A Breathless Story by Alan Keslian

The other Saturday I got into real trouble at the bike shop. Les, my boss, is not one of those people who has moods or is always trying to put one over on you, but he lost his temper and told me off in front of the customer; it was as bad as in school when some sarky teacher makes you look a complete dumbo in front of the whole class.

I had to fix a wheel with a broken spoke and by mistake I put in one that was too large. The repair seemed OK when I'd done it but on the road the spoke wore through the protective rim tape and punctured the inner tube. The bike belonged to one of the members of the cycle club, really finicky customers who will complain about almost nothing; if you sell them something in a wrapper or a carton with a tiny mark on it they complain even though they're going to throw the wrapper in the bin straight away.

Les had to apologise and promise to fix the wheel properly himself for nothing. When the customer finally stopped moaning and left, he spent twenty minutes telling me about all the different sizes and types of spokes, which I knew all about anyway, I just made a mistake that time and picked out the wrong one. There was only a few millimetres difference so it wasn't as though I'd been a complete dork or anything, but the way Les went on and on I thought he was about to fire me.

Having the Saturday job there has been really good for me because I'm mad about cycling, Les has taught me a lot, and he's letting me ride with him and his mates on the millennium charity ride the Sunday after next. My dad only said I could go because he knows Les will look after me.

My main job that day was servicing this all terrain bike with front and rear suspension. When I finished at three o'clock I asked Les if there was anything he wanted me to do before I left. He said no, so then I went right over to him and looked up into his face and said 'You still fed up with me, Les?'

He said 'No, course I'm not,' then he made a fist with his right hand and just softly touched me on the cheek. 'You know how it is with the club members, they're such perfectionists, I hate it when one of them catches me out like that. I didn't mean to get worked up. Don't do it again though. See you next week.'

The shop is a really good place to work. What Les pays me is more than other kids at school get for their Saturday jobs, and he gives me really expensive gear from the shop. A few months ago he gave me these clipless pedals, the sort where you need shoes with special cleats on the sole to slot into the catches on the pedals. He gave me the shoes as well. In fact with all the stuff he's given me I'm kitted out like a professional cyclist and I ride round everywhere like I'm a sports hero or something.

Les gets lots of sales promotion stuff and he says he might as well give it to me, at least he can see it being used. I was a bit scared my dad would moan, but he's got no idea what cycling gear costs. He only really knows about football and horse racing so what can you expect?

Les also lends me 'Cycling Now' magazine. The latest mag had a feature about Martin Johnson, who is the greatest English cyclist ever. Martin is in the Tour de France year after year, and he has won medals at the Olympics. One reason I'm so keen to go on this charity ride is that he will be there at the end to congratulate riders at the finish. I would have gone just to ride along with Les and his mates, but to see Martin Johnson there would be terrific.

The first page had a small picture of Martin riding a tour bike and details of all the big races he's been in this year and how well he did. When I turned over the page there was a full length portrait of him right across the centre fold wearing pentathlon racing gear, this really flash top and these special pentathlon shorts that look like swimming trunks. He wasn't smiling, he had this really determined look on his face like he wasn't going to let anyone stop him from winning. I sat down for a couple of minutes looking at his picture and reading the article on the next page. Martin Johnson is fantastic, but not everyone has heard of him because not enough people follow cycling as a sport.

I sort of came round to the sound of Les moving about in the front of the shop and singing to himself and I thought I'd better get on with my work. Later on I asked to keep the picture to put up on my bedroom wall. He said he'd been thinking of doing the same thing himself, but he let me keep it anyway.

Les met Martin a couple of times before he turned professional, and last week I heard him talking to one of his mates.

'Nice of Martin Johnson to come all this way for the charity ride.'

'He lives in the West Country, doesn't he? What will he do, travel up the day before, or stay overnight?'

'He's staying overnight. He rang me to talk about those new electronic gear changers that have come out.'

'Friend of yours, is he? Not staying overnight with you by any chance?'

'No, you'd have something to talk about if he did. He's booked into Goodman's Hotel.'

'That's a queers' hotel isn't it?'

'I only know two types of hotel. Clean ones and doss houses.'

'People talk about you anyway Les.'

