Just as the intense cold of the Younger Dryas reluctantly gave way to the warmer wetter climate of the early Holocene, Spring begins to arrive in Hull. The days get longer almost imperceptibly, and there's a flush of optimism around. Oam DeePOH (AKA B&Q) starts to sell the English version of barbeques, devices which, as Canadian friends who were unfortunate enough to be invited to our first barbeque in Halifax will remember, consist of aluminum foil trays filled with just enough charcoal to heat one sausage to a the optimum temperature for e-coli to flourish. Even this process takes several hours, which is a reasonable explanation for the massive quantities of beer that are consumed during this intensely climate-inappropriate behaviour.
Spring, though, does not allow acts falsely performed in it's name to stop the relentless progress. It has a duty to perform after all, namely preparing itself (at least in the East Riding of Yorkshire) to usher in, and welcome, the slightly warmer, dampish summer. Life in England, for many people, consists of a cycle of disappointed perpetual regret, mostly weather related.
For the Crosstowner, however, Spring signals liberation. Irrepressible velocipede that it is, my trusty steed loves Spring and cannot wait to get out of the door. The wheels turn more freely, the gears shift slickly, and the frame becomes rigid and muscular as it shakes off the torpor of Winter. This bike knows that freedom beckons, and it passes on its optimism unselfishly. The rider begins to dream of lonely open roads in Northern Scotland. But before the empty Highlands can be visited, there is a University term to complete. Unlike the endless treadmill of employment, or the yawning chasm of unemployment, though, the process of completing a semester is pleasurable, albeit without drama. Predictability, which readers might remember was our Ace of Spades in Operation Sloth, has set in over the past few weeks. Progress is being made on our renovations - slow and steady, and my University days are productive - made more so by settling on a routine.
I push the Crosstowner across the threshold of our rotten front door frame and cycle the fourty yards to the end of our street. With routine has come familiarity, so it is no surprise that I'm joined by a sprightly older gentleman, also on a bike, also waiting to turn left. We nod silent acknowledgement. My co-cyclist, whom I will call Alf, also goes to the University every Thursday and also parks his bike in the racks next to the Post Modernist nightmare that is the Social Sciences building. Alf is a quintessentially English vision. His bike, the Champion, is a Raleigh tourer, drop-down handlebars, rear-panniers, greyish green. Alf, and the Champion, are traditionalists - 10 gears, lever shift mounted on the lower part of the mainframe, solid welds. Alf's outfit is old school - shiny brown leather shoes, greyish-green worsted trousers clipped tight with steel bicycle clips, waxed jacket, flat cap, grey hair. But the complete abscence of chrome, lycra, aluminum, titanium and plastic is misleading - Alf is very fit, despite being early sixties, thin as a whippet, clear blue piercing eyes. He looks so healthy it makes me wish I had been a hardy Methodist.
As the traffic clears, Alf and I push off. The routes to the University are simple; left down Newland Avenue, left down Cottingham Road, right into the University, then ahead with a slight right to the Social Sciences building. There is a minor variation that can be chosen, which consists of taking the backstreets that run parallel to Newland as you head towards Cottingham. The advantage of this is the route is relatively traffic free, while the disadvantage is you have to jink through a short alleyway pretty soon after the left we are about to take, in order to reach the freedom of the backstreets. I push off ahead of Alf, slipping through the gears with a simple twist of the handlebar mounted shift, while Alf fumbles through his gears, but as the road narrows to pass under the railway bridge, I slow and see Alf passing leisurely. He's taken the middle of the road, braving oncoming traffic and sails through, making the cars ahead slow to let him pass. Alf gives me a jaunty wave.
Through the narrowing at the bridge, the quicker shifts of the Crosstowner catch me up to Alf, and I flick my left hand as I pass him. My progress is interrupted by a pedestrian crossing though, and I stop dutifully, allowing the good people of Hull, who shop continually it seems, to trek across the road, their environmentally friendly hemp shopping bags full of pre-packed groceries. Alf catches up and passes me as the pedestrian crossing clears. I accelerate, gently, but with a minor degree of urgency, although I am simulataneously trying to look nonchalant. In truth, I am panicking slightly - it is not very far to our mutual destination. Suddenly, with a quick peek behind him towards me, Alf hops off his bike and runs towards the alleyway, heading for the backstreets. On time, and on schedule,with welcome predictability, pretence is dropped. The race is well and truly on.
I choose to stick with Newland, surging down the street, riding the median and timing my intersections with pedestrian crossings so that I only have to slow, not stop completely. I glimpse left at the first gap in the houses that I meet and through the gap in the houses, see Alf, head down, powering along the empty backstreet. At Cottingham Road, desperation setting in, I jump the lights, throw the Crosstowner into top gear and sprint down the centre of the highway like Djamolodine Abdoujaparov, the famous 'Terror from Tashkent', in the 13th stage of the 1998 Giro Tour of Italy. I see Alf emerge onto Cottingham ahead of me, but knowing that turns mean gear shift mean slowing down for Alf, I surge on. Alf glances right and responds, kicking hard for the car park.
My last chance is a desperate gamble, so I swing the Crosstowner onto the other side of the road, jump the kerb and the low stone wall surrounding the University, switch down a gear and hare across the expansive grass lawn in front of the Dean office. I make the car park about two seconds ahead of Alf, but his route has taken him closer to the bike racks, so he skids to a halt, and, in the same balletic movement, dismounts. To the victor the spoils.
We both lock up our bikes, an activity which, as this is England, takes a little time. Wheels, saddles, lights, water bottles, pannier racks and, in Alf's case, bike pumps, are removed then all locked together. The result is sculptural, but the time it takes allows us to catch our breath. I finish and walk towards my lecture, passing Alf. An unwritten rule exists every Thursday morning that there should be no acknowledgement at all of our race, so I nod briefly. Alf looks up "Lovely day" he says. I agree.