Copyright © 2004 by Dave Shields
All Rights Reserved
Ben Barnes adjusted his position on his Decathlon racing bicycle as he clung to the open window of the Team Banque Fédérale Peugeot station wagon. Ten years had passed since the accident everyone had assumed would end his cycling dreams. Now here he was in the midst of the moment he’d designed his entire life around. Automobile and cyclist jounced through eastern France at forty-five kilometers an hour. The car had so many bicycles on its roof, it looked capable of travel if flipped over.
This year’s Tour de France had already covered nearly 1000 miles in just eight and a half days of racing. After the cyclists completed the current stage, there were nearly 1400 miles and twelve more stages to go.
The route eased over a gentle ridgeline, and a fertile valley opened beyond. A white marble chateau stood on a central knoll, presiding over a fairytale scene. Hedgerows delineated rhombuses, rectangles, and other geometric splotches of patchwork farmland, some golden with sun-dried hay, others green with ripening corn. Quaint farmhouses were scattered about like garnish on a gourmet meal.
Pierre, the Team Directeur Sportif, steered the car with his right hand while he tucked a final water bottle into Ben’s back pocket. Counting those in his rack and the ones stuffed down his jersey Ben carried nine, plus a handful of energy bars and gels.
As a domestique, a team grunt, refreshing the squad on sweltering days like this was a constant battle. Hopefully he carried enough for a moment of recovery before dropping back to the team car to repeat the process.
Ben glanced back toward Fritz, the wiry little mechanic who was leaning out of the car’s rear window adjusting Ben’s rear derailleur.
“Voila!” Fritz cried, his right thumb raised. The Frenchman’s jetblack moustache wiggled in the wind as he shimmied back into the car.
Pierre reached toward Ben’s right cheek. He ripped away a lock of hair that had become embedded in the freshly scabbed road rash, the result of the minor crash that had necessitated the derailleur work.
“Vous devez le maintenir proprement,” Le Directeur Sportif said.
Ben no longer needed to mentally translate the words to English and back to respond. “My wound is clean.”
“With hair in it?” The ever-present Gitane cigarette dangled from the left corner of Pierre’s mouth. The glowing tip looked ready to ignite his goatee. “You should cut off those long, blonde locks. They aren’t making you any faster.”
“Bridgette loves my hair,” Ben said.
“Oy. My niece? She’s not making you faster, either. Get rid of her, too.”
Ben looked away. He wished Bridgette could be here today. This weekend she would visit the race at the Riviera.
“I’m serious,” Pierre added.
“You don’t run my life off the road.”
Pierre scowled. “Pardon? You should beg me to. You’re a replaceable commodity, Benjamin, a domestique, and not even among the best of those.”
“That’s not true and you know it.”
“You should watch your tongue. Once your potential appeared great, but you’re nothing now. If you don’t want your career extinguished entirely, you had best play by my rules because at this point, ‘ordinary’ would be a step up. Believe me, Benjamin, if you truly want…”
Ben gritted his teeth as Pierre’s rant continued. The words hurt because they contained truth. He wasn’t ordinary, but neither had he fulfilled his capability. He had lost something along the way— some edge, some intangible. Maybe it had been jarred loose during grueling training rides over rain-soaked Belgian cobbles. Perhaps it had been left behind while navigating team politics. Possibly he had misplaced it in an effort to fit into a foreign culture. Whatever it was and wherever it had disappeared, he no longer expected to get it back.
Pierre ranted on. “… miserable. Now haul your butt back up front and get that food and water to the men who earn your paycheck or I will …”
It had become obvious that Banque Fédérale had included Ben, the lone foreigner on their Tour roster, as a sacrificial lamb. Assign all the grunt work to just one guy in the first week of the race, and the rest of the team will enter the second week nice and fresh. Who cared if an inconsequential team member falls by the wayside somewhere along course? Maybe someone at Banque Fédérale meant it as a way to get back at him. That was possible, though publicly everyone claimed forgiveness.
Ben couldn’t worry about it now. The important thing was his position on this squad put him in the greatest bicycle race in the world, the journey he’d dreamed of for a decade. He’d gladly accept a double workload for the experience. Still, did that oblige him to listen to these lectures?
Pierre’s bald round head had reddened with rage. Between quick glances at the road ahead Le Directeur glared at Ben, as if impatient for an answer.
Ben tried to guess what was expected of him. He recalled ‘Bridgette’ as the last word that had crossed Le Directeur’s lips.
