Uggh, it cannot be eight o’clock.
I roll over in the tiny cot and dangle my arm to the ground. My fingertips brush the hard grain of the wooden floorboards, until they reach the soft cotton t-shirt I threw there haphazardly the evening before. I sit up in bed and catch my breath, shocked by the cold. My eyes adjust to the grey morning light. I glance down at my naked torso. My skin is covered in a million tiny goosebumps, which ignore the border between the rich brown of my arms and the pale white of my chest. My ribcage is clearly defined. My belly button is stretched taught against my abdomen. Here in the little room, I seem otherworldly. I put on a battered sweater and sweat pants and pull a toque over my head.
My attention shifts to my legs. A dull ache lingers deep in the muscles. Maybe I overdid it this week. I remove the sheets to expose my lower half to the frigid air. Seemingly alien, my limbs stiffen in the cold. Each knee protrudes bonily; my skin is vacuum formed against my skeleton, shaping deep hollows into both sides of my knee caps. My tendons are clearly delineated, and my calves hang deceptively flaccid from my shin bones. I run my hands over my thighs; beneath the skin, I feel a faint pulsing web.
Sitting up straight, I raise my right knee over my straightened left leg and hook the back of my left elbow to its outside. I rotate my torso to the right and feel a release of popping vertebrae ripple down my spine. I repeat this in the other direction and turn my thoughts to what lies ahead.
The significance of the day is at once immediate and at the same time abstract. Its importance has been built up in my mind, but here, now, reality is curiously indifferent. My aim is too complex and too onerous to converge into thought. It is of no matter; today, the proceedings will unfold and my body will react; my mind will be on a different plane. I will race on instinct. This is what I tell myself.
Tentatively, I stand up and reach for the ceiling then relax and let the last remains of sleep drift away. Outside, a rooster crows and rain drops beat steadily against the windows. A heavy gust of wind blows against the ageing structure of the house. No worries. It will rain on everybody. I slide on a pair of jeans; the cold denim warms quickly against my skin, the familiar fabric insulating me from the outer air. I put on my shoes and open the door.
The stairway creaks as I descend. Below, I hear voices speaking in their odd, guttural tongue. Their words seem to be choked with consonants. I smell coffee. I enter the room and am glad to feel a little warmth on my cheeks. Inside, an old man is sitting on a brown leather couch, making gruff sounds into the telephone. My mind is too dull to make much of the conversation but I guess it is something to do with business. Always business.
The old gaffer rattles the phone back on its moorings, “Goedemorgen. Koffie?” he grunts.”Ja, lekker,” I stutter affirmatively, already tasting the stale, bitter essence in my mouth. I crave its warmth and clarity. I take a seat and reach for the paper that is lying slapdash on the coffee table. Flipping immediately to the back pages, I glance indifferently over columns and columns about national football, notice the scores from England, and then find a few articles about racing. I can, just barely, make out the gist of the stories. I read who won where in events more glamorous than mine but am struck by the naivety of the articles. The writers offer bland accounts of the proceedings and regurgitate press releases; I imagine the reality on the road.
My coffee arrives, strong and black, and I take a sip. The hot liquid flows into my chest, and a rush of awareness envelopes my mind. The old man is in the back somewhere, bustling about, so I sit alone and flip through the paper for a few more minutes, gleaning bits and pieces about an unfamiliar world. I feel an ache in my stomach and decide it is time to eat. I walk over to the kitchen. The floor is made of cold tile and the room smells faintly of chemicals and earth. I get a plate from the cabinet and retrieve four slices of brown bread from a plastic bag in the cupboard. The bread is soft, having recently been thawed from a time in the freezer. I place the four pieces two-by-two on my plate, walk over to the refrigerator and pull out a plastic box. Inside, slices of cheese are neatly arranged, each piece hand cut impossibly thinly. I go back to my plate on the counter and place two pale slices on the first piece of bread then reach back into the cupboard and extract a jar of home-made cherry jam. I open the jar and spoon a generous mound onto the top of the cheese, and then lick the utensil clean, enjoying the sweet tang in my mouth. I place the second slice of bread on top and cut my sandwich in two. Inside the cupboard, I replace the jam with a jar of chocolate spread. I am tempted to eat a spoonful right there but restrain myself and allow myself only a modest smear on the next piece of bread. I complete this second sandwich and again cut it in two before walking over to the table to think.
Fuck this rain. I can already hear the awful scraping sound of carbon on pavement, hear the yelling, and feel moisture sinking into my raw skin. You will float through everything. In my mind, I hit a cobbled berg at full speed.
I finish my bread and eye the spice cake lying on the counter. Should I? The race is 200 kilometres. I cut myself a small piece. I leave the kitchen and trudge up the stairs, the wooden floor boards creaking under my feet. In my room, on the ground, lies my bag, still neatly packed from the evening before. I go to it, tear it open, and extract the contents messily, so that they lie in a wreath around me. I begin to pack again. First, I reach for my shoes, a pair made specially for me, with a carbon-fibre sole moulded to my foot and a soft leather upper. On the bottom, a plastic cleat is placed precisely to match my pedalling style. My shoes are scuffed and scratched, the first layer of the carbon bottom already flaking off in a few places, but they are invaluable. Next, I grab my socks; I have packed two pairs to be sure. They are bright white for vanity’s sake, and the cuffs are longer than most. Then come a set of oversocks, these too in an impractical white, to serve as a small layer of insulation to place over my shoes and fend off the chill. Next are a pair of leg warmers, a soft-shell legging with a layer of fleece on the inside. My arm warmers are similar but come in a sleeve form; they follow into the bag. I pack a pair of half-fingered racing gloves that are ripped a little on the palm into a separate compartment, and then throw in a pair of long-fingered, insulated ones for insurance. Next are my undershirts. I have two of them; once white, they are now faintly yellowed. I have a short-sleeved version made of a kind of thin wool and a long-sleeved one with more insulation. My shorts are made of lycra and are a little stretched. They have a pair of built-in suspenders to hold them up while I ride. I have long- and short-sleeved jerseys that are red and blue and plastered in logos. Three pockets line the lower back of each. My helmet barely fits into the bag, and I have to stretch the zipper to get it in. The plastic shell lined with hard foam seems awfully fragile for its duty. In the front pocket, I put my racing licence; the team has a copy as well, but I never fully trust them to bring it. I unzip the bottom compartment and toss in a small mint-tin full of safety pins that I will use to fasten my racing numbers. My shower stuff and spare clothes go in a separate, smaller bag. Ok good, everything is there.
Downstairs, I hear people beginning to arrive. Enthusiastic voices laugh excitedly, and feet shuffle hurriedly about. I pick up my bag and trudge towards the door, glancing backwards and scanning the room carefully to ensure that I am not leaving anything behind. I walk down the stairs into a kerfuffle. My team mates are there and are already getting prepared. “Hey jongen, how is it?” someone yells in my direction. “Ahh, good mate,” I reply, a little taken aback by his exuberance. “Goede benen?” he inquires. “Yeah, we’ll see” I return noncommittally. I am always slightly amazed by the way these guys can be so light hearted in the morning; they seem unconcerned with the day ahead.
I go to the bathroom and take my time to hide from the hoopla. Finished, I head to my bike in the garage and fiddle a bit. With the cold aluminium stem in one hand, I raise my front wheel off the ground, rotating it slowly with my other arm to inspect the tyre. I keep aware of small cuts or holes and watch out for the slightest imperfection in the sidewall. I check each side, and then give the wheel a quick jerk and release it. All I can hear is the whoosh of the air, as I watch the wheel turn. The hub spins silently, maintaining its momentum. I look down from above and make sure that the rim is true, never wavering from its line as it turns. Perfect. With my left hand, I grasp the brake lever and squeeze firmly; the response is instantaneous; the pads grab the aluminium rim and arrest its motion firmly. Perfect. To be certain, I glance down and examine the rubber stoppers to make sure that no shards of aluminium have lodged into the material. I repeat the process with the rear wheel. This time, the ratcheting freewheel lets out a bawl of mechanical perfection, its metallic clicks sounding out one after the other like a speeding metronome. The rear wheel is flawless. A slight adjustment is needed on the brake, so I twist the cable stop a half turn to bring the pads a couple of millimetres closer to the rim. I move on to the shifting, keeping the rear wheel off the ground, as I fire through the gears in rapid succession: clack, clack, clack, clack, clack, twenty-five, twenty-three, twenty-one, nineteen, seventeen, clack, clack, clack, clack, clack, fifteen, fourteen, thirteen, twelve, eleven. Up and down the cassette the derailleur glides, the chain hopping from cog to cog with amazing accuracy. My inspection progresses to the front shifting; big chainring, little chainring, big chainring, little chain ring, boom, boom, boom, boom. Perfect. On the shelf I find a little bottle of oil and give it a shake before kneeling down to apply it to the chain. I turn the cranks backwards, applying a little drop to each of the rollers, link by link, then run the chain between my fingers. I work my way around the entire chain, wipe it clean with a rag, and then lift up the back wheel once again. This time, I spin the cranks forwards. The rear wheel springs to life, driving forwards in near silence. Perfect. With a clean cloth, I wipe away a few smudges of dirt from my frame and make sure that my bar tape is spotless. I am ready.
