Clean

 

Poor bike. Looks like
You just came last
in the Tour of Flanders,
or spent the day
on the road to Roubaix
and, en route, passed
through all the seven circles
of cycling hell.

But mud and crud
Aren’t all that I
Must try washing from you:
A deeper taint
Now dulls your blue paint;
The rumours fly
And history’s rewritten
As more men tell.

Yet still, I will
Keep faith with you,
My partner for so long.
You are no fake:
Their crimes do not make
What we’ve been through
Any the less. We did it
And did it well.

 

Took the road bike on my own little ‘Tour of redemption’ today. As I’d hoped, the weather was foul and the roads were filthy – real hardcore stuff – and I chose a route with plenty of hills (not difficult round here!) I’d just finished reading Tyler Hamilton’s illuminating, and heartbreaking, book The Secret Race and desperately needed reminding just what it was I first loved about this crazy sport. Thing is, my road bike is the same as the one Hamilton, Armstrong and the US Postal Service team rode at the ’99 and ’00 Tours (which is why I got it) That big sponsor’s logo on the seat-tube, which I used to be so proud of, now seems like an indictment: from what I’ve just read, USPS should probably stand for Users of Suspicious and Prohibited Substances.
Anyway, had a brilliant ride, and came back with the bike looking as though it had just been dragged out of a canal; this poem came to me while I was washing it down. The truth I discovered today was that whatever Armstrong et al may or may not have done, they can’t make my light, fast, beautiful bike heavy, slow or ugly. The bike is bigger and greater than the sport of cycling, and I can still enjoy the one without the other. All is well. N.

 

(NB The Tour of Flanders is a legendarily demanding one-day ‘classic’ race held in Belgium every spring. The weather is usually appalling. Roubaix is the unlovely industrial town where the almost-as-tough and even-more-famous Paris-Roubaix classic ends. Both races include lots of cobbled roads, and the list of past winners is a roll-call of the sport’s serious hard-men.)

Feet of clay

 

So now it’s all exploded
Off the back pages onto the front –

Confessions and contrition
Hearts emptied, guts spilled

Laundry aired, carpets lifted
And all the dirt swept under them

Dragged out into daylight
In a cloud of told-you-so –

Who’s left to raise
A glass or monument to?

Whose triumphs were their own,
Unaided by the blood-bag, syringe or pill?

What is there to believe
When every word and pedal stroke

Is now proved false
Or too good to be true.

What is a history worth
When spangled with asterisks

Stacked on footnotes
Or just left blank

As ink and decency recoil
From such names and such deeds.

All that comes out clean
Unsullied and unstained

Is the machine:
The one they all professed to love

But simply used.
It is not them. It is itself.

And in itself
It makes us more than men –

Faster, stronger, more alive
Than we ever dared to dream.

A fine, benign addiction
My stimulant of choice.

And even after everything
I’ll still take it every day.

 

A hard piece to write, and a very incomplete and inadequate expression of what’s in my mind right now. I’m still reeling from the USADA’s decision to annul Lance Armstrong’s seven Tour de France victories, Tyler Hamilton’s (long-overdue) confession and all the other dreadful revelations that have engulfed cycling in recent days. We all knew things were rotten in the sport: we just didn’t know – or dare to imagine – just how bad they were. Now we do know. And I’m so angry, disappointed and disillusioned, I don’t think I shall ever watch a professional bike race again. Sorry, Bradley. All that’s left is the bike itself. Which, thank goodness, is still more than enough. N.

Ride of my life

I saw it on a Tour team-car roof-rack
In ’99. Pau. Frame greyed with the grime
Of rock-hard Pyrenean cols like coal-
Dust on a miner’s face. A strip of tape
On the top-tube, which bore, in small neat caps,
A name that blazed across the world that year:
L. ARMSTRONG. His. Right there in front of me.
Took five years’ waiting
                                  but I got mine. That
Changed everything. Just-going-for-a-ride
Became twelve thousand k a year; the road
My second home; the bike a part of me.
And it was war, fought on so many fronts –
Fatigue, foul weather, gravity, the grind
Of spinning out the endless hours alone;
The predatory cars, the sudden crash
As glycogen reserves ran dry. I lost
Some battles; won my share. My days had shape
And structure: strong, continuous and true
As my bright-silver-spinning handbuilt wheels;
The steady scrolling of the countryside,
The hollow roar of tyres, purring gears
The biopic and soundtrack of my life.

