A swarm of bicycles stretched ten deep across a road, hugging the curve of the seashore. Spectators lined the promenade waving Red Cross banners and cheering, eager to see the competitors slice their way into the distance.
Never had I seen such a brilliant array of Lycra. Decked in an old pair of beige shorts, bought from a Greek market stall, and a faded Grateful Dead t-shirt, I was a dull moth among a field of vibrant butterflies.
Funny how I ended up alongside all these fit and healthy specimens. I was filling out an online job application with a biotech firm, which asked for my hobbies. Hobbies? Studying for a degree left damn all time. So, in a moment of bravado, I typed ‘road cycling races,’ not expecting any repercussions.
To my surprise, the company asked me to attend a second grilling at their headquarters. Now, I needed some insider info; I heard one of the executives was a keen cyclist.
Luckily, my local council planned a charity race on the weekend before my big day. I brushed off the cobwebs coating my ancient bike, and for the price of a liter of Scotch, bribed my dad into servicing it. He’d done an excellent job. The WD-40 had taken a bashing, but I balked at shelling out for new gear cables. Good grief, this was a one-off! I didn’t intend to make a habit of battling the elements on two wheels.
Most of my fellow entrants wore fancy wraparound shades, despite the lack of sunshine. At least that snatched away the possibility of eye contact. Their disparaging glances would have been more than I could cope with on an empty stomach.
The raucous hoot of a klaxon signaled the start. Tightly clad bottoms rose into the air as one, each superjock straining to steal an edge over the next. Mesmerized, I watched them speed away, their narrow wheels humming on the tarmac. An older man, in bumblebee stripes, jolted hard into my lower back and shouted, “You going, or what, mate?”
“Sorry.” I fumbled my pedals and wobbled after them, laboring at each downward push. The Red Cross’s website described the course as ‘undulating’ and ‘suitable for beginners.’ Why, then, did I find myself toiling up what felt like a mountain?
“Come on, use those gears, and you won’t have any trouble with this little slope.” The voice belonged to a woman about my age, dressed in slinky orange shorts and matching top. Her black braided hair hung below her helmet and swung as she pedaled—a real velo-vixen. I swerved, distracted by her rock-hard buttocks.
“Why aren’t you upfront with the others,” I asked, struggling to remain vertical.
“Today’s my first shot in the saddle after a fall a couple of weeks ago. I’m taking it gently, testing my thigh strain. I didn’t want to miss this event. It’s for such a good cause.” She eased up, allowing me to cruise alongside her. “Have you raised much money?”
“Er, no,” I puffed as we passed the tall Regency houses that crested the incline. “This was a last-minute decision. I’ll probably lob in some money at the finish.” Unlikely, as most of my spare cash went toward the bottle of hooch for Dad. “Where do we go from here?”
We’d reached a junction, and my lungs screamed. The rest of the field was long gone, with no sign of a course marshal. He’d packed up, no doubt assuming the last of the riders had whizzed by.
“Turn right. We stick to the coastline, before passing the golf course and on to the ferry. That’s the half-way point.”
A few stragglers at the roadside shouted encouragement, and Velo-vixen sat upright to acknowledge them with a clap. My hands remained glued to the dropped handlebars with sweaty determination.
“No need for you to hang back with me.” There was a café at the ferry, and by then, I reckoned, I’d have completed enough research to bluff my way through questions at the interview. The fiver in my pocket would cover a cup of tea and a full English breakfast. A fitting reward for the morning’s endeavors.
“Nah, I’m happy to ease along at this speed, keep you company. I know what it’s like to be last. I’m Rosie, by the way.”
Blowing hard, I studied her face. Not a glisten of perspiration. Instead, I saw lightly tanned cheeks below cerulean eyes. Way out of my league. I licked my lips and tasted salt.
The road had flattened out, and my ability to sustain conversation resumed. “Have you competed in many races?”
“I’ve been cycling competitively for six years since I was fifteen. So, yeah, a fair few. It’s great exercise and beats working out in the gym any day. You?”
I cursed my Anglo Saxon coloring for the flush creeping up my neck. There was a chance it wouldn’t be visible below my already hot skin. In the end, I plumped for honesty. “No, I’m a fledgling. Haven’t cycled in a zillion years.”
Those beautiful eyes held mine, and once again, I almost came a cropper. ‘Concentrate, Steve.’ Showing up for an interview with a leg in a cast was a bad idea. I stared forward, missing a pothole by inches.
“Foolishly, I put cycling as my hobby in an online interview,” I snorted. “The face-to-face is tomorrow, so I’m trying to get an insight.”
Rosie giggled and softened from vixen to kitten. “You’d have done better to put down reading or crosswords.”
I nodded. Another gradient change snatched my capacity to speak.
“Shift gear, Steve, you’re making life difficult.”
“Can’t,” I panted, “gears slip.”
“Hmm. Not exactly prepared, are you?” She frowned, morphing into a vixen again.
Sweat trickled between my shoulder blades. Teeth gritted, I pumped my legs. We’d arrived at the golf course, and it was downhill from here to the mid-point of this ridiculous exercise.
“Smell that fresh air. It’s glorious. Go on, deep breaths.” Rosie had her hands behind her head and was swallowing huge gulps of the salty breeze coming off the sea to our right. I uncurled my spine and inhaled. So invigorating, it made my head swim. It took a few moments before I twigged something amiss on the road ahead.
“Rosie, what’s that?” I risked pointing a finger to what looked like a huddle of human macaws.
She followed my finger. “Shit, someone’s taken a tumble. Come on; let’s see if we can help.”
Up on her pedals, bike twitching from side to side, Rosie sped off. By the time I rolled up, the macaws had parted to make a pathway. My new friend was on her knees beside the chap who’d thumped me in the back at the start of the race.
From an early age, my doctor mother made a point of instilling in me some basic first aid knowledge. I flung my cycle to the ground and joined Rosie.
The idiot hadn’t worn a helmet, and an egg-shaped lump had formed on his forehead. He looked groggy, eyes unfocused, and I suspected concussion.
“Has someone called for an ambulance?” I asked. A shout of “yes” from behind reassured me. “How’re you feeling, mate?” Someone handed me a towel, and I gently placed it under his head.
“Headache,” he mumbled, eyes unfocused.
Before I finished, he struggled onto an elbow and vomited, narrowly missing my knees. “Anyone got water?” A bottle materialized, and I moistened his lips. With the tissue Rosie provided, I wiped his chin.
Minutes later, an ambulance swept up, lights flashing. A paramedic leaped out and threaded through the onlookers. There was nothing more for us to do, so Rosie and I mounted our bikes and freewheeled the short distance to the ferry.
“You were good back there, Steve.”
“Thanks, I hope he’ll be okay.” My brakes squealed as I stopped in front of the café and leaned my bike against the wall. “I’m going to call it a day. No point in me battling on, I’ll either get the job or not. Finishing the race isn’t going to make a difference.”
Rosie tilted her head to one side, reverting to kitten status. “Mind if I join you?” she purred.
“I’d like that, very much.”
I held the door open for her, keen for the warmth in my face to go unnoticed. I couldn’t put it down to exertion, this time.