On a July morning, already hot, the metallic blue cloudless sky promising it would be another scorching day, Thomas set off from the cottage he and his family had rented for the last five 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 to join them for breakfast.
He sometimes manages to cajole his son-in-law James to join him on these early morning rides but generally he found himself riding through the narrow wooded lanes alone. This suited him fine. He always enjoys doing the circuit he discovered when they first stayed at the house five years ago but James, who is 30 years younger, was rather competitive. Riding alone allowed Thomas to enjoy the early morning tranquillity as the road wends its way through the woods and fields of the valley side. Since retiring they stay at the cottage every year for two weeks and nearly every day he rides round the circuit before breakfast. And so far every year he has gone home with a faster time than the year before, thanks mostly to James.
The eleven kilometre circuit is roughly triangular, 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 you see them so you are never taken by surprise, not like the deer that occasionally run across the road. Concentration is always necessary as the margins of the road have loose gravel, especially on the bends where the occasional car pushes it, 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, still gently rising, 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 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 braking. 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, looking straight ahead, the village can be seen nestling by the stream in the valley bottom. 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 here 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 had in his younger years been a successful amateur racer. At one time he had been invited to join a professional team as a domestique, a support rider for the team’s star riders. He had seen several other riders of similar or even greater ability than his fail badly having sacrificed education and career to pursue their cycle racing dream. So he reluctantly had declined. He retired from racing in his 30s when career and family demands became dominant, but started social riding again for health reasons in his early 60s, to lose a bit of weight and get fit for his keenly anticipated retirement.
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 so as to hit the flat section at a good speed. James on the other hand tended to over extend himself and lose speed in the final metres before the top. Consequently, at the moment he was near exhaustion, he had to continue his effort to get up to speed on the flat. Thomas, hitting the summit faster, could get up to speed on the flat much quicker. This meant he was usually able to close most of the deficit before the next turn into the three kilometre descent. Once going down hill he was in his element. James was, understandably, more cautious on the descent, only pedaling occasionally and braking for most bends. Thomas pedaled all the way down in a high gear, approaching speeds of 40 mph at times, rarely 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 hill, and each year it took a little longer to catch him on the descent. And each year James was stronger, better bike rider and Thomas 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 it looked like 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 lap time. Maybe this would be his last chance. He accelerated over the top of the hill and swung left, revelling in the feeling of speed and power, the almost effortless 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 is 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 left turn even faster than usual, changed up and put the power down. This time he was not chasing James. It was him against the clock, the so-called ‘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 on sticking to it. He was flying: he whistle of the air in his ears, 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, caught a glimpse of the cottage at the bottom of the valley. The grass verge reared up into his face. Then blackness, silence. Nothing.
He was out training with his team mates on the third day of the training camp. They were usually in Northern France in early July training for the soon to come lucrative post Tour de France races held all over France, Belgium and Holland but this year they were at a new location a few kilometres from Bergerac where their main sponsor was based. A stage of the Tour was finishing in Bergerac in a week’s time and the sponsor had managed to get the team invited to a supporting race the day before and was keen they had some success and got some TV exposure to promote the business.
He was a recent recruit to the team and it had been a step up compared to the races he had been doing well in before and, not surprisingly, he was struggling to impress so far. He had been big and strong for his age as a junior and made his way up the lower echelons of amateur teams and races relatively easily. But this was a harder, harsher world he found himself in now. The races were longer, hillier and faster. He was making progress but the unrelenting high speeds and constant attacking and chasing characteristic of top pro racing found him unable to be strong enough in the last crucial kilometres to do the job he had been employed to do, be part of the flat out high speed lead-out train for their top sprinter, to shelter and take him through the melee of accelerating, fading, switching, swearing riders all intent on doing the same job for their sprinters, shoving past elbows, forcing their way through briefly opening gaps, to deliver him to the front for the final burst to the line. He was good at this fast, reactive bunch sprinting that required lightening reflexes and a fatalistic attitude to safety. That is why he was hired. But to do his job meant he had to be at the front with power to spare in the last kilometres. Too often he wasn’t. Although nothing explicit had been said, he knew this may be his one and only season with the team. This training camp could be his last chance to make it.
First he had to impress enough to get picked for the race team. Then he had to impress in the race itself. Their top sprinter was recovering from injury so, if it came to a bunch sprint for the win, they would have to rely on their second best sprinter, a bit old in the tooth now and not as bold and ruthless in the sprints as he used to be. There had been occasions when he had failed to keep his position at the back of his lead-out train, blocked or shouldered aside by a rival. Sometimes he hadn’t made it to the finish on some of the hillier routes. This meant that his lead-out train could ride their own race at the end allowing the strongest remaining to shine, even win on occasions. Lack of confidence in your sprinter often meant that it was worth placing a strong domestique in any promising looking breaks that got away, especially on hillier courses. If the sprint came down to a small group of tired riders with no recognised sprinter among them, everyone had a chance. He was well aware that if he could make the race team, with a bit of good fortune, he had the ability to do well.
