By Michael Barry | Photography by Walter Lai
The windows on the bedroom are lined with frost, blue and white crystal patterns becoming brilliant with the moonlight, still shining bright in its final hours. The duvet holds in the warmth, while the room has chilled through the night. The alarm buzzes. It is 5:18 am as I hit it and then reach for my winter shorts. Getting out of bed, then pulling them on, I am committed. Everything else has been laid out: the wool socks, the wool undershirt, the jersey, the jacket, the leg warmers, the gloves, the hat, the scarf, the glasses. I pull them on quickly, trying to keep the bed’s warmth on my skin, in my body, and tucked into the clothing. When I step out into the cold, the warmth will stay with me for at least a few minutes. After that, the effort will take over. Now, in the bedroom, I scurry quietly, readying myself, as my wife and our boys lay buried deep in their duvets, asleep. I’ve got twenty minutes to meet the group.
My days of riding for a salary, racing in the professional European peloton are past. There is no obligation to wake up early—not even for the fitness. In a big city it is easier to run. Early in my career, I thought that when I retired I would never ride again. That was then that it most felt like a job to me. I imagined I would stop riding, get fat and enjoy life. Now I realize, riding is one of the things I enjoy most, even when the temperature is below freezing and dawn hasn’t broken.
As I buckle up my shoes, tug over the shoe covers, there is a flash of a memory of being on a team bus, sitting in the plush leather seat, and readying myself for Het Nieuwsblad in Belgium. Wet snow fell outside. Spectators gathered in their parkas and wool hats gazing at our bikes, which were lined up alongside the bus, waiting for us to exit and pedal to the start line. It was a miserable day. The bus was silent with nervousness. Expectations were high and we all knew the day that lay ahead. Those were moments I don’t miss. Now, I ride for myself.
Dressed and ready to ride, in haste, I push the button on the coffee machine. One shot of coffee spurts out. The cold on the ceramic cup hits my lips while the warm liquid splashes into my mouth. With an empty stomach and a jolt of caffeine, I’ll feel awake within minutes. I’m out the door, in the garage, and on my bike. The city is still dark and asleep. A raccoon, drunk on the garbage he’s picked through during the night, glares at me, saunters across the road. It’s not the first time I’ve seen him; it’s as much his morning routine as mine.
Stepping hard on the pedals as I accelerate from the stoplight, I begin to feel awake. Now, I’m racing through the empty streets, not because I’m late but because I feel alight. In the darkness of the night movement on a bicycle seems abnormally fast. I don’t need race numbers, fans, or a finish line to feel the buzz —that was something I came to realize during my last years of racing, when out thrashing through the Catalan countryside alone or with a training partner, or two.
A city bus passes me. The lone passenger aboard, likely having just finished a night shift, sits under the glowing fluorescents, his nose in a phone. The residential streets, lined with rows of houses with their neatly kept gardens and parked cars, are still in the darkness. The fat knobby tires hum on the ice-cold tarmac, which is tinged with white from the salt that has been thrown down.
Reaching our meeting place, I nod hellos, and speak a few words. Nobody is conversing much at this hour; that will happen in a few hours as we ride home, on a high from the ride, and as the city wakes.
We leave the dark parking lot, sliding immediately into pairs. Two by two, we ride towards the park gates. As we descend down into the valley, an oasis of green and brown in a city of lights and concrete, towards the river, the temperature drops suddenly. A skunk, a rabbit scurry into the bush as our blazing lights illuminate the valley floor. Frosty white, each blade of grass seems visible on the valley floor. Animal tracks are joined by our tires distinctive marks: snaking green lines on a white surface. We reach our circuit. Here the efforts start. The other riders haven’t raced towards Roubaix, up the Galibier or into Milan. These guys are dads, doctors, bankers, ad men, painters. But, they know how to handle their bikes and can ride hard and fast. In two hours but the work day is still distant in our thoughts. We’re in the moment. The six of us lap around the expansive cricket, football and rugby fields, diving into the woods, snaking through trees and then flying back out on to the open grass. We jump the odd log and swoop around trees. Off the roads, we stay warmer pedaling with more resistance on the grass, wood chips and dirt, and staying out of the biting northwesterly wind.
The cold air sears my lungs as I push harder. Steam rises from the jacket of the rider in front of me. Bits of frozen dirt flick up from the tires. We each take our turns setting the tempo from the front, driving the speed when differences can be made and easing off when visibility is minimal. The sensations are no different than when I was with my Sky teammate, Jez Hunt, flying along behind a motorbike when racing was our job. Now I am a bit slower, but the thrill remains.
Our allotted time is over, as we have to pedal back home to get our proper days started. The kids will be waking and readying themselves for school. The workday returns to our minds. As the sun rises, turning the black sky into a winter grey, we pedal slowly, chatting, wanting those final few kilometers to last. The neighbourhood is coming alive. The cold, the darkness, and the camaraderie, make it feel as though we’ve stolen a few hours and had a unique adventure in a city of seven million.
Opening the front door to our house, my fingers tingle from the cold. Under the shower, they’ll itch as the blood returns to my extremities. My son runs to give me a morning hug but quickly pulls away as he feels the cold on my clothing. I smile. The day will be good.
(The story was first published for rapha.cc in 2015)