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Tales from the Gutter Part 2
On the early slopes of the climb IÌm already at the back and being tailed off. Worse, I realise that the puncture IÌve had has robbed me of the 25 sprocket IÌd put on that wheel precisely for this climb. The spare IÌve been given has a 21 Ò nowhere near low enough for this climb even if my legs were good.
The cars try to come past, but the climb is steep and my nose is singed by the smell of a burning clutch. There are spectators up here too, a whole blurred gallery of them, glaring at me, wondering why IÌm struggling so. TheyÌll go home and talk about the state of some of the guys at the back.
As a child I watched the tour every year, fascinated. One of the things I couldnÌt understand was why a rider I knew to be great yesterday, last week or last month could suddenly be, well, rubbish. I watched Ja Ja cracking in the high mountains of le tour and wondered how he won la Vuelta so easily. Now I know. ItÌs because cyclists live right on the edge of their physical capacity, and thatÌs like bivouacking on Everest; ItÌs fine when the weather is good, but the first cloud appears on the horizon and the variables change beyond recognition, and disaster, from nowhere, is upon you. ItÌs something no one can know until theyÌve been there. The world implodes. ThatÌs what happened to Ja Ja on the high mountains of the tour. His body couldnÌt cope with the altering barometer readings.
The spectators are shouting the name of a rider thirty yards ahead of me, shouting with as much conviction for us as they had for the leaders when they passed three minutes ago. They cheer me like they would a great champion precisely because IÌm not one. I realise that the rider just in front is one of the Irish teamÌs rouleurs. HeÌs called groupetto, and there are eight or ten guys already around him, resigned to making their way up the remainder of the climb and towards the finish at a survival pace. The Irish rider I recognise now as Moriarty, and I know that he will be expected to pull on the long flat drags tomorrow and so he knows to save some energy today.
Steadily, over the next kilometre or so I heave my way up towards them, and blind with oxygen debt on a long false flat before the summit I make the bridge. False flat. False flat. In cycling lingo, we use the French term, faux plat. The term washes round my mind. A racing cyclists consciousness is small, and confined to profound truths and ritualistic thought that plague you almost as much as your burning legs. Single phrases roll over and over, a tune plays in your mind; they are not new things discovered, but old truths temporarily forgotten.
I break free of it and I find that no sooner than IÌd made contact, I have been dropped by the groupetto again. I meet this fact, again, by the French term Îlach». ÎRoche lach», Roche lach» says the race commentary in my head in a strong nasal Parisian tone. I realise how muddled IÌve become and resolve to sit up completely for five minutes, freewheeling the descent steadily, drinking as much as I can and banging a couple of gels down with a Turkish Delight and the last of the cereal bar I have in my pocket.
I slowly recover my senses, and think about what to do for the best. I wonÌt catch the groups ahead. I reckon thereÌs about 50km to go, but IÌm not sure if thereÌs anyone behind so sitting up and waiting for another group seems risky. Chasing is futile and a waste of energy. I quickly do some sums. The leaders will finish within the hour. ThatÌll make a five and a half hour stage. 15% of five hours is÷ what? 50 minutes or something? I reckon IÌve got about an hour and a quarter to finish the last 50km to stay within the time limit, but I know IÌm not adding up right. I do the sum over and over. I think about the 50km to go board. Have I passed it? I struggle with that for another five minutes, along with ÎRoche lach» Roche lach»Ì, the thought of the warmth of the hotel room, the inexplicable appearance in my head of the theme tune from Minder and the mental image of a cold coke on a hot day. My speed has dropped to 27km an hour as I dither.
In the end I just put my head down and ride fast, within myself but quick, hoping itÌs enough. I know IÌve got to pedal home, so I may as well get it over with. I crack completely with 10km to go, the gentle headwind ripping into my morale and I enter the finish town of Donegal like a drunken night out, in flashes, snapshots, unfocussed and unordered, messy and unrewarding.
At the finish, Zak puts a coat on me and Paul tries to take my bike from under me. I remember not saying much, plagued by the noise of blood screaming in my ears as I try to understand where we were going, trying to make them understand that I know theyÌre trying to help, but without co-operation, enthusiasm or speech. I just exist.
I finish the stage in 101st place, from the 109 riders left. I was well within the time limit and have earned another days racing. Mint, fucking mint, I think when Paul relays this to me.
IÌm stood in the hotel shower still fully dressed in my race kit. Even my numbers are still on, and as I reach up I feel that my glasses are still perched on top of my head. I giggle to myself through the fatigue, team mates in the room next door are already agreeing with bad language and poor jokes at our own expense that today has been an epic.
I emerge from the bathroom, they all turn and look up at me from the draw of the TV and the coffee. I was the last in and havenÌt been able to relay the fuller details of my afternoon to them. They look expectantly at me. I laugh, shake my head, sigh. ÎWhat a bastardÌ I summarise, they laugh openly back. Already it is a gilt edged myth just for us.