I want a cigarette.
More than anything else in the indifferent universe, I want a cigarette.
But of course, it is not possible. Even though it is possible, of course.
Instead I lay awake every morning wishing I had a cigarette, waiting for the alarm to ring. I get out of the bed in the morning at five a.m. I shower and shave, or don’t, it doesn’t matter, and after I purge myself, I drink a viscous, green, fruit-and-vegetable smoothie, an execrable American contribution to sports science. This vile concoction reminds of course not of cigarettes but rather of how much I long for bread and butter and coffee — also forbidden to me. This is what it is like to be the greatest athlete in a sport that no one pays attention to.
I ride to the velodrome on my beat-up yet indestructible street bicycle in lieu of a true warm-up. In the morning, before the sun is fully over the horizon, the village looks especially grey. The ash of half a millennium’s worth of cigarettes, cigars and pipes has settled on the town, reminding me just how thoroughly everyone else in town has stoked away these centuries, a veritable furnace contentedly consuming the billions of hours of millions of lives.
The ride to the velodrome is downhill, the uphill, away from town. Some of the older streets near my apartment are nothing but cobblestones, and my knees feel every single depression. I do not remember whether as a child I felt these stone-jolts so strongly, but I do now. Even a gentle slalom to the town square is like some torture sent from the middle ages to remind me of how time does not stop. Outside the café, the old men are already coughing, smoking and talking.
At the velodrome, the trainers are busy with their tablets, breathing apparatuses, and timing devices. Many racers on the team are already at their stationary bikes on the infield. The coaches are talking to the riders on the team, telling them their split times, their full times, their heart rates, and their pacing relative to their best times, relative to their average times, relative to their worst times. Somehow this surfeit of data is supposed to reveal to us our positions by tangential bearing to where we should all be on certain days in advance of the next tournament. Imagine being happy to hear that you are where you should be on a Tuesday before a race. What an absurdity! And yet there they are, some of my teammates, high five-ing the trainers because their heart rate was within the forecast range. As if they had any choice!
I am not interested in their crypto-analyses of technique and breathing, so I eschew the young techno-cyclers. I like old Jacques the best. He still uses an old-fashioned mechanical stopwatch, barely capable of coming within two seconds of an accurate time, an analog relic of track-racing in the seventies, like Jacques himself. He wears a tight blue Adidas track suit, a round bulge at the middle under the zipper. Where was he even able to buy such a suit? He still has long hair in the back, though it is stringier and thinner at the crown than in his glory days. He brings his little Pomeranian to work with him, even though some of the racers claim to be allergic to it.
“Bad news for you today, Albert. Journalists.” Jacques says.
I shrug without saying a word as Jacques carries my street bike away. “You cannot ignore them. You are the star of the team, and the Portuguese wants you to handle it.”
“The Portuguese is the genius of track racing. He’ll tell them so himself. Let him handle it. I am merely one of his donkeys.”
“If you’re a donkey, I wonder what that makes me. Anyway, you might not want to pass on this. She is for some Quebecois media outlet. Red hair. She speaks French quite beautifully though, with a Parisian accent. She even seems to know more than nothing about the velodrome, too —”
I scoff, audibly.
“. . . . and there is the whole world in the balcony.”
I could not pretend to be immune to this last information. Clicking across the infield in my road shoes, I found her interviewing, or trying to interview, Thiago. This arrogant man barely grunted at her from behind his racing glasses in his North African crassness. I am forever being told that Thiago is a great rider, but that he is a product of his environment, and that I must respect him as an equal despite his “rough edges.” This treatment of him urged upon me by the current cultural hegemony affords him a level of equality that he himself does not deign to extend to me in return. Racers cannot abide rough edges. There is a reason we wear polyurethane suits and aerodynamic helmets and sunglasses that reduce friction: smoothness is a virtue. And anyway, I know perfectly well he does not think of me as an equal — I know the word kafiruna and I’ve heard him use it when speaking to the other Algerian riders — and I can tell that he believes he has no equal, despite that the results on the clock say otherwise. Not without reason the French riders on the team secretly detest him.
I decided at a distance, when I first saw her, that I would charm her. She wore one of those detestable pantsuits, all business, like a flimsy suit of protective armor that is supposed to tell men “I want to be taken seriously.” I enjoy it as a chuckle, since only other women believe that. It tells me she is trying to be something she is not. Even so, the charcoal grey works well with her orange hair and white blouse. Women have never been difficult for me, and even if she had the prevailing North American attitudes, I was confident that I could bring her around. All I really have to do is take off my glasses. If that doesn’t work, well, not to worry, there are always dozens more. An athlete never has to wait too long.
I took off my helmet and put it under my arm as I approached. “Bonjour Mademoiselle!” I pushed my fingers through my hair and took off my glasses. I knew perfectly well that my blue eyes would fascinate her. She gave me her hand to shake but naturally I kissed her finger tips. “You will get nothing out of this beast,” I told her, slapping Thiago cordially on the back. “He only speaks in grunts and curses. My name is Albert Landrieu.”
Her name was Simone, and I missed her last name, but I did catch a glimpse under her jacket, and I could see that she was pleasantly not quite skinny at the hips. She launched into a wordy explanation of her project, and how popular velodrome racing was becoming in Canadian cities, “because of the cold.” I noticed how she strived to assert her Parisian accent, obviously acquired during a year or two of study abroad, but I also noticed the provincial, maple-y quality of many of her verbs. I wasn’t really listening, but I heard the word “podcast.” “Pantsuit” — “podcasts” — words so offensive to my ears. I told her it would be impossible. But I also heard that she wanted to conduct such a podcast at her hotel, the Andaz. At first, I told her I could not possibly do it today, but in the end, I let her reluctantly give me the address of the hotel, which of course I already knew, having lived here all my life.