I go to find my bags and eat a banana, and then come back to find my bike already going on the roof of a heavily stickered team car. Perfect. I check my bag once again, helmet, shoes, shorts, jerseys, socks, gloves, arm warmers, leg warmers. Perfect. I run out into the rain and place the bag in the trunk. People seem to be nearly ready to go, so I dodge into a backseat and hide in the car. I put my headphones into my ears and wait, watching the water droplets run down the window to the tinny beat. After five minutes or so, a couple of teammates join me; one hops in the front while the other shares the backseat with me. Soon, the director jumps in and starts the engine. No one really says much, and before long we are on the highway and I am asleep, my neck cricked awkwardly against the window.
I wake to the sound of electronic music more suitable to a night club than the back seat of an automobile. In the front, they are chatting about various goings on in our little world. I do not feel like joining in. Instead, I let my mind wander. It is still kind of surreal being here. I jumped in head first, not really sure what I was getting into. The decision was easy to make; I knew what I wanted to achieve and knew that this was a step that I had to take. It seemed simple at the time. I lived for the sport, the best races were here, and I felt compelled to do them. I didn’t know what the rest would be like. It was easy back home. My family was there, and I raced with my friends. No matter how it went, everything was ok. Here, I am alone; I have to succeed to justify it all to myself. Sometimes I question if it is worth it, sitting in that shitty apartment by myself with only a rainy fight in the cow shit to look forward to.
At first, I got my ass kicked. I was scared shitless. The roads were tiny, and everybody was good. One moment of doubt, and some bastard was shoving me into the ditch. My first races I hardly saw the front; I was dragged along impotently. I followed wheels until the pack broke and then was left behind with the other losers. I could not finish a classic, let alone compete.
The drives back were the worst; I would sit there exhausted, dejected from the race, as my teammates swapped stories of their escapades, happy to go home to a warm meal and their families. All that I had to look forward to was a bowl of left-over macaroni with ketchup and an old bike magazine that I had already leafed through a thousand times. The next day, I would wake up stiff and battered, with only my foolish dream to get me back on my bike.
Then, about a month into the season, I got a spark of hope. It was a classic the same as the others. I had struggled from the start, been shoved from my spot a thousand times, but this time I survived. Through chance, I had made the splits and came into the last ten kilometres with the pack. Sensing a chance as a starving bear would sense food after a winter’s sleep, I attacked; I sprinted up the side of the peloton as we crested a rise and stamped on the pedals with every bit of frustration that I had in me. I gained an advantage, dropped my chain onto the smallest cog, and rode harder than I ever had before. My legs screamed, the tension of the gear was more than I could sustain, but I forced myself to continue. The pack was just behind, closing in, then letting off. I managed to hold my advantage and finished thirteenth, just behind the leading breakaway. I felt as if I had won a stage of the Tour de France. I belonged here. I could do it.
Slowly, surely, I improved over the next months. The racing seemed to slow down a little, not in speed but in the way things moved in the peloton. I began to grasp how the racing worked and was less afraid. I had been petrified of the road furniture, the cars on the side of the road, and the other riders, but now it all seemed normal. This was what bike racing really was. I was playing a part, even if my results were sparse. Now, I could consider trying to win.
A change in the beat rouses me from my thoughts; I look out at the water droplets streaming by on the window, blurring the drab scene that lies beyond. The land is a mix of earthy tones, pale yellow fields, brown growth, and the odd tree. The ground is drastically level. It is so flat that looking out is like seeing a massive lake of placid earth. You can gaze for miles, the view punctuated only by the odd farm, windmill, or collection of houses brought together by a church steeple. Cutting through all this is the modern highway, slicing though an ancient landscape otherwise enlivened solely by cows and sheep and tractors.
Thankfully, we are heading south to the hills today. I watch out the window for a few more minutes. Then, slowly my eyes begin to droop.
I am shaken awake by the familiar jolt of the car being downshifted and turned off the highway. Outside, the landscape has transformed; the barren flat fields from before have changed into rolling hills and are now peppered with woods. A cold, incessant drizzle, like a mist almost, falls from the sky, while, by the side of road, the trees sway wildly in the wind. A flag, at half mast for some reason or another, flies stiff and proud as we enter town. We pass a few roundabouts hurriedly with the car, each time jerking sideways and then accelerating at an unnecessary clip. The buildings in the village are drab, sorry structures of red brick and concrete topped with the ubiquitous orange tile roof. They sit beside faux-modern boxes of cement and glass that have been erected awkwardly, neither respecting the other. The roads are great slabs of concrete placed two-by-two with awful cracks between them that rattle the whole car every few seconds. We turn onto what seems to be the main street, and it is deserted, a little bakery being the only window alight. We drive up and over a little rise, then to the right and see our destination. The road is lined with barriers; the aluminium fencing plastered with advertising signs for the local butcher and a construction company. Men mill busily about, preparing the town.
We continue past them until we pass under a great banner erected high over the road: the finish line. Then, we turn to the left and into a car park by the town’s football field. Suddenly, the sullen environment of the village turns into a hive of bright colours and activity. Every car is plastered with logos; we are in a show of four-door sedans decorated with the names of a cacophony of businesses. On the roofs are large elaborate racks holding five or six gleaming bicycles, each one a showpiece that has been polished to perfection. The camper vans are stickered as well and are parked with their awnings out to cover collections of boys sitting on plastic chairs drinking coffee in track suits. People run all over the place with umbrellas, carrying out errands and bustling about. We drive in slowly, looking for space and waving at familiar faces. Eventually we find a parking spot and pull in abruptly. With the engine off, I put on my jacket and open the door to stretch my legs. The air is fresh and wet and smells faintly of manure, but it feels good to get on my feet. Hours in the cramped car have stiffened my muscles and given me the feeling that my body is full of cobwebs. Across the way, a paunchy old man is working on a stable of identical bicycles. He is smoking a hand-rolled cigarette and humming to himself. He would seem out of place if so many of his type were not around fulfilling similar tasks. I put on my hat and walk over to the building to find a toilet.
A sport hall connected to a small football stadium is serving as the headquarters for the race. Inside, a group of middle-aged officials sits at a long table, drinking beer and examining sheets of paper. I will let someone else take care of all that. The room smells of dust and chlorine and is lit only by a few fluorescent fixtures. I walk up a set of stairs and emerge, thankfully, in a room that is walled on three sides by large windows overlooking the football pitch. There is a bar at the back, where people are already drinking. Most sip coffee but some already have beer in their glasses. Everyone speaks in soft, choking sounds. I go to the bar and order a coffee and a glass of water and then find a place to sit at a folding table. Lying there is a technical guide that I open to look at. Inside is a map of the parcours, some rules, a list of participants and a roll call of past winners—the names all familiar. The list of participants is important; after so many races with the same teams, I have begun to identify the major players. I know which squads have the strength to shape the race and who will dictate the action. Reading down the page, I pick the ones to watch. The map is most crucial; I examine it carefully and rip a corner of paper from the book, noting down the most important sections. I first check the cobbled climbs; these narrow conduits of misshapen rock pitched upwards will be pivotal. Next, I jot down the flatter sections of kasseien; these are less decisive but nearly as brutal. I try and gauge the direction of the wind and notice any dangerously exposed sections. Finally, I examine the last few kilometres; the race will come straight into town, with one last uphill kick before the finish. I know enough.
I take a sip of weak and watery coffee; it has come from one of those automatic machines where beans sit, ground and stale, for weeks on end. At least it is warm. I am glad to see the small cookie served with it. I unwrap the package, pop it in my mouth, and enjoy a little taste of chocolate. I look around, see some team mates enter and wave them over. The guys are laid back and excited; they laugh and joke, but I can tell that they are afraid. The boys show bravado to release the tension; they are ignoring what lies ahead. Beside me, our climber swirls sugar into his coffee intently. He stirs it with a stick for minutes on end, rotating the liquid round and round as though it were the most important thing on earth. They chat about the route and the race, throwing their opinions around. I pay no heed; I know what I need to do. I sit there detachedly, my mind in a different world. Over and over, I play the race out in my mind. I am problem solving, analysing various scenarios, and dreaming of what I will do. After a while, I get up. I need to be by myself. I tell the others that I need to check a few things, knowing full well that I really I need to take a walk to calm my nerves.
