Back in the day, I would hit a steep hill to climb at the end of my 6 mile cycle ride from work. It was the final, challenging stretch after a satisfying amble across town and I relished it. I was at my fittest back then, in my early to mid-twenties, and the feeling of power in my legs as I pushed those pedals with every ounce of strength I had was exhilarating. Sometimes I wouldn’t quite make it to the top without having to dismount through sheer exhaustion, but those times were rare. I made it my goal to reach the top of that hill without a stop.
I’m too scared to return to that hill now, knowing that I will never be able to cycle up it again or, indeed, walk up it. And yet, it played such an important part of my life right the way through from babyhood to my mid-20s. I would run and skip up it on my way home from primary school, collecting conkers along the way from the magnificent over-hanging horse-chestnut trees. I would later drag my feet up it as a teenager, thinking the climb would never end after a long and tedious day at secondary school. And, once I’d left school, I would cycle up it at every opportunity – after work, after going to the gym, after a commute to London, or just for the fun of it.
Occasionally, I would arrive at the foot of the hill at the same time as another cyclist. When this happened, I would usually hang back to avoid the awkwardness of struggling up the hill alongside someone I didn’t know. On one occasion, however, I found myself looking the other cyclist in the eye and without even thinking I gave him a nod to signal, ‘let’s do this’. Up we both climbed, in a determined, yet friendly, battle of the fittest. I’d never pedalled so hard in my life. I had to reach the top before, or at the very least at the same time as, my adversary. Failure was not an option. And I did it! We both made it to the top at the same time. It felt like there should be some sort of trophy to be handed out or a wave of applause from an adoring crowd, but there was none of that, just a friendly, red-faced, breathless nod to each other before going our separate ways.
Memories of the hill rolled to the forefront of my mind this morning during my workout at the gym. I sat on the exercise bike, unable to move the pedals after just 2 minutes of pretty low-intensity cycling. The screen was flashing, ‘Pedal Faster’, and then a 30 second countdown ensued, in which I was left desperately scrabbling to lift my leaden feet back into the straps before it timed out and I had to reset the programme to start all over again. But, of course, I couldn’t start again. All I could do was sit there and whack the machine in frustration while fighting back the tears that were determined to spill over.
I was hit hard by a torturous longing to be back on that hill, with legs that worked and a body that wasn’t crumbling under fatigue.
Oh, to be back.