We did road training that day, fifty miles into the foothills and mountains, periodically attended by the trainers on Vespas and motorcycles, and a van carrying tires and parts. At the summit of Sainte Sylphide, there is a car park with some tables and benches, and we break there for lunch. The staff have set up a few white pop-up tents over the tables. There is roast chicken and potatoes, salad and fruit. Water and energy drinks. Never a glass of wine.
After lunch, I lay in the grass on my back. With my limbs and muscles at rest, sleep overcomes me quickly, even with the sun penetrating my dark racing glasses. There is almost one full minute of true respite, during which I think or possibly dream of the pleasant little roll at the hips of the reporter, but then the trainers start with their whistles, and we the cattle are herded into position.
The route down from the mountains is different from the ascent, though really it is no different from the ascent. It has been selected because of the frequency of intermittent climbs over saddles and ridges. The route is designed to test us periodically, rather than let us have a long pleasant glide back to the training facility.
There, the Portuguese has gathered us around for one of his inspirational talks. He assesses the competition for the upcoming tournament, denigrating the Asian teams, but informing us that we have virtually no hope of beating the Spaniards and the Italians if we do not heel to his commands. He singles me out for a kind word telling the team that I have the determination and discipline that victory demands. I see Thiago sneer at this remark and speak in Arabic to a teammate behind his hand. Thiago’s right about this, of course: these motivational remarks are all crap. I know it, and so does the Portuguese.
Jacques has the reporter’s business card, which he gives to me as I am leaving. “Andaz Hotel” is written on the back. Oddly, there is no room number. I will not call. I detest the whole smart-phone idiocy, and I leave mine turned off in my locker most days.
At the bell stand, I ask them to call up and give my name. The bell clerk is an aged man, a racing enthusiast. He knows me well and he is a little smug with his look as he says, “Oui Monsieur, la Mademoiselle Canadienne.”
To my surprise, he informs me that she will be down to meet me in a moment. I make a show of being nonplussed by this information, but there is still the hint of a smirk in his expression. I take a seat at the circular banquette in the middle of the room. In one direction, I can see the sparkling blue and white Mediterranean; in the other, the dark cavern of the bar, where men are laughing heartily, smoking and drinking. It seems to me that I am always perfectly suspended between the two.
Simone bounds off the elevator and into the lobby. She has removed the jacket, and I can take in her figure below the shiny blouse, especially the dagger of supple and milky skin, with a few freckles, down to the third button. She wears a flesh-colored, purely functional bra. Such a pity.
She starts in with some friendly and human remarks, “How was the training session? Are you very tired? Are you hungry?” I ask her similar questions, pretending to be interested in her work. She moves quickly to her purpose, however, and begins to speculate about where we could achieve the best sound quality. She has her audio devices in her purse. She quickly hooks them into her phone, and she flips her wrists to straighten out the cords from the microphone and headphones like a lariat. She looks around the lobby as though we could do the interview right there.
“No. This will not do. I am not in the right frame of mind to do this right now. Simone, if I were to do this interview just now, you would get a terrible impression of me. I’m sure you have heard that I am difficult person, but most of that comes from people trying to get me to say what they want me to say immediately after a race or training, when my head is still on the road. Usually I spend an hour or two relaxing at the beach in the afternoon after training. I really just came by to set up a time for an interview.”
She looks perplexed. “You could have called. I left my card for you.”
“I don’t use my phone. I almost never turn it on.”
She started to laugh, but she caught herself. “I wanted to ask you about that. I looked for you on social media. You are not on any of the majors. No Facebook, No Instagram, No Twitter. You might be the only prominent athlete on the continent that doesn’t have an online presence. Aren’t you concerned about your brand?”
“Do you think I am a brand? Or maybe, perhaps, not a brand, but a man?” I stood up, for emphasis. “Well, I will be in a less argumentative frame of mind after a swim, and perhaps we can try again then for your ‘podcast’?”
“Oh, where do you swim?”
“I usually go to the Beach Saint Etienne. On the west side of town.”
“Perhaps I will come down and join you.”
“If you like. Maybe I will see you down there.” I always prefer when they think that the idea was their own.
An hour later, swimming in the cold and briny sea, I felt wonderful, the pounding in my head was replaced by a gentle tide of buoyancy, as I floated slightly in, slightly out with the tide. Simone appeared on the rocky shore just after I had finished my laps, and I waved at her to join me. She removed her sundress and saw she was in a green bikini. Her skin was shockingly pale and white — my eyes almost hurt to look — almost — and just looking at her, one knew she would start to burn in seconds. I have to hand it to Canadians though: they never mind the cold water.
As she approached, I squeezed the water out of my hands and shot it in a looping arc at her face. She shrieked and splashed me back and pretended to chase after me, pushing me in the back. I reached for her waist and she screamed to stop tickling her and as I released her, I brushed my hands across her breasts. She pushed me away but let her hand linger on my abs.
It was only minutes before she started to turn pink. The sun in the Mediterranean is no joke; she was red across her forehead and shoulder. I pressed my thumb to her shoulder and it quickly showed white. “You need to cover up, you will burn in another minute, and then no one could touch you, which would be a tragedy.”
We dried off, and I changed and she covered up and we walked up the beach to Celeste’s, where I often have dinner. She was trying to do a soft background interview of me, asking me about my childhood and parents and my school and those sorts of things. I was not surly or taciturn, but what could I really say? “My parents live their lives. They were neither terrible nor wonderful parents. They have very little to do with the way I live my life. Yet I don’t dislike them. I visit them once in a while, undoubtedly less than I should. I have no grudges against them but . . .”
“But what?” Simone asked.
