The Rider Ridden
Meyrueis, Lozère, May 28 2013. A cleverer man than me once outlined the world’s classic blunders: never get involved in a land war in Asia, and never go up against a Sicilian when death is on the line. That man’s dead now but to that list I add, from bitter experience: never count on good weather in the Massif Central. “Ça va être compliqué”, says Jeff, proprietor of Jeffbar on Meyrueis’ main strip, when I ask him what the weather’s going to do today. Compliqué. Jeff is better at making coffee than he is forecasting the weather. In the event, it is terribly simple. Simply terrible.
I am with two friends in Meyrueis to cycle the Tour du Mont Aigoual race route described in The Rider, Tim Krabbé’s semi-autobiographical novel from 1978 that in 2002 was translated into English and has a cult following the world over. It describes the course of an afternoon’s racing on these roads, taps in to the thoughts that flow like an underground river beneath, moves that animate the race. In so doing it articulates a lot of truths about cycling, life and everything else. It taught me a lot about the experience and craft of road cycling: the syntax and grammar of racing; I alliances, attacking and getting dropped; cycling history, psychology and suffering.
When re-reading the book before setting out for the ride, I realised I had unconsciously appropriated all my most original and insightful thoughts on cycling from it. This is both disappointing and, in the context of this article, inconvenient.
In The Rider, Krabbé races a figure-of-eight with Meyrueis at its centre. Down the Jonte and Tarn gorges, then up and over the Causse Méjean, one of the region’s high limestone plateaux deeply incised by rivers, and back down to Meyrueis. Up Mont Aigoual obliquely as if trying to take it unawares, via the Causse Noir, the village of Trèves and the Col de Seyrerède. Down the other side of Mont Aigoual to the Col de Perjuret and a mad downhill rush to Meyrueis again.
The route is 137 km long and climbs 2,400 or so vertical metres – though it is of course altitude-neutral. Nothing won, nothing lost, a zero-sum game. A non-cyclist might wonder why expend all that effort just to go in a circle, to climb only to descend again. And a figure-of-eight is zero twice. Two circles joined, the symbol of infinity.
The start is inauspicious. We cruise out of the village down the Jonte river towards darkening skies, past a vulture park. It begins to rain. Soon the drops become heavier and we spread out across the quiet road to avoid each other’s spray. Right at Le Rozier and gently up the Tarn gorge just as we gently descend the Jonte. This road is roughly surfaced, being worked upon, but there are no workmen out in the rain.
At Les Vignes, the signs point right again, over the river to zig-zag up the steep opposite wall of the gorge. I know this from the map I studied earlier. Now, even the tops of the houses are obscured by mist. I eat a bar, aware that in a few hours I will be sick of sweet foods. Mango. Krabbé had dried fi gs; he dropped them like bombs to great eff ect. As I cross the Tarn I reach behind to release the rear brake caliper; I do not have to look, despite the proximity of fi ngers to whirring spokes because this is a ritual, a superstition. I know the brakes do not rub on the rim, that I do not have the power to fl ex the carbon frame suffi ciently, but I do this at the bottom of every climb.
The raindrops are dripping fatly off the brim of my cap. Krabbé rides this climb in 43-19, his 20 clean as a whistle. I spend a few minutes working out what ratio is closest on my modern 52/36 chainrings, when I should probably be stopping to put on my rain jacket. 36-16, I decide, and consequently abandon the idea of staying in it. Soon we are strung out along the rising fl ank of the gorge. At some points the rain comes horizontally, as if modifying its attack to target us. I get out of the saddle, climb easily. I let Despuech go. Let him burn his matches.
I climb. Two ditchlings to go. These days I measure things in ditchlings. Ditchling Beacon is a hill that achieves notoriety not because it is huge but because of its position just outside Brighton, 90 km from London on the south coast of England. 1.5 km long with an almost 10 % average rise, it is dreaded by the nodders who swarm to Brighton on an annual charity ride, most of whom get off and trudge up, heads bowed, defeated either by the gradient or by the congestion. Still, after that it’s downhill all the way to fi sh and chips on the beach. One year when training to ride over the Route des Grandes Alpes from Geneva to Cannes I did hill repeats on Ditchling Beacon. The most I ever did in one go was 11, around 1,500 metres of climbing. That would get me up an Alp, I thought. It did. It was good training physically and also psychologically and I now count everything in ditchlings. The ditchling: a unit measuring amount of climb remaining, of approximately 140 vertical metres. One ditchling to go. I fi nd my rain jacket incredibly beautiful.
