A’ bheinn mhòr

These are my terms. I am. Have always been.
Foundation of all things; bones of the earth.
No number for the ages I have seen;
To ancient fires and ice I owe my birth.
I suffer you to stumble up my slopes
To brave my bogs and burns, my sudden squalls.
I will indulge the crampons, axes, ropes
With which you arm yourself to storm my walls.

But I will not assist or lend you aid
When storm clouds break upon you and the snow
Screams in. You own the choices you have made;
I stand impartial, neither friend nor foe.
And when the wind and wet conspire to tear
Your trembling fingers from their fragile hold
I do not weep, rejoice, laugh or despair;
Dispassionate, I watch events unfold.

And should you overcome all things, succeed
And stand upon my peak in victory
I offer no opinion on the deed:
Your gain and loss are all the same to me.
I have no truth, no answers. You will find
Them in yourself alone. I am the place
Where you may dare the darkness in your mind
And meet your strengths and frailties face to face.

All things must pass; and yet I shall endure.
The world may change, but I will always be.
When doubt and chaos reign, I still stand sure.
When truth is hard to find, remember me.


For Burns Night: inspired by our trip to the Scottish Highlands last year. Scotland’s mountains aren’t high by world standards but they’re rugged, remote and can be tricky to navigate; combine that with their notoriously fickle, often brutal weather and they’re definitely not to be trifled with. The image shows Ben Loyal, a magnificent Munro in the far north: the title is Scots Gaelic for ‘the great mountain’.

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 17

Well, we got our showdown between Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) and Alberto Contador (Astana) on the final climb to the summit of the Col du Tourmalet. Apart from a couple of accelerations by Schleck, and one sharp attack by Contador, it wasn’t the knock-down-drag-out fight many had predicted: rather, it was an exhibition of nerve and professionalism in dreadful conditions by the two greatest climbers in the sport. Schleck took the win, Contador kept his yellow jersey, and barring catastrophe, the top two places in Paris look to have been settled. Perhaps best of all, relations between the two men, so strained in the aftermath of Stage 15, seem to be fully restored. And chapeau, too, to Canada’s Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions), who thoroughly deserves his eighth place on the GC after a brilliant Tour so far. Let’s hope he hangs on for the last three days.

HIGH DRAMA

Out of the mist
They come:
The ruler
And the one
Who would take his crown.
Their war,
Fought along
A front a mile high
And ten miles long
Ends here,
Half-lost among
The grey rocks and rainbow crowd.

Matched in strength and will
They watch and wait
Sticking close as brothers
As they tear themselves apart.

And at the line,
Their forces spent,
They lay their arms
Across each other’s shoulders,
Each knowing he has conquered,
Content to share the spoils.

Pau-Col du Tourmalet, 174km
Won by Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)
Maillot jaune: Alberto Contador (Astana)

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: Stage 15

The French riders, it seems, can do no wrong. A day after Christophe Riblon’s epic solo victory at Ax 3 Domaines, Thomas Voeckler (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) broke away to win alone in Bagnères de Luchon, on the day the Tour marked (celebrated is perhaps the wrong word) the centenary of its first Pyrenean stage. That he won while wearing the French road-race champion’s tricolore jersey made it all the sweeter for him and his legions of supporters: he’s officially been a National Treasure since he wore the maillot jaune for 10 days in 2004.
One rider who probably hasn’t added to his fan-base today is Alberto Contador (Astana). who continued to race after Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) unshipped his chain at the crucial moment on the final HC climb of Port de Balès. After a 20km chase at speeds touching 100km/hr, Schleck lost the yellow jersey to Contador by eight seconds – precisely the same margin by which Greg LeMond beat Laurent Fignon in 1989.
Should Contador have waited? Like Campagnolo v Shimano, the compulsory wearing of helmets and whether it’s OK to jump red lights, this debate will probably run for ever without reaching a definitive conclusion. Deciding to wait would have shown sportsmanship of the highest order and would have been wonderful to see; at the same time, Schleck had attacked first, and they’re both here to win a bike race. I just hope it sets up a battle royal on the Tourmalet on Wednesday. Meanwhile, what odds on the French riders making it three in a row tomorrow?

LOSING IT

A sudden check:
And in the grinding
Of links and sprockets
He hears
His own death-rattle.

Triple-espresso trembling
Fingers, fat with fatigue,
Fumble:
Every moment
A thousand years.

Steadier hands rush in to push.
And then he is alone
On the mountain:
With everything to lose
But his chain.

