to be suppressed by pain. Short and regular exercise is probably better if its feel-good you want. There are social spin-offs when the activity is done in pairs or groups - a matey shared adversity. Then there’s the pride in still being in control of certain parts of your body. Aging is no friend of toning and fitness. What about those cognitive behavioural middle managers? Don’t they love their targets and outcomes? Walking and running is ideal for the elderly filofax devotee. I’ve yet to see someone answer their mobile whilst cycling, but its only a matter of time.
There are corners of me that appreciate all these benefits. But, I have a slightly different spin on it. I value moderate to severe exercise mostly because I’m not doing anything else. The preoccupation with effort stops me from thinking. My working memory gets emptied and my mind becomes uncluttered.
On a counselling course, I met a buddhist. He’d done his time in meditation, in Thailand, usually at the mouth of batcaves. He’d regale us with stories of millions of bats flying out of the cave at dusk, and then back the following morning, and all the while he’s sitting there thinking, contemplating the sound of one hand clapping. It sounds pretty focused. Excluding all the things you don’t need at that moment. Sports people call it being in ‘the zone’. A heightened awareness of the immediate. What do I need to do now, this second? Sometimes its hanging on - defensive survival tactics. A sense of absorbing pressure through technique. At other times its taking those few chances that come your way in a burst of brilliance and talent. I won a 5K road race once, on handicap. I came last, twenty minutes behind the winner. I’ve been fitter, but that night I didn’t just run, I performed and it was a proud moment when I picked up the cup. I was 5 to 1 after that and never won a thing.
We all have potential in something - the great american dream. We’ve all done games and sung at school, but only a handful of us will play at Cardiff Arms Park or Carnegie Hall. There is a wide range of innate talent which fate may or not allow to be converted into sublime performance. It's a chancy business. Genes, parents, role models, training and experience, determination and persistence are some of the variables. So a natural doesn’t always compete and an awkward, skinny bespectacled youth can, through application, become a world class opening test match batsman.
And there’s age. Our interests and abilities differ at different times of our lives. There is transition and regret, ‘I could have been a contender’ is the often quoted taxi scene line from ‘On the Waterfront’. We review those pressures that got in the way of our dreams; daily tasks, work and family. When time is on our side, there’s never enough. And then we leave things behind, but what carries on? What can we take with us into the second half, the last five minutes, with extra time and penalties looming?
Our choir is mostly over 45, veterans in sporting terms. Anyone under that is the youth policy. Some, our soloists, have always sung. We occasionally draft in others who maybe aspire to singing professionally but who still have the day job. Then there is our musical director who is a retired Welsh National Opera tenor with attitude. Don’t be late for practice or it's humiliation. The rest of us are hanging on, trying to remember the words. Have you ever really listened to any of those old hymns? They don’t make sense. How does an aging brain memorise the incomprehensible? Our choristers are also plumbers, electricians, salesmen, doctors, college lecturers, teachers, business men, public service managers, accountants, retired, part-time or still in work. Whatever our backgrounds we have a part share in life’s ups and downs: redundancy, illness and burnout, or simply fed up. Then there’s the odd happy chappie. Us hangers-on might hope to be the best we can be, but mostly we are resigned to being good enough. Talent, training and experience are against us. How late can you start another career, and still make the zone? What we have lost in raw energy we have gained in wisdom and we know how much effort it takes to produce a minimum return. When we struggle for the line or we can’t quite make the pitch we listen to those around us. Concerts are our match days. Attendance figures and newspaper reviews keep the score. And here’s the difference for me. Being the best you can be is a personal process. The outcomes, cups and titles, compare you with others but deep inside you know if you’ve performed or not. The personal is paramount. If you’ve been the best you can be the mind is empty, refreshed and cleansed. Being good enough is a personal compromise. The process is not the thing. It's what you can get away with. There just aren’t the resources for anything else.
But some of us are still doing those silly walks, runs and bike rides.