“But, I do not particularly like it when I visit them. That’s all. It is difficult for me to enjoy those visits. I don’t necessarily get any emotional register from these visits. It’s not like I am happy to see them. It’s more like I am visiting them because I am expected to visit them. They are so thoroughly of their age, with the thoroughly French attitudes of the last generation. They are involved with politics and their peculiar notions of human rights and whatever debate programs they watch on television. All of it has nothing to do with the way they live their lives. The truth is they, like many French, live in a hermetic world even though we proclaim ourselves globalist and cosmopolitan. But like most of us, they have hardly left their own garden in the last twenty years. They’ve never been to the Moroccan restaurant a block away. They have never been to any of the banlieues they fret about, and purport to care about, and I doubt they’ve ever seen an immigrant in person, yet they become embroiled in these fantastically passionate discussions about what it means to be French, to be France. It’s perfectly absurd. A complete abstraction!”
Simone’s eyes were crinkled at the sides, and I could see that she was about to laugh. “I’m sure that is the first I’ve ever had a sports interview subject use the word ‘hermetic’! Are you sure you are not a university professor who happens also to race in the velodrome?”
“Well, it’s true I am not a stereotypical athlete who achieves the highest levels of his sport because he comes from nothing and has no alternatives. It would be ridiculous to pretend that I am from the streets or from an impoverished upbringing. I scored very highly at lycée, and it’s only through an inexplicable random act of willfulness on my part perhaps that I did not end up becoming a professor or an economist or municipal planner.”
“What was that?”
“On the first morning of the Bac, I got into a stupid argument with my mother, I don’t even remember what it was about, use of the car, I think. In any event, I was so angry I grabbed my cycle and went out very early for a ride into the hills over here,” tossing my head back over my shoulder to the northeast, “for a quick ride before breakfast. I got up into the hills, near the farthest point of the ride that I wanted to do. There was a goatherd there, and one of the goats ran out into the road. I swerved to avoid it and fell into ditch on the side of the asphalt. My tire was warped and I had to abandon my bike and hitchhike back to my house. By the time I found someone willing to take me, I was already a half hour late for the first exam. I took the exams wearing my racing suit, and I did well enough to get into Serie litteraire, which I probably should have done. I didn’t want to do it, though, so I decided to try racing professionally. I had been picked up by a few sponsors already, so, it just happened. The one silver lining is that the life of an athlete has a lot of down time, and I get to read everything that interests me.”
I ordered a bottle of wine, and Celeste brought the bottle with two glasses but only poured a drop in mine. He brought the celery remoulade without my asking, and on each occasion, he refilled Simone’s glass. I drank very little. We talked some more. She was happy to get little bits of information out of me, but I could tell she liked my attentions also. I could tell she was thinking “I’m having a romantic fling!” I’m sure she thought she was re-living her college years, also.
After the fish and pasta, I walked with her to her hotel. Simone asked me to have a drink with her at the bar. I agreed to join her, but I could not have any more alcohol, I told her. She was fine with that. She drank another glass of wine. She was somewhat drunk by this point, and she let her hand rest time and again on my chest and shoulders. I suggested we continue the interview upstairs. She drank the remaining wine and pulled me along with her. I have to admit that I was very taken with her.
As soon as she fell asleep, I pulled on my clothes and left.
The next day, I awoke longing for a cigarette. I wanted not just one, but one after the other. To lie in bed smoking, to sit on the balcony and smoke and watch the town after being completely satisfied, to drink coffee at a cafe and to smoke, to consume a breakfast of bread and butter with cigarette after cigarette.
Instead, I swung my feet to the floor. I was — not surprisingly — hungry, and in addition to the green smoothie, I treated myself to two bowls of disgusting fibrous muesli with vile almond milk. I gave my hair a Welsh comb. I pulled on my racing suit and helmet and took out my street bike and jolted down to the training center, feeling every cobblestone crookedly laid by some Frankish serf. There was the town, covered in a film of ash, having stoked away these five hundred years. There was the sea, blue grey below a curtain of low clouds. At the velodrome, there was Jacques, there was the Portuguese, there was Thiago and the other racers on their stationary bikes in their cubicles in the infield, going nowhere at warm-up pace. There were a few racers already on the track, riding round and around the oval, returning to the place from which they started again and again, but occasionally climbing high on the boards, or dropping low to the apron at a sprinter’s pace. There were little victories and little defeats, all contained within a high-sided, hard-wood oblong container.
Today was a track training day. The Portuguese had closed the facility to the media and spectators. Thus, Simone was not there, and I was glad. I did not want to be distracted, and I went through an extensive warm-up on my stationary bike, working up a good lather. At intervals the Portuguese called us on to the track in groups, and as individual racers. On this day, the Portuguese was doing his benevolent father coaching routine. He would call a racer over to the rail, put an arm around the racer’s shoulder, lean in close, and pour some mysterious, Lusitanian-inflected words of encouragement into the racer’s ear. During the timed trials, he would stand on the apron, sometimes right on the cote d’azur, gesticulating and applauding in a very enthusiastic manner.
After lunch—chicken and couscous, salad and fruit—we have an hour of rest followed by weight training at the gym. It is leg day. We squat and stand, genuflect and turn, spread and lift, plank and paddle. We have some true thoroughbreds on the team too, all calves and thighs, and the boys are in a playful mood, trying to out-lift each other by adding a kilo, doing an extra rep. There is some horseplay, posing in the mirror, bumping each other with the chest. Thiago and the North Africans do not participate. At around three o’clock, it’s salah time (again), and they take a break to lift their asses high away from Mecca. Just as ridiculous as the Chilean who blesses himself three time before climbing on his bike. Absurd.
At the beach later, Simone is waiting for me. She wears a lovely white sundress with subtle crimson stripes, and dainty braided-leather sandals. Her hair is loose, but she had the good sense to wear a large straw hat today. She stands and takes my clothes as I undress, and when I am down to my Speedo, she runs her free hand across my abdominals, and kisses me hard on the lips.
