The riders approached the foot of the climb in neat formation. Joe rode at the front of the group of twelve, alongside young Jason, and thought while he span the pedals easily. He was twenty-seven and feeling pleased with himself. He had a good job at the foundry and a pretty girlfriend who wanted him to ask her to marry him.
He was the strongest rider in his cycling club, as he was about to prove once again on the climb up Hartridge Fell. He would steadily wind up the pace on the four mile drag until he reached the top alone, having left his club-mates scattered along the road behind him. Sunday was his favourite day.
After less than a mile he could hear the laboured breathing of those behind him and he changed up a gear coming out of the first bend. He had considered taking it more easily today and keeping the group together, but young Jason needed to be put in his place. He was eighteen now and had trained hard during the summer. If Joe could just keep him at bay until he went off to college in September he would be happy. Should he come back the following year as a ‘racer’, Joe wouldn’t concern himself if he were stronger than him. Joe was a ‘club-man’ and a ‘proper worker’ and only felt obliged to maintain his hegemony over those of his kind.
A mile from the top only Jason had stayed with Joe, still riding at his side, pedalling smoothly and breathing steadily. Joe shifted up another gear and stood up on the pedals to make his final effort. He increased the pace suddenly and Jason slotted into his slipstream, probably a sign of weakness. Joe powered out of the last bend with the signposts at the top of the hill in sight. His thighs were burning and he was gasping for breath when Jason came past him and Joe couldn’t stay with him. He sat back down in the saddle, looked behind him once, and ground the pedals bitterly until he reached the summit.
He pulled over at the side of the road and slumped over the handlebars while he recovered. The other riders reached the top in ones and twos, not looking nearly as exhausted as Joe; they enjoyed their Sunday rides in a different way. As he assimilated his defeat he ran his tongue through the new gap between his back teeth. He had had a molar extracted the previous week – the first tooth he had lost – and had thought nothing of it.
Now as he felt the gap with his tongue he did think about it, and also thought that it might soon be time to get married. He found it strange that this thought had occurred to him at that precise moment, but he didn’t realise then that for the first time in his life he had begun to perceive his own mortality.