another way

another way

I’ve learnt a new word. It was repeated multiple times on the mountain roads I cycled during this year’s Tour de France (when France welcomes the World). It was strangely familiar, I’d heard and spoken a similar sounding word myself before.

Normally it’s French words that are anglicised to effect a certain Je ne sais quoi. This time the French have adapted the English word: FREXIT. Maybe in Germany (DEUXIT), Italy (ITXIT) and Spain (ESPANXIT) similar words are daubed large in heavy set white letters on their mountain roads for cyclists to read. Why are they telling cyclists that they wish to free from the supranational shackles of the EU? Is it because as cyclists we’re continually seeking a freedom of sorts too? More probably because the eyes of the World through the lens of TV cameras suspended from multiple hovering helicopters, will be focused on the mountain roads too. 

Against the mesmerising mountains it looked alien, ugly and in your face: FREXIT (Libre Savoie was much less so, cute even). Out of place in the context of the inherent internationalism of the Tour de France. Riders from America, Russia, Columbia, Scandinavia, France, Italy, Spain & Great Britain (the Great somehow seeming incongruous and out dated) in the same peloton even in the same team working to achieve a collective goal. How often does the Breakaway get away? How many GC contenders solo to victory without their team? Not impossible but not often.

Spectators from all over the world flock to France, supporting riders from countries other than their own, looking past nationality to the heart of their chosen rider, backing them because of their riding style, swagger, temperament, their feats in the face of pain, even just the bike they ride or their record (Palmares (exotic French word)). We’re free to choose, not restricted to just supporting our fellow country men.

So why, when a nation becomes discontent does it turn inward and dismiss the outside world? Nationalism is portrayed as the answer to but it has all so often turned ugly. Whilst technology is pushing aside national boundaries, breaking down barriers, racing towards globalisation, deep down human nature leans towards tribalism. When disenchanted, seemingly threatened we seek identity and safety within our own pack.

Politicians know this. They are skilled in creating fear of ‘the other’. During the EU Referendum, our ‘other’ were the ‘job stealing immigrants’. Trump is championing Muslims as his ‘convenient other’ threatening the American way of life. To be honest we’ve got history in Europe, we’ve written the book on the politics of fear, using fear to gain popularity. We’ve readily walked that thin line that leads towards ethnic cleansing and genocide before.

Don’t worry, we’re sophisticated, developed nations. We won’t fall in to that trap again. We learn from our mistakes, history doesn’t repeat itself, does it? The true success of the maligned EU project has been its success in preventing (another) catastrophic war between ever squabbling nations. I am not sure why that is not more widely acknowledged.

Tormented by the hard climb, tormented by Dom and The Doog disappearing up the road above me, tormented by FREXIT, my mood has turned black as I finally crest the summit where I celebrate with a drink (stale, warm electrolyte), take my summit photos (monumental), another drink (chocolat chaud avec expresso – I’m introducing Café Mocha to France a Col at a time), eat an energy bar (soggy). No time left for a baguette jambon et fromage as the others have scoffed in the time it has taken me to catch back up to them. Clip in and descend.

This is true freedom. Pure excitement, earned and paid for. Nothing else matters other than staying away from the precipitous drop, the slippery white lines, the cracks in the road surface, gravel in the corners and soft, melting asphalt. Nothing other than enjoying the controlled exhilarating madness of descending a hair-pinned, switchbacked, off camber, mountain roller coaster from mountain top to valley floor.

Within the safety of the gorge, a tumbling meltwater fuelled river to my right I’d forgotten about FREXIT/BREXIT. On the mountain I’ve found the answer. When life becomes a cruel, endless grind, misery and resentment builds. When life is exciting, exhilarating, challenging it dissipates. Politicians don’t need to stoop to stoking the flames of fear to create unity. There is another way: energise and excite, create that elusive feel good factor that can unite a nation. Of course politicians know this too. It’s a space race or other vanity endeavour (like hosting the Olympics).

