“The Chakata fruit on the ground belongs to all, but the one on the tree is for she who can climb.” Shona proverb
It does not matter if we choose to look skywards or earthwards when compelled to consider. Whether we prefer to take the road back over what life has already provided or the pass to what is yet to be delivered, Shambhala lurks and lures nearby, waiting for those willing to reach and climb. It is difficult to find. Always fleeting, failing to be captured. And it lies in the mountains. The mountains that never change.
The numbers do not lie. The legs know what is around the corner. They have a photographic memory for all that they have previously felt. The misnomer of a favourite climb. A frequent climb, yes. A loyal climb, perhaps. A favourite climb, no.
These are the tortured actions of a recidivist, trying to deceive the mind for a fraction of a second. The familiar landmarks, the familiar fatigue, the slow clearing of the edges of the mind, for when there is nothing you would rather be doing.
Off the main road and straight onto the hill. The water cascades over the weir as you climb over the hump backed bridge. You can still hear it until you reach the red post box tucked away in the hedge. The road is quiet and protected by tall trees on both sides, rough and crumbly as you pass the timber yard and farmsteads on the left. The wind and pain is higher up.
The road is a slow snaking turn as you gradually climb in ever increasing steps. The surface starts to improve. Organic honey and free range eggs For Sale on the left. This is the last step before the consistent climb all the way to the top. A series of manhole covers and drains keep you close to the verge.
The road veers right and loses the protection of the trees. Ahead is just a long, thin track without end. A white gatepost appears on the right, a marker that progress is being made. Slow progress. This ceased to be fun a while ago.
The gradient increases and the patchwork tarmac doesn’t help. A SLOW sign painted across the road seems a little personal. The legs are trying to keep a rhythm. You know a resurfaced stretch of road lies ahead, you know its distance from the top but you also know that it is the steepest part of the climb. Keep the legs going until at least that new road appears.
There it is. Only a few hundred metres to go you try to convince yourself. Houses on both the left and the right now with grass pavements. White painted road markings emerge. Up it goes, around the corner to the left and the new road runs out. It’s back to bumps and holes but not much further. A sign for the crossroads comes into sight. The church on the left means that’s it.
There is a word in Afrikaans, perhaps in other languages as well, that I love. Buitenverwachting. Beyond expectation. It defies confinement. A physical concept but so much more when embraced by the soul. A choice, an ambition of the spirit and the source of everything that is beautiful. A bolt of lightning, the eyes of a child, a good deed done.
I tame Bucephalus to take me there. The legs lament and quiver. The chest vexes and sears. It is to be expected. I must labour beyond expectation if I am to retrieve that which I have seen before, that which is truly beautiful.
Stick to the left as you start the climb. The surface is poor and always gravelly. There is a thin strip of decent tarmac on the left. The road starts heading up as you reach the church on the right. You can shift down a few gears at this point. That is the second time a church has provided refuge on this ride.
Up through the narrow chicane, past the exquisite garden on the left. If only my legs matched it. There is always gravel here as well as running water. The first stream appears below the big oak tree on the left and the second just around the corner. It rolls softly away into the deep ditch, best avoided, on the side of the road.
The road veers right at the crossroads and ramps up. More free range eggs on the left. Pass the first lump of concrete stuck to the road which marks the apex of the corner. Make a mental note to avoid it on the way down.
Veering back to the left under the trees, past the garden filled with children and children’s toys, undoubtedly having more fun than you are at this stage. The second lump of concrete marks the beginning of the end but the legs are beginning to feel the previous climbs.
Another distraction is required! Is Abi Harding the best sax player you have ever seen? I think so. Better have another look. That’s a few metres further up. Now the trees totally envelope the road in dark shadows. Don’t look up for the light at the end of the tunnel just yet. There is a big round brow to get over before the climb is done.
It is dark and quiet. Nothing to see but the metres immediately ahead of you and nothing to hear but your own gasping breadths. The road lets you know when the climb is done.
The wistful drop drifts down the pane,
A pale reflection that is me,
I wonder from where it came,
I yearn to be that free.
Hidden deep within the being,
I get a glimpse, a sign so rare,
A warmth, a shine, never seeing,
I dream for those that dare.
Who rides with us through turn and crest,
We climb towards that tranquil place,
It comes not at our own behest,
The drop that makes its ambrosial trace.
This is the final climb. That knowledge helps a great deal. The larder can be emptied without recourse. The beacons which previously loomed large are now hidden above you. The goal is within reach.
The farm gate on the left holding back the barking dog means it is time to catch your breath for the final stint. Trees appear on the right and that is where we are heading. Make the sharp right turn, avoid the ubiquitous gravel and listen for cars coming over the hill. They usually hoot.
The legs dictate which gear to choose, usually a low one. A chicane to the right and then to the left blocks the view of the ramp which is a good thing. Get to the big tree on the right before panicking. 22% they reckon it gets up to. Make a positive start and the rest will fall into place: they also said that.
No need to look ahead. You know what’s there. Just concentrate on the next turn of the pedals. The road is good. It usually takes a couple of verses of Lady Gaga to get through this one. Now is a good time to start with verse one.
Bad Romance, bad legs. Picture the outfit, forget about your legs. The roads veers left and the trees give way to gorse. The air seems to get noticeably thinner. The legs start to ease and the gradient slackens off. Back into the teens.
Two shelves of shallower roads bring you to the top. England’s pleasant pastures lie below you. An irresistible look at the watch. 41 minutes. Missed the thirties again. Perhaps tomorrow.
Steve Walton is a weekend cyclist and regular reader of Rouleur