Tales From The Gutter By Greg Roche Rás 2003
Consciousness comes quickly. I have slept deeply for the first time in three nights and the fever is gone. Going through the motions of getting up, showering and having breakfast, my confidence continues to grow. The residue of fatigue is there, but then I tell myself it’s bound to be. That’s the same for everyone left in the race. I chatted with Luchio at breakfast and he said his legs were aching. Same for everyone, you see.
Luchio asked what happened. I know he’s referring to my ride the previous day. ‘I’m a bad rider’ I explain, only half joking, but he is kind, accepts that I don’t want to say anything more and treats my comment as a throw away line, laughing.
The truth, the full version, is that in addition to being a bad rider, yesterday everything went wrong. I awoke feverous, tired and rode 120km of a mountain stage at the back of the pack feeling dreadful and fearing the main climb of the day which we were to reach at 150km covered. At 120km the main group was riding a hard tempo, ensuring that the two Kazakh riders who had already escaped didn’t build too great a lead. I was happy with this, hanging on, hanging on. It’s a mind game I can play with myself. ‘Ten more minutes and then swing off’; at ten minutes ‘wait until another rider goes out first and sit up with him.’ It’s a hateful existence at the back, but sometimes, when I know I’m ill or having an off day, I content myself with it. My lot in world cycling. There’s always tomorrow, always tomorrow. Bad cyclists are eternal optimists.
Great cyclist quotes one: Before Miguel Indurain was finally tailed off on a mountain stage of the 1996 tour, and he was defeated /for the first time in six years, he had been asked, speculatively, how he expected he would meet the fact of his own demise as the best rider in the world. He said ‘when I stop winning, it will be a liberation which will put an end to some of my suffering.’ And it did. Indurain quit the sport at the end of 1996. We’re at the opposite ends of the same relationship with our bodies, Indurain and I. His mind didn’t let his body stop until there was nothing left. Me? I’ll know to quit when I’ve had the best day I know I can ever have. I envy Indurain not so much for his talent, but for his epiphany.
At 120km, I rear wheel puncture, and circumstances change dramatically. A flurry of activity, a panic of wheel changing, gear adjusting, adrenalin fuelled shouting and cursing. The wheel change puts me in the convoy, at about team car thirty and I set about making my way back up through the cars towards the back of the peloton. This shouldn’t be a problem, the cars offer generous shelter, their drivers savvy to my needs and I can settle to the task of making my way up to the group as swiftly and easy as possible. But today it’s different, and even as I’m getting the wheel, before the chase starts, I know it – it’s funny how your mind can know something before your body does. I’m filled with doubt again. I’m finding it more difficult than I should be to move through the cars, my legs are moaning with lactic, and I look at my bike computer which now reads 55km/h and I realise that at the precise moment I punctured, someone at the front of the group had decided that it was time to really start closing in on the Kazakh’s advantage. Wanker; I mentally accuse the faceless aggressor.
Blanked by oxygen spots, muted by endorphins and ruled by a mind that still needs to get back to the group quickly, I am stuck in a half world. The longer I’m here, the more tired I’ll get, the less likely I am to make it back on. And there are other thoughts, too. To go out this early is suicide. I need to get to the climb with the group or risk elimination on time at the stage end. I’m also aware that the considerable effort I’m making now is using up physical reserves I’d set aside for the big climb ahead.
Must get back to the group, must get back. I yo-yo up and down the car numbers, past my own team car, where Ger gives me a bottle tow, a handful of jelly babies and an illegal handsling to the car ahead. Fuck it, I’m desperate to make it back up.
Twenty five minutes of that. Imagine counting that length of time out in seconds. That’s how it long it feels.
Suddenly they ease a little, and I jump past the commissaries car and I’m back in the group. The fragile safety of the group. Nick looks at me, he must have seen what happened ‘welcome back’ he offers, deadpan, clearly hurting too, and gesticulates to his bottle ‘yeah, yeah, please’ – I don’t mind sounding desperate now, because in cycling your competitors can be your greatest allies. Gareth comes drifting backwards towards us from somewhere near the front of the pack at a casual swagger. He’s heard on his earpiece what’s been happening, and knows I’ll be in a mess. His form has got better and better over the last few days, and I see he’s coping with the race easily now. Bastard, I think, bastard. I know that he’s come back out of genuine concern and to give me some assistance, but right then, as it happens, I see only that he has far better condition than me, and his selfless gesture seems like the act of someone showing off his superiority.
Cycling memory to stop me being a prick in the face of adversity and people trying to help: Earlier in the season, at another stage race, my form had been like his now. I could do anything I wanted in the pack, attack when I liked, drift effortlessly across gaps. I won a race at a canter, and afterwards I had to take the other guys congratulations ‘ my legs were good today for a change!’ ‘it was a lucky move, eh?’ Hollow words for the guys I trampled on my way to the line. It’s difficult to be modest when you feel good. Your legs speak too arrogantly for you, and all the modesty you can summon in words is undermined by them chatting away smugly on the pedals.