On my way out, I stop again at the toilet; there is a line up this time, so I pop into the ladies’ and piss in a stall.
Outside, the rain continues to come down. I have given up hope that it will clear at this point. It will be the same for everyone. I walk into the car park and then out into the little town. Much progress has been made; the banners are in place, and they are just finishing putting together the podium and booth for the announcers. Stands selling beer and frites and sausages are opening up, and groups of locals are beginning to linger. I walk past it all, onto the main street and over to that little bakery. Inside, there is a warm glow and it smells sweetly of vanilla. A kindly little lady sits behind a glass cabinet chock full of pastries. “Een rijsttaart, alstublieft” I order. She smiles knowingly. “Een euro, voor een wielrenner“. I look down at the little cardboard sign; the real price is twice that. “Dank u wel, mevrouw,” I stutter.
I stay inside to eat, sitting at a high table in the corner, looking out at the wet, grey street. This is my last meal, the energy that will take me through the race. I bite through the crumbly crust of pastry and into the gooey filling of rice and milk and sugar, a last top up to fill my legs with fuel.
The tart is gone too soon, and I venture outside again. I look at my watch; there is one hour to go. It is time to get changed.
I walk back over to the car; it is unlocked, thankfully. Someone has already taken our bikes down and has pumped up the tyres. A few old soft-drink cases full of water bottles sit on the ground; some are empty; some are full. They must be filling bidons. I crawl into the back seat and reach over into the trunk to find my bag. I pull it over towards me, giving it a jerk as it gets pinched between the roof and the seat. I undo the zipper quickly and check that everything is in there. Perfect. In the front, on the dash, sits a large paper envelope, containing our numbers. I reach through and rip it open, referencing the start sheet to find out which digits are mine. With everything I need, I leave the car and walk back over to the building.
This time, I do not go upstairs but stay below, passing through the lobby and entering an even darker, mustier corridor. This is where the change rooms are located. I peek in the first few rooms and see that they are full. Men in various states of undress are packed uncomfortably closely together. Towards the end of the hall, I find a less crowded room and decide it is good enough. Inside, it smells strongly of camphor and capsaicin. It is warm and humid; the stone walls are painted a strange shade of grey and a wooden bench runs around the interior. The floor is made of rubber. The bathroom door is closed with someone inside. A sink sits beside a shower that is walled with the same stone as the room. Its floor is cement, its piping exposed. I find a seat. Across from me an old man is kneeling below a racer whose shorts are pulled up past his thigh. The old fellow is rubbing a strongly scented white cream into the racer’s legs. The rider sits shirtless, his ribs sticking out, and talks loudly to someone beside him, ignoring the man massaging him below. Shit that dude is skinny. Another man has his shorts in his hand and is rubbing a different cream into the chamois lining. Some are fully dressed, kitted up and ready to go, while others lounge lazily, trying to avoid the inevitable.
I begin in earnest, laying my jersey over my lap and fastening the zipper below me so that I can stretch it with my knees. Like this, I begin to fasten my numbers, one on each of the back pockets, low-left and low-right, eight safety pins per paper number, each in the same, horizontal direction. With each pin, I pierce through the paper for a first time, then pinch the fabric of the jersey and push the pin through one side and out the other. I then come back up through the paper and close the pin. This is the most secure method and ensures the number will stay in place. As I move side-to-side, the number won’t tug on my jersey.
My shirt prepared, I lay a towel on the ground and remove my shoes, and then strip naked. I rummage in my bag to find my shorts and begin to dress. The lycra is tight on my legs. I bring it up to the border on my skin. My crotch is padded to soften the stress of hours of movement on a small seat. I bring the suspenders up over my shoulders to ensure that my shorts will not slide down. Over top, I wear a thin, short-sleeved wool undershirt, my only barrier against the cold. Then, seated, I too pull up my shorts and begin to apply a cream to my legs. Immediately, I feel the strange sensation of cold and heat at the same time. I knead the liniment into my calf and the muscle glistens with an oily sheen. My legs are hairless. I see every ripple and vein as I massage in the lotion. I move up onto my quadriceps, where the muscles feel slightly swollen; my legs are full of fuel and fluid and power. Legs shining, I put on my socks, first the left and then the right. I pull them tight up my ankle so that the cuff reaches the bottom of my calf. Then I put on my racing shoes, just loose for now. On my torso I put the jersey. It is cut close to the skin, but is still a little loose around my biceps. I reach back in my bag and open a plastic container. Inside is a collection of foil packages containing stroopwafels, my food for the race. These caramel filled cookies are my sustenance: each, a shot of sugar to supplement my reserves. I place two in my left pocket, two in the right, and four in the middle; we will race two-hundred kilometres today. Next, I pull on a pair of arm warmers and short-fingered racing gloves, and then slide into a long-sleeved jersey to keep warm for the start. My helmet and sunglasses I will put on later.
Clothed and ready, I throw my things in the bag, zip it up and place it over my shoulder to head for my bike. Walking in cleats is awkward: the clack, clack, clack of stiff soles is demeaning and inelegant. Thankfully, I do not have far to go.
At the car, I am pleased to see that my bike is prepared; my tyres have been pumped and two bidons lie in their cages. I open one and take a sip; its taste is sweet and citrusy, too strong for me. I take both out and replace them with bottles of plain water.
Finally, I get on my bike. From the unwieldiness of two feet to the grace and dignity of two wheels, I begin to pedal. I turn a light gear lazily, exit the parking-lot, and head easily out on to the street to spin out my legs. The bike feels like a part of me. I glide down the road, dodging the odd rider and darting around cars at will. I move my legs quickly and keep my muscles free of tension, letting the blood flow through my veins without stress. I take stock. I feel good; I am powerful and aware; I am excited to race. I glance behind me, then pull over by a tree and piss. I don’t want to start with a full bladder.
I see some others coming and jump behind to sit in their wheels. I do not listen to their conversation; instead I think about the race. I follow easily and say hello to a few faces that I recognise. After a kilometre or two, we turn around and head back. Coming back into town, I see people already beginning to line up. Shit, it is almost time.
I pull off and dash into a side street to take another pee behind a parked car. Empty, I head over to join the assembling group. The road is already packed several rows deep behind the start line, so I jump into the fray quickly. A crowd of curious spectators, team-staff, family, and friends surrounds us. Everywhere, engines run; ahead and behind, the cars and motorbikes of directors, officials, police, and staff are all rumbling. An awful mix of teen pop and old disco music blares stupid syrupy beats over the stereo while an announcer riles up the audience with various exaggerations. We racers are packed tight, shoulder to shoulder, handlebar to handlebar. I awkwardly step to the side of my bike and lift up the back wheel, spinning the crank forward and shifting onto the big chainring. We will start quickly for certain. All around, riders toss jokes and insults, pinch each other and make excuses for why their form is not what it should be. I avoid all of this and focus on my self. Come on man, no stress. You are ready. Whatever happens happens. The microphone comes on again and crackles, “five minutes.” Shit, I think, I have to piss again. There is no time for that now. I look around and see our mechanic; he smiles, and I toss him my jacket. Game time. I shiver.
Ahead, the police motorbikes have taken off, and the commissaire is standing through the sunroof of a large black car, facing rearward and holding a red flag with a pistol in his hand. I clutch my chest and feel the little charm that hangs around my neck. The pistol fires, and we are off.
I fumble for half a moment, trying to clip into my pedal. Almost immediately, I find myself towards the rear of the peloton, as riders sprint past in all-out efforts. Finally, my shoe clicks into place, and within seconds my lungs are searing, as I scurry for the speeding slipstream. I need to find a draft, FAST. In front, they are hurtling ahead, swapping turns in the wind to try and stretch out the race as much as possible. If I don’t get on the train and find shelter immediately, I will be left behind in a few heartbeats. I jump into line and find a fat ass to hide behind. Two hundred riders are riding in single file, right on the edge of the tarmac, flying down the side of the road. I look down at my speedometer. Sixty-one, sixty-two, sixty-three. The wind is behind us, blasting rain drops into our backs. I am in the eleven, spinning as fast as my legs will churn. I am already soaked to the skin. Ahead, a rider rides off the edge of the road, clunk, clunk, clunk, and into the sand. Shit! I have half a second to react and dodge around him as he attempts to get back on the road.
The route is sweeping to the right and the front is impossibly far away; the leaders seem to be kilometres ahead. For now, all I can do is hold the wheel. Trying to ride forward in the wind would be suicide.