“We’re in love,” Ben said.
Pierre’s face turned a deeper shade of crimson.
Ben glanced at Fritz. The mechanic’s left arm dangled out the window and he flipped his hand forward, shooing his American friend up-road.
Ben nodded, let go of the vehicle, and started pedaling on his own. He quickly lost ground having forgotten he’d shifted to his largest rear cog to allow the mechanic to do his work.
Pierre laughed hysterically.
Ben clicked to a higher gear. The pedal resistance increased. Soon he was abreast of the team car again.
“Hey Fritzy! Calibration’s perfect,” Ben yelled.
“But, of course,” the mechanic answered.
“Il faut bosser! Enough chit chat,” Pierre warned. “Save your breath and get back to work.”
Ben smiled, touched a finger to his helmet, and then accelerated.
Clear of the tobacco-filled car, the scent of fresh cut hay filled his nostrils. Round golden bales, taller than a man, sat at regular intervals drying in a nearby field. On the opposite side of the road green vines climbed the trellises of a small vineyard. Ben shoved thoughts of wine and leisure from his mind. As gruff as Pierre’s delivery could be, he was right to emphasize the task ahead.
Ben stood on his pedals. The bicycle leaped forward like an anxious stallion. Damn, this was a responsive machine—hi-tech in the extreme. The frame was incredibly stiff while the components were light. The combination resulted in such an immediate and efficient transfer of energy to the wheels it often stunned him. At the same time, that rigidity resulted in a bone-jarring ride when the terrain was uneven. Ben felt even the tiniest bump in the road.
Wind whipped his hair. Something about rising from the saddle to accelerate always felt liberating. The fluid rhythm of lifting up on the pedals while pulling down on the handlebars made him one with his machine, something far beyond the metallic union of his cleats and pedals. The bicycle became an extension of his body. He felt incredibly strong, despite all the extra weight he carried at this moment. In fact, he’d never been so fit, at least from a physical standpoint.
He’d come to Europe dreaming of taking international cycling by storm, the same way he had with racing in The States. It sure hadn’t turned out that way.
In his first European race, his over-aggressive lead-out in the final sprint cost his teammate’s victory. The director scolded him and cautioned him to ride within the team concept, or not to ride at all.
Ben continued making similar mistakes, preferring tactics based on gut instinct to those dictated by the men in charge. In his early days on the circuit, no matter how much he admired the tactical complications borne of the discipline of road cycling, he couldn’t muster the patience to wait for his adversaries to lay their cards on the table before he played his.
What a different rider he’d become. Getting thrown off his team had really opened his eyes. Nowadays, after a year’s suspension that knocked him out of European racing, and another year as low man on the totem pole for Banque Fédérale, he could hardly imagine what it would feel like to behave so independently, so selfishly. He’d been broken, and in a strange way he was proud of that.
Doing a domestique’s job right demanded that he leave the thinking to others—following orders automatically. No team could function at its highest level unless every member both excelled at his particular job and stayed out of the way of the other members who were doing theirs. This was true of everyone from the owner to the soigneurs, the omnipresent team aids who could be counted on to provide anything from a breath mint to a full-body massage. Strategy, as much as he loved thinking about it, was not Ben’s job. He’d learned to keep his tactical ideas to himself.
It was hard to back down when Pierre attacked, but Ben now took great pride in his role. Those close to him, even Pierre, regardless of what he said, knew Ben did his job right. So what if he still second-guessed his superiors? As long as he didn’t share those thoughts, no one would be the wiser.
“Ich habe einen flachen Gummireifen!”
Ben strained to pick up pieces of conversation as he fought to pass the rival team’s cars.
“Wir erhalten Ihnen Reserven.”
Something about a flat tire. As usual, the chatter was partly undecipherable, partly unimportant. Still, the chance of hearing something that might benefit Banque Fédérale always existed so he’d keep his ears cocked.
Splotchy shadow on the pavement ahead grabbed his attention. He wove through a messy stretch of potholes.
He smiled at his good fortune at getting through smoothly only a fraction of an instant before his rear wheel slipped into the last divot and sent a jolt through the bike frame. His teeth clacked together, clipping his tongue.
An automobile behind him beeped its singsong horn. It trilled its way up to a high note, then back down. Why a driver paid to follow bicycles would harass athletes for reacting to road conditions he couldn’t imagine.
