In his short story, The Capital of the World, Ernest Hemmingway introduces a cast of characters linked to the bullfight. One of these, he matter-of-factly describes as a coward. Hemmingway chooses not to qualify or mediate this epithet, although he does explain how it came about: the man has been gored by a bull, and has subsequently lost his nerve.

I cannot remember when I first read this story, but I suspect it was decades ago. This is my only memory of it, other than a vague sense of claustrophobia from individuals being unhealthily thrown together. What jars (and sticks in the memory) is Hemmingway’s unforgiving and rather brutal attribution of cowardice to a man who clearly once was very brave and whose subsequent loss of nerve is entirely understandable. Which of us could be sure we would not behave similarly in these circumstances?

But I was reminded of this compassionless honesty riding my bicycle yesterday. I fell off five weeks ago, landing on my right side and badly bruising my shoulder and wrenching my groin. I was taking a 90° right-turn on a slithery-slippy road. To my credit, I got back on, and cycled a further 25 miles. But the injuries are still with me. A few days later, on a long ride to Henley-on-Thames, I was posing at the lights doing a track-stand, which somehow went wrong, and I again fell, not really injuring anything more than my pride, although it was painful at the time. But, more seriously, two weeks almost to the hour after my first crash, very near the spot, I was taking a 90° left-turn on a greasy surface, and again went down. Somehow my left knee took the hit, and it is still blobby and swollen, three weeks later.

Cycling out of Cheltenham, I find myself slowing for the most innocuous corner and contriving not to lean the bike into turns but inching round upright. I was extremely pleased that the very fast downhill into Leckhampton had to be taken really slowly, as the road is up and is uneven and treacherous. I suspect I may still be travelling at the same slow speed when I next ride it on its smooth new surface. And, of course, this type of timidity actually introduces risk. Not leaning into a corner makes you unstable and more likely to fall.

So I reckon Hemmingway, unsentimental and masculinist though he may be, is actually on the money. A coward I am. There’s no hiding, no reasonable euphemism. I’ll need to get a grip or accept the attribution.

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