I stare straight ahead and whirl the cranks, trying my best to accelerate immediately into any space that opens in front of me. Hesitation will prolong the necessary effort and sap strength from my legs. Thank goodness the wind is directly behind us; if it were gusting from the side my race would be over already.
We rocket into a first town; I can see only a few wheels ahead of me and am blind to coming obstacles. All I can do is follow the men ahead and pray. Left and right we dodge, avoiding traffic poles and brushing our elbows on automobiles. Ahead, I see the bunch slowing for a corner and sense an opportunity. I hop sideways from the road and tear up the footpath, weaving around light posts, leaving many in my wake. I arrive at the apex of the turn and force my way in, forcing the others to brake. It was a dangerous move, foolhardy perhaps, but altogether necessary; right now staying at the rear of the bunch is not an option.
I have made great strides with my stunt and am now about two-thirds of the way forward in the peloton. We exit town and the wind comes across us; the race is fully on. A team wearing red and black races up the left-hand side of the peloton. I am on the right, boxed in, and can only watch. Why the fuck can’t my team ride like that. They are flying; they sprint ahead like a team of dogs. Here we go. They pass the leaders at full speed, lining up across the road from the windward side, one after the other, to shelter from the wind. Teeth gritted, they swap turns at the front, each man knowing that his teammate behind is chomping at the bit.
With this left-to-right formation, there is only room for fifteen riders across the road. Behind, it is war in the wind. I am stuck in that fracas, perhaps ten riders back from the rear of the echelon. The group is in single file, and I am in agony. My heart thumps out of my chest and my legs burn with acid. I don’t know how long I can hold out. Minutes turn into eternity; my arms grow numb and my mind goes black. It takes everything to stay on that wheel. The rider ahead of me falters and lets the wheel ahead go. The gap grows by one metre, two metres, three metres. Fuck! I grab his hip with my right arm and sling myself forward. For a second, I am flying, and then I reach the next wheel and the pain continues. It is awful. I taste blood in my mouth.
Finally, the race breaks for real and a big gap opens ahead. I look behind, and the peloton is in pieces. Oh shit.
I am in the second group and can only watch as the first bunch accelerates away from us. We need to get organised, NOW. I take the lead on the left side and pull hard, increasing our speed until my legs are full of pain. I then fall back and allow another to take my place. I slot in behind him and shift to an easier gear. Here, in an eddy of air, I gasp some breath back into my lungs and flush some of the tension from my legs. For the moment, I no longer have to face the wall of wind in front. A fresh rider comes through, and I drift leewards in the rotation. When I reach the last of the line, I sprint onto the forward moving wheel, not allowing the riders behind me a sniff of my place.
Each turn at the front of the group is dreadful; the wind whips in from the side and showers a million beads of water on to my skin, tearing into it like tiny shards of glass. I am soaked to the bone and my knuckles are white with cold, but my core is hot with pain. My legs churn, full of heat, the muscles tearing with every stroke. We are not making up any ground but the pace is horrendous.
I slide back and force myself to eat a stroopwafel. I unwrap the foil and shove the gooey cookie into my mouth. I nearly choke, as I try to swallow the caramel mixed with rainwater and dirt. I reach down for my bidon and take a drink while I crunch mud from the spout between my teeth. On and on it continues with little respite.
Then, BANG! Some bastard has crashed. Carbon and metal scrape over the road and somebody’s skin burns into the asphalt. A voice screams; others cuss. “Godverdomme!” The fall was behind me, thank goodness. I look back through my armpit; some poor soul sits clutching his knees to his chest, his shorts ripped open, his skin raw and red. His bike sits mangled beside him. I forget him; the race is still on.
We tear into the next town, streaming around both sides of a roundabout. I take to the left, hopping over the centre median to gain places. The road begins to tilt upwards gradually, and the effort really starts to sting. Beside the road, small gatherings of people stand stoically, taking in the spectacle. These townsfolk have seen it all. We rise up out of the village and onto a plateau. The road forms a narrow tunnel through the farmers’ fields with crops on either side. Looking ahead, I can just barely see the first group. Bloody hell. We have to ride.
The road turns slightly to the right, and suddenly I am throttled by violent vibrations shaking up through my bike and into my chest. My body feels convulsive. I am bouncing chaotically over rocks, trying desperately to keep a good line. Every jolt is like a hammer coming up through my hands. I grasp the top of my bars and loosen my grip; I would do anything to lessen the blows. We are no longer organised; it is every man for himself. Slowing down means the end. I am in a big gear. I am no longer fluid. I am riding on power alone. I sit back and try to turn my legs in circles. My movements are jarred continuously by the stones. Where is the drainage ditch? The route shows no mercy. We ride straight down the middle; a movement to either side would be perilous. The road is convex, with a cobbled hump in the centre. The rocks are large and irregular and wet. They call them baby’s heads here. They protrude sharply, glistening, ready to throw me off of my bike at a moment’s notice. I am towards the front; I can’t slow down. I look at my arms; they are covered in a dark sheen. My biceps bounce laxly to the beat of the stones. There is nothing to do but ride. The rocks batter me from the ground up, each strike clobbering my ass, my feet and my hands and reverberating though every bit of my flesh. It goes on and on. When is it over? Then, I am riding on air, floating on gentle tarmac. The pain is over. I glide.
Ahead, they are pulling away. I look around; our group is assembling. The others’ faces are drawn; only the whites of their eyes peak out from the sooty darkness of their skin. I reach down and drink, lubricating my throat with long swigs of liquid. We have work to do. I eat, gluey stroopwafel crumbling in my mouth. The stragglers arrive. We need them to ride. Someone accelerates; the race will not relent; it is time to go.
We are back in formation, revolving through like soldiers, each rider determined to do his turns. The road bends, and we descend. We soar though long sweeping turns, racing single file on the narrow road. With one hand on the bars, I drink some more. I am glad for a second not to be gasping for breath. Faster and faster we go, our hands off the brakes, our eyes fixed intently on the racing line. Outside to inside, we hit the apex of each turn precisely and brush the sides of the road as we exit. My body is loose and my mind is clear. I push in on the bars with my inside hand and lean the bike over on its side. I drive my weight to the ground with my outer leg and grip the tarmac with certainty. We tear down to the bottom of the hill at a blistering pace, and then it begins again.
The road ahead is long and straight. In front the leaders are fanned across the road at a crawl. An impasse? This is our chance. The wind is in our face; together we form a pace-line. Every man must do his share in a determined effort to rejoin the front runners.
The going is tough; the wind buffets us as we ride straight into its force. At the front, I ride with my head down and my elbows bent, crouched in as tight as I can go. I can only barely peek out from under my cap. I pound the gear, striving for an extra half-kilometre per hour, and then pull off and fall back into the revolving ranks. Up and down the queue I go. Our pace is vigorous. The riders in front are further ahead than they first appeared, but we are gaining on them. The work is hard, but we are riding to keep our races alive. Up front, they are coddling their advantage.
Slowly, surely we approach them. The straight road is hellish; it feels like we are going nowhere, but gradually we draw closer. A motorbike comes up beside us; the driver shouts “Dertig seconden”. The number thirty is scrawled on his chalkboard.
On a false flat, the wind gets worse and the rain heavier. My feet squish in my shoes, and my skin is covered in goose bumps. I am far from shivering though; inside, I am hot. We need to catch them.
Finally, we reach the rear of the leading group. I look around; my old allies are shaken. Those who were ahead are calm; they are taking in food and drink for the fight ahead.
The rough chip seal road cuts a small channel through a meadow of apple trees—a grey and dreary orchard in the rain. We grind up a slope shoulder-to-shoulder, bumping handlebars and rubbing elbows. The pace is wearing. The pitch does just enough to slow us down. Other riders try to squeeze into spaces that are not there. I am too far back, but I can not move forwards. The road is chock-a-block with grunting riders. Someone pushes my hip; there is no way I am letting him take my place. A few metres in front of me a rider tries to move ahead in the sand. His effort is in vain and he fishtails wildly; nobody lets him in and he is forced to stop. I am shivering; my stove is no longer stoked. I clench my bars tightly to keep steady; my knuckles are aching. I stand and rock my bike beneath me, hoping to move some warmth through my veins.
Suddenly, there is yelling and braking; there are men on the ground. Three or four have fallen. They must have crossed wheels, their balance lessened at this sluggish pace. They tumble like dominoes across the road. I curse and scoot my way around with one foot. Clear from the mess, I struggle to get going. My gear is too big, and I have to stomp with all my might to get the cranks to turn. Finally, I take off and scramble back to the pack, hoping that I have made up some spots.