I make a cursory show of my afternoon laps, doing the minimum, or less, barely half a mile, because I lose count, thinking of the pure whiteness of Simone’s back and thighs, the little freckles there, the soft and pliant blisters of one or two extra kilos at the hips. I can’t wait to get back to her hotel. I alter course so that the last lap is straight to the shore. That counts. Simone is waiting with the towel held wide to envelope me. Simone’s haste in picking up and packing our various articles tells me she feels the same urgency.
It is hot and humid when I fall asleep, but when I awake, Simone has opened the doors to the little balcony and a pleasant breeze comes in off the Mediterranean. Simone is fidgeting with her laptop at the desk, and she is again untangling wires. When she notices I am awake, she meekly creeps back on to the bed. “I’m sorry. Did I wake you?” I say nothing but I pull her close to me and untie the knot of her robe and kiss her again.
Later still, Simone asks, “You must be hungry?” We shower and dress quickly and go to a little fish restaurant not far from the hotel. We are both ravenous, and we finish several dishes: mussels, skate, a remoulade, and hake baked in parchment paper. Simone has broken down my discipline completely, and I drink a full glass of pinot noir. The very young Polish waiter with terrible acne had been watching us with a bemused smile throughout the meal, and after clearing the plates away, he asked in laughable French, “Pardon me, but are you newlyweds?”
Simone laughed loudly and threw her head back. “Of course! We are here in this fish restaurant for our honeymoon!”
I must admit she handled it well. My instinct was to excoriate the waiter, perhaps even stand up from the table to confront his impertinence. Such cluelessness! Yet we probably did look like swooning teenagers: at that moment we were suffused by wine and food and exhausted by one another.
I stayed the night at the Andaz. She was in the mood to be in control and I let her. She talked in hushed tones to me during lovemaking, and she said the most absurd and delightful things. I fell asleep as she was telling me about the spring thaw in Chicoutimi, or perhaps the colors of autumn, how I should come with her to see it. . . .
In the morning, without my bike, without my detestable smoothie, I had to skip breakfast and take a taxi to the training facility. There was the town, covered in a film of ash, there were the roads, designed throughout the ages by some maleficent providence to erode every vertebrae of the spinal column. Jacques happened to be walking near the gate when the taxi pulled up. He immediately assessed the reason that I was not on my bike, and asked, “No warm up ride this morning? Or have you already had one?” I clipped him in the back of his head but laughed all the same. I noticed he smelled like smoke.
Naturally, after two nights in a row with Simone, everything was more difficult. I put myself through a particularly cruel workout on the stationary bike: twelve miles, mostly at a climb, and then a full sprint for the last mile. This all happened in my little cubicle of course: in reality, I went nowhere.
Jose gave his little daily inspirational team talk, which succeeded only to inspire me to loathe Jose even more. It was another road day: out of town, up into the hills, tearing to the front, dropping back into the rear, the coaches yelling remarks from cars and motorbikes that I could barely hear and therefore easily ignore. Simone was in one of the cars. She did not wave but made a show of taking notes, while her photographer leaned out of the car in impossible acrobatic contortions to achieve an action shot. The climb was a struggle and I felt short of breath and my legs felt heavy. There was chicken and couscous for lunch, raw carrots and fruit. I ate twice as much as I normally did. I actually fell asleep on the hillside and dreamt of nothing. I was sleepy and without focus on the return trip, churning along in the peloton without concentration. Once or twice I almost veered into traffic, so lost was I in the struggle to keep up.
Down at the beach that afternoon, there was a light drizzle, and I was grateful to see lightning far out at sea. It was of course the perfect pretext to skip the full routine. I was exiting the water even before I saw Simone approach on a Vespa. She wore jeans and a T-shirt, with a scarf around her neck that was quite charming. We quickly rode to her hotel — I drove of course — trying unsuccessfully to beat the rain.
Cognizant of my performance that day during road training, I suggested that perhaps we should take a day off. “Are you tired of me already?” she asked, pouting and pretending to be hurt, or perhaps not pretending. “We are going to take a break this weekend whether you want to or not,” she added, “because I am being sent to Lisbon to cover the grand prix.” She climbed on the bed and pressed her hands and lips over me. I lost that argument, even though I never really resisted, and knew in advance that I did not want to resist.
It was by now a downpour, and as I did not relish the thought of going out to dinner, or moving off the bed ever again, I slept heavily for a long time. Simone called out to a Chinese restaurant, and I was awoken by the delivery man in a rain jacket ringing the bell. I paid him, and Simone and I ate noodles and rubbery shrimp and rice and some meat that was fried but could not be identified through the breading and sickly-sweet sauce. Every bite was joyously repulsive: I knew I was destroying myself with this invidious and delicious meal, that I was quite literally making my job for the next week or two more difficult, but I could not resist. I flicked Simone’s little bumpers at the hips: that’s what would happen to me.
Now, finally, it was time for the interview. Simone set up her equipment and took a seat near the open balcony. “So, are you finally ready to do this?”
“I don’t like to talk about myself,” I told her. “I am not being modest when I say this. I truly do not like to say anything when there is really nothing to say.”
“Well, why don’t you just tell me what you did today?”
I looked at her with surprise.
“Before we met at the beach.”
“I did the same thing I do every Thursday. It was a road training day. We leave in intervals, four groups of six, and use a route away from the old part of town because of its congestion and dangerous streets. The ‘new’ highway is a strip of asphalt made after the war, but only occasionally repaired. For the first six miles, the road reveals nothing, except commuters going this way and that, or the ass of the rider ahead of you. It is just a steady and slow climb into the foothills outside of town. We do this every Tuesday and Thursday between tournaments. The thin oxygen, the steep grades, the great distances: the thinking is that it will better prepare us for the high banks and severe sprints of the velodrome. We take the lead and fall back into the line at intervals, like migratory birds. There is no thinking involved: we are automatons. We glide back behind the pack when we tire, and cycle furiously into the lead when it is our turn to lead.
