Spots in front of my eyes. Halos of white around multi-coloured pits of black. Tunnel vision. It doesn’t matter, I know where I’m going.
Rasping acid lungs, struggling to find a rhythm. Any consistent pattern of breath will do. I’m fighting a losing battle to bail out the carbon dioxide coursing through my veins. There isn’t long to go in the strange personal race between oxygen debt and my front door. I love, hate, love ending on short climb. Today I might not bother sprinting for home. I might sit up now and cruise in. It’s not a race. I’ve done the hard work over the last few hours. This is just an unnecessary flourish. I stand up on the pedals.
Small muscles and tendons that rarely get to make themselves known are complaining, but that fades in comparison to the familiar deep, dark, creeping, all consuming ache in my thighs. Veins and arteries stand proud under taut skin, stained with road grime, salt and god knows what. The leather lace that is permanently knotted around my right wrist looks like it has been dyed black.
All sound has become white noise. The left-hand earphone is swinging from my helmet strap, penduluming in time with my faltering cadence. I’m too tired to replace it. I’m not listening anyway. And who cares, I’m nearly home. When I set off this morning, I savoured the sound of 110psi rolling over newly laid tarmac. The same tyres have seen potholes, wet autumn leaves, a cheeky bit of gravel and a variety of surfaces in between. My world has shrunk to a patch of land less than an inch wide and infinitely long. Except I’m near the end for today.
With one last, pathetic pedal stroke I pass the finish line outside my house and continue to roll, grabbing handfuls of gears, soft pedalling down the gentle slope, before conducting an awkward u-turn and barely spinning the pedals back to my door. I conduct an equally graceless dismount and fumble blindly for the door key, safely zipped away in a back pocket. Ineffectual, numb hands paw at the lock and door handle.
I peel off damp layers with the flexibility of a toy robot. Each layer is discarded on the short walk to the kitchen. Helmet, gloves, shoes, socks, jersey, vest. Bib straps are peeled off each shoulder and left to hang. Legs are borderline cramping.
Water tastes beautifully pure after hours of sticky energy drinks and gels. I sit down on the kitchen chair and observe my body steadily beginning to relax.
I’ve finished my own personal race for the day. It’s never enough though.