Gorges, snaking roads and more gorgeous gorges. Tall triangles corrugate the horizon, a wall of snow-capped mountains as far as the eye can see. Welcome to a stunning tour of the Mercantour national park, just north of Nice, France. A ride to remember.
New. Never travelled. Perhaps your eyes traced a pixellated line on a screen the night before or perhaps you simply turned left instead of right. Ahead only virgin road unridden. The unknown.
Every turn a mystery. Eyes keen, alert for every next direction. A cartographer committing landmarks to memory, extending your mental map lest you travel this way again.
Gasp. The landscape surprises, amazes. Simple things. A twee village, a church perched on a hill, parallel trees in formation either side of the road, a big cow. Nothing of great note, not even worthy of a photograph, the scenery the sum of its parts, less a vision more a feeling.
Sun high. Hot. Not a cloud. The mercury rises and rises, heatwave headline writers twitch. A month earlier snow. Three changes of gloves in three days, goodbye heavy oven gloves, hello flimsy finger-less mitts. The hottest April day in 70 years.
Beer garden or ride? Dwelling only briefly on the name ‘beer garden’, I choose the latter, no matter how tempting and frothy and icy and delicious the former.
Evening, the earth already parched. Air warm and welcoming, hot still, naked skin so recently wrapped tight beneath many a layer now sun-kissed and tingling. Arms and legs scary white, see-through, the base on which to build razor sharp tan lines. It starts now.
Cycling is full of hyperbole and cliche. Epic, hell, brutal. It’s rarely any of these.
And then you see the images of the first Paris-Roubaix race after World War 1. A ride through hell. This is the origin of Paris-Roubaix’s nickname as the ‘Hell of the North’.
“This wasn’t a race. It was a pilgrimage.”
Henri Pélissier, speaking of his 1919 victory.
Structure is both the saviour and enemy of the free. It brings rules and regulations, it moderates and provides guidance. And boy do we need guidance. Total freedom is chaos. Anarchy.
Structure is the foundation upon which society is formed. A system that frees us from anarchy yet strips us of our freedom. We are not free, we are civilised. Stifled. Structure restricts. It forces square pegs into round holes. It discriminates, it bores.
Yet few flee the structure of society. We fear the unstructured. We impose rules and structure on all we encounter. Conversations, days, lives, damn, even cycling. Gone is the joy of random walks, of chance encounters, of just popping out for a ride.
Life, I decided, is more important than cycling. Blasphemy. Nay, treason. Hang him from the rafters. Lovers who’ve come to terms with their love for one another and other people.
We’re not exactly on a break, no. We’re just open to seeing other people. And you know what, I’m enjoying it. Lazy lie ins, eating what I like, not dreading the turbo. This is the life.
Age creeps up on us, say some. Not the cyclist. For every day we’re fighting it, raging against the dying light.
Life passes quickly. Like a mountain descent, we cling on, releasing the brakes for as long we dare, bracing ourselves for the next bend, for the end.
I don’t race, I ride. Yet I’m training. Many will question the word training. As if an amateur cannot train. Especially one who does not race. You are not an Olympian, you are not a pro, you are not a racer, you are not training.
Yet I am training. Despite being self-coached my amateur training is more advanced than most professionals of days gone by. I have rigid plans and structures. I have training zones and a ‘fueling strategy’ aka a balanced diet. I monitor progress and apply basic sport science, some of it half-baked, some of it not. The trouble being you never really know which is which. I take myself far too seriously and I wear a headband for christ sake, I must be training.
For what I’m training for, I cannot say. There’s no medals to point to. There’s the small number of hill climb races I enter. Or the bravado of leading out the peloton or the fear of being dropped on a club ride. There’s local hills and personal bests. Yet I’m not really training for any of these.
Yeah, I’m niche. Not really something to boast about yet we humans like to feel as if we’re forging our own paths, that we are remarkable in some small way, atypical, one of a few. We follow not crowds, only our own will, for yes I’m smart, in control, not one of them, all those others who look and behave just like me, nay, observe me closely, I’m different, I’m special goddamnit.
Cyclists are no different. As a collective, we’re often accused of being self-entitled or ego-led, self-important, self-aggrandising, and as such hate figures to some. Yet the truth is we’re not special, we’re no different to others based on our choice of transport.
We do have our quirks, obsessions that help define us, routines which bond us. Damn, we are special after all.
Hello old friend. It’s been a while. What? Yes, it’s that time of year again. I know, I know. Brrr.
Her? The mistress? That was a mere summer fling, showing off in front of others, a lightweight frolic beneath the sun.
Nothing compares to you, ever dependable winter bike, bike number 1 once and forever. You’re the one who gets me through the hard times, little reward for your endeavours but hour upon hour of steady rolling through frozen landscapes, more mud than road.