As soon as I reach them, the group crests the hill and in seconds we jump from twenty-five to fifty-five. We race down the hill like stampeding horses, jostling for position through the turns. I am too far back; I am scared. Brakes screech as we enter corners. We dodge left and then right and then sprint out in single file. It takes everything I have to stay on the wheel in front of me. We hit a patch of straight road, and I take a second to catch my breath. It’s OK. Fuck. I look ahead; the descent is ending and funnelling into a little rise, where the leaders have accelerated. The race is splitting. Argh. My heart is in my mouth. I taste blood. We barrel through a maze of farm tracks. My back twists from the torque of exiting the turns. The team in red and black are piloting the peloton. I am fifty metres back, and I am suffering.
We take a sharp turn to the right. A shaft of sound walls up in front of us; a trail of stones lined five deep with bellowing farmers rises ahead. Turning onto the track, I accelerate somehow and pound all my power into the pedals. My whole body is burning; I buck, and I bounce, but still I press harder on the pedals. It is bloody steep. Somebody rings a cowbell in my ear. Fuck off. I grimace and strain into the cranks. My body bobs up and down with my legs. I try to stand, but my rear wheel slips, so I sit and force myself not to shift. A cement channel pops up on the right, so I hop into it. My shoulder brushes a wall of dirt on the side. I’m hypoxic now; my hands are numb and my vision narrowed by the pressure in my head. It takes everything to maintain momentum. Someone ahead comes off and wavers drunkenly on the wall, no longer able to push on the pedals. I pass him, folded into pain, as I ride in the centre of the kasseien. I struggle and struggle, and then I see the top, twenty-five metres ahead. Around me, the cheering intensifies and bells start to ring. Come on. I strain to get on top of the gear. A group is forming, and I need to latch on to them. I sprint. Everything sears. The pitch lessens, and I gain speed. Almost there. I am in the wind and dangling just behind. We start to descend. I am not quite close enough. Come on! I am desperate. We enter a town and a series of buildings block the gusts from the side. I have some shelter and I squeeze a drop of extra effort from my legs and reach them. Thank god!
I look behind; the peloton is in several pieces. I am in front. I hide in the wheels. I am without teammates; the other thirty riders can do the work.
The course is now relentless; it rocks and rolls and never goes the same direction for more than two-hundred metres. I am towards the back of the bunch and the turns are wearing on me. By the time I am through a corner, the leaders are at full speed. Each time, I must sprint to catch up to them. We are in farm country; the road is formed by those same slabs of concrete laid side-by-side. In the middle, it is perilous; a deep crack lies ready to swallow inattentive wheels. I am warm now, the effort fending off the chill. The course is calmer for a moment, so I eat again. I don’t know when I will next have a chance. I glance back; the cars are behind us, so we have more than a minute. I drift to the rear and raise my hand, draining my last bottle into my mouth, as I do so. Others are doing the same and I have to wait my turn. Finally, I hear a honk and look behind to see a familiar car. I coast for a second and wait for him to come up beside me. The window is open on the driver’s side and the director stretches out his hand with a bottle. I grab it and hold on. Calmly the director informs me of the situation. “You have one minute and fifteen seconds. You are with thirty. It is broken behind”. He has had the situation passed onto him by radio in the car. “And the others?” I ask. “They are kaput; we have one in the third group”. Bloody hell, I’m doing this alone. He releases the bottle; I put it into my cage, and then reach out for another. When he offers a third bidon, I hold on. The director accelerates the car and slingshots me back up to the group and into the race.
I take a deep swig from the bottle and throw it away, hoping some kid will find it as treasure. There is not long now. I need to get back to the front.
The group may be smaller, but it is still hard to go forwards. On small roads, we twist through a series of tiny towns. I wait, and then see a couple of riders from another team coming by. The man in front is burying himself in the wind, while his captain stays safely tucked behind. I jump onto the wheel and am shocked by the effort. The rider in front is labouring; his head is low and waving from side to side in the wind. His cadence is slow; he rides as if using an easier gear would admit defeat. The captain is composed and calm; he spins authoritatively. This rider is tall and lean. He is dressed in blue and wears a white helmet. His arms are impossibly skinny; the bones of his elbows sticks out where his triceps should have been. His legs glisten with oil; every sinew is exposed. His race is just getting started.
I sit on the wheel and move up the peloton as the men beside us grovel in the gutter. A few jump over but most miss out; they are stuck in their own suffering and are too slow to notice as we race past. We are ten men from the front when our workhorse blows; he stops still as if he were stuck in mud. I force my way into the file. There is no time for politeness here.
The red and black men are riding furiously, taking turns in the wind perfectly evenly. They are a well honed platoon. They encourage each other and ratchet up the pace; their bodies groaning with the toil. Behind, in the line, it is hard. I am just behind them. The rain falls more thickly. I can hardly see for the spray coming up from the wheel in front. A few riders come up parallel to us and then fall away, unable to keep up the pace. We turn left and descend quickly down a smaller path, and then turn left again, where a wall rears up in front of us. We hit the base of the climb, and the crowd roars, grown men and women screaming their support. This time I am calm and cool; I absorb the pain. These cobbles are easier and small enough to allow me a semblance of control. I am at the front, in a good position. It is too early to attack. Around and around, I turn my legs, as the acid sinks rhythmically into my muscles. A man runs up alongside and waves a yellow flag with a lion in my face. I stare straight ahead, my focus unwavering, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four. I count the beat in my head, while my legs pump up and down in time. The top is in sight and some bastard sprints. Let him go. I need that strength for later. We reach the crest and another one attacks. We let these two get away, allowing them their Hail Mary attempt at glory.
I stay with the red and black. For now, they are in charge. Their team is strong and efficient. Five of them remain. On the climb, the group has thinned. The suffering is beginning to take its toll. There is a long way to go, and there are twenty men in our group. I am calm; my legs still turn fluidly. I take a drink.
The red and black again take the lead. They are letting the two dreamers dangle and are pleased with the situation. The roads are relentless; they roll up and down and side to side. The cream is beginning to rise to the top. Some riders suffer; I can see it in their contorted faces. In private pain, their eyes are blank and they are slow to respond to movements in the pack. Others show strength and composure; they pedal smoothly with their backs straight, their legs circling with speed. They are the ones to watch.
I slot in towards the front and digest the steady tempo doled out by the leaders. Patience. I need to wait. I shake my arms, one at a time, to my side in a vain venture to regain feeling in my fingers. The wet is soaking into my skin. My jersey clings to my chest. It is cold and clammy. I tremble. I stand and then sit and then stand and then sit, willing to do anything for a bit of warmth. My hands are stiff and my feet are numb. I shift gears, moving to a lighter cog, so I can spin and move blood through my vessels. I look around; everyone is in the same situation; each man is silent and shivering.
Then, Crash! The terrible sound of carbon on concrete shocks me from my trance. The scraping sickens me. The fall is ahead; I have half a second to realise what is going on, before I am over the bars. I was too late. I’m in the air. Thump! My shoulder stings as my flesh is torn open. Arrggh. My bike, where is my bike? I find it beside me and bash the bars straight with my hand. I fling myself over and I’m off. Detaching myself from the pain, I hammer on the pedals. Adrenaline courses through me. Something is wrong. Where is my speed? I push and push, but seem to go nowhere. What the…? I see my rim rubbing on my brake. I reach down as I ride, placing my fingers dangerously close to the spokes. I don’t care at this point. I pull the brake to the side and my wheel spins free. I hurtle towards the rear of the speeding peloton.
Fuck. They are going fast. I’m too far behind. I pedal harder, straining my muscles. The gap stays steady, and then it begins to grow. Come on! Not like this. A car comes up beside me; it is a commissaire. He is kind; he knows racing. I jump behind his auto and savour the slipstream, grateful for his mercy. We come closer and closer, and then he lets off the gas. I shoot to one side and sprint. Ten metres, five metres, and I’m there with the group and back in the race.
My arm throbs, my shoulder is smarting, and my side is stiff. It is awkward to ride. I move everything gingerly, hoping that the pain eases. Nothing changes. I can’t think of it further.
The red and black still ride; they are a collective machine, labouring methodically in their show of force. One of them falters and drops back to the pack. His job is done for the day. Still, they are four in the lead.
We hit another section of stones, but I am numb. I bounce back and forth between the rocks. The sector seems endless. I am struggling and shaken; every jolt is worse. They are riding too strongly. Everything hurts. I press desperately down with my quads. I am losing places; I am floundering. Two come by me, then three more. Come on. I dig deeper and try to scrounge up an extra kilometre per hour. I’m drifting backwards now, falling further and further towards the rear. Finally, we hit tarmac. I have survived; I need to get my shit together.
