Petrarchan sonnet: Giant of Provence

From fragrant fields of lavender, a vast
Forbidding blade of blasted, sun-bleached stone
Rears like a thunderhead. It stands alone,
Inviting bold adventurers to cast
Their caution to its endless winds. Its past
Is littered with their shattered hopes; it’s shown
No mercy, done no favours, idly blown
Careers, looked on as legends breathed their last.
And come July, when hard-limbed men again
Face agonies of hunger, heat and thirst
Upon its slopes in search of victory,
How many will remember through the pain:
For all their training and technology,
It was a poet reached the summit first.

 
 

I consider myself still in training with the Petrarchan sonnet. For this workout, I picked the formidable climb of Mont Ventoux, the 6,000-foot mountain in southern France made famous by the Tour, and notorious by the amphetamine-stoked demise of British favourite Tom Simpson in 1967. But the ‘Giant of Provence’ seemed a doubly appropriate subject for this form: the first recorded ascent was made in 1336 by none other than Petrarch himself. He, of course, did it on foot: I’ve never attempted the climb, but I suspect I’d end up walking, too. N.

An ill wind

Should have been
The kind of stage
You can set your watch by:
A breakaway
Left out there
To cook slowly on a high heat
For three hours
Then, slowly as the ox
Spins on his spit,
Reel them in
And set it up
For the fast men’s showdown –
All legs and elbows
To the line.

But then the wind blew
The day to pieces:

Left bodies scattered all over the road
Like crash debris
As men gasped and strained
On the pitiless slopes of the invisible hill;

Arrowheads forming,
Aiming at targets
Moving steadily
Out of range
On a flat parcours
That didn’t produce
A level playing-field.

 

Today’s flat stage out of Tours ended with the inevitable bunch sprint, won by our very own Mark ‘The Manx Missile’ Cavendish – his 25th stage win at the TdF. But the real story of the day was the wind, which split the field and created the kinds of time gaps you’d expect to see after a major mountain stage. The biggest loser was Spain’s Alejandro Valverde (MoviStar) who, like Richie Porte a few days ago, saw second place overall disappear down the road, probably for good. Even maillot jaune Chris Froome lost a minute of his advantage over fancied rival Alberto Contador, with Team Sky looking vulnerable once again. What’s going to happen when they hit Mont Ventoux on Sunday is anyone’s guess right now. ‘The invisible hill’ is roadie slang for a headwind, which has the power to turn a flat road into a slope, a slope into a mountain, and a mountain into hell on earth. N.

Hammered

Out there,
Somewhere,
He waits:

The Man with the Hammer.

The instrument he wields
Is a veritable Mjölnir,
With a great iron head
And an oak shaft thick as your thigh.

And when he swings it,
Brings it down on the back of your neck
In a single, swift, almighty blow,
There’s no way back:

The heart fails, the legs crack,
Your wheels are set in wet cement
And all of a sudden
Not one of your twenty gears
Is quite low enough.

He haunts long hills
And hot afternoons –
Anywhere that gives him elbow room.
Your helmet, strength and reputation
Offer no protection:
Even Merckx was not immune.

No telling where he waits
Or when his stroke will fall:

But when you see
A rider with blank, sightless eyes
Driven back deep in his head
His soul reduced
To a slice of beef carpaccio
And his ears ringing
Like a blacksmith’s anvil

You’ll know he just met him.

 

The Man with the Hammer is known, and dreaded, by all roadies. He’s the menacing incarnation of that sudden, catastrophic weakness that comes out of nowhere when the legs simply say ‘enough’ and stop working. It’s unpredictable, can be rather frightening, and affects riders at all levels. After stage 8 of this year’s Tour, the Tasmanian rider Richie Porte, a team-mate of current maillot jaune Chris Froome, was lying second overall: next day, he met TMWTH and dropped to 33rd, having lost 18 minutes and (probably) all hope of a high finish in Paris. Expect to see plenty more suffer a similar fate when the race reaches the Alps in a few days’ time. N.

Clipless

Cleats snap into pedals:
Two sharp raps of the judge’s gavel

And I’m committed:
Left without a leg to stand on.

Clamped in rigid ankle-irons,
Every movement circumscribed;

Yet in this captive moment
Power is released:

And locked in here,
I’m ready to escape.

 

My attachment to my road bike is more than just emotional. Like most roadies, I use clipless pedals, so-called because they dispense with the traditional (and fiddly) toe-clips and straps that everyone, including the pros, used until the 1980s.

Plastic cleats bolted to the soles of my shoes snap into the pedals, which (allegedly) makes my pedalling stroke more efficient and certainly prevents a foot from slipping off a pedal in the wet. Twist the heel sharply outwards, and the cleat disengages. Fortunately, this usually happens instinctively in a crash (as I’ve discovered) but every roadie has their own blush-inducing version of the ‘forgetting-to-unclip-at-the-traffic-lights-first-time-out’ story (I’m not telling you mine). Being locked to the bike by your feet may sound foolhardy at best, but once you’ve got used to it, you rarely go back.

My cycling-literary hero Paul Fournel writes about this technology in his wonderful book Besoin de Velo (‘Need for the Bike’): “Since toe-clips disappeared, the peloton makes a new sound. I became aware of it one morning in St-Etienne. There were about a thousand of us, and at the pistol shot of the starter, we all clicked into our two thousand clipless pedals. In the Sunday morning silence it was a good sound, and it said, ‘Time to get going’.”