Gareth signals to the commissaire that we (i) need feeding, and he drifts back thirty yards, gets food and drink from the car that has been allowed up to the front of the convoy for this purpose, before stamping back down on the pedals, handing me two fresh bottles, some food, a word of encouragement and adds ‘climb starts in two k, move up if you can.’ Then he’s back off to the front of the bunch, to safety.
I know that what he said was right. I need to invest yet more energy in moving to at least the middle of the group. Not for the same reasons as him, to meet the front split that will inevitably come on the mountain, and to give a high stage finish. Instead, I’m moving up precisely because I’ve no chance of getting over the climb in the lead. I need to move up so that when the climb starts, and I can’t climb with the pace of the group, I can sit at my own pace, gently drifting back through the line of other riders so that as we reach the top of the climb, I’ll still be just about hanging onto the back of the bunch. I need to move up to give myself sliding room. But I can’t. I move ten riders forward and slip back three. I’m simply not recovered from the frantic chase, and now I must steady myself where I am if I’m even to finish. I don’t need a fuel gauge for my body, I know I’m on red.
A winter spent laughing in the rain, a spring spent raising the thresholds, all for the two hours ahead which will define whether all that effort has been worthwhile. The outside world is completely beyond my view now, but how I see it this evening will depend entirely on how I approach this interior existence now. I am aware of doubt, but I look down and realise that I am still pedalling, that the wheels are still turning, that the rider in front is clearly labouring too. I conclude that there is still a chance, and choose to ride on.
On the early slopes of the climb IÌm already at the back and being tailed off. Worse, I realise that the puncture IÌve had has robbed me of the 25 sprocket IÌd put on that wheel precisely for this climb. The spare IÌve been given has a 21 Ò nowhere near low enough for this climb even if my legs were good.
The cars try to come past, but the climb is steep and my nose is singed by the smell of a burning clutch. There are spectators up here too, a whole blurred gallery of them, glaring at me, wondering why IÌm struggling so. TheyÌll go home and talk about the state of some of the guys at the back.
As a child I watched the tour every year, fascinated. One of the things I couldnÌt understand was why a rider I knew to be great yesterday, last week or last month could suddenly be, well, rubbish. I watched Ja Ja cracking in the high mountains of le tour and wondered how he won la Vuelta so easily. Now I know. ItÌs because cyclists live right on the edge of their physical capacity, and thatÌs like bivouacking on Everest; ItÌs fine when the weather is good, but the first cloud appears on the horizon and the variables change beyond recognition, and disaster, from nowhere, is upon you. ItÌs something no one can know until theyÌve been there. The world implodes. ThatÌs what happened to Ja Ja on the high mountains of the tour. His body couldnÌt cope with the altering barometer readings.
The spectators are shouting the name of a rider thirty yards ahead of me, shouting with as much conviction for us as they had for the leaders when they passed three minutes ago. They cheer me like they would a great champion precisely because IÌm not one. I realise that the rider just in front is one of the Irish teamÌs rouleurs. HeÌs called groupetto, and there are eight or ten guys already around him, resigned to making their way up the remainder of the climb and towards the finish at a survival pace. The Irish rider I recognise now as Moriarty, and I know that he will be expected to pull on the long flat drags tomorrow and so he knows to save some energy today.
Steadily, over the next kilometre or so I heave my way up towards them, and blind with oxygen debt on a long false flat before the summit I make the bridge. False flat. False flat. In cycling lingo, we use the French term, faux plat. The term washes round my mind. A racing cyclists consciousness is small, and confined to profound truths and ritualistic thought that plague you almost as much as your burning legs. Single phrases roll over and over, a tune plays in your mind; they are not new things discovered, but old truths temporarily forgotten.
I break free of it and I find that no sooner than IÌd made contact, I have been dropped by the groupetto again. I meet this fact, again, by the French term Îlach». ÎRoche lach», Roche lach» says the race commentary in my head in a strong nasal Parisian tone. I realise how muddled IÌve become and resolve to sit up completely for five minutes, freewheeling the descent steadily, drinking as much as I can and banging a couple of gels down with a Turkish Delight and the last of the cereal bar I have in my pocket.
