Monday, August 18, 2008

Cycling in the Wet

Nearly three years ago, Stephen started cycling to work. It's six miles each way, and coming home is all uphill, oh yes.

At first he only did a day or two every week, but he's gradually built it up until now he does every day unless there's absolutely torrential rain in the morning when he's about to set off.

You know that thing they keep telling us about how lots of exercise makes you lose weight? Well, it's true - he wasn't exactly podgy to start with and now he's back to the thin strip of thinness that he was when I first knew him.

He's not very talkative, isn't Stephen. When he meets you, he'll talk for a short while and then disappear off somewhere. Emily used to introduce him to her friends thus:

"This is my father. He never speaks. It doesn't mean that he doesn't like you."

If he stays in the room, even for a while, it means that he really likes you.

It's fair to say that I am more talkative than he is.

He doesn't tend to write, either, unless it's in binary, for it's a well-known fact that he is indeed Half Man Half Computer. But suddenly, this week, completely out of the blue, he wrote something, though he doesn't know why. And I thought you might enjoy it, so here it is.

Cycling in the Wet

When people are exhorted to cycle more, maybe use their bicycle for commuting to work, the accompanying picture is always of young, fit, sexually attractive people, on nice new bicycles; at most there is a sprinkling of carefully sprayed-on dirt so it doesn't look too artificial. It is sunny, the road is open, and it looks kind of fun.

Reality can be a little different. Oh, it can still be fun: whizzing downhill at reckless speeds, rolling past traffic jams and even just gently moving along in the sunshine can all be very enjoyable. But there are also times when it is not quite so pleasant. And of course us slightly older, somewhat overweight and definitely unfit cyclists are hardly ever used in the pictures.

So sometimes it is fun and sometimes it isn't. It is even possible for it to be both at the exact same time, as this particular incident shows...

I set off in the morning in bright sunshine. It is close to a perfect day: sunny, no wind, and the traffic is very light. I almost expect to see photo-shoots of cyclists around every corner.

But during the day, while I toil at my work, it clouds over. It starts to rain. Then it starts to rain heavily. Then it starts to rain really heavily. Then it starts to rain really, really heavily. The sound of the water is deafening even through the double-glazed, totally sealed, un-openable office windows. So I look at the weather forecast and see that the rain is expected to last through the afternoon and evening, will probably include thunder and lightning, and weather and travel warnings are being issued.

Now it just so happens that getting proper wet-weather gear is one of those things I haven't got around to doing: I have only a “shower-proof” jacket to sling on. OK, I think, I am going to get wet. If I can accept this before leaving the building I won't mind so much: it is all a matter of attitude.

In actual fact I get a pleasant surprise when I step outside: I find the rain is curiously warm. I've never felt such warm water outside of a bathroom before, and it is strange but not at all uncomfortable. So I set off.

I do indeed get pretty wet fairly quickly. But it doesn't seem to matter much, and I quite enjoy the odd sensation, mainly because of the total lack of chill: it really is, and remains, lovely and warm. I keep going, feeling reasonably OK about it all.

After a bit I come to one of the more enjoyable sections: a long downhill stretch. It is not the steepest section, but still good enough to get to quite a speed, and I move up the gears to top as usual.

As I tootle along, I see a puddle ahead. No surprise in this weather. A quick look round, no traffic coming in either direction, so I decide to go round: no point in splashing water up from the road. I move out from the side of the road a bit.

Now I notice that the puddle seems to be getting wider. I keep going around until I am totally on the wrong side of the road, and up ahead the “puddle” widens to cover the whole road. And judging by the way the kerbstones are only just visible, it must be at least an inch or two deep.

Before I have a chance to decide what to do about all this I hear, coming up from behind, a police car with its sirens going. OK, no choice: I move over, into the water, to get out of its way. Now things start to happen a bit faster: it might help to read this next bit in slow-motion.

I find the depth of water varies quite dramatically from one moment to the next. This in turn affects steering, but before I can start to worry about that the next excitement starts. I expected a bit of splashing from the front wheel, but nothing like what happens. It feels like someone has pushed firehoses up both trouser legs and turned them on full: any sensation of wetness is lost in the solid pressure that drives both legs up around my neck. I am, in effect, water-skiing while holding on to my bike somewhere below. This severely reduces my ability to push the pedals round, or, indeed, control the bicycle in any way whatsoever..

I now find the police car is going past. They have slowed down, which is kind, but they restrict my options in terms of direction: them on one side, the edge of the road on the other. Not that it matters, I am not sure I have much control over my direction at this point anyway.

And now a further restriction: a big blue van up ahead that is pulling over and stopping to let the police car through. All very right and proper, but I now have nowhere to go. And I am still travelling at what might, in retrospect, be thought an unwise speed.

While considering what to do about all this I realise something I should probably have thought of before. All this water is actually on a hill: this is not a stable state of affairs. Water on a slope does not normally sit still. It begins to dawn on me that this is not so much a puddle, no matter how big, but is more like white-water rapids. Things I can't identify are being pushed along under the surface. The water is actually moving very fast in odd directions, so I am being pushed randomly to the left and right, on top of the unpredictable bumps from the unknown things beneath the water.

And then there is the matter of brakes. Now bicycle brakes are not terribly efficient at the best of times. When they get wet, their stopping power reduces to not much more than a vague hope.

So there's a lot of things going on, and I really need to start thinking about putting them in order and deciding on what, exactly, I am going to do about each one. I should probably make a list.

But the decision is taken away, and thankfully without anything nasty happening. I find I am slowing down at a very high rate: presumably the energy of the water going up my trousers is being efficiently extracted from my forward motion. In fact my deceleration is possibly faster than I would have chosen: I am not at all sure my back wheel is in any effective contact with the ground, I must be doing some sort of reverse wheely. But I slow down enough to avoid the van, and without needing to apply my brakes at all. And with things now going a bit slower, I can return to a more normal approach to cycling along the side of the road.

So I continue.

But a little slower than before, and with very wet legs.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm really sorry, that must have been truly scary and, with all that water up the trouser legs, more than a bit uncomfortable, but it did make me chuckle on a day when I really needed a chuckle. Thank you for cheering me up

8:48 pm  
Blogger Debby said...

Oh my goodness! Stephen needs to write more. I was right there with him on the bike. Very entertaining.

11:50 pm  
Blogger rhymeswithplague said...

So behind Stephen's very quiet, seemingly shy, even unassuming exterior lay a very good, even humorous, writer! Who knew?

I enjoy reading this blog more every day.

1:33 pm  
Blogger Oliver A. FP said...

I can't believe that a) he wrote it, or b) it happened.

Surely he controls the weather?

4:13 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm with Ollie on this one - how fantastic that Stephen wrote this.

Not half bad for a half man half computer!

5:20 pm  
Blogger Kate said...

I laughed and laughed - great post!

2:01 am  

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