Some of my mates at school say Les is gay, and he does live on his own above the shop, but he's never tried to touch me, other than his hand on my shoulder or the back of my neck for a couple of seconds. Sometimes I think he looks at me a lot while I'm working, but he's probably just checking that I'm doing my jobs properly. Anyway why shouldn't Les look at me if he wants to, where's the harm in that?

On the day of the charity ride the five of us in Les's team met really early at the bike shop and set off for the start at Richmond Common. There were several hundred cyclists there already and the common looked terrific, everybody in brightly coloured cycling gear with their machines sparkling in the sunshine. We had to wheel the bikes into a marquee, register and pick up our route maps, and then join the queue for the start line. They had put on a few bits of entertainment. A clown on big stilts was striding through the crowd, and we walked out bikes beneath a couple of acrobats hanging over our heads on wires.

We mounted the bikes and set off, steadily overtaking people who had started out before us. There was hardly any traffic at that time of morning so it was not difficult to work our way forwards. The good club cyclists are faster than us, they train twice a week on runs of about fifty miles, but everyone in Les's group had put in some long rides recently and we were in pretty good shape.

The charity ride is not a race, it's just for fun, but we rode like a proper team, each of us taking a little turn on the front of the group before dropping behind into the slipstream of the others where the going is a bit easier. Les had told me not to worry about speed because the important thing was to get to the finish, and he didn't want my dad coming to his shop complaining that I was shagged out afterwards. I'm as tall as some of Les's mates so I didn't see why they should be any faster than me.

We came to a stretch of country lane beside the River Thames with just a few road humps to slow us down, and I thought the ride was going to be a doddle. There were not many other cyclists about now, mainly the keen ones like us who had done some training rides. We were going faster than the one or two cruise boats motoring up the river that we passed. At the end of the lane someone checked behind and said 'I think there's a pack chasing us.' Looking round I could see a group of about a dozen riders from the cycle club gaining on us fast. They caught up after we turned into a busy main road, riding past in tight formation, swinging way out across the road to overtake us, making on-coming drivers blare their horns. They did not even acknowledge us, although they all must have known Les because his is the only decent bike shop for miles. This was supposed to be a friendly charity ride, so what is the point of being like that?

There were four refreshment stops on the ride, one about every six miles or so. We went straight past the first one, stopped for a quick pee at the second, had a look at the food at the third, but when we set out we had stuffed in the pockets of our jerseys with bananas and snack bars so we decided to stick with that.

We turned onto a path crowded with walkers heading to the river bank. Trying to avoid all the people and dogs and children I dropped a few yards behind the others, and then this stupid little kid pulling a bloody great push chair walked backwards right in front of me. I had to slam on the brakes as hard as I could and fell off. There was a piece of broken railing sticking up from the ground and it gouged a hole in my leg and cut my ankle. The brat's mother came up and grabbed it and told it to look where it was going, but she didn't even come over to ask if I was all right.

My leg was hurting like hell and I felt all shaky. Les and the others must have kept on going, they probably thought I was just behind somewhere on the crowded path. I sat for a while watching the blood trickling down my leg, not knowing what to do. In the distance I saw a couple of cyclists from the ride turn onto the start of the path. I thought about stopping them, but what could they do about it? They might have had a plaster, but someone told me if you have a cut the best thing is to let the air get to it.

I decided the only thing was to get back on the bike. At first when I pushed down on the pedal with my injured leg it hurt so much I almost cried out, but if make yourself think about something other than the pain and keep going eventually you go numb. I kept pedalling away and put as much effort in as I could, hoping that the others were not too far in front. After what seemed like a long time I saw Les on the other side of the road coming back for me. He turned round when he saw me and waited for me to come up alongside him. 'Christ, what happened to your leg? You'd better stop and call it a day, your dad'll kill me.'

I did my best to smile and said 'I'm okay. Don't worry about my dad, I won't let him see.'

He wasn't happy at first, but eventually he said if I wouldn't give up I should just follow in his slipstream and take it steady. He kept looking back about fifty times a minute to see if I was still there and ask if I was all right. The pain did stop and I kept really close, so he gently lifted the speed until we caught up with his mates a few hundred yards before the last refreshment stop. I could have done with a proper break, but didn't want to hold everyone else up. One of Les's mates pointed towards a couple of parked vans under some trees on the other side of the field and said 'Do you see what I see?'