I slowly recover my senses, and think about what to do for the best. I wonÌt catch the groups ahead. I reckon thereÌs about 50km to go, but IÌm not sure if thereÌs anyone behind so sitting up and waiting for another group seems risky. Chasing is futile and a waste of energy. I quickly do some sums. The leaders will finish within the hour. ThatÌll make a five and a half hour stage. 15% of five hours is÷ what? 50 minutes or something? I reckon IÌve got about an hour and a quarter to finish the last 50km to stay within the time limit, but I know IÌm not adding up right. I do the sum over and over. I think about the 50km to go board. Have I passed it? I struggle with that for another five minutes, along with ÎRoche lach» Roche lach»Ì, the thought of the warmth of the hotel room, the inexplicable appearance in my head of the theme tune from Minder and the mental image of a cold coke on a hot day. My speed has dropped to 27km an hour as I dither.
In the end I just put my head down and ride fast, within myself but quick, hoping itÌs enough. I know IÌve got to pedal home, so I may as well get it over with. I crack completely with 10km to go, the gentle headwind ripping into my morale and I enter the finish town of Donegal like a drunken night out, in flashes, snapshots, unfocussed and unordered, messy and unrewarding.
At the finish, Zak puts a coat on me and Paul tries to take my bike from under me. I remember not saying much, plagued by the noise of blood screaming in my ears as I try to understand where we were going, trying to make them understand that I know theyÌre trying to help, but without co-operation, enthusiasm or speech. I just exist.
I finish the stage in 101st place, from the 109 riders left. I was well within the time limit and have earned another days racing. Mint, fucking mint, I think when Paul relays this to me.
IÌm stood in the hotel shower still fully dressed in my race kit. Even my numbers are still on, and as I reach up I feel that my glasses are still perched on top of my head. I giggle to myself through the fatigue, team mates in the room next door are already agreeing with bad language and poor jokes at our own expense that today has been an epic.
I emerge from the bathroom, they all turn and look up at me from the draw of the TV and the coffee. I was the last in and havenÌt been able to relay the fuller details of my afternoon to them. They look expectantly at me. I laugh, shake my head, sigh. ÎWhat a bastardÌ I summarise, they laugh openly back. Already it is a gilt edged myth just for us.
And on the seventh day the Ras organisers made us do another hundred and twelve miles in the rain. Truly biblical. Stood on the start line, it’s four degrees according to my computer, although the digital display fails to mention rain or a gale force cross wind. Lies, damn lies and statistics. The computer doesn’t understand. The truth is no one looks like they really want to race, but for some of these guys it’s a job, and they’ll get sacked if they don’t. They’ll get sacked if they don’t win. I look at the manager of the Kasakh team’s face. Etched with anger, a sort of grumpy desperation, reflected in his riders efforts. I remember the same look in the Polish team manager the previous year. What do they do in the hotel at night I wonder?
How things go back at the office when I return to my place of work: ‘How was your holiday?’ ‘Hard fucking core, I was at the end of my rope for four hours a day, how do you think it went you idiot?’ That’s the mental response. I don’t say it though, because it’s not fair. How can they know? Instead I say it was hard, but good fun. Wholly inadequate, really, yet they are satisfied. Rhetoric and reality.
They must be fucking joking. The race goes past the zero kilometre flag and an Irish county boy jumps hard, into the abyss of the road ahead. Who knows what it holds for him? For me? The appeal of bike racing over football is that the stadium is always different, a bike race oscillates, breathes. Now that appeal is a curse, and I’m reduced to counting the kilometres down while others write the outcome.
The bunch is like a fence being kicked down. To start with, it puts up resistance, the panelling holds firm as all of the riders are fresh enough to respond. Then a crack, a weakness as the wood loses its memory and a rider, a vandal to me, lets a wheel go for the first time. Someone behind comes to the rescue and closes the gap for him, holding the splinter that’s been created. But the harder and the more frequently the vandals kick at the fence, the weaker it becomes until someone kicks once more, no harder than anyone before, but the fence smashes suddenly, easily, and they are free of the pack and off up the road. They are free from the fence that held them in.
Today the kicking process has started early. It’s an average length stage, and there’s just the one climb. Tomorrow, only the parade round Dublin – race through today and you’ll complete the milk ras. This gives everyone a confidence, because although everyone is very tired, even the average guys don’t need to think about holding something back for tomorrow. The first half hour is relentlessly quick. I haven’t recovered, and I’m thrashing about like a fourth cat at the back. For the first time this year, I have to acknowledge that this isn’t a bad patch or ten minutes of the racing just being hard. This is me absolutely, profoundly, empty. I’m not feeling it any more than normal, than yesterday, or the day when I attacked and won earlier in the year. It’s just that I’m not travelling fast enough. There’s no spark or power in my legs. I thrash the pedals out of the back of the peloton on a flat section at 45km/h. I regain the group. It’s ok, it’s ok, its ok, just need to warm up. Out again. Fuck, fuck, fuck. There are other guys in the same world, and I look at their faces, drained of colour, we look each other in the eye, we know what’s happening and there’s a mutual pity. Being dropped when you know that you would normally cope is sad.
