Right foot down, follow on and off, pedalling down the empty street, gathering pace, legs spinning more than usual as this old frame of mine now only has the one gear.
5am. A few notes of birdsong hanging on the still cool spring air. Touch of light stealing upwards from a horizon that’s somewhere beyond the roofs and loft conversions. Dawn or city lights left on? Hard to say from my front door.
It’s not long before the legs stop spinning and begin the harder grind up to the top of Hilly Fields. My first stop on my early morning ride. Still clear, still cold. Still dark, but an intense orange glow rising, behind the tangle of city lights in the east.
Dropping down, spinning through our city river’s valley. On this bike I can tell exactly when the gradient begins to change and I start to leave the valley, up towards the high ground of Blackheath. No way to ease the gradient by shifting down a gear. From spin to push, then, on this one, Morden Hill, I have to get out of the saddle half way up. Rough ground and potholes make it that bit tougher.
Then Blackheath. The sun is really on its way in the east, but it’s warmth is still a while away. To the west, a huge moon, on its way down to the horizon. A couple of indistinct shapes far away, one breaking into a dogs bounding run, the other, still, waiting. No one else is here as day slowly arrives, Dark orange sky turns to gold and pink, violet at the edges.
This morning, I’m too early for Greenwich Park. The gates are still closed. So I head to Charlton and Woolwich, dropping down to the river, the little bike leaping over the road humps. I stop at the red light on Woolwich Church St and then weave my way around to the foot tunnel.
This one is still open. Greenwich is closed due to fears that too many people will visit it this Easter weekend, making social distancing impossible. Woolwich’s tunnel is not so popular so no chance of that here. It’s empty. I take the liberty of riding through. It’s longer than Greenwich and doesn’t feel so steep a pedal up to the other end.
I decide to carry the bike up the stairs. This stairwell is less well kept than Greenwich, the old iron steps a touch rustier. Once out, back on the bike and I just ride the next few miles, without thinking much, past the Silvertown sugar works. Along the cycle way that runs under the DLR. It’s finally light. Flat empty roads and paths so you can just push forward. It’s so quiet and empty even one vehicle approaching from behind can be heard from yards back. I can’t break my habit of regular checking behind over my shoulder, though a city riders habit, even when every time I look, the space is empty.
On to the Isle of Dogs over the swing bridge, back on to the riverside at Arnhem Wharf. Sun well up in the sky now, climbing quickly. One solitary vapour trail, high, the only mark on the pale blue sky stretched over the river.
Leaving the river at Tower Bridge, on to the cycleway. One or two other riders here, passing me mostly.
At Westminster on to Millbank. Past Vauxhall, the road becomes a little busier with motor vehicles and a driver speeds past me, unpleasantly close as we approach the road narrowing at the building works near Chelsea Bridge, briefly taking me back to how it used to be.
Over Albert Bridge and into Battersea Park for a quick spin round. At this point, I realise I’ve become very fond of this old bicycle of mine. It’s many years since I’ve ridden it more than 30 miles, it’s just become my old beater bike in the last few years. But since lockdown it’s the only bike I’ve ridden and I’m reminded a bit more each day of how reliable, how comfortable, how neat and nippy the old Holdsworth frame is. This shouldn’t surprise me: for nearly thirty years it was my only bike and has been with me across Europe, around Scotland, Ireland and Wales as well as being my working bike in the 80’s and commuter bike for decades. But, once I had a bit of money to spare in my late forties, I, of course, spent it on a bicycle. What else? And what a beauty, a Roberts Roughstuff, built for me perfectly. It became my touring bike, so the Holdsworth lost its pannier rack.
Then a few years later, carbon riding friends became harder and harder to keep up with. So, I saved up a bit more and bought the Sabbath September. Not quite a carbon road bike, but the Audax style titanium frame from Sabbath Cycles in Macclesfield (where they were at the time) has been my weekend bike for ten years now.
And the Holdsworth became my commuter and shopper bike, stripped down, one gear. But, over the last three weeks, it’s the only bike I’ve been riding. 20 to 30 miles or so most days, city streets, a few early morning park paths then home. And, although I’ve never been one to be sentimental about bikes, never given them names like some of my friends do, always seen them more as useful machines, rather than faithful friends, after over forty years, I’m getting more than a little fond of this old thing!
It seems no point in riding the Sabbath or the Roberts. The single gear can handle nearly everything London has to offer (although I won’t be riding up Canonbie Rd or Swains Lane any time soon on it) and the Holdsworth rides London like it’s been doing it all it’s life. Well, it has been. We both have, together.
And it doesn’t feel right, at the moment, to head out of the city on the Sabbath for those Kent or Surrey hills. It’s not that I don’t want to. And the distance out and back is no greater than this city loop I’m doing. The wildflowers will be pushing up through the cold earth, the trees will be greening, apple blossom will be scenting the Kent lanes. I have been looking forward to it all winter.