I neared the top of the hill on an evening training ride on a road so familiar to me I knew exactly what lay ahead; I had ridden my bike on this country road in the rural West Midlands area of England many times before.
There would be a short steep descent, a slight right hand bend at the bottom over a narrow stone bridge, then another tough climb even longer than this one. I lifted myself out of the saddle and stomped hard on the pedals, legs aching, breathing heavy, but knowing there would be a brief rest as I coasted down the other side.
At the top I sat up to allow my lungs to gulp in more oxygen; I saw him for the first time. He was just cresting the next hill ahead; silhouetted against a pale vanilla sky as the sun set. He was too far off to make out who he was but as I knew all the other racing cyclists in the area, I was sure I would know him.
All thought about coasting down the short descent was gone as I slammed into my highest gear and increased my speed; the chase was on. This is something that all racing cyclists will do instinctively; never miss an opportunity to chase down another rider.
Of course not knowing who was ahead meant I didn’t know his speed or level of fitness. I might never catch him, but I was going to try. This was in the early 1970s and I was in pretty good shape myself and the phychological boost of having someone to chase increased my adrenalin flow.
At the bottom of the hill I coasted through the slight bend and without shifting down I got out of the saddle again and let my speed and momentum carry me halfway up the next climb. Before my cadence dropped I shifted down, and up on the pedals again to the top.
I thought I caught a brief glimpse of him again and I was gaining on him, but the sun was completely set by now and it was getting quite dark. I reached down and turned on my battery lamps.
I must have chased hard for about four or five miles when I came on him suddenly; in fact I almost ran into him. He had no lights on his bike and he suddenly loomed up in the darkness. I pulled along side; I didn’t recognize him.
“Where’s your lights?” I asked.
“I wasn’t planning on being out this late, but I got a puncture earlier. I did a stupid thing; I was out of tubular cement and I had stuck my tires on with fish glue. I took me for ever to get the tire off.”
“Fish glue?” I thought, “Who sticks tires on with fish glue?”
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“They call me Charlie.”
“I’ll ride with you.” I offered. “It’s a little dangerous to be out here without lights; where do you live?”
I pulled ahead of him and increased the pace a little; Charlie pulled in behind me. Ledbury was a small town about five miles further on. After a short while Charlie came through to take the pace at the front.
I slipped in behind him. It was then I got my first look at his bike; my battery lamp lit up his rear wheel and gear train. He was using an old four speed, eighth inch, freewheel block with an Osgear derailleur; a single jockey wheel on an arm under his chainwheel.
I was thinking, “I haven’t seen one of those since I was a kid in the 1950s.” I moved to the front again and remarked as I went by, “Interesting bike you have.
Charlie didn’t respond, and we rode on at a pretty good pace. I noticed every time I was on Charlie’s rear wheel I could not get comfortable. I could not figure out which direction the wind was coming from. I would ride slightly to his left, then right, but neither was any easier.
We were within a mile of Ledbury; I was at the front when a car suddenly appeared coming towards us. The road was narrow and the car came so close that I had to pull hard to the side and I found myself on the soft grass. There was the sound of a tremendous crash behind me; my wheels bogged down and I came to a quick stop. My feet were strapped to the pedals, there was no time to release them, and I fell over sideways.
I was uninjured but my first thought was for Charlie; both he and his bike were gone. So too was the car. “It must have kept going without stopping.” I thought. I took my battery lamp from my bike and searched back along the side of the road. I turned around and walked slowly down the other side.
I rode into Ledbury and stopped at a public phone box and called the police. “There’s been an accident.” I told them, and I explained what had happened. A police car arrived and I parked my bike in an alley-way and rode back with them to the scene of the incident.
The two policemen searched both sides of the road as I had done. “Are you sure this is the place?” One of them asked me.
“Yes, I remember this big tree on the bend in the road.” I told them.
“Maybe he wasn’t hit but kept on riding as you fell by the roadside.”
“It’s possible.” I answered. “But you would think he would have stopped to see if I was alright.”
Eventually we gave up the search and the officers drove me back to my bike, and I made my way home.
The next day I didn’t go to work but instead drove my car over to Ledbury and started asking around if anyone had heard of an accident the previous night. Someone suggested I enquire at the local newspaper office.
I did this and met the editor of the little local paper. He listened intently as I told him of my ride with Charlie the night before and of the accident. He told me, “It sounds to me like you encountered Charlie Finch, you’re not the first.”
“Who is he?” I asked.
“Let me show you something from our archives.” He walked over to a filing cabinet and pulled out a strip of microfilm. He placed it in a projector and scrolled through the images; he stopped on a front-page story. “Here it is, about this time of year, 1948.”
I read the headline, “Local cyclist killed in accident.” The story told of a Charlie Finch who was riding at night without lights and was struck by an oncoming car. The car went out of control striking a tree; the driver also died instantly.
There was a picture of a 1940s style car smashed against a large oak tree; the same tree I had pointed out to the police officers the night before. There was also a picture of Charlie’s bike. The front wheel was completely smashed, the front fork was bent, and the frame was buckled at the top and down tubes. The bike had an Osgear derailleur with a single jockey wheel under the chainwheel.
Footnote: As you may have guessed this is a work of fiction; it didn’t really happen. I thought as Halloween approaches you might appreciate a bike riding ghost story.