The Tour, sequel to The Race, is now available. Here is a peek inside.
Notice: If you haven’t read The Race, some of the info in this chapter will be spoiler material for that book.
By Dave Shields
Copyright © 2005, Dave Shields
All rights reserved
Children clanged cowbells, women cheered, and men waved colorful banners in the thin alpine air. Passion supercharged this corridor through the outskirts of centuries-old Bourg d’Oisans. Blistering mid-day heat rose from the tarmac. One hundred and sixty-two men had survived a week and a half of bicycle racing to reach this point on the road, more than eleven hundred miles from the start of the Tour de France, yet still almost a thousand short of the finish line in Paris.
Riding near the crest of the peloton, shoulder-to-shoulder with the world’s greatest cyclists, Ben Barnes savored the electric moment. What a journey he’d taken in his twenty-four years. Today he stood within reach of his ultimate goal: winning the Tour de France. He vowed to make his supporters proud.
On either side of the narrow Romanche River Valley, limestone peaks scratched at the clear sky. Where the cliffs were too sheer for vegetation, exposed swirling strata signed testament to the powerful forces that had shaped this land. Trees, vines, and grasses clothed the lower slopes. Ben wondered if eyes like his, having spent their formative years in the Southern Utah desert, could ever take in enough greenery. In the river basin, every arable patch of land had been sown, but no one worked the fields today. The families who called these hills home stood side-by-side with bicycle lovers from every corner of the globe.
A Swiss band, complete with an accordion and three twelve-foot alpenhorns, yodeled an impossible tune. Fans danced in the street, screaming joyfully. In the athletes’ struggle against elements, terrain, and competitors, these enthusiasts seemed to have discovered the perfect microcosm for their own lives. Raw grit set them on fire. They worshiped warriors incapable of giving less than everything.
Yesterday Ben had turned in the sort of legendary performance that the fans loved. He’d bested everyone in a six-hour quest that ended atop cycling’s most legendary climb, l’Alpe d’Huez. His exhausted muscles had tightened and seized overnight. Now underway, renewed effort deadened the pain. He cruised along behind his teammates, hiding from the wind and conserving energy for later in the day. He needed to gather his strength for another explosive finish.
The route veered onto a new highway, and soon bent upward. The clickety-clack of shifting gears reverberated like the grumbling of a huge, metallic stomach. The sound brought to mind the peloton’s insatiable appetite. One day ago Ben had been the prey. Today he was, as usual, a part of the beast itself.
Soon the route confronted a cliff so abrupt that the road scaled it on a sloping viaduct built adjacent to the rock. The fight against gravity ignited a pleasant burn in Ben’s legs. Today’s race would cross four alpine passes on the way to Digne-les-Bains. While the profile wasn’t nearly as difficult as yesterday’s, exhaustion ensured that the ten remaining stages were going to be even tougher than the ten the riders had completed.
“Aaaahhhh! Il mio amore!”
Ben recognized Luigi Figanero’s voice. Widely recognized as the world’s best climber, he bragged of even more prowess as a lover. Thousands of women seemed anxious to find out for themselves. Ben scanned the roadside for the Italian’s most recent conquest.
Luigi sprinted ahead of the peloton, and then stopped among the crowd with arms spread wide. He embraced a shapely blonde while he kissed the gorgeous brunette next to her. Then he switched his lips to the blonde while the peloton cheered. “Avete amiche? There is enough Luigi to go around.”
The peloton rolled by as an appreciative roar rose from the fans. Ben glanced at his Italian friend, still at roadside and now giving passionate attention to a very large German woman.
Ben turned forward, chuckling. How did the guy get away with it? Not in a million years could he play a crowd like that. On top of everything else, it took guts to drop behind the pack, even early in the day before the racing turned fast and furious.
As Ben approached the village of Ornon, the hill relented and the pace increased. The village was packed with spectators. Ben watched a flag blow from a fan’s grasp. It floated across the route, colors swirling. For a moment, he thought he might reach up and grab it, but then the emblem made a swan-like dip directly into his path. With cyclists on three sides, where could he go? Suddenly the spokes of his front wheel grabbed the banner and devoured it.