“We eat lunch at the summit of Sainte Sylphide and the coaches tell us to slow down or to speed up, or to follow more or to lead more. I am being perfectly serious. It is the same thing every day. They would prefer it that the riders not think, to leave the strategy to the coaches, and for very many of the riders, especially in tour cycling, that is a very easy thing to do.
"So, we obey, or disobey unintentionally, although a few of us have been known to disobey intentionally . . . Really, they are just interested in the riders as bodies. We are the engines for the cycle, just as thoroughly as if we were a large assemblage of metal parts, molded into a combustion engine, and filled with six liters of petrol . . . I think they’d prefer it that way. Then they could just fill us with fuel and tighten a bolt or clean a valve or two to achieve peak performance.”
“Do they think so little of you? Do they dislike you so much?”
“Oh, I don’t know that I would call it dislike. It’s just the way it is. Human beings provide an element of unpredictability to every race, and the coaches don’t want unpredictability. As a mathematical principle, a cycle with its wheels rotating at a certain speed should cover a certain amount of distance in a certain amount of time. It’s physics, just the same way that the earth rotates around the sun and the moon spins around the earth. If a cyclist rotates his tires over the same space slightly faster than another cyclist, he should win. That is the goal. But that is not what happens on every occasion. Some cyclists can’t help themselves and don’t recognize that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. They take a turn too tightly or too wide, veer off the track, sprint too soon or too late, lose focus for a moment, and flip over their own handlebars, maybe take down half the peloton with them . . . .”
“You sound like you don’t even like your own sport.”
“It is hard to like as a participant. It’s mostly work. In reality, everything we do in training is supposed to be for our own improvement. They mold us into repetitive muscle machines by having us lift in the weight room, or pedal like crazy in our little cubicles or on road training, but really, we are just like the little Chinese factory workers, putting in our shifts at mindless, repetitive tasks. Every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, we push up the hill and roll back down the hill, back to the same place we started. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, we hit the weight room and go around and round the velodrome. We always end up back where we started.”
Simone looked at me in astonishment and said, “Albert, are you seriously comparing yourself to a Chinese child laborer? You must be joking?”
“Of course not, of course not, it is hyperbole of course . . . but in some crucial respects it is the same. If we stop showing up for training, we become useless as racers, soon our livelihood is at an end, yet the work we do — pedaling — is almost as mindless as clicking silicon parts into a phone. Perhaps even more so!”
Simone did not offer an answer to this. “You make it sound rather sad; yet in the sporting media, you are always presented as this dynamic, determined athlete, engaged in the excitement of competition.”
“Well, in photographs, especially from a low angle, especially when we are up on the banks in the middle of a race, it can look exciting or dramatic. But whatever excitement there is, is kinetic, more so in road cycling than velodrome. The Tour de France guys will tell you that it is all about strategy, who is good in the mountains, who is good on the time trials, but we know perfectly well from Armstrong and LeMond and the rest that the winner is always the rider who has the most oxygen pumping through his blood at the right times. You can be a specialist in climbing, but only genetics or hormones or drugs can make you a specialist in absorbing oxygen into the bloodstream. That is why the whole parade of tour racing is a farce.”
“Is there no part of the training that appeals to you? I mean, how could you be such a successful rider if you hate the sport?”
“I never said I hate the sport. I said that this is my job. It is something we the racers have to do. It is something that, because of my physical constitution and some accident of birth, and a few coaches recognizing that I was a fast racer at the right time, I was lucky enough to be able to do it for a career. But at the same time, if I had been born slightly less strong, with slightly shorter legs, or maybe a tendency to put on weight or in a country where a bicycle is a luxury item, I’d be a farmer or a banker or a taxi driver or something else. I’m not saying that I was destined by fate to be what I am. I’m just saying that my becoming a racer was almost inevitable because it’s in my DNA that I have the physique necessary to do the job to win races. If you have the perfect body to pedal faster and more powerfully than the other racers, you will win the race. That’s all.”
“Ah, but we all know that in sports, the great ones have other qualities besides strength or speed or talent. The really great ones have that mean streak, that need to defeat their opponent, that drive to win that the mediocre athletes don’t have. Look at someone like Sidney Crosby — "
“He’s a Canadian hockey player. It doesn’t matter. Superstars like Ronaldo, on the field they’re selfish, they’re ruthless, they want the ball or the puck passed to them and they want to score. The great ones don’t want to pass the ball so somebody else can score. That’s part of what makes them champions! You can’t just say that they’re superstars because it’s in their DNA. They have human qualities, like drive and ambition, that make them win when others fail.”
I wanted to stop the interview, such as it was, because Simone was really very sweet in her starry-eyed credulity. But she had been so pleasant with me that I did not want to hurt her feelings. By the same token, I had no intention of letting this simple-minded romantic notion of sport pass.
“I have heard others say these things ‘about the great ones’ but I really must disagree. What makes an athlete great is how much experience and training his naturally-gifted body can endure. If the athlete is not born fast or powerful or freakishly tall or agile or whatever you will, he could have all the ambition and inner drive and tenacity in the world. Such a man will just be another hopeful that did not survive the cut. Also, what you describe as the special virtues of these men — their ruthlessness, their ambition — these are not qualities that you would use in a positive sense to describe a person in any other job. Trump is ambitious. ISIL is ruthless. Just because they have these qualities, and have achieved their own dubious objectives, does not mean they are great. On the contrary, these qualities are personality flaws. For an athlete with great physical abilities, ambition could be just as harmful to his career as gluttony or greed or drunkenness or lust or any other sins. How many times have we seen physically talented athletes throw it away for the bottle or women or money or a moment of rage?
“No . . . human qualities hold us back. They hold us back more or less depending on the athlete, but these human traits take away from our true goal of becoming an emotionless, flawless machine. Tomorrow I will be slower and more sluggish because I could not resist you or the kung pao. If I were a machine, I would have swum and had some steamed vegetables and studied the film of my opponents and gone to bed for ten hours of sleep.”