The route of today’s training run replicated approximately the roads and gradients of the last half of the race course. The hardest climb of the race day would be quite early in the 120 kilometre course, a couple of long but not especially severe gradients with a short, steep kick at the top of the second, about 40 kilometres after the start. At that point it became the domain of the heavier, faster ‘rouleurs’ who had plenty of time to catch-up with the lightweight grimpeurs, the specialist climbers. He was an indifferent climber given his weight but, although at great cost, he could usually stay in touch with the peleton by starting the longer hills at the front and then drifting slowly to the back as the incline took its toll. If he was still in the bunch, however far back, with the advantages of drafting and the help of a team mate or two he could make his way back to be near the front without too much trouble. He was also one of the fastest descenders in the pro ranks, an advantage of being comparatively heavy. If he got dropped on a particular steep hill, as long as there was a reasonably long and preferably twisting technical descent, he could usually catch the peleton, aided sometimes by the shelter of the supporting vehicles following the race. If the last hill was close to the finish, generally his race was over. Even if he regained the bunch before the end the frantic pace of the last kilometres forced on by the lead-out trains made it impossible to regain the front and his place in his team’s lead-out.
These were unfamiliar roads they were training on but they had a lead car to show the way and to warn the approaching traffic if any. The windless day had become oppressively hot and all sensible people were sheltering in the shade of office, home or bar. So far they’d seen nothing else on the roads apart from the occasional lethargic insect. He felt good today and he sensed some complacency amongst his team mates in the sultry heat. They were approaching the top of a long but innocuous incline made arduous only by the heat and he felt the pace slacken towards the top, an almost imperceptible easing of the pressure on the pedals. With only the descent to come, a few short sharp hills, what they used to call ‘rompers’ back in England, the day was almost done. They had been encouraged by their directeur sportif to make a race of it but few had the stomach for it and he had not cajoled them into greater efforts for some time.
This was an opportunity to liven things up a bit and make a claim for race selection. With about 200 metres to go to the top of the hill he eased off the front casually as if inadvertently. He did not want it to look like he was making an attack. No one took his wheel although it would have been but a moments effort to do so and by the time he crested the rise he had a lead of 20 metres. He would now back himself and his descending skills to hold the group at bay and get to the training run’s notional finishing line just outside the village they had set out from that morning. A few metres further on the narrow road curved to the right into a tunnel of trees, suddenly dark apart from the stroboscopic flashing of the sun between the branches and leaves. As he entered the curve he silently engaged his highest gear and launched a ferocious attack down the first steep section of the descent. He was out of sight round the next bend before his companions realised that he had flown the coop. A chase was quickly organised but most of the work was left to those less certain of their selection for the big race, not the strongest riders. They mainly sat at the back keeping an amused eye on things, assuming the fugitive had little chance of staying away.
Now was not the time for caution or doubts. He maintained the pressure on the pedals and hurtled down the first steep sections knowing full well what risks he was taking. None of them would be coming down here at his speed. The lone rider with the full width of the road to exploit could usually descend faster than a group. No braking, just intense concentration on his chosen line. As usual on descents, the car had pulled a fair distance in front as racing cyclists could descend narrow winding roads faster than any car. The road levelled into a more gentle decline and he tucked into an aero position to reduce air resistance. Solo time trialling, another skill gained from his amateur days in England, was another of his great strengths and was much used by the team when he was asked to close down breakaways or pace his leader back to the peleton after a puncture or bike change. Today it would serve him in his own right. Suddenly, clipping both verges as he straightened out a bend, he emerged from the forest into the blazing sunlight to find the team car directly in front of him. Before he could think, he swerved to the left and squeezed past without slackening speed, glimpsing as he did the shocked face of his directeur as he momentarily filled his side window, and was gone.
The sun was now full in his face and it took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust. As they did he glanced to his left to see in the valley below the village and his destination. He was now confident he would arrive alone. Even if the group had been closing on him, which he doubted, the car was now a potential cause of delay between them and him. A short rise and then the last curve before the final descent to the finish. Without slackening speed he lent the bike into the bend, drifting out to the side of the road and the barrier to stop cars falling down the steep valley side. And there was an ambulance and, a little further on a group of people helping to lift a laden stretcher over the barrier and onto the road. He could not tighten his line to miss the helpers and so rode through the gap between them and the back of the ambulance, hitting the barrier head on. Glimpses of the blue sky between his legs, then forest below, then blue again and then he was rushing at the tree tops. Sensation of breaking bones, the crack of his back breaking drowned by the sound of a branch snapping, a tremendous jolt as he hit the ground, his innards forced up into his chest and forcing the air from his lungs, and the sharp crack as his head split on a rock, his last wild thoughts and sensations, along with the cherished memories of his life, his fears and dreams, all seeped away into the oblivious dark soil of the French countryside.
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 slowly increasing in volume. Thomas wakes up in hospital to find his family around him. His wife, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren. It becomes evident that 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 had been passing through his mind and consciousness not a moment before. A feeling of wind, elation, freedom, youth, animal invincibility, oneness with the laws of physics, maths and nature – a joyous elemental state of existence he must have once known. But now a feeling of desolation and loss, of regret and remorse. Whatever it was, it was once his, however fleetingly, and it was gone forever. He slept.
A day later, fully awake and basking in the warmth and concern of his loving family, he learnt that he has survived a heart attack. He had collapsed by the side of the road onto a grass verge on the hill just above the holiday cottage. His son-in-law James had just been setting off after making a late decision to go for a bike ride and go round their usual circuit in the reverse direction to meet up with him on the road. He saw him fall from his bike up the hill above the village and had had the presence of mind to shout back to the house to phone for an ambulance before he sped up the hill to see what had happened and what was to be done.