“Zute!” The village back-flipped as he cartwheeled, his feet still locked into the pedals and his bicycle inverted above him. He slammed onto his head and shoulder. Pain shot down his spine. Skittering down the road, rubber side up, his left eye was so close to the pavement that approaching pebbles resembled boulders.
The front tire from a trailing bicycle closed the gap to his face. Ben shut his eyes and braced for impact. No collision. He opened his eyes as someone’s rear wheel soared over his cheek. The cyclist had bunny-hopped his head.
A second bicycle skidded toward him. Rubber tires screeched across the pavement. The front wheel bumped into his chest and stopped. He breathed again, even as the familiar sting of road rash warmed the left side of his body. Cringing, he grabbed his tailbone. He evaluated his injury quickly: a deep bone bruise. Painful, but not debilitating.
His shoulder, arm, and hip were also bruised but not broken. Ben rotated his neck from side to side, trying to relax and clear his head. With a twist of his toes, he disengaged his shoes from the pedals and separated himself from the bike. Cyclists streamed by on both sides for what seemed an eternity. Ben climbed to his feet, points of light swirling through his vision. The vehicle caravan approached. Someone handed him his sunglasses and he put them on.
An urgent voice asked, “Are you okay to continue?”
Ben nodded, still gathering his senses.
Fritz, Banque Fédérale’s lead mechanic, sprang from the team car like a greyhound lunging from its trap. The ends of his long black moustache trailed behind like twin tails on an exotic kite. He looked worried. In his left hand he carried a spare front wheel.
Fans crowded in from all sides to watch. Support vehicles threw dust into the air as they veered wide to get past. Honking. Braking. Revving.
The caravan numbered well over fifty cars, most with a half dozen bicycles mounted on their roofs. In addition to two logo-covered support vehicles per team, there were other cars for race officials, neutral support, and press from around the world. Swarms of motorcycles zipped among them carrying television cameramen, course marshals, still photographers, and others.
Ben’s teammates gathered near. First lieutenant Albert chewed gum nervously. His sleek physique and bony face reminded Ben of a gazelle, built for endurance over hilly terrain. Beside him, Rikard, the team’s charismatic sprint specialist, looked huge and angry. A thoroughbred racehorse, hard charging even at a standstill, his specialty was speed on the flats. Men like Rikard were dead meat in mountainous terrain, but give them a long, level straightaway and they’d eat the climbers alive.
These support cyclists were called domestiques, literally “servants.” They played integral supportive roles, often sacrificing personal results to put their team leader atop the podium in Paris.
Yesterday, Rikard had made it clear that he didn’t approve of using a French team to support an American cyclist’s efforts. Yet he was here when needed most. Ben owed these men, big time.
Fritz fought to remove the damaged wheel from the bicycle. With a wrenching tug he jerked it free. “It takes a licking…” He snapped the new wheel into place, cinched the quick release, and spun it hard. “…and keeps on ticking.” He gave the other components a once over then patted Ben on the back.
Still feeling groggy, Ben swung a leg over his bike. All seven remaining Banque Fédérale teammates watched. The only member of their squat who’d dropped out of the race so far was three-time champion Thierry DePerdiux, the victim of a crash the day before. Ben looked up to the man like a big brother. Thierry had broken his ankle in the accident but, relentless as ever, he’d returned today to become their new directeur sportif, their coach. He drove the vehicle carrying Fritz. One good foot was sufficient for that job, provided it was attached to a mind like Thierry’s.
Ben nodded to his teammates, signaling them to shove off. Fritz gave Ben a running push, sending him up the road. Ben rose from the saddle and sprinted up to speed. The men settled into their draft line while, beside them, the convertible roof of a neutral support car disappeared into its trunk, revealing the Tour’s doctor kneeling on the back seat. He waved Ben over. “Ah, Monsieur Barnes. I must see you.”
Ben looked at him helplessly, and then gave in. The other Banque Fédérale cyclists kept pace as he grabbed the windowsill of the moving vehicle.
“Safety first,” the doctor said.
Ben followed the man’s swaying index finger with his eyes. He’d been through this drill before.
The doctor put a firm hand on Ben’s shoulder and squeezed. “Any pain?”
He felt tenderness but no sharp sensations. “I’ll be fine.”
The doctor nodded, lips pressed together.
