from The Invisible Mile
We climb the four mountains, hit the peak of the race, the highest point of the damned 3,000 miles at the Col de Galibier. There is no pause to think, no admiration of the view, no thoughts of understanding and awe that mountains are so adept at producing in people, there is just a man watching at the mouth to the mountain.
Four days before she died, my sister spoke of Egmont, of the volcano that leaned over our view outside the curtain. She was deep in the illness and barely making words. Dying, oblivious, charming. She asked me if I would drive our father’s car, if I would drive it into the foothills so she could be on the mountain one last time. I told her the road didn’t ride so high and she said she knew. She said she only wanted to feel the air cool and trees close in. She said she didn’t mind we weren’t going to the summit, she only wanted to feel it near, sense she was a part of it. I thought of this as we waited to leave Grenoble, the tremble of her voice, the hope in her face quite ashen. We hope for great things when we are reduced, reduced as our body shuts down, closing out the peripheries. There is little left but a few verbs and organs, a couple of eyes and their increasingly tunnelled vision. To be able to walk again, to see the land and feel a sense of size. To know how one doesn’t need legs to imagine the scope of the world: that is what let her mumble her request. And we rode a timeless straight out of Grenoble. I imagined her in the crowd, waving a wan hand. I waved back to her, happy to take her on any ride I make to the mountains. I take her everywhere, it seems. Into sleep and into these hills and the madness they make.
Finally we angled left at Eybens and began a slight incline into the green. There time seemed to switch back on and I told her to close her eyes, to shut out the sight of these men beside me. The things we become, I want no love to see. We hit Vizille. Its road the thinnest lane through the township, only enough room for two to ride abreast. We squeezed past shouters—I believed them to be the same people carted from hamlet to village to commune to city. Above us, just a few feet above us, families leant from the shutters and yelled. The flapped flags of unknown provenance, bosoms and dawn shadow on the faces of men. The shaven and the unshaven shouted. If I knew what they said I would report, for the words were repeated and repeated and they began to hum in a resonance that touched me, though I can’t say why unless I make meaning of their words afresh: name a noise a noun; name another a verb. The birth of sentences teeming with life.
Soon we were alongside Les Rivoirands amongst the trees rising. Then we saw it in the moonlight, the massif. Black, white; a familiarly dangerous formula. We are a river, we are a vein, we are a disease in a vein looking for the mountain, to knock down the mountain. Close your eyes, I told her. Close out the light.
We hit Lautaret in slow motion, some walking, some leaning on their cycles as we went through the snow like craters in the surrounding landscape. Glaciers hung falling in the peaks high above the first col where I played a game trying to keep up with Frantz amongst such immense altitude. He stayed back when Fontan made an early move 500 feet before the summit and Maurice De Waele went with him. I stayed with Frantz waiting to see how he’d make his move, to watch and see when he’d start pedalling in pursuit of Fontan. Slowly I understood he was waiting until we were on Galibier before he attacked. I was determined to hold on to him when he went. Take his speed to the top, be meilleur grimpeur. We sat in the peloton until the road became a mule track and men started falling off. At Lautaret we stopped and were signalled by a man holding an oil lamp to take a left; all I could see was a path like a tramping track jutting off the side of the road. We halted and changed our back wheels and ran at the path, jumping up the two feet to where it began above the col. Frantz ran 20 metres before putting his feet on the pedals. I groaned and spat and caught him. We rose up the hairpins, my lungs bullied and beaten. I thought of George Mallory, I thought of men passing—it seemed obvious: surely one of us must die.
Rhythm, breath. Concentration over exhaustion.
This road barely a road.
Closing in. Closing.
Head and thought fade. A muscle clenching both hemispheres of mind.
Utter splendour, peaks and distance; sand in my eyes.
Closing in, closing.
My bike, I named him George.
A dowser over the light.
Men, hundreds it seemed, lined the path and shouted, one came at me slapping my back as I stayed with Frantz. I began telling him I was crying, but then realised I wasn’t. I then realised I wasn’t speaking because I couldn’t speak. We named our mountains the Southern Alps, but those are not these.
And he pulled away and I felt the creak of my bones as I forced the cranks. The terror of burning muscle. I sat behind him and we could see Fontan ahead with the Belgian, they were the first to the tunnel the French army put through last century, and we approached riding hard. I could see its mouth and the way it opened into black. Frantz was three, four bike lengths ahead and his speed was increasing. I felt myself slow. My legs were like wood, men were shouting at us, men standing amongst mountains yelling, cars pulled to the side of the road and barely room for us to ride. I was standing on my pedals, my head so full I felt my temples crack and I let him go. I stopped. I put out a leg and felt the earth rush through it. It was as if my limbs had become dust and all atoms had collapsed into fear. I went sideways.
