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Tales from the Gutter Part 3
And on the seventh day the Ras organisers made us do another hundred and twelve miles in the rain. Truly biblical. Stood on the start line, it’s four degrees according to my computer, although the digital display fails to mention rain or a gale force cross wind. Lies, damn lies and statistics. The computer doesn’t understand. The truth is no one looks like they really want to race, but for some of these guys it’s a job, and they’ll get sacked if they don’t. They’ll get sacked if they don’t win. I look at the manager of the Kasakh team’s face. Etched with anger, a sort of grumpy desperation, reflected in his riders efforts. I remember the same look in the Polish team manager the previous year. What do they do in the hotel at night I wonder?
How things go back at the office when I return to my place of work: ‘How was your holiday?’ ‘Hard fucking core, I was at the end of my rope for four hours a day, how do you think it went you idiot?’ That’s the mental response. I don’t say it though, because it’s not fair. How can they know? Instead I say it was hard, but good fun. Wholly inadequate, really, yet they are satisfied. Rhetoric and reality.
They must be fucking joking. The race goes past the zero kilometre flag and an Irish county boy jumps hard, into the abyss of the road ahead. Who knows what it holds for him? For me? The appeal of bike racing over football is that the stadium is always different, a bike race oscillates, breathes. Now that appeal is a curse, and I’m reduced to counting the kilometres down while others write the outcome.
The bunch is like a fence being kicked down. To start with, it puts up resistance, the panelling holds firm as all of the riders are fresh enough to respond. Then a crack, a weakness as the wood loses its memory and a rider, a vandal to me, lets a wheel go for the first time. Someone behind comes to the rescue and closes the gap for him, holding the splinter that’s been created. But the harder and the more frequently the vandals kick at the fence, the weaker it becomes until someone kicks once more, no harder than anyone before, but the fence smashes suddenly, easily, and they are free of the pack and off up the road. They are free from the fence that held them in.
Today the kicking process has started early. It’s an average length stage, and there’s just the one climb. Tomorrow, only the parade round Dublin - race through today and you’ll complete the milk ras. This gives everyone a confidence, because although everyone is very tired, even the average guys don’t need to think about holding something back for tomorrow. The first half hour is relentlessly quick. I haven’t recovered, and I’m thrashing about like a fourth cat at the back. For the first time this year, I have to acknowledge that this isn’t a bad patch or ten minutes of the racing just being hard. This is me absolutely, profoundly, empty. I’m not feeling it any more than normal, than yesterday, or the day when I attacked and won earlier in the year. It’s just that I’m not travelling fast enough. There’s no spark or power in my legs. I thrash the pedals out of the back of the peloton on a flat section at 45km/h. I regain the group. It’s ok, it’s ok, its ok, just need to warm up. Out again. Fuck, fuck, fuck. There are other guys in the same world, and I look at their faces, drained of colour, we look each other in the eye, we know what’s happening and there’s a mutual pity. Being dropped when you know that you would normally cope is sad.
Perhaps I need to try more. I always think that afterwards, but at the time, when you’re gutter sniping at 187 beats a minute and all you know is the wheel in front, that’s not realistic. The truth is you can’t, there’s a point where you can’t do more, you get dropped and you have to accept it. I think, in the last few seconds of hanging on, of the image I’d make through a tv helicopter lens overhead. Roche en difficulte, Roche en difficulte. I could ride to the finish alone, or with the broom wagon behind, just so I can finish the ras. But I don’t want three out of three finishes. I want dignity, even now, screaming with effort at the back of a pack travelling at no more than an average speed. Stop now and I’ll recover for the Welsh championships next weekend. What a freak, to be thinking of successfully racing in seven days time. Wanting to race next time when I’m still living the here and now of being battered today.
Suddenly I stop pedalling. I allow myself to be distanced. I can’t do another 120km like this, I’ll never ride again. I’ve sat up. Can I live with that?
Cycling folklore says: Eddy Merckx was the best rider of all time. He won the tour five times and all the classics except Paris – Tours. When someone dared to even try and compete with Him, He’d set about crushing them. Anyone who raced in the late sixties and early seventies did so in His shadow, with His patronage hanging over them. They called Him the cannibal. His last race was early in 1977, and He sat up midway through, and that was it, He had given up bike racing after a decade of dominance. I can’t remember who the rider was, but a guy in the race who saw this described it like it was that sudden. Merckx just sat up on his career. Over in a split second.
I’m going to have to live with it, because I’ll not get back on now. I’m 300 metres off the back, in the convoy and welling with angry disappointment. I unclip both feet simultaneously, viciously, letting my legs hang uselessly down in the air, still travelling at 20km/h. The world is different, suddenly. When you’ve existed on the bike, consumed by racing, not to mention the months of races and preparation leading up to it, stopping leaves a massive void. I feel myself falling into it. I don’t know the world outside of bike racing. It’s like waking up from a deep sleep, unsure of what is real and what is dream, and I’m still freewheeling, travelling, still in the race, still in the race yet finished.
What to do now? I draw to a stop, the team car pulling up behind me. I don’t really know how to behave, I’m strangely aware of myself, and as they get out from the car, all three of them, I sense that they don’t know how to behave around me either. They share my disappointment, they say things like ‘don’t worry, you tried’ ’hard luck man, hard luck’. I feel a firm hand on my tricep, guiding me off the bike and round the back of the car, boot open, gesturing me to sit. I am empty, I don’t take in anything, just the impossible senses of disappointment and kindness as they put my bike on the roof, wash down my legs, wrestle my shoes from my feet, find my training top and sandals all in silence. A tear rolls down my face, just one, maybe two, and I look away into the middle distance, into the drying wind. They have seen it but carry on as they were, not ignoring it, but hurrying on precisely because they have seen it, aware that the kindest thing to do is get it over with as quickly as possible.
In the car, and the race radio is as I had envisaged it all along. A thick Irish accent announces number 71 abandoned. Me. Then the message is repeated in French, as is standard in UCI races – the UCI is a French speaking organisation. ‘Numero soixante-dix et un, abandonne.’ A strange beauty in that.
I sleep restlessly for half an hour or so before I confront the real world again. I engage in conversation with the guys, needing to show that I’m ok, that I’m not being self indulgent, that I appreciated their help and their approach to me getting off. It’s light hearted enough, but for me at least there’s a heavy undertone, a nagging disappointment that won’t ever fully go. I have abandoned the 2003 Milk Ras on the last road stage. That will always be the same.
The roads we race on start life fresh, uncharacterised. But the traffic that travels on them, the rain that falls and the snow that settles and cracks and wears at the surface all leaves indelible scars, minor abrasions that lead to an individuality. Sometimes, as a rider, I feel like that too. Each race alters me a tiny little bit, wears me a little, changes me and adds to a sense of who I am. Mostly, it’s not a conscious thing, but it’s there, and it’s strangely comforting.
The milk Ras has a special place in the heart of anyone who’s ridden it. When it was pointed out to Stephen Roche (unrelated to me, as a relative and a talent) at the conclusion of his spectacularly successful 1987 season that he’d equalled Merckx’s feat of taking the tours of France and Italy and the world title all in the same year, Roche quipped ‘Ah yes, but Merckx never won the Ras.’
I’ve ridden four Ras’s and the 2003 edition was the hardest by some distance. The weather, mainly, conspired against the whole peloton, and by the end only 102 of the 160 starters made it to Dublin.
A week later I staged a solo attack off the front of the Welsh championships, staying away for some distance before eventually being reeled back in. The race was won by Commonwealth games medallist Huw Pritchard. I finished 7th.