I’ve been interviewed for a documentary about female messengers recently, and I have mixed feelings about this. My main reservation about messenger documentaries is that they tend to depict messengers as dangerous, sexy and very very fast – because of course, this makes great television. What they tend to miss out is the other half of the job – the slow, boring, unsexy side of it. The stupid mistakes we all make, the tedious hours spent waiting for goods lifts and arguing with security guards, the horrible days where you haven’t had enough sleep and crawl along into a headwind, with bits of plane tree blowing into your eyes. The punctures and blisters and hangovers. Yes, some days we feel like superheroes. But there are many other days when we just feel like losers.
So I’ve been trying to emphasize to the documentary makers that there are two sides to the job. There are those wonderful days when it all comes together – but there are also the days when it all falls apart.
Today was such a day.
It’s been horribly, stickily, sweatily hot for the past couple of days, which means work is far more exhausting than usual, and I’m more prone to spots and saddlesore and bad smells. I finished yesterday dizzy and headachy and covered in sweat – and then went and played on the velodrome until 9pm. This made me even more knackered, and meant I didn’t get anywhere near enough sleep, so as I left the house this morning my skin had that sweaty itchy feeling (only exacerbated by the temperature of the air) and my legs felt weak and sluggish as I struggled through the 25-minute ride into Vauxhall.
The bike felt weak and sluggish too, and over the course of the journey I noticed that
- the chain had somehow come loose (unexpected, as my stupid Goldtec hubs are wedged so tightly into the drop-outs that normally I can’t get the wheel to move even when I want it to)
- the back wheel was ridiculous out of true and several of the spokes were so loose they rattled (having been tightened by several mechanics over the past few months, all of whom tell me that it needs to be rebuilt, otherwise it’ll just keep on losing its true)
- my right-hand cleat had come loose
- my tyres had suddenly gone all squashy
The latter was fairly easily remedied, as was the penultimate, although it did involve a few minutes of swearing over a multitool as I attempted to pick out all the little bits of rock that had wedged themselves into the screw heads. And I can’t work out why the cleat suddenly came loose, after all these months.
The chain and the wonky wheel waited until I was safely (and lengthily) ensconced on Broadwick Street. I’ve only recently learned how to true wheels, and still don’t entirely trust my own ability, particularly because I’ve been informed by those who claim to know that wheelbuilding is more of an art than a science, and involves skill, talent and sensitivity that I almost certainly don’t possess. But I think I made a reasonable job of it. It’s by no means perfectly true, but it no longer actually ripples as you spin it, and it’s a lot nicer to ride on.
To my surprise, and not inconsiderable delight, very little has gone wrong with Evelyn since I built him. Today was clearly the day he got his own back.
Later on that morning, I was legging it down Kingsway and my brake cable snapped. This has never happened to me before, and it was a little disconcerting.
And I couldn’t be bothered to go to a shop and fix it, so I just went brakeless for the rest of the day. It’s amazing the extent to which my cycling habits are dictated by laziness. People often point out that one of the advantages of riding fixed is that there are far fewer components to go wrong. Absolutely. Ideal for laissez-faire bike mechanics such as myself. The trouble is, because there are no superfluous components, when something does go wrong, it tends to be something fairly vital. You can do without a mudguard or a few of the chainrings on your road bike. You can’t do without your front wheel, or your drive side crank. But it appears you can do without a brake.
I’ve considered going brakeless in the past, but never actually done so. Actually, this is also down to laziness. When I use my brake, it’s because I can’t be bothered to exert the muscles in my legs. But I’m also a bit scared that I’m just not capable of controlling the bike without it.
To make matters worse, at this point the storm that had been brewing for the past 24 hours finally broke, and I found myself riding along Lower Thames Street, through heavy traffic, with no brake, in torrential rain. It really was one of those days.
Except the rain was actually rather nice. It cleared the air, cooled me down and washed the stickiness off my skin. And it meant that most of the pedestrians and civilian cyclists buggered off and let me have the road to myself. And to my surprise riding brakeless wasn’t nearly as scary as I thought it would be. I had half-thought I might have to admit defeat and make an unscheduled stop at a bike shop. Now I began to wonder whether I should actually just forget about brakes altogether in future. It would be another steep learning curve though. I noticed I was far less confident on the bike without brakes, and took fewer risks, and didn’t throw myself around quite so much.
I was passing Brixton Cycles on my way home, so I stopped and bought a new brake cable and fitted it then and there. Being as I’m such a lazy mechanic, completing a simple task like this gave me a massive surge of achievement and capability. And this joined the surge of achievement and capability I was already experiencing as a result of riding around brakeless all afternoon. I began to feel less like a loser, and more like a superhero. The day had turned around. By now I’d got my second wind (finally), and the strength had started to seep back into my legs. My skin felt clean and fresh and alive after the rain. With my brake reconnected I rode home swiftly and flamboyantly, fully in control of the bike and the road again, screeching in and out of the traffic just as I always have.
And I didn’t touch the brake once. It’s clearly only a placebo.