Simone predictably raised her eyebrows at this statement. “I guess I should consider myself lucky that you have so many flaws.” She reached into her bag and to my surprise pulled out a cigarette. She stepped to the balcony as she lit it.
“So, I guess you’re one of those men who thinks women ruin their lives? Or at least athletes’ lives? Am I right?”
“Not at all. Meeting you has been one of the great delights of my life. I would never say otherwise. But I know as an athlete that I will be just slightly off tomorrow, because I chose to act like a normal human being for the last few days.”
I could see that this was going to be a very sensitive topic. Simone looked away and exhaled out the window.
“Don’t you think also that maybe these human qualities that you think are flaws actually help people, even athletes, to greatness? What about the love and nurturing that parents give to their children? Doesn’t that play some part in the development of a great athlete?”
“Well, if I am being truthful, I have to say that love cannot help an athlete. A mother nurturing a child is evolutionary biology. It is almost unnatural for her not to nurture her child. I know it happens sometimes with animals that a mother turns on her young, but the infrequency of such circumstances, it speaks for itself. I am a great cyclist because I have practiced hard at cycling almost every day for about twenty years. The love of my parents, if you want to call it that, had nothing to do with my success. If I am completely honest about it, I might even say that some of my success derives from the resistance to any conventional notion of love, and certainly a degree of alienation from my parents, whom I find somewhat conformist.”
Simone flicked the cigarette into the street. I could see what she was thinking: it perhaps occurred to her that there was no future with me, and that whatever hopes she might have had for an “us” were futile, stillborn. She turned back into the room and made a show of checking the recording equipment. Then she said, “Well, let’s get back to the training question.” It was perfectly business-like and North American. It was as if she had changed her flowered silk robe for her wool pantsuit. “There must be some aspect of your life as a racer that you enjoy? Training can’t be the pointless grind you make it out to be. If it was, no one would do it, no? Surely some part of this life gives you pleasure. A lot of people would say you have an excellent life. You are a successful athlete, you’ve won many medals, you live here on the Riviera, women throw themselves at you. You can’t just tell me that you’re only happy with this life because exercise releases endorphins or dopamine into your system.”
“You are correct. I do have a very good life, in an ordinary sense. Sometimes I enjoy it in unusual ways too. For instance, on road training days, there is one pleasant vantage point, about fifteen minutes outside of the training center. For about thirty seconds, as we pedal along, you can see everything: the blue of the sea, little slivers of white sand along the shore, the red rooves of the houses, the whole town, built up over centuries. You can see our culture, our history, in a way. For that short stretch of road, I truly enjoy myself.”
“There, was that so hard to say? You are capable of enjoying a pleasant vista with a philosophical perspective. You like to look at a particular place along the practice route because of its intrinsic beauty?
I had to laugh. “Of course, it means I’m not looking at the peloton or the road, which could lead to mistakes.”
“So, your flaws are thirty seconds a day of seascapes and elevated vistas, Chinese food once a year, and red-headed women. You’re finally giving me something I can use! There may be hope for you yet, Albert.” She said this kindly and put her hand on my torso, brushing back and forth across my abdominals. “When I come back next week, I want more of that — trite platitudes that my readers can comprehend, and not that gloomy existential bullshit.”
“OK,” I said in English, “I promise to give a hundred and ten per cent for the team.”
The next day, Simone left for Lisbon. At the track, my calves were tormented and my whole torso felt sluggish and heavy. As I pedaled round and round in a deliberately steady pace, or in furious bursts, going nowhere, I imagined the kung pao entangled in the chain and rotors, gumming up the mechanism. I imagined Simone’s orange hair coiling around the wheels of my bike, like an old-fashioned yarn-spinning wheel. But in reality, these were just little fantasies that distracted me from the tedium of controlled breathing-and-pacing syncopation on which I was supposed to concentrate. My performance flagged, as I knew it would. The Portuguese scowled beneath his gray Caesar haircut, then turned away from me indignantly as I left the track.
I was still breathing heavily well into lunch, steamed cod and broccoli, yogurt and fruit. Jacques sat down next to me at the table, facing me. He placed his little notebook open on the table, and he had a sheepish look on his face. “Eeeehh,” he began, a sure sign of dissatisfaction. I knew right away he did not want to tell me what he had been sent to tell me.
“I know, I know. I’ll do better this afternoon.”
“Well, you are going to need to do something. This won’t work!” he declared, gesturing with frustration at his silver stopwatch as if it — and not I — was to blame.
I slept for a full hour after lunch and dreamed of Simone. The dream was in black and white, except for her lovely orange hair. She wore a ballroom dress from generations ago. I was in my polyurethane racing suit and reflective glasses. Both our soles clicked on the hardwood when we danced, and as the music played, we swung around and around, whirling ourselves around one another and around the oval, because to my surprise, and to some queer horror, we were not at a club or at a hotel ballroom, we were on the track. I saw that glum pace racer from the London games on his motorized bicycle, that dour old man with the long, wrinkled horse-face, riding along the cote d’azur in a black and white suit. Instead of the silly helmet he had perched on his head at the games, he wore an old-fashioned bowler hat. I kept waiting for him to release Simone and me and the rest of the racers, but he never dropped off the track into the infield. On the contrary, as we danced, several times, he crept beyond the stayer’s line and up past the sprinter’s line. We nearly collided with him.
I awoke, as one does directly from REM sleep, very groggy and confused. Jacques informed me that the Portuguese had scheduled one-on-one rapinages for the afternoon, and that I had to hurry up because I had been paired against Thiago.