What do I experience that Krabbé doesn’t on these climbs? He has racing’s tunnel vision, which sacrifi ces peripheral awareness for speed. I have chapels of rock, their fi ngers pointing to the sky, and the smells of the Lozère: wet pines and cows. At the top my friend Anton is sheltering inside a structure that usually contains bins.
We set off along the Causse, past Rouveret, with a neat geometric church and postage stamp graveyard almost as large as the houses. Soon the mist closes in and my world narrows. A small square of black tarmac, the sound of raindrops pelting my rain jacket and an almighty tailwind that pushes us on. Our way lies over a blasted heath. On the Causses there are beech trees the size of dogs, so stunted are they by the harsh environment. We are cold.
On the descent back to Meyrueis there is no possible means of expending energy, and without a means of burning calories it gets even colder. The ride enters minor heroism territory. Do we get closer to our heroes doing this? When Krabbé was writing Eddy Merckx was still racing, albeit overweight and in decline and riding for Fiat. Jacques Anquetil’s era was still within touching distance. Columbus steel, five sprockets and leather saddles. Perhaps by reading The Rider we are transported ever so slightly closer to that legendary era. It is always better in the old days.
Up the other side of the valley the rain turns to sleet then to snow, which a bit higher starts covering the road. On the climb to the summit of Mont Aigoual we abandon. DNF. Did not finish.
June 13, 2013. I am descending from the Causse Méjean towards Meyrueis again. It is two weeks and two seasons after our wintry abandon: 26 °C and blazing sun. Krabbé rode it on June 26 1977, almost exactly thirty-six years ago, not long before I was born. That day there were holidaymakers paddling in the rivers, today there are none. Unlike Krabbé I did not have to wait for the race marshall’s gun so the gorges were still in shade when I passed; my race was against the heat and I attacked early.
Meyrueis again. There are people on electric bikes. I’m shocked that they flaunt their perversion so brazenly in public. Jeff is busy in Jeffbar, mis-calling the weather maybe. I get a bit lost finding my way through town, circle the tiny back streets and cross the same bridge twice until I am climbing again in the heat through forests that do not sufficiently cover the road.
I look down at my right knee tracing a slight figure of eight, like a miniature version of the course. My left leg begins to ache, in the hamstring above the back of the knee. Two of my imbalances. I have tried to correct them with massage, stretching, yoga, but there is nothing I can do. After all, valleys and mountains are imbalanced. They have written this into my muscles and tendons, the set of my hips in my pelvis. My legs are made of the mountains I have climbed and the valleys I have ridden through.
Now I am up through Lanuéjols and on to the Causse Noir, which is green and pleasant. There are sheep grazing on the black Causse.
The road is straight and a long way ahead of me, 500 metres or more, a guy in a Renault van is smoking a cigarette. There’s nobody else around and I can smell it. Apart from me the day is very still. When I look up the car has disappeared from sight.
The Causse Noir is smaller and lower than the Causse Méjean and soon I am down in Trèves. Une trève – a ceasefire or a respite. After we abandoned we stopped here in a crêperie to warm up and drink hot chocolate. Today I ride past and turn left to begin climbing immediately, a sign indicates Mont Aigoual is 28 km away. I find that very depressing. Mont Aigoual: one of the wettest places in France, record-holder for the coldest June day ever recorded in France, -3.3 °C. In the 18th century Napoleon Bonaparte ordered chestnut trees be planted across the Cévennes, since he’d chopped all the forests down to build ships and the loose soil was silting up the Rhône, causing flooding. Hence the region’s major chestnut forests, chestnut festivals, pâté de chataigne. No chestnut trees, however, would grow on Mont Aigoual.