Ben looked down. Asphalt-blackened fabric edged the hole around his bloody shoulder wound. His brand new maillot jaune, the yellow jersey that spotlighted him as overall race leader, had been baptized by fire. “What a start to the day.”
“Oui. But you ought to be thanking God for your helmet.” The doctor used a water bottle to wash gravel from the road rash on Ben’s left shoulder, elbow, and leg. “Better to destroy a bit of high tech foam than your skull. Non?”
Ben nodded. The doctor unhooked the chinstrap and removed the head protector, showing it to Ben. The outer shell still held it in one piece, but the impact had shattered the core.
“Call your support vehicle and get a new one.” The doctor rose to sit on the rear dash and inspected Ben’s head through his stubbly haircut, looking for blood or signs of trauma.
Ben activated his radio. “Busted my brain bucket.”
“Fritz will dig a spare from the cargo bin,” Thierry answered.
“What’s our gap?”
“About a minute.” Thierry sounded unimpressed by the crash. Mishaps were part of the sport. Professionals were expected to handle them and move on. Thierry’s concern at this moment was brokering deals with other teams and building key alliances to keep Ben in a strong position. No one could win the Tour de France without lots of help. Complex maneuverings formed the backdrop to everything.
Ben gritted his teeth at the stinging sensation as the doctor sprayed antiseptic onto the wounds. The physician finished and waved Ben forward. “Allez c’est bon.”
“Merci.” Ben let go of the window and hurried toward his teammates’ protective draft. The purple-and-green Banque Fédérale bicycle train quickly got up to speed again. Ben sat in the caboose position as his companions escorted him toward the main pack. Had this spill occurred twenty-four hours earlier, he would have been left to his own devices. Today, since he wore yellow, his squad sliced a path through the wind for him. One of the strategic keys to bicycle racing was preserving as much of the team leader’s energy as possible so he’d have strength late in the day. Ben could get used to a change like this.
Soon they reached the vehicle caravan and wove their way through. To gain additional protection from the wind the athletes stayed close to the cars. It was a dangerous proposition. The drivers were alert, but a fall here could be the last one a cyclist ever took.
The Banque Fédérale car pulled alongside and the mechanic handed out a new helmet. “You’re in good hands with Fritz-state.” Fritz loved American culture, so much so that he’d invented a unique way of expressing himself that he called “Ameri-jibberish.” He always had the appropriate jingle at his fingertips.
Ben smiled, clipping the helmet into place without slowing.
The car kept pace, and Ben crouched down to glance inside. In the back seat Coach Bill and Fritz worked intently on some component. In the front passenger seat Thelma looked his way and smiled. She was the closest thing to a mother he’d known since his own mom died on his eighth birthday. Ben still couldn’t believe that Thelma and Coach had traveled halfway around the world on a moment’s notice just to show their support.
Ben keyed his radio. “I need a ‘fix’ at dinner tonight.”
Thelma grinned at his reference to her spaghetti, famous throughout Southern Utah. In his youth, Ben used to cycle over the top of Boulder Mountain regularly to get his fix.
He returned his concentration to the wheel in front of him, anxious to close the gap to his rivals. Five minutes later, relieved and exhausted, he and his team rejoined the peloton. The air current created by this mass of surging cyclists enveloped them like a mother’s arms.
The sensation of catching the group from behind was entirely different from being captured by it at the front. Every pro understood the love/hate relationship. Within the pack the punishing headwind disappeared, and a neutralizing tailwind took its place. A rider could reduce his wind resistance by up to forty percent by remaining in the draft of others. The effect was less evident on an incline like this, but slipstreaming wasn’t the only benefit of the peloton. Pace making also played a key role. Following wheels simplified decision-making and reduced stress. This big pack served as a great equalizer, complicating tactics and enabling some men to complete the distance while expending far less energy than others. Until the mountains blew things apart, the peloton could be the perfect place to hide.
The Banque Fédérale men sagged over their handlebars. They’d spent a lot of energy closing the gap created by Ben’s accident. Finally hidden from the wind, they needed a moment to recuperate. Ben didn’t have that luxury. He had to work his way toward the front. Leaders couldn’t risk being trapped deep in the peloton should a key rival launch an attack.