Jacques positioned me on the track for a practice rapinage. I had to wait a long time for that conceited Algerian to take his position along the rail. In the meantime, Jacques offered words of advice, urging me to let Thiago take the lead, not to take the bait and try to break away too soon. I said oui in agreement, because of course Jacques was right. In rapinage, strategy is everything. If two racers with fixed wheels and no gears are covering the same distance with approximately the same degree of strength and stamina, the only possible advantage to be gained is to make the other racer pedal an irregular and longer route: in short, to err. Jacques held the saddle of my bike and the handlebars as we awaited Thiago. Jacques reminded me to breathe over and over again, as solicitously as a midwife. I had to laugh at my own mental image of Jacques as a birth coach qua cycling coach, in his threadbare synthetic Adidas track suit from when? 1984? with some poor distressed woman delivering a child beneath his dangling cigarette ash and mechanical stopwatch. Then he told me, as almost the last word before the practice run began, that Thiago had been talking trash about me, telling the other riders that today was the day I would be toppled.
I sat upright in the saddle as Jacques imparted this information. I took down my reflective glasses to study Jacques’ face. Characteristically, he shrugged to say without a word, “That’s how it is.”
A current of rage, true hatred, ran up my arms, as certainly as if I had touched an electric wire. I looked over at my competitor, who was adjusting his clothes around the crotch. He did not acknowledge me. I regarded this indifference, too, as an insult.
The race began and for the first eighth of a mile, I barely moved. I can almost balance motionlessly on a track bike, and as the lead racer, I worked the rotor as slowly as any human has ever pedaled a bike forward. I turned my head almost completely over my right shoulder, just about standing still, inviting Thiago to go ahead and take the lead, with its additional burdens of air resistance and positional vulnerability, but the African stayed resolutely passive and matched my slow pace by periodically elongating his own route, climbing up the embankment only to descend back into draft position behind me. The contest continued for an excessive amount of time in this manner, far longer than anyone could bear to tolerate in a real race. The Portuguese could see what was happening, and while he initially accepted the deliberate pace as a battle of professional acumen and gamesmanship, on the third lap around the track, he began yelling at us furiously, “What are you? Children on tricycles! Race already!!”
Still I did not expend a kappa of energy on anything but balance, and my internal gyroscope was not at all unsteadied by Jose’s ravings. I looked over at Thiago, and I just smiled at him. Obviously, his coach had told him that under no circumstances should he pass me and take the lead before some specific lap or signal, and the idiot had apparently taken the instruction quite literally. I shouted to him mockingly, “Come on, you can do it!” Still he did not attempt to pass. When we were more or less out of the direct line of vision of his coach, I actually took my right hand off the handlebars, removed my reflective glasses and threw them at him. They skidded harmlessly past him and down to the blue line. “Well?”
I chuckled at the wonderfully shocked expression on his face. He was outraged at such a demeaning show of disrespect, even having grown up in a culture where outrage and hyperbole are the most common form of discourse. He accepted the gambit and immediately dashed ahead of me, climbing the high banks of the turn to do so.
The race was on in earnest now. I fell into position directly behind Thiago, both of us churning as furiously as we could. I was directly in his draft, my front wheel almost touching his rear tire. We stayed this way for nearly two full laps, and I could distinctly feel my advantage growing. I was not pedaling at anything near my fastest rate, while Thiago was losing speed as the race continued.
Just before the beginning of the last lap, I started my challenge, waiting to begin my climb for the exact second that Thiago, having glanced over his right shoulder to gauge my position, turned back to put his head down for the final grind to the finish line.
It is very liberating, really, perhaps one of the only truly pleasurable moments in the sport, when one bursts out of the staying position with the determination to win the race in an all-out sprint. All the energy I conserved baiting Thiago was now released in an outpouring of endorphins, and I leapt forward, climbing frantically up the embankment, lungs heaving, then descending the bank at the end of the oval, almost a full length ahead of spent Thiago.
With most of one lap remaining, the race is by no means decided, even when holding the lead position and with diminishing distance to the finish line. Now the advantage must be protected, and protecting the lead is perhaps the hardest work of all, but it is the work that the most experienced rider can defend best. I glanced over my shoulder and I saw Thiago move to the outside, as though he wanted to make a run for the lead. I moved slightly right, then slightly left, preventing him from passing. He was boxed in, but he had halved the gap between us with the maneuver. There was still enough track left for one more attack from the Algerian, but I knew that if I just kept him slightly high on the embankment, it would be a geometric impossibility for him to overtake me on the outside. Over my right shoulder, I caught a glimpse of him as he started to climb up the final turn. I rose just slightly up the same embankment, positioning myself so that the shortest route to the tape could only go right through my bike. I put my head down and churned forward, certain that I would cross the line first.
As we came out of the final turn, I glanced over my right shoulder to where Thiago should have been. He was not there. I turned back to look to the finish line, and suddenly, there he was on my left. On my left, where he never should have been! At that speed, coming down the embankment at such a speed, with that momentum, to attempt to cut under me on the inside: it was madness, extreme recklessness and there was almost nothing I could do to avoid him. Our cycles don’t have brakes, of course. I had to push up the embankment just to avoid hitting him. At the same moment he threw his bike forward underneath himself just at the finish line and he immediately sat up on his bike and raised his clenched fists over his head in victory.
I skidded to a halt and dismounted along the far rail. Thiago kept going, clapping his hands and unbuckling his helmet as he took a victory lap, nodding and punching the air with his fists towards his North African teammates.
I left my cycle leaning against the rail, and when Thiago came around again, I threw my helmet at him. He saw it coming and maneuvered away from me. I ran down to the infield and even the North Africans did not try to stop me. Thiago stopped and dismounted as far away from me in the Velodrome as he possibly could. By that time, Jose, Jacques and most of the other coaches and mechanics intervened. I wanted to kill Thiago because he had essentially tried to kill me. We shouted at each other in different languages across the divide of the infield. I was walked out of the velodrome and Jacques and some others forced me into a taxi. Jacques rode with me to my apartment. He used his own key to let me in.
I raged and raged as I stalked around the apartment. “The most dangerous thing a racer could do! You remember what happened to the Fleming, Gregoire! Dead! Because of the exact same maneuver!”
