We are cycling toward Khyber Pass. Not the real one in Pakistan with its history of violence, and where it is said that every stone has been soaked in blood. Our route is over the South Downs, in southern England, a track so named by local cyclists because of its steep, rough terrain. In winter, it is bleak, and the chalk is slippery like glass. In summer, there are flints and stones to catch you unawares. In cycling circles, it is talked about softly and always with a glimmer of uncertainty in the eyes.
We leave the main road and cycle along a lane shaded by oak and beech, a sweet, damp, woody smell in the air from the overnight rain. We pass flint cottages, pink and yellow dahlias behind stone walls, and just before Burpham, we turn off and start the steep climb over the Downs.
Today, the sun is shining. Pure white clouds amble across the sky, nudged by a soft breeze. Hedgerows are woven with wild clematis, and the bare heads of cow parsnip stand tall like umbrella spokes. Crows perch on wires, viewing our slow progress. We pedal hard, already in our lowest gear. My chest is heaving.
My bike also feels the strain. It seems to protest at the climb, making loud metallic creaking noises. It’s as though it is angry and uttering expletives. I am not really concerned, but I am getting strange looks from my fellow cyclists.
After a long, hard climb, we reach the top, and I clear the fog of exertion from my sunglasses. We dismount and enjoy a moment of peace, peering into the distance, down to the valley where the River Arun curls to a distant strip of pale blue sea.
Then, we take off freewheeling down the other side, the landscape unfolding like a patterned carpet, with patches of emerald and honey and bands of bottle green. My bike rattles and grunts, its vocal tics blurting out in the calm morning air.
At Houghton Bridge, we stop at the riverside café for coffee and rock cakes. A fellow cyclist shakes my bike in an effort to locate its anguish and ease his own. He looks perplexed. We travel on through small villages moulded in the lee of the swooping hills. We lunch in Duncton on thick bread with prawns and soft cheese and drink cold beer.
Some 30 miles later, my companions can contain themselves no longer. They stare intently at my bicycle, eyes glassy like marbles, rolling back and forth along the length of my machine, ears pricked ready to identify the offending part.
“It’s the saddle,” one exclaims.
“I can’t bear any rattling sound,” says another. “I always have to investigate.”
I shrug. We stop on a grassy bank, and I hand over my bike. Spanners and Allen keys appear. Nuts and bolts are tightened and loosened. Parts are prodded and pushed. The saddle is removed and replaced and removed again. There is considerable wrenching and wrestling. Copious quantities of oil are squirted.
They do everything humanly possible to alleviate their suffering. I mount the bike, and we start the climb homewards, back over the Khyber Pass. It is as though their work has been in vain. The creaking continues. I hang back, sensing their fury. We reach the top and stop by a field of sheep, huge balls of cream wool, grazing, and staring vacantly. They do not seem to be disturbed by the grunting of my bike.
I start the downward trek, and then, quite suddenly, I hear only – the sound of silence. I sigh with relief and the realisation that there will be no spilling of blood on the Khyber Pass today.