A spark of hope
I wake to a beat suited better to a night club than the back seat of a car. In front, they are gossiping, nervous. Water droplets run down the window. It is still surreal to be here. It seemed simple at the time. I lived for the sport and this was a step I had to take. The best races were here and I had to race them. I didn’t know what the rest would be like.
Back home, it was easy. My family was there and I raced with my friends. No matter how it went, everything was okay. Here, I am alone. I have to succeed to justify it all to myself. Sometimes, I question if it is worth it, when I’m stuck in that tiny apartment with only a fight in the cow shit to look forward to. I’d been so scared. The roads were tiny and everybody was good. One moment of doubt and some bastard was shoving me into the ditch. I hardly saw the front. I followed wheels until the pack broke and was left behind with the other pannekoeken. 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. They were happy to go back to warm meals and their families. All I had at home was a bowl of leftover macaroni with ketchup and a bike magazine I’d leafed through a thousand times. The next day, I would wake up stiff and battered, with only a foolish dream to get me back on my bike.
Then, a couple of months into the season, I got a spark of hope. It was classic like all the others. I struggled from the start, was shoved from my spot a thousand times, but this time I survived. I made the splits and came to the last ten kilometres with the pack. Sensing an opportunity, I fought my way up to the front of the peloton and attacked. I gained a gap, dropped my chain onto the smallest cog and rode harder than I ever had before. The wind roared in my ears, buffeted me from the side. 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, closing in then letting off. I crossed the line seconds before them to finish thirteenth, just behind the 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. The racing seemed to slow down a little, not in speed but in the way things moved in the bunch. I began to grasp how it all 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 was. I was playing a part. Now, I could consider trying to win.
The music rouses me from my thoughts. Rain blurs the drab scene out the window, endless fields gridded with ditches, broken up by the odd farm, windmill or tree. Here and there, collections of houses are brought together by a church steeple. The highway cuts through it all. Thankfully, we are heading to the south to race today.