On Fridays we ride. For nearly a decade now, myself and a group of like-minded, similarly attired, equally knackered, middle-aged men have met up every Friday morning, whatever the weather, 8.30 sharp at the gates of the park.
We have an unspoken but usually unbroken rule that we go at the pace of the slowest rider
We spend an hour riding bikes, admiring bikes, showing off our swanky new jerseys and pretending we can still pull a mighty turn on the front of a roaring peloton, before retiring to the café for coffee and chat about bikes and bike races.
The core of our little chain gang is a mixed bag of a dozen or so men, most in their late 40s to mid-50s, all of whom have organised their lives so that they can spend Friday mornings (and for some almost every morning) going round and round in circles on expensive carbon machines while wearing preposterously tight outfits.
There are a couple of photographers, architects, writers, musicians, designers, a teacher and lawyer and a couple with no obvious means of support. But then what you do outside of the park is rarely discussed. We don’t go in for deep analysis of anything other than gear ratios or paint finishes, Alpine climbs and bunch sprints. We bare our shaved legs not our tortured souls.
But it is still a profoundly important part of our lives, and the sense of camaraderie and shared love for the velo is truly life-affirming.
Some of the old hands have been riding and adoring bikes since they were boy racers, while others have arrived more recently at the realisation that the svelte lines and precision engineering of a hand-crafted road machine are perhaps mankind’s greatest invention.
Beautiful old machines
We also know that it is an obsession, one which will keep you fit and sharp way into later life. Cycling doesn’t mangle your knees and ankles like running and football, and on the continent you regularly see men in their 70s and 80s rolling along the country roads on beautiful old machines.
We’re not at the gently rolling stage yet, though most of us are now at the point where we are slowing down rather than speeding up. But it still provides an adrenaline rush when you work together as a group to get a head of steam up, smoothly running through the gears and slicing through the air.
We have an unspoken but usually unbroken rule that we go at the pace of the slowest rider (that’ll be me), but the desire to keep up means you work hard to maintain a level of fitness and speed. And there’s always a sprint at the end when the quick lads can unleash their formidable legs.
As well as the obvious fitness benefits, discovering the joys (and concomitant pains; believe me, it hurts) of cycling and lycra has other advantages.
The whole thing feels suitably sophisticated and continental, with its French terminology and Italian styling, yet it brings out the boyish stamp collector/trainspotter in you as you become increasingly fanatical about Colnago frames, Campagnolo group sets, Belgian roulers and French baroudeurs.
(When you’ve just bought your fifth frame, and you’re hiding it from your partner, you know you’re in deep.)
It also revives flagging vanity, as everybody wants to look cool and lithe in their new Rapha gilet and Oakley wraparound shades. (I’m sure every member of the Friday morning club owns a very accurate set of scales.)
We also organise group trips to the Downs or even the Alps to try out our skills beyond the confines of the park. Camaraderie, fresh air, exciting places, and plenty of shiny kit to spend your money on.
Of course, these days we are far from alone in our passion, as cycling has boomed and the number of fellow riders has increased dramatically. You have to get used to youngsters in their thirties swishing past you, and overly pristine neophytes sipping flat whites while discussing Cavendish’s chances of securing the green jersey this year when not so long ago they would have mocked you for wearing tights.
It doesn’t feel like quite such an exclusive club any more, and indeed in the last couple of years our little peloton has grown, as more, younger, and female riders have joined in. They are more than welcome. Cycling is such a great sport we all get a little evangelical about it and welcome converts.
But every Friday, just before we set off, I have to remind them that this is a ride for old blokes, not a race. By the fifth lap they’re at the front, we’re all flying and I’m holding on for dear life and loving every minute of it.