We all looked over to where, near the vans, the cycling club members had stopped for some serious eating. They had big insulated boxes for food and what looked like a tea urn. 'Let's go for it, we can leave them behind.' We were all keen to set off. Les offered to stay back with me and finish the ride more slowly while the others went on, but I said, 'No, come on Les, I'm all right. I may not be up to doing my turn on the front, but I'll stick behind you.' Without another word we were off.

They set a really fast pace and I was struggling to keep up. We hit a downhill stretch which I thought might be a bit easier, but the road surface was cracked and pitted and the bike was bouncing around under me so much I could hardly hold on to it; my wrists ached from all the jolts coming through the handlebars. They were clearly going to keep the pace up all the way to the finish in Windsor. When the road levelled again, keeping up made me pant for breath and my leg muscles ached horribly from pedalling so hard; keeping a steady rhythm needed all my strength and concentration.

On the outskirts of Windsor we were on some old smooth tarmac, but no-one eased up. We were going hell for leather. Les kept looking back, partly to see if I was OK, but also he was looking out for the enemy, and suddenly he shouted: 'They're round the corner, they're on top of us.' The pace was forced even more and I felt myself starting to go to pieces. My wound wasn't hurting, but my thigh and calf muscles were screaming with pain and my breathing was completely haywire, I was gasping for oxygen and I could hear myself making a weird groaning sound every time I exhaled. My heart was beating like a pneumatic drill smashing up concrete. Sweat ran down my forehead and the salt in it stung my eyes. Ahead I could just make out a junction with traffic lights at green. The stinging made me screw up my eyes, but I could see the lights beginning to change. I wasn't far behind, oh please let me get through, please let me get through. The light was still amber when Les went through and I saw it go red, but I was going too fast to stop and shot across before there was any danger from the opposing traffic. Les shouted 'Yes, we've done it, they'll be stuck at the lights.' We had only a short distance to go to the entrance to Victoria Park and the finish line.

We stopped at last, and despite the stinging salt I managed to keep my eyes open enough to collect the certificate being thrust at me by one of the organisers, and I noticed that the others were dismounting. I felt so shaky and ill I was scared I might fall over if I tried to get off the bike. I rode a few yards to some bushes and got off by sort of letting the bike fall to the ground under me. The taste of sick was coming into my mouth and I went behind the bushes and threw up. Then I sat on the ground, rested my head on my knees for a while, and felt awful. When the sick feeling had worn off enough I pulled myself together, picked up the bike and walked over to look for the others.

When he spotted me Les shouted 'Hey, you've missed Martin Johnson. Come on, I'll get him to shake hands with you.'

We walked back over towards the finishing line, and there was Martin welcoming riders who had just arrived. He was wearing really flash cycling gear and looking fantastic. This was the first time I'd ever seen him in the flesh, and he looked even better than he does in photographs or on TV. Les called to him 'Hi Martin, this is the lad I told you about.'

I was in heaven when Martin turned, smiled and walked over to us. I ripped off my gloves and put out my hand to be shaken, but then I got worried, I thought the state I was in, all sweaty, congealed blood on my leg, and with having just been sick, he probably wouldn't want to touch me. He noticed my leg. 'Have to clean that up when you get home. You didn't let it stop you. Well done. That's what real cyclists are made of.' He grabbed my hand and pulled me towards him and hugged me.

Somehow I found myself hugging him back, I mean without thinking I'd put my arms right round him and was holding him tight. Realising what I'd done I was scared he would be angry with me and push me away, but he didn't. Instead he held me even tighter and leaned back so that he lifted me right up off the ground. While I was up in the air his hair touched my left ear and this amazing tingle thrilled me like nothing I'd ever felt before in my life. Then he let go and said to Les: 'He's great, you must be really proud of him,' as though Les was my dad or something.

Les and I walked back where his mates were longing on the grass. 'Worth it?' he asked.

I didn't answer. He knew how good I was feeling without me telling him.