Perhaps I need to try more. I always think that afterwards, but at the time, when you’re gutter sniping at 187 beats a minute and all you know is the wheel in front, that’s not realistic. The truth is you can’t, there’s a point where you can’t do more, you get dropped and you have to accept it. I think, in the last few seconds of hanging on, of the image I’d make through a tv helicopter lens overhead. Roche en difficulte, Roche en difficulte. I could ride to the finish alone, or with the broom wagon behind, just so I can finish the ras. But I don’t want three out of three finishes. I want dignity, even now, screaming with effort at the back of a pack travelling at no more than an average speed. Stop now and I’ll recover for the Welsh championships next weekend. What a freak, to be thinking of successfully racing in seven days time. Wanting to race next time when I’m still living the here and now of being battered today.
Suddenly I stop pedalling. I allow myself to be distanced. I can’t do another 120km like this, I’ll never ride again. I’ve sat up. Can I live with that?
Cycling folklore says: Eddy Merckx was the best rider of all time. He won the tour five times and all the classics except Paris – Tours. When someone dared to even try and compete with Him, He’d set about crushing them. Anyone who raced in the late sixties and early seventies did so in His shadow, with His patronage hanging over them. They called Him the cannibal. His last race was early in 1977, and He sat up midway through, and that was it, He had given up bike racing after a decade of dominance. I can’t remember who the rider was, but a guy in the race who saw this described it like it was that sudden. Merckx just sat up on his career. Over in a split second.
I’m going to have to live with it, because I’ll not get back on now. I’m 300 metres off the back, in the convoy and welling with angry disappointment. I unclip both feet simultaneously, viciously, letting my legs hang uselessly down in the air, still travelling at 20km/h. The world is different, suddenly. When you’ve existed on the bike, consumed by racing, not to mention the months of races and preparation leading up to it, stopping leaves a massive void. I feel myself falling into it. I don’t know the world outside of bike racing. It’s like waking up from a deep sleep, unsure of what is real and what is dream, and I’m still freewheeling, travelling, still in the race, still in the race yet finished.
What to do now? I draw to a stop, the team car pulling up behind me. I don’t really know how to behave, I’m strangely aware of myself, and as they get out from the car, all three of them, I sense that they don’t know how to behave around me either. They share my disappointment, they say things like ‘don’t worry, you tried’ ’hard luck man, hard luck’. I feel a firm hand on my tricep, guiding me off the bike and round the back of the car, boot open, gesturing me to sit. I am empty, I don’t take in anything, just the impossible senses of disappointment and kindness as they put my bike on the roof, wash down my legs, wrestle my shoes from my feet, find my training top and sandals all in silence. A tear rolls down my face, just one, maybe two, and I look away into the middle distance, into the drying wind. They have seen it but carry on as they were, not ignoring it, but hurrying on precisely because they have seen it, aware that the kindest thing to do is get it over with as quickly as possible.
In the car, and the race radio is as I had envisaged it all along. A thick Irish accent announces number 71 abandoned. Me. Then the message is repeated in French, as is standard in UCI races – the UCI is a French speaking organisation. ‘Numero soixante-dix et un, abandonne.’ A strange beauty in that.
I sleep restlessly for half an hour or so before I confront the real world again. I engage in conversation with the guys, needing to show that I’m ok, that I’m not being self indulgent, that I appreciated their help and their approach to me getting off. It’s light hearted enough, but for me at least there’s a heavy undertone, a nagging disappointment that won’t ever fully go. I have abandoned the 2003 Milk Ras on the last road stage. That will always be the same.
The roads we race on start life fresh, uncharacterised. But the traffic that travels on them, the rain that falls and the snow that settles and cracks and wears at the surface all leaves indelible scars, minor abrasions that lead to an individuality. Sometimes, as a rider, I feel like that too. Each race alters me a tiny little bit, wears me a little, changes me and adds to a sense of who I am. Mostly, it’s not a conscious thing, but it’s there, and it’s strangely comforting.
The milk Ras has a special place in the heart of anyone who’s ridden it. When it was pointed out to Stephen Roche (unrelated to me, as a relative and a talent) at the conclusion of his spectacularly successful 1987 season that he’d equalled Merckx’s feat of taking the tours of France and Italy and the world title all in the same year, Roche quipped ‘Ah yes, but Merckx never won the Ras.’
I’ve ridden four Ras’s and the 2003 edition was the hardest by some distance. The weather, mainly, conspired against the whole peloton, and by the end only 102 of the 160 starters made it to Dublin.
A week later I staged a solo attack off the front of the Welsh championships, staying away for some distance before eventually being reeled back in. The race was won by Commonwealth games medallist Huw Pritchard. I finished 7th.