‘Get up,’ someone said in English.
I had nothing to reply with.
‘Get up. Lazy.’ A woman’s voice and I expected it was Celia. I lay prone with my bike on top of me waiting for something to tell me it was her. A wash of scent, a peel of sound from her fan as her nail went through its vanes. Nothing came, no hand to lift me. I drifted into the fade of glancing light. Voices, sound. Clouds in the near surround.
Though soon, without memory of how, I was back up and walking. I looked around, the edges of my vision hazy. The ground evened out and I put my leg over the saddle and I looked around. I saw a woman with short black hair amongst leather-clad Frenchmen who had made it this high on motorcycles and looked oiled and ready for the end. The woman wasn’t watching me and I pushed off towards the doors of the tunnel. Beside the entrance was the figure of time.
I recognised him from photos, from brief glimpses in the tent housing control, from rumour and film. Henri Desgrange, the Tour’s cruel inventor, stood moustached. My face covered in saliva, blood on my knees and my ribs breaking through my shirt. I was the man he wanted to see: alone and willing, passing into the belly of the mountain.
I went close. I wanted the old man to smell me. I started speaking, saying one word over and over. ‘Prince,’ I said. ‘Prince.’
At the end, I fell from my machine in the square. I was helped to the tent where a man stood over me shaking a bottle of water onto my torso where my bones stuck out. Thirteen-and-a-half-hours. I was surprised to notice that I was breathing, as if it were the first time I’d realised the body does such a thing. I asked and discovered each of my teammates was still on the course. I waited in the square drinking sugared water and watched the riders arrive. A fitful attempt at a sprint among three from separate teams saw a crash in front of the crowd who only wanted to shout and cheer. Knees and elbows cracked. Skin left behind on the cobblestones. Opperman arrived five minutes later. He signed in and found a bed then went to it. I sat with him for over an hour. We said nothing.
Eventually I returned to the streets and took up my position beside the lake and watched riders return. An impossible fatigue hung in my body like damp sand. A man sat nearby and I saw him list then slip into a slumber. I called to him. He opened an eye and soon closed it once more. My legs became stiff. My back and arms became hard. All of me turning to stone. I waited.
Now here he comes. Percy at the finish: a bandage about his head. He hands his bike over to a waiting helper from Ravat Wonder then stands still in the square. I go to him and walk his body to the seat where I sat myself sometime earlier. At our backs Lake Geneva and the stillness of old water. We sit and wait for his breathing to return, his sweat drying in the last of the sun as he drinks continually from his bottle. The rest of the field enters the town as if scattered gravel.
He speaks slowly. ‘Who’s—’ he tries to say.
‘Who’s out?’ he asks.
‘Who’s still on the road?’
He tries to nod and his head bobs and his chin stays on his chest. He waves his hand as if drunk and arguing with his own stupor.
‘Harry,’ I say, ‘and Ernie.’
‘Old Private Ernie Bainbridge. Digger.’
I look at him, his eyes mostly shut. He nods to himself. His bandage showing at the sides of his cap, which sits lopsided on his head, the gauze the keen blur of a spinning top ready to fail. The last two rides he’s staggered to the line in last place. I think of Bainbridge and Harry and I say: ‘Percy—did you see them, Harry and Ernie?’
‘I watched the lights,’ he mumbles, ‘the lot of you blokes looked like fireflies.’
‘This morning, up on the mountain.’
‘The way upwards and around those bends, the sight of the hills. You remember?’ He sounds out as if in fever and puts his fingernails into his beard to scratch and watches my face with eyes whose colours seem cooled by the air off the lake where the last of the sun’s rays play on the tips of the waves.
‘I remember. Did you see them?’
‘Not since this morning. The night had a hardness, do you know?’
‘I know old boy,’ I say.
‘Everything felt close. I was watching and everything, everything felt close. Like, what?’
‘Old walls. Cave walls. Like the walls of a cave,’ he says. ‘Taking us to wherever. Wherever we were being led. Smooth walls.’ His head nods again so his chin hits his chest, but this time it bounces back up as if sprung with the memory of metal.
‘When? Which hills?’ I ask and stare back at those eyes. Several times we set out in the night. Twice I saw the spectacle of lights as they rose up mountain tracks. Twice I thought of my sister and the drive we took near the end. But during this morning’s climb, I saw no lights. I saw nothing but the black shape of the hill and the ride we must make.
‘That was this morning,’ he says, ‘wasn’t it? We were headed to some place.’
‘That’s right,’ I say.
‘Where?’ I look at him and realise he has quite forgotten our location. He has his shoes off, his feet are streaked with the usual lines from cramped leather and blood from blisters. He stretches his toes and I can see it makes him feel better in some way, that a mote of the pain—which I know, which I understand so well, just as I know that the passing of this time we are stuck within is only temporary—is teased away.
