Sunday, 15 January 2012

In search of the rhythm

“When he was pedalling he had rhythm. I had tempo.” Stephen Roche, on climbing the Col de Joux Plan behind Robert Millar in the 1983 Tour de France. I’m still not sure what it means, but the quote came to mind unbidden this morning.

The route down the valley is a perfect warm-up for a climb. Slightly downhill, your legs spin fast even in a big gear. The cold makes it hard to feel my fingers by the time I reach the turn for Thorame Basse, but my road swings to the left, uphill and into the sun.

Like a lot of climbs in the Alps, the uphill pitch is steady but relentless. The road snakes rather than hairpinning, and at this time of the morning, with the sun low behind the mountain, it weaves in and out of the shade. There’s no traffic: the mountain silence, which has a different quality from other silences, bears in. Some pocket-bound thing in my jersey chinks with every pedal stroke.

I shift to a bigger gear a couple of times, wanting to push harder, but force myself to shift back down. The mountaineer Doug Scott used to say you should never forget that when you got to the top, you were only halfway home. Pretty quickly the road swings left and levels, and the little hamlet of La Colle St Michel appears ahead.

Last time this was the turnaround, but today I need more pain. Through the houses, back onto the big ring, on the drops, two fingers on the brakes. Down we go.

The descent from La Colle St Michel to Le Fugerét is – so far as I know – unremarked. Like a surfer who discovers a new break, I hope it stays that way. I swing down reckless, low over the front of the bike, railing each curve like a hard bottom turn, pushing out of the saddle for speed on every straight section. I notice someone’s laughing like a lunatic. “Haa-hahahaha!” It’s me.

A rude awakening from euphoria at the bottom, as I coast into France’s Least Friendly Village. A bunch of locals sit outside the café in the sun. “Bonjour, Messieurs et Dames.” No response, unless you count blank stares. Scurry in, get a coffee, come out again. A woman pointedly pulls the only spare seat toward her and puts her coat on it. No worries: that wall by the fountain looks plenty comfortable, thanks.

Climbing back on the bike with a scorched throat from too-hot coffee, I risk a photo. The general air of open-hearted friendliness is summed up by the gentleman second left. He lifts his cheek and farts – which I take it is not a local sign of respect. Whoever said it was better to travel than to arrive must have just arrived in Le Fugerét.

As the road leaves the village there’s a sign: La Colle St Michel 14km. Wish I’d bought some food. But my legs feel good – better than they should, considering how little riding I’ve done lately. Find a gear that needs a bit of effort to turn – this is what I backed off for earlier, and I don’t want to twiddle up it in a tiny gear. I want to roar up it like a mountain lion. Yes, an old one, possibly a bit mangy and with a dodgy knee, but a mountain lion nonetheless.

The road kicks here and there; instead of changing down, I concentrate on keeping the same cadence in the same gear. About halfway up, Stephen Roche whispers in my ear. Is this what he meant? Normally I’d shift to an easier ratio when the slope picks up, find a gear that keeps cadence and effort the same. Tempo. This is something else. Rhythm?

On the way home I pull into a little place called Beauvezer, to fill my bidon at the village fountain. There’s a war memorial on the wall nearby, so I wander over and read it. Stand frozen to the spot for several heartbeats. You could throw a stone from one side of this place to the other. A generation, gone.

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