Professional sportsmen and women are notoriously superstitious – just ‘ask’ Google. From Serena Williams and her carefully-numbered bounces of the ball before serving, to the late football genius, Johan Cruyff’s alleged custom of hitting a teammate’s stomach before a match – sports persons’ weird rituals are a well-documented phenomenon.
You’d be right in guessing that pro-cyclists are not immune. Lucky socks, inverted dossards and an aversion to the number 13, feature heavily in just about any peleton you’d care to mention.
As an amateur cyclist, averaging about 120 commuting miles a week, I can attest that the contagion is alive and maliciously-well at this very lowest level of cycling.
My daily ride into work has morphed from a laid-back cruise through west London, into a twitchy, paranoid dash, punctuated by self-imposed rituals at particular waypoints.
It all started more than two decades ago when I had first moved to the capital. Fresh back from four years living in remote parts of northern Sudan, any echo of this period that I could find in my new home, always piqued my interest. That’s why I visited the Arab grocer’s on Hammersmith Road, keen to find food and other products which would remind me of my time as an English teacher in Sudan’s Baiyuda Desert. I’m talking ‘rope’ cheese, fuul beans and bamiya (okra).
Catapulting forward by twenty years, I realised that the very same Arab grocer’s is on my current cycling route. It seemed appropriate to swivel my head and check out the store each time I rode past. Before you knew it this had become an obligatory part of my routine. I HAD to clock the shop – which started life as Aswaq al-Buruj, changed to Aswaq at-Tayebeen and now declares itself to be, Karam Lebanese Deli – every time I went past. This became nothing less than a superstitious imperative. What fate would befall me if I forgot to look round at that particular point on the Hammersmith Road is not clear but in my gut, I sensed it would be terrible.
My ride now had one visual and geographical punctuation mark at about the halfway point. I was soon racking up more landmarks which literally became rites of passage. Cycle Surgery on Kensington High Street has to be seen each time I ride past. This is not always easy when double-deckers disgorging their passengers, or parked delivery lorries, are blocking my view. Cue a bout of twisting in the saddle trying to catch a glimpse as I pedal along with the traffic.
Not only must I look at the Yas Persian restaurant opposite Olympia as I flit past on the other side of the road, I have to read the slogan which proclaims, “Open til 4am”. One night I will stop, unclip, chain the bike and allow the tantalising grilled-meat aromas which assail my nostrils as they belly dance across my path, to waft me inside for some refreshment.
Further up into Kensington, I spotted the curiously named art emporium, ‘Let’s fill this town with artists’ and, you guessed it, I’d found another talisman which had to be noted as I cycled along, on pain of some terrifying fate. I’ve refined this particular one, so that all I need do to keep the unknown hex at bay, is read the first word, ‘Let’s’.
That’s four local features on my commute, upon which my continuing health, happiness and good luck depend. Somehow they remind me of the brooding, mysterious ‘djinn blocks’ of Petra’s ancient Nabateans. These curious funerary constructions still have an imposing presence after thousands of years. My personal ‘djinn blocks’ may be common-or-garden shops to the uninitiated. To me, they are full of portents.
And four soon became five. There’s a quirky noodle joint at the Hyde Park end of Kensington High Street which stands out. It’s neither corporate nor modern – and has a shabby shop front which would not have looked out of place in the nineteen-seventies. It’s always full of chopstick-twirling diners and is another reason my stomach regularly rumbles like a revving super-car engine during the commute. Stick and Bowl is a refreshing change from the homogeneous chains which are – in my opinion – blighting and ripping up the rich cultural fabric of London. It was a no-brainer that this wonderful establishment be added to my superstitious itinerary.
I was quickly constructing a string of such venues which could be clicked through as I progressed like architectural prayer beads. Apart from protecting me from the modern-day equivalent of the evil eye and all the many works of Auld Nick, these landmarks – neck-strain notwithstanding – help in other ways. Forget Strava, I can divide my ride into segments of my own, by my primitive faith in these superstitions. They in turn, break the ride down into easy, manageable chunks.
As to whether or not they have any real effect. On the day I forgot to glance over at Stick and Bowl, I suffered a puncture in the rain and dark on the way home. Coincidence? Maybe. But I’m going to keep checking out these urban ‘djinn blocks’ of mine as I spin past, regardless. The consequences of not doing so bring me out in cold sweats. You could say, I’m always riding my luck.