The Hour of Lead

One of the most gruelling challenges in cycling sport is an event known as The Hour.  This is a time-trial that takes place at a velodrome (a cycling stadium) ; the idea is for the competitor to attempt to cycle as far as possible around the track in exactly sixty minutes.

If this feat of physical endurance was not enough, the mental strain of crouching over a bike frame in the most aero-dynamic posture possible, and stamping on the pedals for three thousand six hundred seconds, should be enough to make the all but the most pointy-headed of us elbow our way through the door of our nearest  psychiatric hospital.

Not so Graeme Obree.

Known as the Flying Scotsman, this veteran of several serious suicide attempts, designed and built his own bike, using, among other things, parts of a washing machine.  On 17 July 1993 he beat Francesco Moser’s record of 51.151 kilometres, which had stood for nine years, by 445 metres.  I won’t dwell on the fact that he achieved this feat at eight o’clock in the morning, the day after he had tried (and failed) to break the record by almost a kilometre.

There was no time to rest on his laurels and savour this remarkable feat, however.  on 23 July Chris Boardman, about more of him another time, broke the record by cycling 674 metres further than Obree in the time allowed.

On 19 April 1994, as the genocide in Rwanda reached its peak, and the civilized world wavered once more in the face of the unmechanized slaughter of more than 800,000 Tutsis by their fellow Rwandan Hutu friends and neighbours, Obree burst through Boardman’s record of 52.270 km, with a new record distance of 52.713 km.

I would like to continue by saying ‘and his record still stands today’, however, it does not.  It lasted until 2 September 1994, when it was bettered by the Spanish Tour de France winner, Miguel Indurain.

Not unlike the endurance event described above, depression too, can feel as  grindingly familiar as the rounded corners of the velodrome, as lap after lap flash past under the tyres of the most sophisticated carbon monocoque bike frame money can buy.

Like  Graeme Obree, during the night preceding his record-breaking ride of 17 July 1993, last night I hardly slept a wink.  So, following my doctor’s advice regarding lying awake in the small hours, I got up, stubbed my toe as I fumbled in the dark for my slippers, and went downstairs to the kitchen to make myself a brew.  It seemed like the the perfect time to write this blog.

Sleep, both its excesses and its sorry lack, is one of the surest signatures of depression, and other mood disorders.  When I was first diagnosed, and was doing the rounds of the not inconsiderable resources the NHS has to offer to tackle this malign malady, my psychiatrist, Dr. Bermingham, offered me a reassuring insight into my sleep patterns.  At the time I was sleeping for England, putting in industrial quantities of time under the duvet in the Land of Nod.  He reassured me that this was perfectly fine, and exactly what I should be doing.  At the time, with my brain no more capable of rational thought than so much mashed potato, I thought nothing of it.  Later though, as time and tablets did their chemical best to claw me back into the company of my family, and the world at large, I came to understand what he had meant.  My body certainly, but most of all my mind needed a rest.  Thirsting for a reasonable level of serotonin to lift my mood, my brain, in an effort to preserve its inadequate resources, instituted a Three Day Week.  Eventually, with all the agility of the winner of the wooden spoon in the Sports Day classic sack race, I emerged out of the blur of 2001 – 2.

These days I look back with fondness at that time.  Sleep is as elusive as optimism, and I spend most days (and nights) with my eyes on stalks, and my mind whirring like a hamster on his wheel.

Amnesty International classes sleep deprivation as a form of torture; and although I have never whiled away a chilly winter’s evening in a damp cell in the bowels of a Santiago prison with a member of the Chilean police force, I get their point.  My trouble is 7.5mgs of Zopiclone will give me a few hours of sleep, but it’s highly addictive, and I wake up feeling like I’ve been to a really good party the night before, and just as bleary-eyed and drowsy.

I don’t believe that the reclusive nineteenth century American poet Emily Dickinson was ever drawn to the myriad attractions of track cycling contre la montre,* however, she undoubtedly knew of the slow cruelties of the lugubrious ticking of the clock as evidenced by the lines below.

After great pain a formal feeling comes–
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;
The stiff Heart questions–was it He that bore?
And yesterday–or centuries before?

The feet, mechanical, go round
A wooden way
Of ground, or air, or ought,
Regardless grown,
A quartz contentment, like a stone.

This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow–
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.

Emily Dickinson 1830-1886

*against the clock

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