Conveniently we already have our national project: BREXIT. Rather than use it to curl up into an isolated little ball, closing out the outside world, it could be the vehicle to re-tool, re-focus, re-build, re-energise our curmudgeonly, insular, stuck in the past, clinging to former Imperial-glories nation. Make it current, on trend, world leading, prosperous even. BREXIT is a legitimate ‘once in a generation’ unifying challenge, adventure even, more legitimate than going to Mars or bagging a fistful of gold medals.

Our BREXIT project should have our children’s futures at its core, it can be exciting, collective, deliver national pride. What about a British-devised solution to climate change, cost effective supersonic travel, mass water purification in the Developing World, a new sustainable fuel source etc etc? That’s just the stuff I came up with at 60kmh on the down side of the Col de la Colombiere. There’s no limit to the potential, only our ambition.

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the why

the why

Why? Four days in soaked, stinking Lycra, sweat pouring in torrents, stinging my eyes with a nasty mix of sun screen and salt, tasting of stale tartiflette as it runs relentlessly down my face, into my mouth, dripping off my chin, wiped away futilely by already soaked cycling gloves.  Why? Because it doesn’t get any better than this.

This is the French Alps and this is the Tour de France.  These grand, spectacular mountains are painted – with a lot of yellow and a fair deployment of red polka dots – but mostly with all things cycling for four intense, gigantic, dramatic days each year.  Like a fierce storm the Tour de France rolls through, up, over, down and out the other side of the alpine cols, sweeping me and my bike along with it. For those four days I’m in the Tour, or as close as I’m ever going to be.

Four days happen fast, an intense whirlwind of vibrant colour, people, vistas distilled into a potent emotional concentrate.  Except on the climbs.  Where it slows.  Pedals rotating slowly not spinning fast. Time falters and extends the opportunity to dissect and process individual moments, snapshots of memory from within the whirlwind and fully answer the: Why?

It’s butterflies basking on the warm road, escaping death by front wheel and disappearing amongst the mesmerising alpine flowers in the meadows that lie sandwiched between hairpins.  Camper vans, lots of camper vans with occupants spilling out dressed, half dressed, half cut, half bored, very bored or very excited.  How did that ancient VW camper get up here? Families camped on precarious precipices. Kids, lots of expectant kids reaching out for a high-five in return for a pain relieving allez-allez or even a precious song.  Some other songs are rude, I think.  Sung raucously in drunken European accents by uber-excited 18-30s, they’re maybe older, maybe younger – it’s a vast array of humanity swarming on the mountain sides.  Being overtaken by an E-bike (lots of them this year) but easily catching a Brompton folding bike set on conquering mountains too.  Distracted on the brutal Ramaz by official posters of past winners.  Where’s Armstrong? (The other drug cheats are all here).  Picture postcard perfect chalets perched on the mountain, promising idyllic alpine living, adorned in Tour decorations, like Christmas but celebrating cycling.  Wet paint on the road, splashing my bike with neon green and pink tattoos, daubed by supporters marking out their support for Bardet, Sagan, Froome – they’re all coming through later.  Mixing the Bicycle Moaning Collective club kit with club kits from all over the world.  Spotting club mates racing on hairpins high above or even better – below.  Appreciating admiring looks at my bike or were they admiring my socks?  Euro-pop-beats that help pick up the pace momentarily until fading out of earshot and fading with it my momentarily lifted pace.  The breath-taking, awe inspiring views from the high mountains – don’t forget to look down.  The cooling air as I climb higher, not too cold but cold enough to help.  Swirling mountain mists, riding through and above the clouds, entering another world.  Moving aside for Gendarmes on their motor bikes, roaring past in aggressive groups of threes.  Moving aside for Tour Team cars racing up behind, with deafening horns.  Get out of the way.  Is that for me?  Or the crowds pressing in from each side at the top of Col du Joux Plane? Narrowing the road – like they do on the television – no more than a meter wide.  I’m in the Tour.

That’s Why.  There’s one more: starting out on an epic climb and not knowing or believing that you can do it: climb that high, that steep, for that long and that hard. But you do.  You make it to the top.  You can, you did.

pleasure + pain = life

pleasure + pain = life

Down the drive, turn right up the narrow lane, grass growing up the middle, pass under the shadow of Pen Y Fan, follow the lane down a narrow tree covered descent, hard to read in the early morning mottled sunlight.  Left at the junction, behold the Brecon Beacons National Park in all its technicolour beauty. Not bad for a local ride, just on your doorstep. It’s not the South Circular.