I feel faint. My throat is parched, and my stomach aches. I reach behind into my pockets, ignoring the pangs in my shoulder. I eat two waffles this time. Too hurried to unwrap each properly, I swallow small strips of foil down with each cookie, sweet caramel mixing with muck, as I chew. I glug down some water and begin to come back to life.
There is no rest now; we are back on the cobbles. I hold my ground and grind my grit-covered gears. My knuckles ache from the continuous abuse from the ground.
My back is stiff and sore from being hunched for so many hours. I have been straining the muscles, ignoring the pain. The speed increases. Now, I can match it. We’re thundering along, careening over the cobblestones at the edge of control. I hold the bars faintly and let my arms hang loose to absorb the blows. I am barely steering now; I just point the bike forward and let the rocks take me where they will. I can hardly hear for the rattling in my brain. My vision is blackened to a few metres in front of me. Someone pulls off; they are buggered, their legs no longer able to turn. To stop would be worse. To get over the cobbles, you need speed.
The sector finishes; I am finding my rhythm. I ride at the front of the group in anticipation of the next group of stones.
The men in red and black swap off in a storm of effort. Together they work up the speed, faster, faster, faster. One of them is sitting on.
We can see the pair of hopefuls ahead. Their dream is dead. They look back and try to accelerate; their parrying is useless now; perhaps they can preserve some pride.
We pass them as if they were tourists. Their tongues are hanging out, their faces black, their shoulders rolling. They are there, and then they are gone. We have left them behind in the mud. They played their part too soon.
The next climb is crucial, and it is coming close. Men are nervous; they twitch in their seats and stretch their backs. I take a gulp of water and ready myself.
The speed picks up to a near impossible pace, and all of a sudden every spot is worth fighting for. I push the fear from my mind, wipe the snot from my face, and enter the fray. I think of nothing; here in the rain there’s no time for fright. A man comes up beside me, and I throw my shoulder into him; there is no way he is getting into my space. We blast through a series of curves. I have to force myself to keep my hands off the brakes. Then in front I see a farm track pitched upwards at a preposterous angle.
It is all or nothing now. The crowd is ten deep; they are hollering and waving flags and cheering. Cowbells ring in the carnival air. I hit the base with everything I have; I churn my legs and grunt with effort, bashing down into the pedals. I blast upwards, unchained. I don’t feel the cobbles; I feel only the heat.
I am over the top and I am alone, a solo rider ahead of the rest. There is roaring all around. My heart skips a beat. What have I done? I glance back; three men are coming up behind me, separate from the rest. I wait; I know that I need allies; the race is still to come.
A man in blue, a man in green, and a man in white form the escape with me. We need more men, but they ride, tearing swathes through the rain. I cannot sit on; they will not play that game. Doing my share is a gamble, but it is also a must. The bastards are riding fast. Too fast.
The man in white looks less like a cyclist than a boxer; his calves are ripped with veins. He is angry and aggressive and bullies the pace. Green is a waif; he is tiny and has a head that is too big for his body. He spins his pedals in a frenzy. His legs are like sticks. He rides with his elbows out, his hands defensively on the hoods. He looks panicked, frantic, and afraid. Blue is a man I know; he is the captain from before with the white helmet. He is skinny and knows what he is doing. The others labour; they are strong but in pain. Blue shows none of it; he rides calmly and never misses a beat. He pulls through quickly and efficiently and never does more than his share. His legs move rhythmically and glisten; they are lean. I want to attack.
I glance back; a black and red figure is darting across. Wait! This is it! He joins us and snarls; his face black. He sits behind surlily. I pressure him to ride. “No fucking way!” I drift off the last wheel and open a gap; wider and wider I let it grow, but he doesn’t blink. I have to close it myself and chase back to the group with him in tow; the cause is lost. His advantage is his team behind; he won’t help. We are four with a passenger; there is nothing we can do.
We ride hard and stick tight together; there is hardly a centimetre between our wheels. It is awful; there is no time to let off. I haul myself into the wind, trying to notch up our speed. I fight my machine; my legs pumping like pistons, rocking the bicycle underneath me. We need to go fast now and stretch out our lead. I pull off and am sprinting within a second; my heart is in my throat as I dash onto the forward-moving wheel.
A motorbike comes up alongside, his chalk board obscured by the belting rain. I squint and try to clear the water and grit from my eyeballs. He yells something that I can not quite make it out. Again, he shouts; “45 seconds”. This time I catch it; our lead is expanding! Ok, calm down mate, you can’t blow it now.
The next time I pull through, I am steadier.
I eat and I drink, topping up my sugar levels. I am nervous. I have never been up front like this. Think rationally. The game is the same. All the tactics, all the conniving, and all the smarts learned racing with my friends back home still apply.
I stretch my legs, dropping my heel down and leaning forward, sticking my butt out behind me. I shake my legs loosely; I am afraid of cramps.
We ride steadily but hard, each one of us taking his turn. I count my time in the wind, one one-thousand, two one-thousand… forty one-thousand, off, and compare it to the share done by the others.
Green is shirking and quitting his time early. I ride up beside him; I can see that he is suffering. “Do your bloody turn,” I growl. He shakes his head, his face red, and says, “Fuck you.” What a twit. “Come on, princess”. He glances backwards and nods towards the man in red and black. “We can’t change that. Come on!”
White angrily takes matters into his own hands; he rolls up to the little guy in green, grabs him by the small of his back and slings him forward, muscling him into the wind. There can be no more messing about; there is a race on the line.
We are together again, working as a team as the kilometres tick by. Blue is collected; he seems tranquil, stoic, and does not show a hint of the pain. On the bike he moves with the control of a dancer. White pounds his pedals in unspoken rage. I am surprising myself. I am calm and in command; my legs still turn with verve.
There is a lull in the race, a stretch of calm before the chaos. We roll along a wide carriageway, riding into the wind. It seems as if we are going nowhere, but a commissaire comes up and tells us that we have gained one minute. That is the best encouragement that I could hear.
“We can do it,” White hollers as he tries to hid the grimace that has taken hold of his face. The green guy spins faster, gritting his teeth. Blue stays the same; he is silent and his lithe legs turn over rhythmically.
I check behind; our black and red latcher-on is eating. His short, stocky arms bring a bar to his mouth. I can see the crumbs stuck in his teeth. He is too pleased with himself. I will show him.
Through farmers’ fields and apple orchards, we ride. Everything is grey and dark; the road is illuminated only by the lights of the car. Water and mud and grit splash up in my face. The dirt from the road fills my nostrils. My eyes are sore and ridden with sand. They rub raw in their sockets, as I glance around. I have forgotten my shoulder now; it is only a dull ache in the back of my mind. The race goes on; my shoulder is not going to fall off.
I am down in the drops, clenching my teeth. My director comes up, warm in his car. “Do you need anything?” he asks. “No, I’m good,” I reply.
We turn off the highway onto small roads at last. These paths turn and twist and come back on themselves. Behind, I can just barely see what remains of the group. We need to ride harder.
We hit another steep and cobbled climb. This time we go steadily; we need each other. I turn the pedals quickly; I am in the easiest of my gears. Green is struggling; he sits and then stands, straining, sprinting, then slowing, yo-yoing at the back. His face is twisted and bright red, his eyes half-closed. He looks as if he is praying for the end. Blue is alongside me; he is seated and spinning, in charge of the hillside. White is all brawn; he turns a humongous gear with brute force. Over the top, we are still together, though Green seems dead to the world. I look back; our black leech is off of his bike. He stands dejectedly and has his wheel in his hand by the side of the road. Flat!
Now we really are four men; there is no one behind to bend our resolve. Green is almost dead; moving his legs takes all of his might. He is proud though; like a little doberman, he is not willing to give up the fight. White starts to struggle, sliding forwards and backwards on his saddle. His legs are full and tense, bogged down by his gear. His face is blank; a curled lip is the only hint of his toil. Blue spins and spins and spins.
The road turns downwards and we blitz a descent. My tyres skid in the corners, chattering at the edge of their capabilities. I am scared, petrified really. I block out the fear and bring myself to the brink. I am all in.
My rear wheel slides to and fro through the turns, my thin tyres holding just barely to the wet road. In front of me, White exits wide and sends my heart into my throat. He is drifting dangerously out towards the barrier. He straightens the bike and pushes his butt rearwards, his hands pressed fully on the brakes, as he rides into the gravel. We pass in an instant and see for a moment a man seeing death. Then we are onto the next turn, my eyes riveted on the line. Down the decline, we drop like stones.
At the bottom, we start riding immediately, not missing a beat. Our purpose is clear. Behind, we hear a shout; White is coming back to us. Blue says to wait; we need his help. I am not sure; at this point, seconds are everything. We hesitate for a moment and White is there, only five metres behind. Ok, we are four again; it is time for a fight.