He eased forward, noticing that his competitors were in a somber mood. His crash in a rare lighthearted moment had apparently caused many of the other athletes to consider how quickly things could go wrong. Hundreds of rubber tires whispered along the asphalt while men from various teams asked after him.
“Bit of bad luck there.”
“Nya krafter, nya tag!”
“Thanks. I think.” Even though Ben didn’t understand everything they said, he nodded acknowledgments. In addition to English he spoke fluent French and pretty good Spanish, but not much more. With nineteen native tongues in this year’s peloton, only a smattering of words could be understood by all.
Cycling had become increasingly international. Each team had a home country, but the athletes who made up the team often came from around the world. Even those squads that emphasized local connections tended to have foreign talent. That was lucky for Ben, who had found a new home on the primarily French Banque Fédérale squad after losing his job with the mostly American Megatronics team.
While Ben rode he surveyed his competitors for potential weakness: a wrap on a previously naked knee, redness in someone’s eye, an unexpected change in equipment. He loved the hidden intensity in these moments when the racing wasn’t going full throttle. A rider could rest his muscles and forge alliances. Men might learn, or be tricked into believing, that cooperating with various rivals could advance their goals. Competitors spent breath on bits of conversation, laying groundwork for chaos later in the stage. The coalitions were necessary because working solo was nearly always suicidal.
The cyclist ahead of Ben wore number thirty-one. Curly black locks reached to the shoulders of his red shirt. He had no water bottle in his cage, preferring that his teammates carry liquid for him whenever possible. It was Kyle Smith of the American based Megatronics team.
Three years ago they were both neo-pros, rookie cyclists, for Megatronics. On the bike they pushed each other hard. Off the bike they couldn’t see eye to eye. Kyle continually chased Ben’s girlfriend. Eventually that escalated into sabotaging Ben at the U.S. Cycling Championships. Kyle had ended up winning the race, and then he used his resultant influence to force Ben from the team. The guy was a master of PR, and he used those skills to promote himself at others’ expense. The fallout nearly cost Ben his career. To him, the backside of Kyle’s jersey served as a matador’s cape.
“Looks like you passed your first test,” Kyle said as the two drew even.
“Bouncing down the road on my head is a test?”
“Yeah, but you’re the only one dumb enough to take it.”
Typical. Ben pedaled harder. He’d rather not think about his aches, and he definitely wasn’t interested in discussing them with Kyle. The real test, as always, had been getting back on the bike.
Kyle accelerated to stay alongside. “You sure act cocky for a guy with only two seconds to spare.”
It was a reference to Ben’s General Classification lead, the standings that listed cumulative times for each competitor. Was he fishing for congratulations on second position or something? It didn’t matter. Ben had better things to worry about than Kyle’s opinion of him.
Kyle ripped open an energy gel with his teeth, and spat the package top onto the road. “Still the same motherless cowboy you always were. Let me tell you something, Barnes. You ain’t fit for yellow.”
“We’ll see about that,” Ben said, touching his shoulder through the torn fabric. The maillot jaune wasn’t holding up too well, but somehow it felt better than ever. He powered forward, separating himself from his nemesis and moving beside the next guy in line, Gunter von Reinholdt.
Ben wished Kyle were his only concern. Gunter stood third overall, a mere second behind Kyle in the General Classification. The German led a super-strong team called Deutscher Aufbau. It was rare for the top of the leader board to be so crowded this late in the race.
Gunter looked over, a friendly expression masking his famous killer instinct. Blonde eyebrows arched over intense blue eyes. Criss-crossing scars on his chin spoke of multiple meetings with the pavement. He patted Ben on the back. “Sind sie verletzt?”
Ben crinkled his brow.
“Hurt?” Gunter translated.
“Naw. Just needed to sand off some irregularities.”
Gunter laughed, “We hoped you were okay.”
Ben smiled. Why did the German always refer to himself in the plural? He liked this guy, despite his quirks.
Ben’s lead was tenuous. He could be overtaken by both Kyle and Gunter in the time it took to swallow. He could hardly believe he led such cyclists at all, let alone the entire rosters of eighteen more teams.
Settling on his saddle, he removed his sunglasses and fit the arms into helmet vents so they were available but out of the way. He spotted a boy, about twelve years old, beside the course. The kid straddled a too-large bike, just like Ben had in his early teens. As the boy noticed Ben’s stare, a grin exploded across his face and he shot a thumbs-up sign. Ben winked.