The horn trilled again. The little tune must have been some engineer’s effort to soften the impact of the nearly constant use that came when spectators clogged the course or finishing chutes neared, but it only put Ben on edge, more anxious than ever to rejoin the cyclists ahead.
Increasing his effort, he clawed his way through the remainder of the vehicular caravan. One by one he overtook the colorful assemblage of team cars, officials’ motorcycles, and press vehicles. Still, at close to maximum effort, he barely made headway in relation to the moving mass. He bore down and powered forward.
A motorcycle veered in front of him. He swerved, feeling serious and tense.
To the left he glimpsed local villagers in grotesque papier-mâché masks dancing on the back of a flat bed lorry. Behind them, mounted to the cab of the truck, a sign proclaimed, “Bienvenue au Tour de France.”
Ben blew out air in a burst, an inadvertent quasi-chuckle. The party at the roadside reminded him of the immensity of this exploit, the world’s largest annual sporting event by nearly any measure, and the circus atmosphere that surrounded it.
He pushed hard for a few more revolutions and caught the peloton, the main platoon of riders.
Almost immediately the pack of cyclists enveloped him. Swaths of color, jerseys covered with logos and sponsor names, surged forward and back. Of those losing ground, some were headed for a rendezvous with their team cars; others were struggling to avoid being shelled off the back, dropped at the side of the road like the spent part of a nut and left to struggle to the finish alone.
Ben moved to a more upright, less aerodynamic posture, and poised his fingers over the brakes. In the heart of the peloton wind resistance became minimal. At times he even felt a breeze at his back. Within the pack Ben experienced one-third less resistance than when he plowed through the air on his own. This is how it must feel to be one starling in a massive flock—independent, yet defined by the actions of a bigger whole.
Pedaling was different within the group, not the constant grind characteristic of a lone cyclist. He turned the cranks fast and furious one moment, then tapped the brakes the next. Often he glided for extended periods, cautiously eyeing the gap between his front tire and the rear wheel of the man ahead.
The noises outside this group all but disappeared, lost in the swirling whitewater of the massive pack. Now, three main sounds, the percussion of lubricated metal on metal, the bass riff of nearly 400 rubber tires on asphalt, and the rhythm of half that many men conversing in competing languages gave the peloton a unique musical quality.
The odor of sweat hit hard as he navigated through the competing mass. The sweet crops surrounding the road may as well not exist for how completely inaccessible they were to every sense but sight. The pace had been high all day, and the athletes were at their limit. In the intense heat their bodies retained moisture less effectively than a potted plant swaying in a stiff breeze.
While only one in nineteen riders wore the same Banque Fédérale purple and green as Ben, he felt close to every one of them. Well, almost every one. Within this pack of 168 remaining riders lurked Kyle Smith, his greatest enemy. They’d avoided one another so far. Hopefully they would continue to do so.
Tour veterans said the kinship Ben now felt paled in comparison to what he’d experience if he survived through the Alps and the Pyrenees, then crossed the finish line in Paris. Ben bought that. Some years, so epic was the journey, less than half the riders made it to the end. Crossing that line in sight of the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe must be almost otherworldly. Abandoning the race somewhere between here and there would devastate him.
A wave of outstretched right arms accompanied by yells of “A droite” rippled down the peloton, cyclists signaling those who followed that the route would soon take a sharp turn.
The body of riders drifted to the left hand shoulder of the road, giving themselves the maximum radius possible to complete the turn. Then bicycles dove toward the corner, one after another.
Two cyclists ahead touched, handlebar to handlebar, pedal to pedal.
“Hold your line!”
“¡No puedo! ¡Potholes!”
Ben touched his brakes and drifted wide, hoping he could avoid running over bodies and bicycles ahead of him if riders went down.
The bikes separated. The sigh of relief that metal components hadn’t intermeshed swished through the rear of the pack. Such mistakes could cause lightning-fast chain reactions. That’s why the back end of the peloton was the most dangerous position.
Ben and the riders near him sprinted to make up the gap that had suddenly formed between riders. A moment later, too intent on what might come next, the athletes had forgotten the exchange entirely.
“Wo ist meine Mannschaft Führer?”
“Out of my way!”
No one man talked much, and there were long periods where none talked at all. In this game, breath was too precious to waste on unnecessary words. Still, there were times it became a cacophony of human voices, a United Nations debate on skinny tires, minus the decorum. A congregation unlike any other, and one that Ben loved. Here in the main body of riders, wheel-to-wheel with the world’s strongest cyclists, he felt above all else a sense of brotherhood and common purpose.
