Saturday, 9 June 2012
Any given Thursday night.
We are in a car park. The car park belongs to UCLAN, this is their sports facility. It is a Thursday in early June. It is bouncing down.
We are early. We have come straight from the office; freed from the responsibility of the children who have been packed off to their grandparents for part of the school holiday, I can play supportive wife.
We left the house at seven this morning, the cyclist packing his kit while getting his work head on. He checks his bag. He has forgotten his overshoes, and his race license. We go to the sign on, both of us hoping the missing license won't have caused us a wasted journey. The cyclist knows his numbers, and the man recognises him - he races here almost every week. There is no problem. He signs on, we go back to the car.
The car park is pretty full. The assorted cars have steamed up windows and are gently rocking as those inside undergo the metamorphosis from Nine-to-Fiver to cyclist. It looks like a doggers paradise. The cyclist is getting changed beside me. 'Careful', I say as he puts on his shorts. 'There's kids over there, you'll end up on a list'. He laughs. It is my favourite thing in the world to make him laugh.
There are kids everywhere; children on the track, juniors on rollers in the rain. Some of them are tiny, barely bigger than our own small daughter. Some of them are 'faces', strutting round with teenage self-importance, deflating only slightly when someone's mum asks if they want a hot chocolate. There is a family atmosphere. This is a good thing. In better weather the kids and families hang around longer, watching the full compliment of races, eating hot crepes with nutella and marshmallows. In the summer holidays I will hope for warmth and sunshine so as to bring our kids here to stay up long past bedtime in the fading evening sun.
The field for the cyclist's race is reduced by the rain, and some of the riders who might otherwise have been here are racing the Tour Series in Colchester. The commissaires are joking about the length of the race, it will be curtailed due to the weather. The riders spin out for a couple of warm-up laps, the rain looks like it may be stopping. They come back to the line, ready to start proper - the rain has rallied and is coming down harder. I go to the cyclist, to take his rain cape. I go back to the place where I was stood, near the start/finish line with my umbrella, desperately looking for someone to talk to.
The race gets underway. They go hard; it's cold and wet and no rider wants this to go on any longer than it has to. Within a few laps the E/1/2's have shaken the 3/4's. There is a rider off the front, about a third of a lap off the main bunch. A commissaire is talking to a man near me; they do not know who the rider is. I butt in to their conversation to identify him. They assume I am the rider in question's girlfriend. I say something stupid, as is my wont.
The riders concertina in and out, the bunch stretching and contracting as the laps stack up. Attacks form and are countered. And the rain comes down. A few laps to go, and the bunch is split in two as a rider escapes off the front. He stays away, gaining time on each subsequent lap. There are six behind him, and the rest a few seconds behind. Small groups of 3/4's are scattered over the track, blue numbers marking them out. Some have smartly attached to one or other of the groups of E/1/2 riders as they are lapped. There is a small boy climbing on a bench; he cheers his daddy on every pass. The only support that could possibly matter on a Thursday, in the rain.
The penultimate lap. The rider off the front has gained so much time from the group that I fear there has been a crash behind him, out of view, as it takes so long for the bunch to come into sight. The two groups have come back together in that final lap, picking up some more of the 3/4's on their way. They sprint for the line, spray flying. I see the cyclist cross the line. I try to count, but am unsure of his position. My second job of the evening (the first being holding his rain jacket), and I have utterly failed.
They come back round to the gate, having taken a lap past the line to wind down from the sprint. They are soaked and filthy, epically dirty. I am warned not to kiss the cyclist, but I do anyway. He looks to me like he has ridden a sodden spring classic, his nose and ears are full of black crap; it is caked onto his cheeks and eyebrows. The white sleeves of his jersey are grey, stark contrast to the back which has been protected from the grime.
We rush back over to the car. The cyclist has forgotten a towel on the one day he really needs one. He has his spray, and uses the spare jersey in his bag to clean himself off as best he can. I take the numbers off his jersey, take them back to the small room that serves as HQ while he changes again, this time from cyclist to husband.
We are done.
'What's for tea?'