The strain of memory
Road racing imitates life, the way it would be without the corruptive influence of civilization. When you see an enemy lying on the ground, what’s your first reaction? To help him to his feet. In road racing, you kick him to death. – Tim Krabbe, The Rider
I saw the King of the Mountain sign break through the clouds in the distance. I was dangling at the back of the small peloton, yo-yoing back and forth behind the wheel in front. This was the desperate dance of a rider on the edge of their limit, someone who could break at any moment. I held on to the back of the peloton by my fingertips, hoping to God no one attacked.
I will surely die on this mountain, I remember thinking, as I rode along the narrow road. My breath was broken, short and heavy, crackling in the ice-cold air. My heart raced faster than my brain, and my legs were empty and deflated. All I wanted to do was stop, to get off my bike, to lay down and scream. The barren mountain winds swirled against us and the grey sky grumbled above. It was as though everything was in widescreen; it swallowed me whole.
I looked next to me, examining the grimacing faces of the riders close by. I watched them throw their bikes left and right, I saw their sweat as it dripped down their face and noticed their eyes as they kept looking up to see if the top of the mountain was near. It was then that something deep within me surged up. Whatever this ‘thing’ was, I was not sure, but it felt pure, raw and real. It was like anger, without angst. It consumed me. Suddenly, the pain in my legs and the burning in my lungs became fuel to push harder. I looked across at the rider next to me, my eyes narrowed. Stuff you, I thought, I can crush you. The pain that I was feeling, the beauty of the mountain road, the cold inhospitable wind, it all fell away, it was now secondary to my new focus which burned like a wildfire within me: I had to beat him, the rider next to me, with his annoying grimacing face. The idea took control of me, it gave me new life.
At the top of the mountain, the banner of the KOM overhead, I looked right. The rider was no longer there, he was gone! A strange sense of euphoria exploded within me. The mountain had not broken me, it had not won this round. Or so I thought.
It was slow at first, then sudden, like the tide of a tsunami. The pain in my legs, the burning in my lungs and ache in my arms, it all hit me in one big wave. A sense of sickness flooded my consciousness. Riders next to me took their hands off their handlebars, they grabbed food and unfolded rain jackets from their back pockets. They drunk water and called for their team cars. I could barely see, let alone take my hands off my handlebars.
It was then, under the weight of my neglected suffering, I saw it. Ahead of us, after a short and straight descent, was another hill. The road was exposed and impossibly steep. People lined the roadside with colourful signs, loud horns, and beer. I remember the feeling as my heart sunk down towards the ground and the dread swelled within me like poison. I had nothing left, everything was immediately worse.
It took less than 100 metres for me to lose contact with the small peloton. When we had hit the bottom of the hill, I got out of my seat and pushed hard on my pedals, determined to hold on. My muscles seized up in reply, they twisted and contorted into tight knots. It was like an electric shock had just vibrated through my legs. I yelled out, then sighed, my voice lost among the loud cheers from the crowd that lined the roadside. The peloton quickly faded away in the distance as I dropped further back.
Minutes later, when the team car finally drove up next to me, I couldn’t help but feel ashamed. I had failed the mountain’s test. From inside the car, they offered me an electrolyte drink, a sports bar, a Mars bar, and a warm cycling jacket. These were all things that said, “You’re done, get warm, eat and drink. Survive to the finish. Your race is over.”
Often in this moment, as you fall into the shadows of a race, a rider is at their lowest point. Suddenly, the racer within you has washed away, leaving what is underneath exposed. The animalistic drive that once consumed you, recedes back into the darkness once more. Your purpose, the one thing that had forced you to suffer hours on end, is no longer there. After I grabbed my food and drink from my director out of that car window, the fire within me was extinguished. All that was left was me, alone, riding towards a finish line that had lost any meaning.
Later that night in the dining hall of the race hotel I was standing in line at the buffet when someone from behind me tapped my shoulder. I looked back, and there he was. The rider, the one with the grimacing face, who I had been so determined to outdo. He stood smiling at me.
> More stories from Adam Phelan? Soigneur suggests: Michael Matthews: behind the Bling<
“Man, how ridiculous was that climb! We were both suffering pretty badly there near the top,” he said.
I smiled and nodded.
“Mate, I haven’t struggled so much in a long time,” I said.
“You lasted better than me anyway!”
He laughed and introduced himself.
“Don’t worry,” I said, “I didn’t last very long after the climb. I should have just dropped back when you did! It wouldn’t have been as lonely of a ride to the finish then.”
He laughed again, and said, “Well maybe we will have to plan better for tomorrow. The stage is even harder apparently.”
“It’s a date,” I joked.
Serving myself some rice, I couldn’t help but smile at the absurdity of it all. The other rider served his food and nodded at me. We never spoke again.
When I was sitting back at the table with my teammates, I thought back to the moment on the mountain. There on the road, we were racers, nothing more. We were strangers, yet undeniably linked; determined to outdo each other, to better each other through our own suffering, we shared something within us. We both lived for the contest.
Later that night, I sat on the edge of my bed in my hotel room. Our soigneur had knocked on the door and walked in to give us our night-time protein shakes. As he handed my teammate a bottle, he told him about how a rider – who had caused a crash in the final 500m of race – was disqualified. My teammate chuckled, he then paused.
”The funny thing is,” he said, ”the guy that he knocked off is one of his best friends.”
”I guess friendships don’t mean much to him when he is racing!”
We all laughed, smiling across at each other. As we did so, our eyes briefly made contact and a flicker of understanding shot between us. It was though we both knew, that beneath the laughter we could oddly understand it – as if, deep down, we thought we might also be capable of such acts. Yet the moment was so quick, so fleeting, it was like it never exisited at all.
”Well, goodnight boys,” our soigneur said, ”another big day tomorrow.”
He then waved at us, and we said goodnight and shut the door. I walked towards my bed, a deep ache weighing by legs down with each step. He was right, I thought, tomorrow will be a big day.
I knew the next day would be the same. That fire would reignite, as it always did. The finish line would be waiting. On the cold barren road, we all would do battle again, our civility eroded and our determination fixed. Then, when the race was finished and we had all retreated to our hotels, back to the dinner buffet, we would joke about our suffering, salvage whatever sense of accomplishment we could to help keep our tired bodies pushing forward.
Three years later, I stand looking at a photograph. It rests on my office desk, the soft light from a lamp falls from above. In the picture, someone’s arm is outstretched from a car, a water bottle touching their fingertips. A cyclist rides on the road next to the car, his arm outstretched too, cradling the water bottle from the other end. The rider’s body is blurred and his face is out of the frame, yet I know it is me. It’s been a year since I retired from professional cycling, yet I can almost feel myself back there on the mountain road as I look down at the photograph. In that way, the life of a bike racer never truly leaves you. It is a part of your consciousness and knitted to your DNA, no matter where life takes you. It is still there, hidden in the back of your mind. All those memories, waiting patiently to come flooding back.
If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 18 where it was first printed.