‘Here,’ I say, ‘this is the place.’ I laugh a little, hoping to ease his pain a little more. I fear I sound like a doctor, nervous beside the patient under the stare of the nurse who knows.
‘Évian.’ I’m smiling for him. I nod at the lake in front of us, out past the arrays of flowers bending in the breeze off the water banded by lapping shores. Percy nods also, then points at the lake as if it contains the opinion he’s seeking. There are isolated white caps where the water is broken and its wave is torn in two. Somewhere out there France ends and Switzerland begins. Such a tempting idea. And I mean to say to my companion, ‘Out there, out there in the middle, there’s the border. That’s where we are, at the border.’ And I want to make a joke about stealing a boat and heading out into the centre of the lake so we can say, ‘Fuck those who think we’ll ride again!’ But I say none of these things.
‘We looked like something,’ Percy says. ‘Everyone riding up. Like something else, I’m not sure.’
‘Like something else?’ I ask.
He nods his head. ‘We looked like something else. Those Chinese lanterns they let loose on the river.’
‘Not sure, just that they are set free to float loose. Candles in paper boats, prayer lanterns.’
‘Like in Siam, I think?’ I ask. I believe I have seen photographs of such things.
‘Perhaps,’ Percy says. ‘Perhaps Siam.’
‘Prayers floating on the water,’ I say. He nods and I look away. I have seen photos of these somewhere, in a book at my uncle’s shop in Wellington. Maybe in an encyclopedia, it doesn’t matter. Not so much as his revelation. I touch his arm. ‘I’ve seen pictures of such things,’ I say.
‘I don’t want to think about it.’
‘My uncle has a bookshop,’ I say. ‘It’s like living with a library in the family.’
‘I never believed in prayer,’ he says. ‘Not a dot of it.’
He shrugs and spits into his hand then rubs the stuff like an ointment into his forearms, which are dry as paper. ‘Look at them,’ he says and points. He half-stands and indicates west along quai Baron de Blonay and the small rise down which beleaguered riders come. We turn and I stand upright. The rattle of lose bolts and cracked joints. They are barely cycling, legs flopping, knees askew, all form damaged by 327 kilometres of crippled roads, dust and shingle, mountain and knowing insects huddled at grey water ready to swarm and follow you and your sweat. Some men are crying as they come off their machines. Heads in hands crying. More of them arrive, legs shaking and bodies in a debt to their muscles eaten away and shrinking like old fruit in a wooden bowl. If I had a toffee hammer and I tapped on any given limb I fear it would shatter, leaving only the remains of a once vital man bent on winning this race of all races. The teams are broken and scattered. Officials gather around riders asking where their companions might be and they squint up at their faces as if caught in the cramp of hunger. One man is helped to a stretcher, unable to walk.
The large crowds of earlier in the afternoon have dissipated, but still some linger over these last rites as if a congregation filling itself with the prayers of desperate men, the vestiges of which drip from their mouths in oaths and tender mercies. They watch and know they can’t imagine the torture of this day. They mill, they come close. I stand. I turn around to shake the feeling that I’m being watched, and of course I am. I’m conspicuous. Once our bodies are off our bikes we are used meat, distasteful, reeking.
I imagine Percy watching us from below, the four of us ahead up the mountain within the remains of the peloton. The power gathering in our legs as the pack surges and we feel the control of a will we can’t see, we can’t breathe, only act in response. The hurt that resides deep in our muscles is condensed to a keen part of the mind and ignored, the deep massage of this communion, the spiritual ructions smoothed to a collective beating of hearts. I close my eyes when I ride, I close them to feel the presence of my fellow riders directing me with their proximity. I bump into hips and shoulders and open them again. I am riding in my head once more and the idea begins to make me feel off-colour.
He taps my shoulder, I turn and watch more riders. We are eager for a sight of Bainbridge or Harry, but neither is in the bunch. So many have dropped from competition, taken the refuge of a support vehicle in the rear, headed home to Paris or Bruges or Florence or the bottle. Such disappointment. From the 162, only 70 are left. I find it barely credible that such drop-outs have tallied. I am mildly disgusted, the thought of them abandoning the race we have travelled 12,000 miles to battle. I am certain it is their proximity to home, their wives and lovers, the fact that they’ve been paid, the facts, the lies. Perhaps too it is the knowledge that only a few can win and the rest will be forever losers. Is there more pride in returning to your village offering injury and hurt as your legend than waiting until the end to admit defeat? I ask Percy and he shrugs.
‘You know, there was something beautiful in watching you all floating away,’ he says.
‘You were floating up the hills. Little globes in the sky.’
‘You know,’ I say, ‘they have lanterns too. I recall lanterns they let out to the night. Wishes written on their sides. Is that right?’
