On a July morning, already hot, the metallic blue cloudless sky promising another scorching day, Thomas set off from the cottage he and his family had rented for the last ten years just north of Bergerac in the Dordogne. The others were only just emerging from their beds and he would be back in time for a shower and have breakfast with them.
He sometimes manages to cajole his son-in-law James to join him on these early morning cycle rides but generally he found himself riding through the narrow wooded lanes alone. Today this suited him fine. He always enjoys doing the circuit he discovered when they first stayed at the house but James, who is 40 years younger, was rather competitive. Riding alone allowed Thomas to enjoy the early morning tranquility as the route wends its way through the woods and fields of the valley side. Since retiring he had rented the cottage every year for two weeks in July and most days he rides round the circuit before breakfast. And so far every year he has managed a faster time than the year before, thanks mostly to James.
The eleven kilometre circuit is roughly triangular, the first section rising gently through the forest in between grassy banks of ferns and wildflowers and up the valley side. At this time of day cars are few and far between and more often than not the ride can be completed without seeing a single vehicle. You can hear them approaching long before they come into view so you are never taken by surprise, not like the deer that occasionally bound across the road. Concentration is always necessary as the margins of the road have loose gravel, especially on the bends, pushed there by the occasional cars and farm vehicles, and in the early morning there are sometimes damp patches left from the overnight dew yet to be burnt off by the warming sun.
After the first three kilometres uphill the circuit turns left at a T junction onto a wider flatter road for another three kilometres before turning left again for the third leg of the triangle home. This, apart from a few short undulations, is a wooded downhill swoop through a series of sinuous bends. The road is narrow, like the ascent, with gravel and trees on each side. For most of the descent the bends are open enough to see through them and choose a line that avoids the hazards without having to brake and slow down. About one kilometre before home the road bursts out from the trees into the bright sunlight and curves sharply to the right above a steep valley side where the hamlet can be seen in a bend of the stream in the valley below. The road takes a final left-hand bend past a farmhouse and a couple of old tobacco drying sheds where you brake hard before crossing the little bridge over the stream and home.
Riding with James is always hard. Apart from being younger he is also fitter and lighter, a particular advantage on the initial lengthy uphill section. It is on the climb that he gradually leaves Thomas behind and by the left-hand turn at the top he is usually a good 100 metres ahead. Thomas however is an experienced cyclist and when he was younger, fifty years ago, he had ridden for a minor professional team as a domestique, a support rider for the team’s star riders. His career had come to a sudden end when he crashed, with life threatening injuries, in his last race. The team was based near Paris but the main sponsor was a wine exporter based in Bergerac. This last race had been in the Bergerac region but he could remember very little about it. It was in early August and one of the highly lucrative post Tour de France one-day races, usually about 100 kilometres or so and sponsored by local businessmen and town councils for the publicity. The results of these races were never in doubt. The stars of the previous Tour De France were paid generous appearance money to take part in them and the adoring public lining the roadsides and the finish expected to see their heroes fight it out for the win. The races were fixed to ensure they were a spectacle and the crowds were not disappointed. As a locally sponsored team, Thomas’s had been invited to take part. Their opportunity to shine and get publicity for their sponsors and be noticed was in the earlier stages of the race before the choreographed last few laps of the circuit produced the prearranged conclusion. It was on an out of town section of the race on a fast wooded descent that he had his career-ending accident, avoiding a crash just in front of him and going over a barrier on a bend that sent him somersaulting into the valley below.
Fifty years later, he had forgotten none of his technique and race craft. By pacing himself up the three kilometre hill he could minimise his loss to James and accelerate over the top and hit the flat section at a good speed. James on the other hand tended to push too hard on the climb and lose speed in the final metres before the top. As a result he had to continue his effort to build up speed on the flat. Thomas, hitting the summit faster, could get up to speed on the flat much quicker. This meant he could close most of the deficit before the next turn into the three kilometre descent. Once going downhill he was in his element. James was more cautious on the descent, only pedaling occasionally and braking to slow down for most bends. Thomas pedaled all the way down in a high gear, approaching speeds of 40 mph at times, occasionally skimming off a little speed with the gentle application of the front brake. His experienced and confident use of gears, superior bike handling and selection of lines through corners meant that he always caught James on the descent and disappeared up the road to finish comfortably ahead at the cottage. But each year it got harder, each year James left him further behind on the initial hill, and each year it took a little longer to catch him on the descent. Every year James was a stronger, better bike rider, while Thomas just got older.
This morning he felt good. The air is still and cool with just a hint of the coming heat of the day. The sun was already quite high in the east, filtering through the tops of the trees and sparkling in the dew on the leaves, creating fragmented rainbows in the last lingering strands of mist. He seemed to be gliding up the hill effortlessly. Looking at his Garmin bike computer he saw he was on for a record run. There are only three days left of their holiday and so far he had not beaten last year’s time. He accelerated over the top of the hill and swung left, reveling in the feeling of speed and power, the immediate responsiveness of the bike, reminding him of the glory racing days of his youth. The flat section seemed to fly backwards past him and almost before he realised it he was at the turn at the top of the descent to home. Lifting the left-hand pedal and shifting his weight to the inside he momentarily freewheeled through the turn even faster than usual, changed up through the gears and putting the power down. This time he was not chasing James. It was him against the clock, what the French call ‘the race of truth’. Nowhere on the descent did he touch his brakes. He knew he was taking risks but he could see the line he wanted through the bends and backed his skill to stick to it. He was flying: the air whistled in his ears accompanied by the rhythmical swish of the tyres on the road with each pulse of power he put through the pedals. He attacked the short rises and sprinted down the next slope at ever increasing speed. In his imagination, he is on a lone breakaway, only 20 seconds in front of the rapidly catching peloton, the sprinters’ lead out trains sacrificing every ounce of energy to overhaul him and get their man to the front for the finish. One more rise to get over and then the final downhill swoop to the line to receive the adulation of the crowd cheering and banging the barriers as he roared past, arms in the air. Last bend: he emerged into the full sunlight, catching a glimpse of the cottage at the bottom of the valley. Then the old tobacco drying sheds seemed to cartwheel through the air above him, the grass verge reared up into his face. The shock of impact. Blackness, silence. Nothing.
A pink veined, fluttering light suffuses everything. A few fleeting shapeless shadows come and go as the light brightens. Dull aches mingle with a comfortable soft warmness and a rising sensation of murmuring gradually increasing in volume. Thomas half wakes up to find what seem to be some of his teammates around him. He realises he is in a hospital bed surrounded by curtains, tubes and wires. A screen on a stand beside the bed displays his vital functions. He has no recollection of how he had got here but tries to hang on without success to the fading fragments of something, he knows not what, that he had been experiencing only a moment before. A feeling of wind, elation, freedom, youth, animal invincibility, oneness with the laws of physics and nature – a joyous elemental state of existence, of being. But now a feeling of desolation and loss, of regret and remorse. Whatever it was, it was once his, however fleetingly, but now lost. He heard the voice of his team manager talking to a white coated figure at the end of the bed. He would live thanks to his high level of fitness and health. He should make a complete recovery in time but his racing career was probably over. The main concern was for the head injuries and whether these might have longer term effects. As he drifted back to sleep Thomas tried to recall how he had got here, what had happened, and had fragmentary memories of hitting a roadside barrier, the French landscape flying over his head. But that was it.
For the next few days he drifted in and out of sleep. In periods of half consciousness, surfacing briefly from his drug induced stupor, he saw and heard the shadowy presence around the bed of a different cast of visitors, a young couple, two children, a weeping woman that called him husband.