“If we huddle together really closely”, the big Swede suggested with a glint in his eye, “we could all get a lot warmer…”.
For the first time in many months, I had decided to join a group ride. A flat 200km route following a series of rivers, it wasn’t my usual choice for a day out cycling but the mountains were treacherous with snow and ice, and in any case I was yearning for some company on the bike for a change. No leisurely breaks, no chance to take photos, but still, great to feel the camaraderie of a half-dozen or so riders tackling the winter cold together.
But now we were waiting, stamping our feet on an exposed river bank while one of our number worked on fixing his broken wheel. It had been almost an hour and the north wind howled down upon us, icy daggers slashing at flesh, our suffering off the bike far more intense than we had ever suffered on it. We couldn’t leave him of course – the “rules” required that there should be no man left behind. Tous pour un, un pour Tous, as the Musketeers would say. It was a question of loyalty, a matter of honour.
“You know” he said, pausing, “maybe I should start thinking of getting a train home”…
Yes ! We all thought, secretly relieved, At last ! Leave him ! There are limits, after all. I was tired of this monotonous river path and with still over 80km to go the sun was already sinking in the sky. Two riders had gone ahead, but one more was working there with his stranded friend, helping to make his bike ridable. Fine, leave him as well !
So now there were three. A jagged fence of snow capped mountains bridled the horizon to the North and West, whilst the dark grey silhouette of Mt Tsukuba dominated the skyline to the East. But that static hour in the cold had killed our enthusiasm and the ferocious tail wind did little to raise our spirits – we were all so sick of this damned river.
It was dusk when we reached the Arakawa, another companion splitting off for home, leaving just two of us, the Swede and I, to tackle the last long stretch of riverbank in the dark, nothing but a couple of weak bike lights illuminating the way immediately in front, our eyes straining for those evil patches of ice. And this time we were facing into the wind. When we went our separate ways it was late and we were both terribly cold, tired and hungry. It was difficult to tell in the low light, but I thought I caught a look of regret in his face as he waved goodbye, and I understood.
We had broken the rules, fragmenting the group, ignoring etiquette and leaving two comrades stranded, twenty miles from the nearest train station. But perhaps more than that, I felt sure I knew what he wanted to say; we should have huddled together when we all had the chance.