‘Prayers,’ he says. ‘Prayer lanterns.’
‘Prayers, they write prayers on their sides.’
‘That’d be a sight,’ I say. ‘A hundred. A thousand. They last till they fall, I guess.’
‘Yeah. And I’m thinking now. What’s a prayer if not a hope. You all looked quite unreal.’
I look at him and realise how pain is sapped by odd rituals. How we nurse ourselves with the familiar no matter how odd or displaced the action might be. Talk. Talk and how talk shifts the unknown into the real. How real we seem when conversation repurposes the mundane for tasks of rehabilitation.
‘It’s properly all right if you want to give in,’ I say.
Bainbridge arrives during the evening, hobbled. The second to last in. He is covered in lumps, his body weeping. He strides past us as we go to his aid. His mouth open, his cheeks skeletal and a face full of tears. He’s barely walking, indeed those strides I mention are more staggers. It’s important to remember him well. He doesn’t head to control. He refuses our comfort or conversation. I love these men. We bleed for one another. This one won’t let us see the hole his body has finally become. Bruce Small leads him away and there is great melancholy in the action, as if all were at an end.
And Harry’s still on the road. I fear he has been hit. I fear his legs have been taken out from under him and he has gone off the side of the mountain into a ravine where he will rot and be the carrion of every eagle, falcon, hawk eager for food. I say nothing of this fear. He hasn’t been this far back in the field at any stage, indeed he has never been behind Bainbridge—but we look to the road and we see nothing.
‘I’ll show you something. I’ll tell you something,’ Percy says, and stands. He removes his hat and the bandages wrapped around his head. He reveals a fresh graze above his ear, hair and blood. It isn’t deep but I can tell some force has thrust itself upon him: there’s deep blue bruising around the wound. ‘I was arriving out from the bend at Saint-Michel,’ he says. ‘I was only 50 yards behind Ernie and I had speed. I had hardly pedalled since the col. My legs were going in circles; they were just rags being pulled by the cranks. I looked back over my shoulder, I was hoping for Bruce and the car. I needed to stop, I needed to have my legs stopped for just a moment. Ernie was ahead of me. I tried to put some sense into myself and drunk down one of my bidons and God knows what was in there. Whatever, my legs came alive once more and I felt the urge to chase him down, I stood on my pedals and rode, I cut corner after corner, the road widened and narrowed, you know.’
‘I had speed.’
‘Right gaping open. I had the sense of walls closing in and riding straight through the gap. I could have been sleeping. I leant low to the road in corners. I felt the nearness of the gravel. How close we are to dying in those moments, mate, no one knows. I felt the speed like it’s no longer a number. I drove hard, right at the apex, on the perfect line. Then the full grille of a car was all I saw, my eyes full of the blue bonnet and then I was braking but too late and that was me strewn on the ground. That was me gasping at the air. Lungs crushed flat like paper bags and there was no air. I saw my bike 20 yards away. The front wheel looked cracked, the tyre hanging off, but it still had movement; some of my momentum was still making it rock on the axle. I looked at it and made a small sound. At first I didn’t know what I was saying. But I was talking—gibberish. Then I realised. You know what it was?’
I nod. ‘It wasn’t gibberish.’
‘That’s right. It was an entreaty, my friend,’ he says. ‘That was the sound I made, a prayer. And what was I asking?’
I put my hand through my hair. ‘I know what you asked.’
‘I asked that my legs be broken, that they stand me no more and I go home. I return to my wife who is so sweet, and like as you say for those French quitters. It is so easy when I think of her. I just push off from the shore in some boat.’
‘I know,’ I say. And I do. Every day I crash and I hope it’s the end.
And each day I go on.
It is 17 hours since we started the day, it is dark and it is last place that Harry secures when finally he arrives. There is little about him that seems real. I take his arm. I expect it to fall to dust, to float dutifully away on the cooling breeze towards Geneva, or Monteux, or to the place he desires most. But he has no desire as I hold him, only what remains of a rider when asked to pedal out of hell.
‘How long?’ he asks.
‘How many hours?’
‘17,’ he says then swears. There are tears making their way through the dust. I am crying.
‘They will mean nothing tomorrow,’ I say.
‘Last place is—’
‘It’s an utterly necessary place,’ I say.
‘It has to be taken,’ I say.
He smiles, he nods, he snorts. He’s crying and so thin now.
And time is temporary. I made this claim earlier. I claim it again because we remember seconds so poorly, recall hours so mundanely, like the fall of drizzle or misted rain: by morning it has gone. Only the pain remains. Somehow, it’s the proof of passing, the measure by which we count. We leave that town two days on with little but the cracks in our bones and the last great hill reduced to memory and forgotten prayers, the mumbles of broken men. We are a flood and we fill the valleys.