“The Race” by Nii Moi Thompson.

Alone in his grandfather’s cluttered garage, Akpiti flung his arms heavenwards in despair. “I need to train for the big race tomorrow”, he muttered under his breath. But the lawn needed levelling, and the tiles on the roof, some fixing.

“And we shall connect a drain to the gutter along the edge of the roof so we can harvest some rain-water”, his grandfather instructed, resting his elbow on the sill so he could stick his head out for better audience.

Akpiti went down in the mouth knowing he would never win the cycling race the next day. The racetrack was not entirely new to the cyclists save a few sandy diversions introduced to drag endurance beyond its ordinary limits. The only difficult stretch, Akpiti thought, for which he needed to train so badly, was the small hill close to the tail of the racetrack. Last year, his school mate and bully, Ahmed, paddled so hard that he scaled the small hill in no time and crossed the line of wood-ash to win the much coveted, spanking new BMX Mountain bicycle.

“Ahmed is strong and has very thick calves. He will scale the hill with little effort and win again”, he was complaining to his grandfather who was busy squinting at the dimensions for the new, wooden gate he was building for their home. The old man sunk the teeth of the saw into a thick plank and grinned.

“Indeed,” the old man teased as though the frailty of Akpiti’s stature was now dawning on him. “…you look to small for an eleven-year old”.

He signaled Akpiti to hand him a brush.

“No, the one with hard bristles”, he was more specific.

The old man used the brush to clean the dust in-between the thread of the giant screw he held.

“I am glad you are helping me fix the house,” his grandfather said with delight. “For that, I shall teach you how to win the race tomorrow with little physical effort.”

After his grandfather had let him in on the winning secret, Akpiti did not only help in fixing the roof, and mowing the lawn, and building the gate, and constructing the drain, but also pruned the hedge accurately. He was too excited to sleep on the eve of the race, and even before the first golden ray could break the dawn, Akpiti had washed his racer, pumped its tires, checked the brakes and straightened two dented spokes he spotted in the front wheel. This time he did not affix any water-bottle to the bicycle’s frame. ‘Drinking water during the race would just squander time’, he concluded.

The venue for take-off was littered with dozens of spectators and young bike lovers. At the starting point, Akpiti feigned indifference as most of his friends swarmed around Ahmed to admire the red BMX Mountain bike he won last year. That was his racer; the thing of beauty glistening with freshness. Akpiti was not perturbed an ounce. He assumed position on the cushioned-saddle of his own bike and did a few turns. ‘Good’, he thought. The big race was finally there, and here was himself, Ahmed, Ben, Kabutey and Peter ‘thumb-thumb’, because he was always caught sucking his thumb. There were four judges from the senior class at school. The five cyclists positioned themselves behind the starting line drawn with wood—ash.

“Pa-pa”, the clap of two wooden blocks signaled the start of the race. And just as the pigeons flew out of the woods at the sound of danger, Ahmed pushed his pedal so vigorously that he was soon leading the pack. Akpiti had to bide his time. However, he must not lose sight of Ahmed, so he tailed him closely. Again Ahmed was too fast, for he soon widened the gap. Nobody knew where Peter ‘thumb-thumb’ paddled from, but all of a sudden he sped past Akpiti to catch up with Ahmed, riding side-by-side the champion. A threatened Ahmed then performed a silly stunt, feigning a stumble in order to veer mischievously into Peter’s lane, making the poor boy screech to a deafening halt. Akpiti chanced on the distraction to close the gap between himself and Ahmed.

When the boys got to the steep slope before the hill, Kabutey came from behind to take the lead by descending in full flight- paddling so hard that his chain sometimes sent of sparks in all directions. He was so absorbed in screaming and performing the stylish, hands-free stunt that he did not hear his chain break.

Soon the boys got to the hill, with Ahmed closer to clinching a win at the expense of the two remaining cyclists; Akpiti and Ben. Ahmed glanced back at Akpiti to knit his brows at him. Akpiti smiled. He remembered the secret his grandfather taught him. It was the gear-lever, the simple device all the other boys had never learnt to use.

While Ahmed and Ben struggled and pushed their pedals so hard in a futile quest to scale the hill, Akpiti just flicked the gear-lever to its lowest gear, and realized that he could afford to paddle faster and effortlessly. He rode over the hill, leaving his competitors behind to cross that line of wood-ash. Ahmed followed several minutes later, but Ben protested fervidly, revealing that Ahmed actually dismounted his bicycle to give it a long push.

Although there was no prize that year, Akpiti learnt the difference a little domestic help, and a simple gear lever could make in the life of a frail boy with weak calves.

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