And that was just the way it was. For years.

I tried to quit. I swear.
                                I went two weeks.
But my heart hurt more than my ruined knee
So I came back. A little easier,
Though still five days a week: the full-time job
Of being alive. Not all addiction’s bad.

I still waste hours in wondering, chasing wild
Geese up blind alleys, trying to figure out
All kinds of why and what-the-hell and how.
And all the time the answer’s waiting there
Downstairs. It slouches up against the wall
Like hired muscle: hard, honed; clear intent
In each smooth tube, taut line and swelling curve.
A circumnavigation on the clock
Now, memories bound tight in every strand
Of carbon fibre in its frame. It is
The constant – one of very few I have –
And balance-point of life. So if I ask
About my calling, cause, trajectory
I beg you to remind me – it’s the bike,
Stupid. Then send me back out on the road,
Where I find all this crazy world reduced
To simple, fundamental principles
And I am certain – just the way I was
Behind the finish line on Stage 16 –
Of all I want and need. It’s still the bike.

Tour 2010: Stage 20

The final kilometres of this year’s Tour were played out in traditional fashion in Paris. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) won his fifth stage, and also became the first rider ever to win on the Champs-Elysées two years running. Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-Farnese Vini) was second, which gave him overall victory in the green jersey competition.
Alberto Contador (Astana) won the Tour without winning a stage and having been pushed every inch of the way by Andy Schleck. Could we see a change at the top of the sport next season? One man who’s definitely heading for the exit, this time for good, is Lance Armstrong, who finished an anonymous 23rd – not the glorious last hurrah we’d have liked to have seen from the seven-time winner.
It’s been a great Tour, and for the first time in years, I’ve enjoyed it from start to finish. So, inspired by my blog-pal Chloe, my closing entry in this three-week poetry marathon is a retrospective of the entire event in haiku; one for each of the 20 stages.
Thanks for joining me on the road to Paris.

PROLOGUE

Twenty-two times nine
Slaves to the clock. One stands; cries
‘I am Spartacus!”

STAGE 1.

Stage, one; countries, two.
On the run into Brussels
Petacchi sprouts wings.

STAGE 2

Spa cure for the blues:
Chavanel is in yellow;
France is feeling good.

STAGE 3

On a day in Hell,
Cobbles claim men’s bones and souls.
But Thor’s in heaven.

STAGE 4

As the Champagne flows
For Petacchi once again,
Has Cav’s bubble burst?

STAGE 5

So the lead-out train
Gets it right. And suddenly
Cav is back on track.

STAGE 6

First Cav couldn’t win
Now it seems he cannot stop.
Two down, three to go.

STAGE 7

Second time around
Taking yellow the hard way.
Chapeau, Chavanel.

STAGE 8

As the road heads up
Schleck breaks free of gravity.
Shades of Charly Gaul.

STAGE 9

On the Madeleine
Sandy’s out there on his own.
Still is at the line.

STAGE 10

Where Beloki fell
Paulinho makes no mistake
Keeps his winning Gap.

STAGE 11

Cav makes it thirteen
Beats Robbie, Cipo, Zabel
Along with the rest.

STAGE 12

Alberto goes clear;
Andy loses by a hair.
Shape of things to come?

STAGE 13

Vino’s comeback win,
But his past means this is not
One to Revel in.

STAGE 14

Riblon wins alone:
After three lean, unseen years
The Ax man cometh.

STAGE 15

Centenary day
In the Pyrenees. Vockler
Leaves them on a high.

STAGE 16

Peyresourde, Aspin,
Tourmalet, Aubisque. Such names
Don’t scare Fédrigo.

STAGE 17

And then there were two.
On the highest, hardest road
They are on their own.

STAGE 18

Sprinters call it home.
Cav blazes into Bordeaux,
Claims a vintage win.

STAGE 19

Schleck is cast to fail.
Doesn’t read the script. Almost
Forces a rewrite.

STAGE 20

Number five for Cav,
Three for Contador. For Lance
It’s seven and out.