And even though today is a ‘rest day’ at the Tour, pretty much all the riders will be clipping in again and riding for three or four hours. Convicts of the road indeed. N.

Convicts of the road

No one pays us
To be out here –

Journeymen labourers
Hammering the roads
With expensive tools
And ludicrous workwear
We must provide ourselves.

A chain gang,
Prisoners of our own ambition,
Shackled to our senseless dreams

Yet finding our own kind of freedom

In doing the time.

 

In 1924, journalist Albert Londres followed the Tour de France for his newspaper, Le Petit Parisien, and famously described the competitors as forcats de la route – ‘convicts of the road’. These were the days when stages were up to 480km (300 miles) long, and riders’ stimulants of choice included amphetamines, cocaine, chloroform, and even strychnine. Most of us MAMILs revel in the suffering our sport still demands, but we stand in awe of those pioneering pros who wrote the legends we like to feel we’re part of. N.

Confessions of a MAMIL

We’re old enough
To know better,

But not yet so near death
We cannot dream

Of swapping our grey, empty days
And little, easy lives

For a cobweb-light,
Diamond-hard machine

A jersey dipped in liquid rainbow
Dossards, bidons,

And the road:

Of half-killing ourselves to hit
The finish – stark, unarguable –

Not some arbitrary deadline
Forgotten soon as reached;

Or accepting kisses and bouquets
On a podium before a cheering crowd

Not the one-line email, casual word
Or whistling silence when all is done.

A dream reality would shred
Like sunburned skin on scorching tarmac –

A fantasy that, knowing what we do
Of life, fate’s machinations and ourselves,

We should have left behind
And yet

When this is what remains
Of all that greatness we once thought was ours

Perhaps we’ll be forgiven
For holding on so tight.

 

MAMIL: Middle Aged Man In Lycra. And yes, I am – and proud of it. N.

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.)

Dividend

So long we’ve been the oddballs, loners, geeks,
Derided MAMILs, big kids with our toys.
Now suddenly, in three transcendent weeks
We’ve given Team GB its poster-boys.
Three heroes have arisen from our ranks –
Froome, Cavendish and Wiggins – and it seems
Our wilderness years may be ending, thanks
To rides that changed the world, fulfilled our dreams.
So can we lesser mortals now expect
All those who’ve shouted Wiggo to the sky
To treat us with a measure of respect
Or must we still accept abuse. Still die.
What chance the bounty Bradley has bestowed
On Britain wins us honour on the road?

 

Words are insufficient to describe Sunday’s Tour de France finale in Paris. I’ve been watching the race since 1996 and never thought I’d see a British winner – far less a British one-two, seven British stage wins, a British rider (and World Champion) winning on the Champs-Elysees for the fourth successive year…simply astonishing.

Perhaps inevitably, THEY have seized on it and wrapped it up in the Union flag ahead of the Olympics. A presenter on the BBC’s Today programme summed up the media reaction perfectly when he said: “I never knew [cycling] was so interesting until we started winning.” It’s worth noting that Wiggins had already won three of Europe’s most prestigious stage-races this season before the Tour even started: not one of these victories was reported by the mainstream press.

The hope is now that Bradley Wiggins’ remarkable achievement will mark the start of a new era, not just for British cycling, but for cycling, and cyclists, in Britain. We’ve waited 99 years for our first Tour winner: let’s hope it doesn’t take that long for attitudes to change, and we stop killing 1,000 cyclists a year on our roads.

(In case you’re wondering: MAMIL is short for Middle-Aged Man In Lycra. Originally a derogatory term, we’ve sort-of embraced it now and see it more as a badge of honour than an insult!) N.

Summit

There’s just one question left unanswered: Why?
What drives a man to do such deeds? What force
Compels him to endure such agony,
Won’t let him go till he completes the course?
He risks his life descending at high speed
On roads left soft and slick by summer sun;
What is this urge, this all-consuming need
To ride himself into oblivion?
Look at the champion’s bands around his sleeves,
His hollow cheeks, blank stare and lolling tongue:
It’s not about the money: he believes
In all of this – has done since he was young.
Such deep desires are not ours to command.
You have to ask, you’ll never understand.

 

Inspired by yesterday’s brilliant stage win in the Pyrenees by Thomas Voeckler (Europcar). The Frenchman is usually described as ‘plucky’ by commentators: this epic ride, which saw him lead the race over four massive cols, then negotiate a 10-mile hairpinned descent at 50 mph to win alone in Bagneres-de-Luchon, was nothing less than heroic. He’ll take the polka-dot jersey of King of the Mountains to the finish in Paris on Sunday, and it’ll be thoroughly deserved. Chapeau.

Un jour sans

Washed out once more: confined, kept off the bike
By work and weather. Pros will talk about
Le jour sans. Says it all – the ‘day without’ –
And though I’ve no conception what it’s like
To ride for cash and glory, I can share
That gnawing emptiness; curse as the day
Goes down the road without me, with no way
To reel it in; that delicate despair.
And so tomorrow, I’ll get in a break,
Go off the front à bloc and leave the pack
Behind, make my escape and not look back.
A bold move, but the one I have to make.
No maillot jaune – my sole prize is the ride.
Without it, I am not myself inside.