Ben made his way toward his team. For the last hour they’d been working hard at the front of the peloton, driving the pace. Ben continued to overtake riders, both left and right.
The route became trickier as it rushed into the village of Lagnieu. Enthusiastic cheers echoed down the narrow stucco corridors.
Even once Ben caught sight of his teammates at the front of the peloton, he had a hard job to actually catch up. Banque Fédérale rode in a single file line protecting Thierry Depardieu’s “maillot jaune,” the yellow jersey that designated him as the current overall race leader, the rider with the fastest cumulative time through the first eight stages of the Tour.
The General Classification, or GC, was the scoreboard for the Tour de France. The fastest rider and his cumulative time, currently Thierry Depardieu at 39:27.22, were listed at the top. Almost forty hours pedaling in just eight days. In the next column it showed he was zero seconds behind the lead.
For trailing riders, GC listed only their names and how far out of the lead they stood. Second place was Gunter von Reinholdt, twenty-nine seconds back. Kyle Smith was third, off the pace by one minute and twenty-three seconds. And so on down the list. Ben held a respectable thirty-third position, five minutes and forty-three seconds behind Thierry.
Ben worked to catch his team, but the pace kept increasing. Cyclist surged up either side of the road, testing whether or not they could escape off the front. Usually a short stint in the wind convinced them the effort wasn’t worth it, and they were reabsorbed by the group. As a result, the leading edge of the peloton resembled flash floodwaters filling a dry river basin, surging here, slowing to fill a depression there, tumbling rapidly over boulders in another area.
Banque Fédérale meant to keep Thierry’s lead safe by neutralizing all these attacks. Team members had to keep the pace high enough to prevent anyone from surging off the front, but they didn’t want to go any faster than they must and stress the team unnecessarily. Tactically, Banque Fédérale found itself in a lousy position. They were working to defend the jersey while their most dangerous competitors bided time in the pack.
The Alps, already evidenced by the growing hills and cliffs on either side of the Rhône River valley through which they traveled, were only a day ahead now. Those enormous obstacles haunted every rider’s thoughts.
Tomorrow’s race, this year’s first mountain stage, would ascend four peaks along a 240-kilometer ribbon of road—150 miles of treacherous terrain. The final three pinnacles in tomorrow’s contest were so steep and long they exceeded professional cycling’s classification system. Such climbs were referred to as “hors’ de catégorie,” out of category.
Before ascending one of these mountains in race conditions Ben had thought such a designation sounded a bit extreme—almost like calling the mountain unclimbable. Having since experienced such rides, he now considered the name apt. More than once while en route on such a climb, he’d cursed the road builders and questioned their sanity.
Tomorrow’s torture culminated on the legendary Alpe d’ Huez, les lieux sacre’, a sacred place with mythical status. The impending trek had even the strongest climbing specialists whispering with trepidation. According to some, Stage Ten would be the most demanding single stage ever included in The Tour.
Any race historian could disprove that. In the early years riders pedaled primitive bikes over dirt cart paths meandering through these same hills. Worse yet, they weren’t allowed to accept any assistance at all. Unlike today when a cyclist could retreat to the team car for a repair on the fly. A rider was once disqualified for allowing a blacksmith to work the bellows as he welded his own shattered front fork following a particularly harrowing descent.
Still, tomorrow would be a severe test.
Ben pulled alongside purple and green clad riders and began handing out bottles. “De l’ eau.”
Thierry Depardieu, his yellow jersey practically emanating heat as if powered by the sun, moved beside him. Ben looked over at the team leader. The maillot jaune fit the guy like no one else. In any other color Thierry looked uncomfortable, while in yellow he exuded charisma.
In comparison, the pretenders who’d worn the leader’s jersey for the first few stages had appeared almost apologetic, as if they knew as long as King Thierry reigned over the peloton the maillot jaune was only borrowed.
“Merci,” said Thierry as he slid a plastic bottle into his water cage. His close-cropped prematurely graying hair and rugged countenance spoke of someone who wasn’t obsessed with appearance. A scar extended from his upper lip to just below his left eye.
Thierry held out his hand. For a moment, Ben interpreted it as a gesture of acceptance. He nearly slapped it, but then realized Thierry wanted food. Ben handed him an energy bar and a gel.