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4 early morning escapees follow a canal, through small Welsh villages (their super fast broadband provided by the EU – Wales voted overwhelmingly in favour of leaving the EU).  Who cares about the EU Referendum anymore? A week on, everyone’s moved on. We don’t. We’re racing to No. 94* from the 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs: A Road Cyclist’s Guide to Britain’s Hills. A sort of cycling Bible.

 * LLangynidr, Powys, 397m, 7%, 5.6 km.

How’s this one going to work out? It’s only rated a 7/10. So not monstrous. Even at the foot of a climb you don’t really know.  Some you write off despondently within the first few metres at the base, then ascend smoothly, fluidly, as if by magic (this is rare).

Other times ( more likely), pumped full of expectation, water bottles emptied to reduce weight. Nothing. Your legs won’t come out to play, they seize up and let you down badly. The climb becomes a Hell. All you can do is dig in and drive through the sense of missed opportunity all the way to summit, cross the line that marks the end of the pain and start of the next chapter of the ride.  Tell a non-cyclist that climbing can provide peacefulness and relaxation they won’t understand the pleasure in the pain.

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Expectation for the climb is greater when it’s in the Top 100. Even greater when Stevie tells us it’s a 25 minute climb if you want to be able to talk about it afterwards.  His grin widens further when he tells us  he’s tapering for the Etape du Tour but that shouldn’t stop us from climbing like our rear tyres are on fire. He’ll see us at the top.

Climbing, mostly alone for 24 minutes, surrounded by spectacular views, in that moment it’s possible to escape.  A weekend of enjoyable remoteness from London. I  Guess this is what the rest of the country feels all of the time. Yes alone. I started out with Dom, holding his wheel, letting him do the work – he won’t admit it:  he’s a heinous wheel sucker, (and I won’t admit – to him at least – that he’s the better cyclist).  Sucking until he’s confident of springing ahead and cruising to a clear victory. Not that we’re racing.

This time I go slow enough that he’s forced to take the initiative and put  his nose in front. Cat & mouse. I knew he was gunning for those 24 minutes. Then my first mistake, I glanced down at the climb profile – the dot that was me was at the bottom and the top was at the top a long way away. I flinched. Dom pounced. The elastic broke.

As the fields and hedgerows spread out below into a picture of rural perfection I thought about a life in somewhere like this. There’s something about riding your bike that makes you consider your life situation. Life on a clear bright summer morning, on a bike:  idyllic. Then the dark clouds role in: what about work prospects, my kids’ schooling and their future opportunities? As they run through the woods, jump over streams, climb trees they’d say none of that was important but they’re only 7 and 4 respectively.  

It’s my risk adverseness, pragmatism, shaped by my own (office based) life experiences directing their destinies, making decisions on their behalf.  They might dream of being organic Welsh hill eco-farmers. Why not? I hope I’m not limiting their futures already.  It’s dangerous to project a future for their futures based on my past experiences.  They’re not going to be relevant even in 5 year’s time.

Higher up the scenery is becoming ever more spectacular. The morning light providing crystal clear views, soaring (all be it slowly) above Tolkien country. The Shire below us. An inspiring panorama for Middle Earth and an inspiring back cloth for my objective of catching Dom. He’s a hairpin bend away, passing above me in the opposite direction, I’m sure he’s smirked down at me.  Legs spinning quicker, feet light on the pedals but quicker, angry pedal stomping wasn’t going to do it. I closed the gap, I was surprised as Dom was.

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Then the second mistake. I settled for just holding his wheel. I should’ve span past, gone on. Instead I relaxed, easily satisfied, controlled my racing breathing, fiddled with my sun glasses. He was gone again. Gone for good**. Remember: we’re not racing.

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2 middle aged men racing up a mountain. Stupid hey? Maybe but when we reached the top, the race won (by Dom) there’s fist pumps, mutual pats on the back and hugged selfies. Like boxers embracing after there’d finished battering each other. Good stupid.

 ** I whipped him on the descent. Tipping above 70kmh.