Two wheels: Thomas Keegan

In White Teeth, Zadie Smith’s 2000 novel about the lives of a pair of wartime friends, one, Archie Jones, is a moderately successful bike racer. However, his lap times on the track never seem to improve – 62.8 seconds and no faster. This offers an insight into his character: an individualist because he prefers cycling to football, he is also a bit of a plodder whose pursuit of success is seen to be futile – he whirrs around and around the track, never going anywhere and never getting any better.

My daily ride is certainly repetitious, but the aspect of Jones’s cycling story that touches me is his struggle to go quicker. I have ridden the same route to work now for four years – nine miles each way – and yet no matter how hard I try, the time it takes never seems to get any less. If I lived in a town or city, I would have an excuse: the traffic – and traffic lights – would have a greater effect on overall time than the speed at which I could cycle uninterrupted. But, out here in the Oxfordshire countryside, where I have to pant four miles even to see a traffic light, my journey time is down to one thing only: how quickly I pedal.

When I first started my commute from Nuneham Courtenay to Oxford, I bought a cycle computer. I thought that as time passed I would be able to use the output to demonstrate a steady increase in my daily average speed, and a steady decrease in the time taken to get to work. Being of a slightly scientific bent I decided to get some quantitative measure of this expected increase in performance. Daily, I entered the data available from my cycle computer into a spreadsheet. I hoped for great things – that when I plotted the graph for the first two years it would show a line moving steadily upwards across the page with, say, a gradient of about 1 in 4 (much the same as the hill into Toot Baldon on my journey). Instead, it looked a bit like a child’s drawing of a snake, its head and tail firmly clamped at 26kph, body wiggling about a bit in between.

Frustrated, I bought clipless pedals and stiff shoes, which made a small difference, and a book about getting better at cycling endorsed by Lance Armstrong. His methods proved hard to adhere to, and in the end it was not training techniques such as FastPedal or FlatSprints that made me improve, nor strength of mind or body – if I had that, I would have progressed sooner. It was pride: being overtaken by younger, better-looking people who look as if they are not particularly trying has proved hurtful enough to make me try harder. When serious cyclists pass me, I don’t care – they are way out of my league. But being overtaken by someone half my age wearing flip-flops is too much of a dent to my middle-aged pride and I press on beyond my usual easy pace. It happened last week. I had to work hard to keep up, and it hurt, but I came in at a record 29.4kph.

So what I need is a cycling buddy who is prepared to wait at the end of my road and cycle in front of me all the way to work, slightly faster than I would do if I was on my own. Sadly, no such person exists and I will have to rely on chance encounters to spur me on. Otherwise it will be business as usual, my recorded times, like Jones’s, coming in the same, day after day, extending my near horizontal plot of speed to the horizon.

I don’t suppose Armstrong worried about all this. He won the Tour de France in 2005 at an average speed of 41.6kph: at that speed he is unlikely to be overtaken by a student in flip-flops. Personally, it is largely what keeps me going.

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