This Tour de France was the first event where Thierry and Ben had ever participated as teammates. That probably meant little to the team leader, but it meant everything to Ben. He could hardly believe he now rode side by side with his hero in the greatest race on earth. Until now Banque Fédérale leadership had always assigned them different races. Though they’d had brief conversations, Ben wondered whether they’d ever get the chance to really clear the air.
Thierry dropped the bar into his jersey’s back pocket, then ripped the gel open with his teeth. He squirted the gooey contents into his mouth, grabbed his water bottle backhanded and flicked it forward so that it rolled over the backside of his fingers and settle pointing into his mouth.
Thierry winked, and only then did Ben realize he’d been gaping at the yellow clad rider. He tried to dismiss his awe by turning his expression into a friendly smile.
Movement on the left hand side of the road caught Ben’s eye.
“Comece sua roda.”
“Go Mate! Go!”
Riders yelled out in a half-dozen more languages. A cyclist in a red Megatronics jersey streaked up the road. Ben focused on the number 31. Even without the jersey number, the curly black hair sticking out from under the helmet gave him away. Kyle Smith!
Ben’s blood boiled.
The yelling continued as a flurry of bright jerseys scrambled toward Kyle’s rear wheel, each man wanting to take advantage of the attack by tucking into the lead rider’s draft and gaining distance on the field while still expending as little effort as possible.
In seconds, the opportunity to join the breakaway evaporated. Banque Fédérale was one of the teams that didn’t react quickly enough.
Ben, his jersey still partly weighed down with water bottles, watched the half dozen riders disappear around a bend in the road fifty meters ahead. He looked at Thierry. “Don’t we need representation?”
His team leader turned to him with a relaxed expression. “Let them go. Gunter is still in the peloton.”
Ben didn’t need Thierry to explain his thinking. Gunter von Reinholdt was widely regarded as Thierry’s primary challenger in this race. If Thierry spent unnecessary energy chasing down lesser rivals like Kyle, Gunter would make him pay for it later.
Besides, with well over half of today’s stage behind them, the sprinters’ teams might feel they had enough at stake to take over the task of leading the pack. By hanging back, Thierry hoped to force them to assume the work of driving the peloton. Thierry would prefer to let his competitors lead the chase down the final stretch, saving his team’s energy for tomorrow.
Ben respected the team leader’s cool way of looking at things. Still, gut instinct said Banque Fédérale would be better off with a member in the break. Kyle needed to gain only a minute and twenty-three seconds to steal the maillot jaune.
The team radio crackled to life. “Benjamin, can you bridge up and cover that group?”
All nine team members wore one of the communication devices. They each carried a tiny receiver in a jersey pocket. A wire ran through a hole in the jersey, up the chest and neck, and into the ear. A microphone pickup was attached to the wire at mouth level and a transmission button was attached beneath the jersey at chest level.
The request caught Ben off-guard. Not only was it a surprise to be tabbed by Pierre for a tactical role, but hadn’t he just struggled forward with the water to keep his teammates fresh for an occasion like this? His throat caught. He squeezed the transmission button. “Moi?”
“Television is on the breakaway now. They look strong. Seven men, no two from the same team. None dangerous to our lead except Kyle Smith. He’s down a minute and three quarters in the GC. If he gains confidence he might become a problem. Now Benjamin, answer me. Do you have the strength?”
“I do.” What irony. He’d been carefully avoiding that phrase in his personal life.
Ben decided this occasion was worth wasting precious breath, just to be clear on his task. “You’re betting Kyle won’t want to pull me to a stage win in his effort to grab the maillot jaune, right?”
“Don’t overcomplicate. I handle strategy, you ride. When you get there simply force him to drag you. Are we clear? Never take a turn at the front. We’ll see how he likes that.”
“I know how to make a nuisance of myself.”
“How… American of you,” came Pierre’s crackling reply.
Ben wished he could take his words back.
Thierry rolled his eyes. “Don’t worry about him. Just go! If you catch that group and sit on until the sprint, you just might win the stage. I’m pulling for you.”
The thought energized Ben further. He handed off supplies to his teammates Albert and Rikard as quickly as possible.
“Benjamin,” Le Directeur’s voice broke in again, “If you strand yourself in no man’s land I’ll be extremely put out. Comprenez?”
Thierry smiled. “Go!”
Ben nodded. Adrenaline surged into his veins. At last, an opportunity to fight!