Stage 14 of the this year’s Tour de France takes in a wee hill called the Col d’Izoard. Here’s an extra from The Breakaway on the day that very climb very nearly claimed us:
Our bodies weren’t the only casualties of the heat; the road had succumbed too. Our tyres tacked to patches of molten tar, a palpable sense that the mountain would rather consume us than allow for another pedal-powered human to reach its peak. We were the victims of a conspiracy, the gradient, the weather and the road all combining to ensure defeat. The Izoard would glue us in place, hold us still whilst the sun cooked, until the ashes of our bikes and bodies could be scattered by the winds, adding sand to the Casse Déserte.
Where the road hadn’t melted we’d often see yet more fans’ graffiti left over from recent races. There were a few “Go Lance”and a countering couple of “Vai Pantani”, but the most common on this climb was “Udo & Jan”. There was a half-mile stretch where the couple’s tribute had been painted in almost unbroken succession, as if that part of the road had been created in their honour, or that Udo & Jan was the brand name of the manufacturer. The Udo & Jan in question were of course the Germans, Udo Bölts and Jan Ullrich. I’d never before thought of those two as a couple, Jan was the team leader, the undoubted star of cycling, Udo was just his trusty domestique who did the work but rarely took the limelight. However, to this paint-happy fan or fans Bölts & Ullrich were obviously inseparable, made to go together like horse and carriage or love and marriage. And from there I began to imagine Udo and Jan as a proper, married couple, as if they were the glamour pairing of the peloton, like a German, cycling version of Posh and Becks — oh, those thoughts, those ridiculous thoughts and the ridiculous heat were killing me! (And killing Drew too because I felt compelled to share.)
In an attempt to distract from my delirium and worries about our imminent expiration, Drew began to recite the lyrics of the folk song, Flower O’ Scotland. For some unknown reason, that unofficial Caledonian national anthem had popped up and then stuck inside his head, playing over and over on a hellish (if patriotic) loop. My attention was focussed on the less melodic sound of creaking that came from my battered and worn left pedal cleat. That noise, normally as welcome as the screech of fingernails on blackboard, was strangely comforting, aural evidence that I remained in motion and was therefore still alive. I settled in to the frequency of the creak, the rhythm of the consequent sound and action: the cleat’s creak, the lungs’ wheeze, the push on the pedals. Creak-wheeze-push. I was the bagpipe backing to Drew’s anthem. Creak-wheeze-push. Creak-wheeze-push. Just as with the metallic clink of swinging pendant striking jersey zip, it was another mind-clearing mantra to which I succumbed. Creak-wheeze-push. Creak-wheeze-push. Everything else dissolved from the scene. Gone were the sticky tar and the baking sun. Creak-wheeze-push. Creak-wheeze-push. Gone were my thirst and the sting of salty sweat. Creak-wheeze-push. Creak-wheeze-push. Gone was Drew, his bike, my bike, even the mountain up which we struggled. Creak-wheeze-push. Creak-wheeze-push. No pain in legs or lungs, no me, no mountain. Just the creak-wheeze-push. Creak-wheeze-push.
Somewhere around there I experienced what I can only describe as an epiphany. There was no vision, no figure of Christ or the Virgin Mary, just a moment where everything made perfect, joyous sense. An ice-cool breeze blew out of nowhere, rushed up the hill and clean through me. A subsequent shiver shot up my spine, rattled from the inside out, shaking me up before shooting its way on and into my brain. Although my pace hadn’t quickened, it suddenly felt like I was flying, the bike but a featherweight beneath me, legs uncommonly supple and smooth. My gargoyle-on-the-toilet expression cracked with a giant smile, the man who had so recently hovered upon the edge of despair now buzzing with a blast of positive energy. In that brief moment I knew why: why I was riding the Izoard that day, why my life had followed a path I had no recollection of choosing. Like a drugged-up hippie staring at a Goan sunset, I was overwhelmed by understanding, unshakeably certain of my own existence, deliriously glad to be alive. I was also aware of just how privileged I was to be there, on that bike, on that road at that very moment. I could have been stuck behind a desk, staring out the window at the dogs and students who frequented the park adjacent to my office; instead I was free as a bird, soaring (albeit very slowly) toward the summit of a majestic mountain, challenging myself and responding accordingly.
Thoughts turned to my late father, to his life, his achievements and the love he had shown for all his family. Of course I missed him, did so incredibly and always would, but there on the Izoard I felt that he was riding shotgun, proving a more faithful wingman than Heras, Hamilton and Hincapie all rolled into one. He was with me, inside me, all around me, sharing the moment and proudly patting my back. Thoughts shifted to my girlfriend, to my love for her, a desire to have children of our own, so one day my son or daughter might ride the mountain with me, shoulder to shoulder, sharing in the love and wonder, the ardour and ecstasy. This, I thought, looking down at the spinning pedals, up at the road ahead, this is my church, out on a bike instead of sitting in a pew. This is where I feel close to whatever god might be. Churches are buildings designed to draw one’s focus heavenward, architecture intended to inspire, and wasn’t that what those great mountains had been doing? They drew our eyes, our bodies and minds upward. They lifted us from the daily grind, from the fog of our troubles and worries. Physically we climbed so that our spirits might soar.
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