Green fades further. He shifts through his gears like the next will relieve him, but none will. His face is ashen, his teeth gritted, and his body covered in grime. The motorbike accelerates to our side; we have one minute and thirty seconds.
The road tilts up just perceptively, offering a false flat to wreck our minds. Green is at the back now; he is flailing. Then he is off: cracked. He has been brave.
The three of us do equal turns. Everything hurts; my hands ache and my feet are cramped. My neck is stiff and my back is twisted; still, my legs turn. I eat, stuffing my face with a stroopwafel; I am desperate for energy. This is a big chance man. Come on. You can do it.
The other two talk. White and Blue are scheming together. I am not sure what they’re saying, and I pretend I do not care. Fucking Flemish.
I cannot worry; I can only wait and react.
The towns come faster now. As we fly through each village, the air is filled with the scent of frying food, baked goods, and cigarettes. The rain has lessened slightly; it is more of a mist again really. Everything is grey and dirty and damp. We rattle over cobblestones; they are less brutal here than those in the fields, but now I just want everything to end.
Between villages, the road drags on; the long slabs of concrete are lined by leafless trees. The countryside is spartan and dreary. The motorbike comes alongside; we have “Een minuut en vijftien seconden”. Our lead is in the hands of the chasers; we are at our limit.
We pass a town sign and something is triggered in my memory. I recognise the name vaguely from the course book. Oh shit, this is crucial.
I reach down and drink, taking long swigs to ease the drought in my throat. I am sweating buckets, despite the cold in the air. Out of fear, I whisper a prayer to myself. I shift to an easier gear and gulp a few breaths.
The others know what is coming as well. The tension mounts; we look suspiciously at each other and try to suss out the others’ strength.
Then bam! Like a shot, Blue attacks. He comes from behind and is on the other side of the road in a second, graceful still in his sprint.
I react too slowly and the gap grows immediately. For ages and ages, I grind, clawing towards him with what’s left of my strength. I flick my elbow and swing to the side, demanding that White come through. I glance back; he grins and shakes his head. You bastard! He is unwilling to work. Furious, I drive onwards, fighting my bike. I drop my chain down a gear, then another and another. I’m on top of it; I’m stressing and straining, hunched over the bars.
I tear through the town, taking the corners desperately, willing to put my life on the line.
We turn right, and I see it. The road rises up like a rampart. The stones go straight up to the sky. Blue is ahead, maybe an eighth of the way up. He is slowing, solitary in his battle.
I ride into the base of the hill like a battering ram, my veins surging with adrenaline. All of my power goes into the pedals. I ride into oblivion with no technique, no souplesse, only will and anger.
I’m bringing him closer. My whole body is flexed. Blue is ahead. I need to catch Blue.
I see only red now, as blood pounds into my brain.
White tries to put their trick into motion. He surges, but falters, slows, and then stops. Broken, he weaves all over the road.
I rumble past, pissed at their ruse. As I come by, White is at a standstill. I spit on the ground.
The road tilts up further. My teeth are clenched tight and my ragged breathing envelops me in fog. I turn the pedals recklessly. I need to catch Blue.
I drop down a gear and torque the bike with my pedals. I drive down harder and harder, smashing into the machine. I pick up some momentum and bounce faster on the cobbles. I am gaining speed. A wave of adrenaline washes over me. I feel nothing; I am possessed; I am ecstatic; I am mad. I go faster and faster and faster, suddenly free.
Within seconds, I am beside Blue on the stones. Around us, the crowd is screaming. They lean their bodies into the road and holler drunkenly. Their breath is on my neck but I do not feel it; I see only the top. I drive my feet downwards.
Close to the top, we are thundering upwards over the rocks. Blue is still there. The road flattens out; we are two at the head of the race.
I take a second to examine Blue. He still pedals smoothly but his face is a picture of quiet torment; he has suffered. I put my anger aside; we need to work together. Blue knows this and he takes the lead.
The car comes alongside; we have a minute and fifteen seconds. Ok, there’s a job to do.
Blue pulls off, and I go through, riding steadily but hard. We need to be calculating.
Slowly, the speed ramps up. We are on a plateau. The rain has stopped, but the air is heavy. The land is grey and brown. There are horses in the field. I wish I had their strength. I tuck low on the bike; my back is stiff; my arms hurt and my shoulder throbs. Over and over, I turn my legs, forcing myself to ride. A strange calm has taken over me; everything is quiet; there is no more chaos. All I can hear is the wind and the water splashing up from our tyres. Behind the engines run softly. My eyes are dry and full of grit, whilst the sides of my neck are tense and sore from holding my head up for so long. My legs are stiff, the nerves in them deadened.
I eat. I put my hand up and ask for drinks. The director comes up; he hands me a cola and informs me that we have one minute. I drink the cold dark elixir and get a small burst of morale as the fizz fills my throat. I can do this. I toss the little can to the side. I need to ride.
We take turns holding the even tempo; I ride first, then he. I count. Our turns are the same. He’s all class, but he is hurting. I am a wreck with some strength. We are in it together; it is us against them.
I do my best to spin but I need the bigger gear. My litheness is gone; all I have is brawn. Everything feels as if it is going in slow motion. I look down; our speed has stayed the same. Good. I eat some more; I am going on empty; I need some strength.
Blue is starting to rock slightly, moving side to side on his saddle. I tuck in closer; I am centimetres from his wheel. I can see the bones of his back through his shorts; the bumps of his spine are framed by his ribs and roll back and forth as he pedals, his little ass twitching every now and again. A Catholic pendant hangs from the rails of his saddle, a little cross waving in the wind. I come past him; a small trickle of spit shows at the corner of his mouth. I duck down and flatten my back to hide from the wind. I am in the eleven and count a steady rhythm in my head, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four. The gear is big and the effort strenuous, but I do all that I can to keep up the speed. Blue comes through and goes a little faster; I have to stand and hurl myself onto his wheel. On and on this goes. The wind is strong. We are going too hard. I try to brush the seeds of doubt from my mind, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four.
I am dead to the world now. All that I know is that I can not quit. Up, down, up, down, I move my legs in a daze; I am robotic and mechanical; riding is not natural. My lungs feel small and constricted; it as though I can never quite get enough breath. My calves stiffen as I pedal, beginning to be gripped by cramp, as I reach the base of every stroke. It is not raining anymore but the road is still wet. The dirty water flies up in my face and fills my mouth and my ears and my eyes. My head throbs. Still, I keep going. I have to.
I feel like I am floating; my legs are full of cotton and my head and arms feel as if they are detached from my body. I know that I am thirsty but I forget to drink. Keep riding. I stay in the same gear; I grind up rises and spin frantically as the road dips.
Blue is still suave, but I can see that he is hurting. His back is bent further than before; his spine is curved and not flat. He is silent and focused, his eyes fixed with pain and intent. His sinewy legs whir out a steadfast pace, but he shifts on the saddle, moving forward and back as though movement might relieve a smidgen of the pain.
My team’s car comes alongside; the director yells, “ You have fifty seconds. You need to eat!” “I’m ok,” I reply. “No now.” he says, thrusting two small packets out the window. Too weary to refuse, I oblige and rip them open at once, sucking in the sweet, syrupy goo from the top of the foil wrapper. “Good,” the director says, “now drink this”. He hands me a little bottle that I swallow from thirstily. It is strong and tastes like cola but is more concentrated. I feel a rush of sugar and caffeine. This will keep me awake. The director hands me two fresh bottles of water and hurtles me forward, yelling “Now go!” his voice full of excitement.
The fuel gives me impetus; I’m back in the world. We only have fifty seconds and we need to fight. I search in myself for anything to keep going and increase the speed. One kilometre per hour extra, two kilometres per hour extra. Every decimal point on my speedometer doses out a little more pain. Everything hurts.
Blue’s face is contorted and scrunched up; his eyes are little slits. I can’t imagine what my face looks like. Blue is gasping now; his breathing is audible and ragged, desperate just like mine.
The wind is cold on my skin. My arms are empty and useless and covered in goosebumps. My chest is wet, plastered with frigid fabric that is sopping with road spray. I hunch my shoulders to keep in a little heat. Only my legs are warm. Keep riding.
The chalkboard says forty-eight seconds; we are holding on. Blue comes through; his eyes are distraught but his body is brave. Off and on we pull, not saying a word to each other, afraid of breaking our trance.
We hit a section of cobblestones and stay tight together; our alliance of interests takes precedence now. Blue picks the line perfectly and finds a little ribbon of smooth stones by the side. This lining of longer rocks laid end-to-end as a border for the cobbles takes balance but provides relief from the unbearable jarring of the centre of the road. I am happy to follow.