Pamiers-Bagnères de Luchon
Won by Thomas Voeckler (Bbox Bouygues Telecom)
Maillot jaune: Alberto Contador (Astana)

Tour 2010: Stage 14

And so we reached the Pyrenees, and the stages that will decide the Tour. Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador were so caught up in their own private battle that they seemed to forget the race going on around them. At one point on the final climb they slowed until they were almost doing track-stands, oblivious to third- and fourth-placed Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel) and Denis Menchov (Rabobank), unable to believe their luck, dashing for the summit and gaining 15 precious seconds each.
The undisputed hero of the day was Christophe Riblon (AG2R). A virtual unknown before today, he was first over the 6,500ft hors categorie Port de Pailhères, then held on to his slender advantage to cross the line at Ax 3 Domaines alone after a breakaway of more than 100 miles. There can surely be no better way to land your first-ever Tour stage win.

HIGH ACHIEVER

Two thousand metres up,
Twenty miles to go,
He has
Two minutes.
Below
The heads of state
Watch each other,
Too intent on their own affairs
To pay attention
To a man
Twenty-four minutes down
With four wins
And no chance.
But though all their feints
And mind games
He goes on,
Shoulders rolling,
Through the madness
Of Basque flags
Campervans
Evian showers
And fat men running
To the line
That marks
The end
And the beginning.

Revel-Ax 3 Domaines
Won by Christophe Riblon (AG2R)
Maillot jaune: Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)

Tour 2010: Stage 12

Despite being technically a ‘transitional’ stage, there wasn’t much respite for the peloton today, with three third- and two second-category climbs on the 210.5km slog from Bourg de Péage to Mende. The final climb of the Montée Laurent Jalabert – named after one of France’s most beloved riders, who won here in 1995 – saw Albert Contador (Astana) go on the attack at last: in the end he gained just 10 seconds on Andy Schleck, but the Tour has been won and lost by less than that before. Just as the organisers doubtless hoped and intended, it’s all going to be decided on the great cols of the Pyrenees next week. Expect fireworks.

OPENING SALVO

Two to go,
And the men
Who would be king
Are shoulder to shoulder:
An intimate skirmish
In the wider war
Against gravity, altitude
And lactic acid.

One kicks
With intent
To hurt.
The other
Stays down,
Unable to rise
To this sudden challenge
And everywhere, alarm-bells sound.

This is not
The killer blow
That ends it all:
But to lose
Even a little
From not enough
Is sure to sting
Somewhere.

Bourg de Péage-Mende, 210.5km
Won by Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha)
Maillot jaune: Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)

Tour 2010: Stage 9

French cycling fans haven’t had so much to cheer about in years. Another sensational stage for the home riders saw Sandy Casar (Française des Jeux) take the win, with Christophe Moreau (Caisse d’Epargne) – riding his last Tour at the ripe old age of 39 – finishing fourth and Anthony Charteau (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) fifth. Charteau also took over the lead in the KoM classification from Jerome Pineau (Quick Step) while Moreau completed a French one-two-three at the head of the race for the polka-dot jersey.
Cadel Evans (BMC), riding with a cracked elbow sustained in a crash on Sunday, lost more than eight minutes and the maillot jaune he’d won on Stage 8. Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) now leads the GC, 41 seconds ahead of Alberto Contador (Astana): the only two realistic contenders for overall victory finished together, just two seconds behind Casar.
Today’s poem is about none of them, however: my sympathies were all with Olympic road race champion Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel). By turning himself inside-out on the final climb of the Col de la Madeleine, and taking all kinds of insane risks going down the other side, he managed to get within 10 seconds of Contador, Schleck and Moreau on the final 5km run-in to the finish. But he just couldn’t make contact, and eventually finished 50 seconds behind them. I know what it’s liked to get shelled out the back of a group and watch, powerless to respond, as the gap slowly widens and they head off down the road. At least I didn’t have to see a possible Tour stage win go with them.

SNAPPED ELASTIC

Ten seconds.
That’s all.
Count them, out loud.

Not much to make up
You’d think
When you’ve had
20 k downhill
And Olympic gold hung round your neck.

Yet that
Achingly
Tiny

Gap

Might as well be
Another mountain
An ocean
A trip to the moon.

Power leaks
From legs
Already screaming
Teeth grind
Eyes screw shut
Hands haul on bars
As if to bend them back

And now you see
That wheel through
The wrong end of the telescope
And you know
You have
To let it go.

Morzine-Avoriaz-Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, 204.5km
Won by Sandy Casar (Française des Jeux)
Maillot jaune: Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)

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.