The road up from Trèves is barely a car’s width, with a precipice on one side where a small stream flows. The water looks very inviting. I am hot and already out of breath. Climbing, discuss: Krabbé, from the Low Countries, who could climb well; me, the Englishman who tries to, when my local hills are 3 km at best. I always feel out of joint for the first few kilometres, sometimes more: you can’t lie to a mountain. I try to take a picture with my iPhone, and call my mum instead. It seems fitting.
Mont Aigoual from Trèves is an awful grind. Over the 28 km it averages 3.5 % but the road dips and rears, making it impossible to get a rhythm on the steeps or take advantage of the nearly-flats. My form is ragged and I feel bad. Wherever there is interaction between place, time and an expenditure of energy there is rhythm, yet my rhythm is jerky, disjointed. Sometimes before the beat, sometimes after. A jazz drummer would be ashamed. As Duke Ellington said, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” I remember about standing up. It’s a bit better, but no melting of self into action. Aiguebonne. Nice name, nice pain.
Why do we ride road bikes? I ask myself this a lot. To escape. That’s a good one. It’s a socially acceptable way of being on your own. Racing is a good one too. To think or to staunch thought. To help you sleep at night or get up in the morning. All good. So is going fast. I ride partly to make stories in the world. To make sure that there is a beginning, a middle and an end. A narrative of effort, a purposeful vector across the landscape in a world where our attention is otherwise pulled constantly in many directions.
Fitness alone is the worst reason to ride a road bike. Robert Johnson, the bluesman, spent his life playing the blues to seduce women and to escape the hounds of hell. Not to perfect the pentatonic scale. When Johnson performed at a jook joint he would single out one woman in the audience and fix her with his gaze, sing only to her, without regard for the rest of the audience – try to sleep with her, and never mind her boyfriend or whoever else she was with. I think that’s what cycle racers call focus. A jealous boyfriend was what killed him.
Somehow I have arrived at the wooden houses of Saint Sauveur-Camprieu. The town is a ski resort and I see a sign to Chalet Reilhan – an echo of, or inspiration for, the character in the book? From here the road eases, becomes wide and shady and I begin to feel good. At a crossroads there is a choice: left to Prat Peyrot – a ski station and the actual course of The Rider route; right to the summit Mont Aigoual. I can’t bring myself to pedal to a place called Prat, and the route to Mont Aigoual is longer and higher, and therefore better. That’s not a racer’s thinking. I’ve taken a long cut.
At the top there are clouds a million midges strong, I swallow about a hundred. Further on, a weather station, radio mast and a cloud of tourists. Enough of that. I immediately point the bike down to rejoin the route. The top of the descent is windswept and open, but further on it curves and bucks to negotiate the steep-sided cliffs that fall away on all sides before the Col de Perjuret, where in 1960 Roger Rivière, a great hope of French cycling, fell into a ravine. «Le Terrible Accident de Roger Rivière» announced the cover of Miroir Sprint magazine, with a photo of him prone in the dust. The cover the week after shows his best mate Raphaël Géminiani bringing him flowers in his hospital bed, but Roger would never walk again.
The rest of the descent passes in an adrenaline rush: the invisible stopwatch is urging, I feel pressure of the finish line ahead. I pedal downhill as hard as I can through the farms and hamlets around Meyrueis, up a final rise, quads screaming, around a roundabout and down to the bridges and the finish line.
After he finishes, Krabbé watches the others come in. Those fifteen minutes between him and the bunch are his reward for five years’ training and hard work. A bicycle cannot go backwards, after all. His race for second place takes four hours, thirty minutes, whereas I finished in five hours fifteen. In this imaginary race, I wouldn’t have troubled Krabbé and Reilhan. Yet my clock shows 144 km to his 137, and those seven kilometres are worth 15 minutes, surely. And if I hadn’t meandered round the back streets of Meyrueis, if I’d been racing, had sat in the bunch, drafted craftily, could I perhaps have got away with them at the end?
But these are excuses, only excuses. The reality is I wouldn’t have been on the start line. At best I would have come in in the bunch. I would have gone for the bunch sprint… and I would have lost. But as Krabbé says, in an article he wrote about The Rider: “… success, especially your own, is not a good subject; failure is”.