I began my university life in 1975 at Bristol, studying law. Last time I wrote, I explored my commuting life and one reason why I shouldn’t have taken to cycling. This is the second example. Loosely it involves hubris and a pothole, which could, in many ways, stand as a metaphor for my life…
To summarise briefly, my commute from my hall of residence to my lectures was across the Downs – not so much a sunlit upland as a Stygian Underworld of foul weather and fouler language. After that it was the bowel-loosening descent of the vertiginous Blackboys Hill and then onto the less steep but still downhill carriageway that is Whiteladies Road.
By all that’s holey, or wholly, having survived Blackboys Hill unscathed and successfully achieved the transition onto Whiteladies Road, the journey should have been plain sailing.
And most of the time it was.
And therein lay the seeds of my next brush with DOOM.
Little could go wrong. It was wide enough so no cars or buses needed to squeeze past.
There were no corners or even bends to speak of.
The one major junction came towards the end, on a flat section with good sight-lines and traffic lights.
What, really, could go wrong?
One thing you learn as a cyclist on British roads, especially those in towns and cities is that the nearer to the kerb you are, the more likely is it that someone will have introduced a potential pratfall. A pothole, a drain, a utility cover. As a regular commuter you become aware of these obstacles and take appropriate action to avoid them, viz you swerve outwards but at a sufficient distance to ensure that any vehicles behind you, see you coming, curse you like a maxed out voodoo doll tester but still give you a wide berth.
The particular problem in this case was a nasty little sink hole that spread about about two foot from the kerb edge. If you were clever enough you could swerve around it and thus avoid the jarring consequences of entering the same. It also meant you didn’t need to take risks with the traffic nor lose speed. This little bugger happened to be placed just before the one and only zebra crossing on Whiteladies Road.
I’d manoeuvred my way past this foxhole so many times that term, that I could have done it with my eyes… well, you get the picture.
There was one other small complication, not that I had identified it as such until that fateful November morning. It sat about a foot behind me on my bicycle rack, namely a briefcase full of the most enormous and dull books.
It was cold, crisp and, while not a morning for shorts, sufficiently fresh that visibility was perfect. People were moving about briskly which, in my case, was as well since I was on the posthumous side of late for my criminal law lecture.
Things were going so well. There was no head wind across the Downs, Blackboys had been empty and the ride had felt almost friction free. Approaching the zebra crossing I could feel confident that with just the right amount of effort I would arrive at the University buildings in time to lock up my flying machine and settle in my seat without the accompanying flurry of apologies.
Cycling is one of those exercises in real time calculus, even if you don’t realise it. You are descending your own little x axis and other objects approach you on their y axis. You must do a rapid calculation to determine if you have enough left in your speed-time locker to continue your current linear progress or adjust your trajectory to some sort of parabola to avoid what physicists call ‘an exponential fuck up’ namely a crash.
As I approached the pothole and the zebra crossing I espied, peripherally to begin with an object on its own y axis, to whit a pensioner, in long grey coat, a walking stick in one hand and a shopping bag in the other. His goal was the zebra crossing.
At impact minus a few seconds, he looked up, stared straight at me and hesitated. Or at least I thought he hesitated. From that small gesture of reluctance to proceed, I took my cue. I increased my pedalling by several warp factors, even if my own internal Scotty was screaming ‘she’s a’going to blow, captain’.
At this time in my life – I was 18 – I was a novice in interpreting the twitches of the elderly. What to me had been the equivalent of an ‘on you go, lad’ was in fact a firm ‘stand back, kiddo, coming through’. The old chap picked up his feet and made a passable imitation of acceleration.
He tottered, he teetered, he damn near tumbled but he was off, like a two year old filly approaching the jumps at Aintree.
Meanwhile I had put my head down briefly to increase the aerodynamics of myself and my bike. This, coupled with the increased pedalling – I didn’t want to delay the polite old chap unnecessarily – meant that, moments later, when I looked up he was a mere stutter away from the kerb and I an even smaller space away from him.
He was on a suicide mission, his peripheral vision, hearing and sense of self combining to allow this futile gesture of self sacrifice.
He stepped out onto what he thought was a safe refuge for a pedestrian while I made one of those instant judgements by which we will be forever judged.
The choice I had was one of three options: (a) brake – this I discounted on the sound principle that the bike may stop but I certainly would not and oblivion for both of us was the inevitable result; (b) swerve out – this too I left on the drawing board; our forlorn hero was on a trot and to swerve out would be to encourage him to wrap himself around my front forks – as we discerned in the last episode I had already attempted this ‘pedestrian as front basket’ experiment without success; or (c) swerve inwards towards the currently narrow but visibly increasing gap between the kerb and our Passchendaele survivor.
It was, of course, a no-brainer. The gap grew as the totterer increased in pace and for one of those glorious sunny upland moments that life occasionally throws at one, I felt sure we had avoided bikemeggedon.
The more sentient of my readers may recall my explaining, some 15 paragraphs ago (I know, class, it won’t be long, really) that there lurked a rather ill positioned pothole. This impediment, which in the flurry of redundant exuberance I was experiencing I had forgotten, now hoved into view.
A second swerve was really not an option. I had to enter and exit said hole and hope for the best. All I could do was stand on my pedals, soften my knees and trust I could ride out the impact without undue inconvenience – colloquially I hoped to avoid ‘coming a cropper’.
The entrance, down into the hole and the momentary transition to the flat bottom were accomplished satisfactorily. I might even suggest with a certain sangfroid, if I hadn’t been trying out a rewrite of the sporting chant ‘Oggi Oggi Oggi’ by replacing those lyrics with ‘Shit Shit Shit’.
Sadly such sublime progress ended when I, and more specifically my front then back wheels hit the far side of the pothole, a side that nature had decided to model on the North Face of the Eiger. Here…
The impact on the front wheel merely took me upwards; that meant that the impact on the back was profound. Jarring. Bloody uncomfortable.
For a moment I thought I was about to come that much anticipated cropper but, miracles, I landed back on the road and remained upright.
When you take such a hit, the vibrations caused tend to ripple through all solid objects involved. The bike, me, my briefcase, the text books. Their effect on elastic ropes such as that holding the briefcase and, by default the humungeous text books, is somewhat different, setting up a simple harmonic that causes the elastic to, well, reveal its fundamental properties: to whit it stretched and then contracted.
The result? The strap felt duty bound to come loose and, under the implied stretching that such vibrations imposed released a neutronic ambivalent torque of 17 to the minus 6. In layman’s terms the fucking thing whipped upwards and slapped me on the arse like a psychopathic octopus hailing a cab.
I jumped and squealed.
My briefcase, full to bursting with tomes and sarnies, freed of both any inhibitions and the said strap left the shelter of the bike rack and dropped to the road.
It landed with deadening thump, but to universal surprise it displayed the same unexpected vulcanism of the dead cat (as in the dead cat bounce concept utilised in stock market investments) in that it bounced, much like Barnes Wallace predicted his bomb would bounce.
Now airborne the briefcase-bomb’s trajectory mirrored our hero’s, who was unfortunately oblivious to the danger rapidly approaching from behind as he slowed from a totter to a shuffle.
I am told by the few bystanders that the briefcase neatly took our hero behind his knees and brought him to a position of unexpected supplication in the middle of a pedestrian crossing. When I looked round it did look like he had dropped for a quick prayer.
Two rheumy eyes looked at me sadly as I held out a hand and helped him up. Someone collected his shopping. Soft words were whispered to discern if he was alright. He nodded and straightened and looked at me. Then my briefcase. Then my bike.
‘You Twat. You Utter Twat.’
I think, all things considered, that was very fair.