Longjumeau-Paris Champs-Elysées, 102.5km
Won by Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia)

Maillot jaune: Alberto Contador (Astana)
Maillot vert: Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-Farnese Vini)
Maillot au pois: Anthony Charteau (Bbox Bouygues Telecom)
Maillot blanc: Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)
Team classification: Radio Shack
Lanterne rouge: Adriano Malori (Lampre-Farnese Vini) @ 4h 27m 03s

Tour 2010: Stage 16

Another French stage win, no change in the GC: the peloton aren’t making it easy for me, are they? So I make no apology for writing a second Armstrong poem. In 1999, I was in Pau when it hosted the finish of Stage 16 from Lannemezan. As we made our way back to the car after seeing Lance receive his eleventh maillot jaune, we passed the US Postal team car. Lance’s Trek bike was on the roof, so close I could read his name on the top-tube. Then and there, I vowed I’d get one some day. I had to wait five years, but it happened. I still have it: it’s a bit scuffed and tired-looking after more than 25,000 miles, but the magic is still there. Which made Lance’s rather desolate efforts in Pau today all the more poignant. Maybe the champion will finish his Tour career as he began it: as a hero.

FADED GLORY

Eleven years and
Several lives ago
I saw him
Pull on yellow here
And take the crowd’s applause;
Another day done
For the resurgent star
On the long road to Paris
And the first of seven.

Today
I watched him
Chase grimly into town
Among the hopeless hopefuls
Beg his body
To summon up the old fire
But fade
Fall back
And finish nowhere.

Would I sit now,
As I did then,
Five hours in the sun
To see him?
Or maybe I should simply look
At the carbon bike, just like his,
Now hanging on my garage wall
And remember where I saw it first
And why I had to have it.

Bagnères de Luchon-Pau, 199.5km
Won by Pierrick Fédrigo (Bbox Bouygues Telecom)
Maillot jaune: Alberto Contador (Astana)

Tour 2010: Rest day

No racing today, as the riders enjoy the first rest day of this year’s Tour, having covered 1,570km (980 miles) since the start in Rotterdam last Saturday. They’ll spend the day at the Alpine ski resort of Morzine-Avoriaz, where yesterday’s stage ended with victory for Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank), Cadel Evans (BMC) in the maillot jaune, and seven-time winner Lance Armstrong (Radio Shack) out of contention almost 12 minutes in arrears.
For pro cyclists, ‘rest’ is a relative term. They’ll still ride for three hours or so; although the pace will be well below race speed (they average 20-25mph even on the mountain stages) most of us mortals would still struggle to stay with them. It’s easy to forget that the guys who roll home in the autobus half an hour behind the winner are still better than 99.9999% of the rest of us will ever be. Even Dmitriy Muravyev of Kazakhstan, the current lanterne rouge who’s already lost almost 90 minutes to Evans, is a top professional – he wouldn’t be riding for Armstrong’s Radio Shack team if he wasn’t.
When they’re not at the dinner table replacing the 9,000-odd calories they burned on yesterday’s stage, the riders will be on the massage table, where the soigneurs (literally ‘carers’) ease the knots and kinks from tired legs.
Hostilities resume tomorrow, with another eight stages and 1,000 miles of racing before the next rest day in Pau. Many will be wondering if they’ll make it that far. And you can be sure that quite a few of them won’t.

RÉPOS

On the tenth day
They rested.

And it was good.

Nothing to do
But sleep late

Ride three hours
Pack in pasta, then

Let the soigneurs’ magic hands
Ease a thousand miles from leaden legs.

Revel in the chance to feel
Normal in the midst of madness:

Call home, play games, snooze,
Or lose themselves in movies.

Heal, refuel, recover
Get ready

To do it
All again.

Maillot jaune: Cadel Evans (BMC)
Green jersey: Thor Hushovd (Cervélo Test Team)
KoM: Jerome Pineau (Quick Step)

Tour 2010: Stage 8 (2)

During his run of seven straight Tour wins – a record that will probably stand for all time – Lance Armstrong was unassailable in the mountains. On today’s stage, which is by no means the hardest of this year’s race, he lost 12 minutes and any hope of winning his final Tour. Great champion though he is, the firepower to deal with young guns like Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador is no longer there. I think we’ve witnessed the end of an era. Le roi est mort. Vive le roi. 

NO WAY BACK

Camera cuts
To Lance:
On the front,
Jersey slashed open
Crucifix swinging
His face set, revealing nothing.
But this is not
Tête de la course:
Today
He leads
Groupe Armstrong
And the gap to his successors
Stretches out to minutes.
The seven-time winner
Who held the whole world
In his hands
Learns what it is
To lose
To fall
To fail
Feel his age.
And know there can be
No comeback.