Back on the tarmac, everything feels slow. Every time I pull through, I almost give up. It feels as though I am riding through cement. I check to see if my brake is rubbing; it is not. I hop my tyres off the ground one at a time to ensure they are not flat; they are not. Dig in. I look down; my chain, once sparkling clean is now black with muck and creaks as I turn the cranks. As I shift, the chain takes a second to react then hops back and forth between cogs. Nothing I can do about that now. I put my head down and try to ride harder.
Entering a small town, I take the lead and navigate a tight chicane at speed. Coming out of the last bend I hear a yell, then the ghastly grating sound of material grinding across asphalt. The crowd gasps and for a second I am in shock. Stricken with disbelief, I glance back; Blue is sitting with his knees in his hands, blood on the road around him. I don’t know what to do. I want to wait. Hell, I need help. A horn honks behind; the director has his head out the window, “Ride!” he screams.
I am seized by adrenaline and a sense of clarity envelops my mind. I need to do it alone. Suddenly, the cranks seem to turn easier than before and my speed increases. The win is right in front of me. Energy courses through my veins. I’ve dreamed of this. I am alone at the front of the race.
The road is flat and windswept; I look down and surprise myself; I am riding fifty kilometres per hour. Everything is in sync. I feel like I am flying. I turn the pedals faster.
I come into the next town, and the crowd roars. I ride through a festival and am showered with applause. Children scream in support while women ring cowbells and men fetch beer. I am on a high; nothing can stop me. I take corners at the very limit of my abilities; I am unafraid and sprint out of each to get back to top speed. I don’t feel the pain; I don’t feel anything; I am possessed by what I might achieve. Faster and faster and faster I go. Never let up. I can do it, I can do it.
The weather has let off now; the air is fresh and damp. The road is surrounded by grass and lined with giant chestnut trees. The route starts to rise up slightly, but I stay in my gear, turning my legs over and over at the same breakneck pace. Soon, the road tilts up further and the effort starts to sting. Only my arms and face feel cool as the rest of me sweats. My legs fill with acid but I don’t let off. My lower half is enveloped by a burning sensation, and then it is over. The road flattens out and I wheel along at full speed.
The next roller is tougher, and I suffer. It’s just me against the rise. This hill lasts longer, and I feel my legs faltering beneath me. Hold on, you can win. In a daze, I see the numbers on my speedometer decline, the meaning only registering to my stupefied consciousness a few moments later. I stand and throw my weight onto the pedals to regain my speed. Finally, the slope flattens out. I have reached the top.
The car is alongside me now and the director bawls encouragement into my ear. He pulls a little closer and offers a slight bit of draft. Immediately, the commissaire is behind us wagging his finger, telling the car to drop back. Bastard.
The sides of the road are open, and treeless fields offer little protection from the wind. I do my best to hold a straight line, as the blasts blow me back and forth. I stay in a big gear; it seems more solid and guarantees momentum. I don’t look back. Bloody hell, it hurts.
The horn honks constantly behind, the director reminding me not to let my pace falter. I block the sound out completely and focus on my pace. One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four. I count the agonising rhythm in my head.
I ride into another town and forget the pain momentarily; everyone is out clapping and screaming. They are shouting my name, reminding me of the grandeur of the situation. I begin to believe and for the first time think about the finish line.
The motorbike comes alongside; I have forty seconds. Come on mate, you can do it. I wave for the director; “How many are chasing?” I yell. “Just three” he replies. I can tell he is lying.
I try to accelerate but can barely manage to maintain my speed. I am blanketed in pain now; acidic blood pumps through my veins. My eyeballs throb and I can barely hear for the pressure in my brain. My arms are stiff and my back is wretched with strain. Still, I pump my legs, unwilling to yield.
The pain consumes me; it is quiet and my vision is darkened. I am completely focused on my effort; I no longer notice anything peripheral. I keep counting in my head, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four. My whole body is rigid, every muscle is flexed as though it might contribute to my quest. It feels as if the blood is about to boil in my quads.
With every pedal stroke my calves are clenched tight by the grip of cramps. The pain is awful and debilitating but I push on. I open and close my hands on the bars; they are seized stiff by cramps. I bend my neck to each side in vain, hoping to release some of the tension there. For a second, I put my hands on the hoods, but after being hunched low for so long, I feel like a sail. Fuck man, focus. I centre my consciousness on the pain and bring it to the maximum I can bear.
I enter another town and there is more cheering. I get a brief rush of morale. I can do this. I think for a second of the finish and what winning would mean. It is everything I have worked for, all that I have dreamed of. Fuck. Focus. I bring my thoughts back to the pain, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four. I drive myself on.
The motorbike is there; it says thirty seconds on the chalk board. I try to ride faster but I cannot; I am in the hands of fate.
Sweat runs down my forehead and mixes with road grime then streams into my eyes. I grit my teeth; this is hell, but I’m nearing the light.
I hit a patch of cobbles; I think this one is the last. Every bump jars into my sinews and shakes my bones. As I rattle over the stones, it feels as if I am being beaten all over at once. I ride straight down the middle; I am too dazed to look for a better line. My speed starts to drop and I dig into the bike; my efforts give me an increase in speed. Arggh when is it over?. The sector is endless; I feel like I am dying; everything aches; I taste blood in my mouth. My hands are throbbing. I can not bear it. Fuck. I finally get back on top of the gear. Good, keep going. I find new motivation and push harder; I need this to end. Finally, I reach smooth road and feel relief. Go, go, go. There is no time to waste.
Motorbike, chalkboard, twenty-five seconds, I can hardly process it now.
The finish is near. It hurts so much that I need to get there fast.
Nearing the end of a long straight drag, I glance back fearfully and see a group at the end of my sight. Fuck.
I put my head down and drive into the cranks; my muscles tear with every stroke. My heart is pounding and I can hardly breathe, but still I keep going. I need this; I need to win.
The finish line flashes up in my thoughts and immediately I banish it. Focus, ride, ride, ride!
I am back in reality. I switch left and right on small farm roads, taking turns in a stupor, my body pushing me through the bends before my mind can react.
The chalkboard says twenty-five seconds. You are holding it mate!
I ride into a forest, away from the wind. My speed jumps, and I struggle to spin. My legs are blocked from the effort, tension filling my muscles. I am in the eleven and cannot turn it faster; I need to go faster.
The road snakes left then right and I fly with momentum. The speed boosts my morale better than anything else ever could. I fly through the turns like a moto-racer, exhilaration sneaking its way into my mind.
I am back in the open. Fuck, it is slow. I stay in the eleven and force myself to keep the gear going around. The road bends slightly to the right in a long arc. It seems to take forever. I am short of breath and struggling, praying for cover. I glance back; they are closer, the front of the group swathed in red and black.
I grind my teeth together to distract myself. The pain smothers me. One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four. Only the dream keeps me alive.
I roll in my seat, thrusting my weight through each stroke of the pedals, seized simultaneously by excitement and despair. An image of the finish line flashes through my mind and I hurl myself somehow harder into the bicycle, desperate for it all to end.
Another town, another burst of adrenaline. I can not accelerate now; I am on the edge of what I can bear. I see a kilometre marker; it is not so far now.
My mind floats above my body. I move almost in slow motion. Somehow, the pain is remote and below me. I am on a different plane.
I drift forwards, conscious that somewhere beneath me my breath still burns and my body is contorted in agony. It is all automatic now; I’ve allowed the pain to permeate.
Everything seems inevitable; I am carried through the turns with ease. All is quiet; I see only the road in front of me. I am amazed to see that my legs still churn so viciously.
I hardly exist; no longer do I make things happen but they happen to me. I am in a sort of state of grace. I am calm; I can not do anymore; I have opened myself wide to the world and I think I am going to win.
Everything is a blur of colour. I do not think of anything; I just let my body be and ride.
I soar through the town, not missing a pedal stroke as I swoop through a series of turns.
Somehow, I know they are behind me; they have to be. I do not look back. My legs are firing, faster and faster and faster.
The road kicks up and I am climbing, my body is spurned upwards to the top of the rise. I am sprinting; it’s the last stretch; I need to go to the top then to the right and I’ll win. A gust of wind pushes me from behind.
Then whoosh! Red and black jerseys blow by me in a sprint for the line.
At least ten careen past. I can hardly move; pain grips me everywhere. My heart thumps like bomb after bomb. I’ve lost. I get to the top and then to the line. My head is pounding. My torso stiffens, and I am unable to move. I come across the line and everything goes black. Somebody stops me, his hands gripping my shoulder. I clip my feet out, stand, and then crash to the ground.
It is over.