The Olympics are over, and Laura Trott has handed me the baton to keep the pedals turning. Monday morning: first day of training. Bike gleaming, polished yesterday with my failsafe cleaning mix: washing up liquid. Chain turning like a dream, not a speck of grit or prehistoric grunge to impede its purr-fect rotations. Nuts tightened, nipples lubricated, spokes taut, rims like steel (actually aluminium). Tyres puffed up tight as the tightest arse, scrubbed free of accumulated dog-shit, grass clippings, claggy dust and muddy gloop picked up from murky puddles.
I adjust my helmet for the hundredth time, stretch my jaw in an attempt to relax, slide my sunglasses onto nose and ears, grasp the handlebars and in one movement scoot into the road and fling my leg over, simultaneously settling into seat and pedals.
The first few thrusts are the best, the surge of muscle power pushing into motion. I take the first two bends – a tricky dog-leg – alert and fast, my head bobbing left and right all the time, clocking my surroundings, ducking a low-hanging branch and swerving to avoid a bunch of school kids going to the sweet shop.
Shifting my body weight, I stand on my pedals and weave left and right through a chicane and bump over four tram tracks, then another chicane, and I’m off on the straight. A slight uphill gradient forces me to push harder, and I remember Chris Hoy telling Claire Balding on the TV that winning isn’t about how strong your legs are, it has to come from inside you. “Focus!” I tell myself, narrowing my eyes against an oncoming cyclist barrelling down the path towards me. I return his acknowledgement with the slightest nod of my helmet. My attention has to be on the task.
Snatching a quick look behind, I see there’s an opponent gaining on me. This is training, I tell myself, let him pass; but my inner winner is already out of the saddle, arse rocking side to side to gain extra speed. I beat him to the next chicane, compel him to wait for me to slow and negotiate the double bend, before he rockets off ahead of me in a burst of testosterone-fuelled oomph that’s way beyond my league.
“Tosser!” comes out of my mouth, but not too loud. The last thing I want is bike rage out here on this isolated cycle path. I settle into a steady pace, legs still flying but a looser grip on the handlebars. Using my bike computer I keep a consistent 14 miles per hour; check my watch: ten minutes in, twenty five to go. I have time to notice the hedgerow, white bindweed flowers winding through the brambles bursting with tiny green blackberries – mental note to get out here for picking in a few weeks’ time.
Up ahead an animal is standing in the middle of the track. There are plenty of dog walkers on this path, but none in sight right now. It’s stock still, unlike the cats that slink along the edge of the undergrowth, displaying their black and white or tabby colouring. Just as I make out the rusty shades with pointed ears and angular head, it breaks its stare and disappears with a final sweeping brush of its tail. Freedom expressed in one swift movement.
It was a young fox. The older ones have mangy coats, and they don’t stare; they’ve seen us before, and, unconcerned, they amble across our path with an air of nonchalance, telling us that this wild place is as much theirs as ours.
All the while, the tarmac is rolling away under my wheels. I bring my drifting thoughts back to the ride, think about my technique. Head low, shoulders down and elbows in, trying to be sleek like ….. like a?...... seal comes to mind but not really appropriate. I lose the next few minutes in a non-focused meandering of thoughts about land animals that I could emulate on my bike. In the end I settle on a cheetah (total cliché) and think of smoothness: liquid movements, silky airstreaming coat, and beautiful, making it all seem so effortless. But inside the head a cheetah pursuing its prey, it’s probably far from effortless as it marshals everything it’s got to down the impala or wildebeest or whatever is in its sights.
Without noticing I’ve come up off the path, crossed Wilmslow Road at the funny cyclist traffic lights that send you nowhere the other side of the road, and zoomed back down to the path. Being on autopilot makes the time pass, but it’s not exactly Laura Trott or Becky James style is it?
I check my watch. Another twelve minutes. Check my ride: speed, posture – shake my shoulders, stretch my back. Straight ahead, past the cemetery, then the new houses and over Hyde Road, past the Fitness First Gym and the Travelodge. Should be ten minutes from here.
Whizz round the hairpin bend taking me down to the edge of Debdale Park, a swift left-right-left with the head to ensure I don’t collide with a dog-walker as I emerge onto the next stage of the Manchester Cycleway. The cinder path spurts flecks of dirt, but I’ve never skidded here. (“Great cycling technique” says the champ cyclist in my head). Automatically ducking my head as I ride under a low bridge (“You’re not that tall” scoffed a friend riding behind me recently), rattling across a narrow metal walkway over the canal, calling “It’s all right” to mothers who sweep their flock onto the verge as I slow to pass their school-bound troops, lifting bare arms out of the way of marauding nettles, hailing yet more dog-walkers with a hearty “good morning”, I emerge from the narrow path through yet more chicanes onto a road with parked cars and a ginger cat resembling my own dear Amber (may he rest in peace).
Last push now: I take the first corner leaning to the left, knee wide just as I’ve seen Laura do, then reverse the movement turning right at the corner shop, followed by another right and left to perfect my technique. If only Laura could see me. Ironically I’m only half a mile from the Velodrome – maybe if I rode past it I would spot a champion cyclist?
The fantasy is over. I’ve arrived at work. The BikeRight! directors' day job looms.
ROLL ON THE PARALYMPICS!