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The climber

Keir Plaice Tekst Keir Plaice Gepubliceerd 18 October 2018

No matter how desperate he is, he will not quit until he is on the verge of losing consciousness. At that point, there will be so much carbon dioxide in his blood that chemical sensors in his brain will elicit panic. That is the break point. To go on, he must harness his fear. It will take all of his courage and a perfectly calm mind to ignore the smothering fact that his heart is beating too fast, and his lungs are breathing too hard, as adrenaline and lactic acid rush into his blood.

His vision narrows. His mind is curiously lucid. The stiffening fibres in his muscles tear with each stroke. Gusts of hot life blow into his limbs. It takes his total concentration to maintain his rhythm and glide nearer the ever receding point that will not save him. The light bursts. He is lurched into his last, gasping throes. A wave of nausea washes over him. He surfaces. The world is so senseless and beautiful. It hurts.

On the flats, he is pushed around by bigger men. At full bore, he does not have the raw power to displace riders who have ten or fifteen more kilograms of muscle than him. So, he follows. He surfs wheels and conserves his strength. Every corner is a chance to relax for an extra second. Every passing jersey is a ride ahead. The peloton is a fluid maze, fraught with danger. So, he keeps up his cadence, stays sheltered, and plots his attack.

His only real hope is a solo flight. When the games that breakaways play end, he is bound to be overpowered. He will surely be blown away in a sprint.

He is only truly at home in the high mountains. Away from the peloton, he loves racing into the thinning air, as the sun beats down on his skin.

So, he prepares meticulously, spending long days at elevation, refining his uphill pedal stroke. He eats very lightly and burns hundreds of thousands of calories to shed any excess weight from his frame. He races up hills at close to maximum effort to improve his condition. When he is ready, he becomes birdlike, all heart and lungs and sinew. What matters most is his brain.

What is he fleeing? His all too human weakness mostly. He brakes too early at crucial moments, lets others fill gaps that should have been his. He is forced off of wheels in crosswinds and holds back when the peloton is rushing ahead. He gets dropped on the cobbles and lets himself be left behind in bunch sprints. He ought to be better. He so often betrays his faith in himself.

Too often, racing for him is a ritual defeat. It is one he must master. Surviving in the peloton is an art, and he must survive well if he is to escape it. He must eat and drink well. He must waste no energy. He must do his duties for his team. He must fetch water bottles from the car, chase down attackers, ride on the front, defend leader’s jerseys, get around criteriums, do well in time trials, do his part in lead outs, whatever the race demands. When the peloton splits into echelons, he must make the front group. When the race heads over the cobbles, he cannot shirk the task. He must descend like a demon. In the terrifying, mad rushes to the bottoms of the climbs, he must be at the front. It does not matter that he sometimes hates it, that he is afraid.

When he is ready, he becomes birdlike, all heart and lungs and sinew. What matters most is his brain.

Too often, it is a frantic struggle. His competitors are just so fast, and he is left to fizzle alone with his sinking hopes.

And without hope, he is engulfed in the present, which demands that he do what by any sane standard cannot be done: go on.

The mountains mock him. The cool alpine streams that fall into frothy, turquoise pools; the shade of the forests; the hawk, circling lazily overhead—all remind him that he is hurting himself, that he does not, in fact, have to go on. He could stop at the lookout and have a beer with the campers, revel in the sunshine and the fresh air, as the race drifted past. He could admire the magnificent snow-capped peaks. But he doesn’t. He keeps going, just to show the world that he can hold on.

His only respite is the breeze.

And then, he finds himself in the front group on a final climb and it dawns on him that he is still in control, that he can do what he wills. He must not get carried away. After all of the insults and misery he has endured, he must plot his revenge very carefully. A scintillating attack is not likely to succeed. But he is fearless.

He swoops around switchbacks, and his spirits soar. In form, his body has undergone a mysterious transformation. It is as if he can touch the fiery source of his fear without being enveloped by it. His heart is hammering and his lungs scorch, but he can gather speed.

He is flying.

Still, he ought to pick his fights very carefully. The human body did not evolve to flee for more than a few minutes.

But the others are fading, and he believes some sort of immortality lies on the other side of the finish line for him if he crosses it first.

So, he goes.

A current of elation carries him upwards. The sheer thrill of taking flight has him entranced. Pain buffets him. He can only hope that the no one is faster, that he crosses the finish line before he explodes.

The flashbulbs will go off. The tale of his exploit will be in the paper. He will stand on the top step of the podium. The people will look up and see a star.

He descends from the mountain. The next day, he will start in the peloton.

If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 19 where it was first printed.

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