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Tales from the Gutter
Consciousness comes quickly. I have slept deeply for the first time in three nights and the fever is gone. Going through the motions of getting up, showering and having breakfast, my confidence continues to grow. The residue of fatigue is there, but then I tell myself it’s bound to be. That’s the same for everyone left in the race. I chatted with Luchio at breakfast and he said his legs were aching. Same for everyone, you see.
Luchio asked what happened. I know he’s referring to my ride the previous day. ‘I’m a bad rider’ I explain, only half joking, but he is kind, accepts that I don’t want to say anything more and treats my comment as a throw away line, laughing.
The truth, the full version, is that in addition to being a bad rider, yesterday everything went wrong. I awoke feverous, tired and rode 120km of a mountain stage at the back of the pack feeling dreadful and fearing the main climb of the day which we were to reach at 150km covered. At 120km the main group was riding a hard tempo, ensuring that the two Kazakh riders who had already escaped didn’t build too great a lead. I was happy with this, hanging on, hanging on. It’s a mind game I can play with myself. ‘Ten more minutes and then swing off’; at ten minutes ‘wait until another rider goes out first and sit up with him.’ It’s a hateful existence at the back, but sometimes, when I know I’m ill or having an off day, I content myself with it. My lot in world cycling. There’s always tomorrow, always tomorrow. Bad cyclists are eternal optimists.
Great cyclist quotes one: Before Miguel Indurain was finally tailed off on a mountain stage of the 1996 tour, and he was defeated for the first time in six years, he had been asked, speculatively, how he expected he would meet the fact of his own demise as the best rider in the world. He said ‘when I stop winning, it will be a liberation which will put an end to some of my suffering.’ And it did. Indurain quit the sport at the end of 1996. We’re at the opposite ends of the same relationship with our bodies, Indurain and I. His mind didn’t let his body stop until there was nothing left. Me? I’ll know to quit when I’ve had the best day I know I can ever have. I envy Indurain not so much for his talent, but for his epiphany.
At 120km, I rear wheel puncture, and circumstances change dramatically. A flurry of activity, a panic of wheel changing, gear adjusting, adrenalin fuelled shouting and cursing. The wheel change puts me in the convoy, at about team car thirty and I set about making my way back up through the cars towards the back of the peloton. This shouldn’t be a problem, the cars offer generous shelter, their drivers savvy to my needs and I can settle to the task of making my way up to the group as swiftly and easy as possible. But today it’s different, and even as I’m getting the wheel, before the chase starts, I know it – it’s funny how your mind can know something before your body does. I’m filled with doubt again. I’m finding it more difficult than I should be to move through the cars, my legs are moaning with lactic, and I look at my bike computer which now reads 55km/h and I realise that at the precise moment I punctured, someone at the front of the group had decided that it was time to really start closing in on the Kazakh’s advantage. Wanker; I mentally accuse the faceless aggressor.
Blanked by oxygen spots, muted by endorphins and ruled by a mind that still needs to get back to the group quickly, I am stuck in a half world. The longer I’m here, the more tired I’ll get, the less likely I am to make it back on. And there are other thoughts, too. To go out this early is suicide. I need to get to the climb with the group or risk elimination on time at the stage end. I’m also aware that the considerable effort I’m making now is using up physical reserves I’d set aside for the big climb ahead.
Must get back to the group, must get back. I yo-yo up and down the car numbers, past my own team car, where Ger gives me a bottle tow, a handful of jelly babies and an illegal handsling to the car ahead. Fuck it, I’m desperate to make it back up.
Twenty five minutes of that. Imagine counting that length of time out in seconds. That’s how it long it feels.
Suddenly they ease a little, and I jump past the commissaries car and I’m back in the group. The fragile safety of the group. Nick looks at me, he must have seen what happened ‘welcome back’ he offers, deadpan, clearly hurting too, and gesticulates to his bottle ‘yeah, yeah, please’ - I don’t mind sounding desperate now, because in cycling your competitors can be your greatest allies. Gareth comes drifting backwards towards us from somewhere near the front of the pack at a casual swagger. He’s heard on his earpiece what’s been happening, and knows I’ll be in a mess. His form has got better and better over the last few days, and I see he’s coping with the race easily now. Bastard, I think, bastard. I know that he’s come back out of genuine concern and to give me some assistance, but right then, as it happens, I see only that he has far better condition than me, and his selfless gesture seems like the act of someone showing off his superiority.
Cycling memory to stop me being a prick in the face of adversity and people trying to help: Earlier in the season, at another stage race, my form had been like his now. I could do anything I wanted in the pack, attack when I liked, drift effortlessly across gaps. I won a race at a canter, and afterwards I had to take the other guys congratulations ‘ my legs were good today for a change!’ ‘it was a lucky move, eh?’ Hollow words for the guys I trampled on my way to the line. It’s difficult to be modest when you feel good. Your legs speak too arrogantly for you, and all the modesty you can summon in words is undermined by them chatting away smugly on the pedals.
Gareth signals to the commissaire that we (i) need feeding, and he drifts back thirty yards, gets food and drink from the car that has been allowed up to the front of the convoy for this purpose, before stamping back down on the pedals, handing me two fresh bottles, some food, a word of encouragement and adds ‘climb starts in two k, move up if you can.’ Then he’s back off to the front of the bunch, to safety.
I know that what he said was right. I need to invest yet more energy in moving to at least the middle of the group. Not for the same reasons as him, to meet the front split that will inevitably come on the mountain, and to give a high stage finish. Instead, I’m moving up precisely because I’ve no chance of getting over the climb in the lead. I need to move up so that when the climb starts, and I can’t climb with the pace of the group, I can sit at my own pace, gently drifting back through the line of other riders so that as we reach the top of the climb, I’ll still be just about hanging onto the back of the bunch. I need to move up to give myself sliding room. But I can’t. I move ten riders forward and slip back three. I’m simply not recovered from the frantic chase, and now I must steady myself where I am if I’m even to finish. I don’t need a fuel gauge for my body, I know I’m on red.
A winter spent laughing in the rain, a spring spent raising the thresholds, all for the two hours ahead which will define whether all that effort has been worthwhile. The outside world is completely beyond my view now, but how I see it this evening will depend entirely on how I approach this interior existence now. I am aware of doubt, but I look down and realise that I am still pedalling, that the wheels are still turning, that the rider in front is clearly labouring too. I conclude that there is still a chance, and choose to ride on.