He loved helping kids. He knew firsthand what it felt like to grow up without parents. Ever since he’d turned pro, visits to disadvantaged children had become a regular part of his routine, a sort of repayment for the investment others once made in him. Four months earlier, the evening after he’d settled into his European training base of Gerona, Spain, Ben dropped by the local orphanage to say hello. The children were in the midst of celebrating Toma Subic’s thirteenth birthday. He was a frail little waif with a smile that filled half his face. Ben smiled back, noticing that the kid had pasted cycling photographs over every inch of his meager personal space, including the backside of his headboard.
“Do you know Thierry DePerdiux?” Toma asked when he learned how Ben made his living.
“Si. I’ve just joined his team.”
Toma’s eyes grew round. “He’s my hero.”
“King Thierry never gives up. I love him for that.”
Afterward, each time Ben visited, Toma followed him around. Ben answered the boy’s endless questions while noticing the children’s tattered clothes and lack of books. One day he pulled a caseworker aside. “What can you tell me about Toma?”
“Not much. As outgoing as he seems, he keeps his thoughts private.”
“I’ve noticed. How did he get here?”
“He was evacuated from Croatia about six years ago. A labor camp left him behind when they moved to a new location. He nearly lost his left foot to gangrene. It was months before he uttered a word. Once he did, he told us he’d seen his mother murdered. No details.”
Ben sucked air through his teeth.
The caseworker continued. “Toma’s a smart kid—speaks three languages.”
“What happened to his father?”
The caseworker shrugged. “He gets jittery if you bring him up. My guess is that he doesn’t remember having a dad. At the time of Toma’s rescue he was seven years old and had been in forced labor for at least a year. Despite all that, he’s still got an insatiable thirst for life.”
“That I do know. Every time I’m around him I feel better for it.”
Ben saved money and gathered donations for two weeks. He’d never felt happier than the day he delivered books, some clothes, and a shiny new bike to the orphanage. He spent his free time training Toma. The boy wasn’t particularly talented, but his raw determination resulted in an age-division victory by his third race.
Toma embraced Ben on the day he left for the Tour and kissed him on the cheek. “I love you, Ben. Good luck!”
At that moment, neither of them could have imagined the luck Ben would have on l’ Alpe d’Huez. Yesterday’s victory on the Tour’s toughest mountain stage had been unthinkable. Today it wasn’t Thierry’s name painted all over the road, but Ben’s. He felt obligated to live up to his mentor’s reputation, and to make Toma proud.
Overnight, American flags had sprouted like dandelions. He even noticed a Utah flag waving in the wind. Ben had never realized he held feelings for that dark blue bed sheet of a banner, but today it energized him.
A group of women cheered, “Barnes-tormer, Barnstormer, Barnstormer!”
“You’re making me jealous,” said Luigi.
Ben laughed. “I’m not interested in those women. Bridgette is the only girl for me.” Yesterday, in the midst of all the excitement, he’d asked her to marry him. She’d said yes.
Luigi breathed easily, hardly tested by riding in the draft at the current pace. “Ahhh, to love just one woman. How can you do it? Monotony will never be for me.”
The Italian furrowed his brow. “I tell you a better idea. Luigi will take care of your spare women. Think of it as my engagement gift. Bene?”
There were spare women. There was an abundance of people of every kind, all wanting a piece of him. Whether in person or through the lens of a television camera, everyone sought a glimpse of the yellow jersey. Millions of eyes weighed upon him. The expectations of generations were his obligation to fulfill. He would give everything he could.
Today, even the French believed in Ben Barnes. Yesterday, the day their legendary hero went down, Ben had transformed a disastrous stage for Banque Fédérale into an unforgettable triumph. As a result, in the span of twenty-four hours he’d gone from outcast to adopted son.
He looked at the fans gratefully, then noticed a red-faced boy holding up today’s edition of the newspaper Français au Fond. Ben’s smile faded. The paper bore a photo of him crossing yesterday’s finish line. His raised arms appeared to hoist the gigantic superimposed title: “Doper?”
Ben stopped pedaling as a sickening chill shook his spine.