Old Jacques paced around with me for a while and acted as an echo chamber, carrying back to me a softened version of everything I said. “A deadly maneuver . . . reckless danger . . . total disregard for the team . . . arrogant . . . conceited . . .” Eventually, when he was reasonably satisfied that I would not rush back out the door and back to the velodrome for violence, he stepped into the kitchen and began opening and closing the cabinets. He ground coffee beans, cutting me off in the middle of a rant. He repeated what I said back to me even as he pressed an espresso through the machine. I knew my rage had passed when he asked, “Do you have a lemon?” and I answered indignantly, “Of course!”
I desperately wanted a cigarette.
The problem in any team sport is that, when something like this happens, it becomes a disease, silently communicated from teammate to teammate like a virus, some red cells, some white, everyone taking sides even as they try to distance themselves from the problem. One of the Giro Forza d’Italia racers in the late 90s slept with a teammate’s ex-wife, and even though it happened after the couple had divorced, the team chemistry was ruined. In that case, the two teammates never said a word to one another about what had happened, but everyone knew; and in every competition after that, one racer would not support the other racer. Race plans were ignored. Each racer did exactly what he felt like doing in competition, and consistency vanished as the unspoken tension grew. The team faded into irrelevance after that.
The Portuguese knew he had to get ahead of this before it destroyed what little equilibrium the squad had. To that end, he arrived at my apartment a few hours later to tell me the news himself that he had suspended Thiago from the team for a week. He delivered the news in a smooth, almost whispered confidence, as in “Between you and me, we both know this cannot be tolerated. We both know his behavior is base. Professionals like us though, we always have to put up with the crude and the ignorant. We have responsibilities to others. We have a duty, as standard-bearers for the sport, to punish transgressors, but also to lead them to higher standards.”
This presumed intimacy — “It’s me and you, Jose and Albert, and all the rest are different” — was odious to me at the moment. Jose was never one tenth the racer I am — what a presumption! — and I saw right through his psychological gambit.
“No!” I said, “Suspension is not good enough! Thiago has to go! What he did could have killed both of us! He has to go! It’s outrageous to ask me to accept him back.” My anger had returned. Enraged as I was, I also felt emboldened in my intellectual superiority to these fellows. From somewhere back in my days at lycée, I summoned up a phrase that I thought was both inspiring and appropriate, “Thiago delenda est!”
Jose realized this was not going to be as easy to manage as he hoped. I caught him glancing over at Jacques as I delivered my rallying cry. Jacques shrugged. With no help from his assistant, Jose put his head in his hands, and I could see him thinking that he would have to try something else.
And thus it began. Jose wheedled, he reasoned, he implored. He used logic, emotion, and the binding terms of my contract. He appealed to my pride, my potential endorsements, my personal loyalty. (I scoffed at that last one.) He threatened. He paced. He sat down. He stood up. I turned around, walked away, returned, gesturing, importuning. It was an attenuated dance. Somewhere in the midst of all this, Jacques opened a dry Rioja, and from the back of my pantry, he found a can of salted almonds, which he contentedly threw back one by one, listening to the entire debate, but saying not a word himself.
In the end, I excused myself to shower, and afterwards, we each took a small glass of Rioja and I agreed to accept the apology of Thiago and a two-week suspension in exchange for dropping my demand that he be expelled. Jose parted with gratitude. As he and Jacques left, Jose put his hand on Jacques’ shoulder and said, “You know, I couldn’t have done it without you.” It was an insult, but Jacques had borne many of these.
The next day at training, Thiago was not there. I had many inquiries from teammates about my health. Many expressed their support, even a few of the North Africans. I noticed that I was once again given great deference around the velodrome by my fellow riders. I felt vindicated. Within a few days, I was back at peak performance, posting best-times on the team in many categories.
Within the week, Simone returned from Lisbon. I saw her walk into the training center and go straight away to Jose. He shrugged several times and waved his hands in vague gestures. She was persistent but Jose rarely ever took his eyes off the racers. He was clearly downplaying the suspension of Thiago. To my surprise, she talked to several of my teammates as well, but not to me. She left without saying a word. She did not come to the beach, but that night she presented herself at my apartment. I don’t know how she found it, since I never gave her the address. Right away, it was clear she was angry.
“How could you do this to me, Albert?”
“I go away on assignment for a weekend, and the biggest story in your sport since doping breaks and you don’t say a word to me about it!? I have to find out about it on Instagram!?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Why didn’t you answer my calls? My texts? Would that have been too much to ask?”
“I didn’t get any calls. I don’t know what you mean.”
“Albert, I called you a dozen times, I texted you a dozen times.”
I walked over to the desk where I kept my cell phone, an old Blackberry, and took it out of the drawer. I tried to turn on the power. It didn’t power on immediately, so I had to rummage through the drawer for the power cord.
“It will take a few minutes to charge.”
Simone gave an exasperated “Mon Dieu! Just come here.” She showed me her own smartphone, punching and swiping to show me the “texts” she had sent.
“I don’t think I get those.”
“Yes, I know that, Albert. Now. I have been trying to reach you all weekend. Oh, Albert, how could you do this? Why didn’t you tell me?”
It seemed Thiago had used every conscious moment since his suspension to ridicule and slander me on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and a few other social media formats that I never even heard of. Simone flipped through the more salacious taunts. There were a series of childish schoolboy boasts and trash talk, the kind of ridiculous volleys typical of American athletes.
“I was too fast for the Old Man, so they suspended me from the team. Ha ha!”
“French liberalism isn’t dying, it’s just slowing down.”
“My crimes? You know what they are . . . I’m too fast, and I’m too African.”
There was much more of this, too much really for someone who had never won a major race or competition.
“Albert, this is much more than one athlete trash talking another. Yes, Thiago uses every opportunity to say that he beat you in a practice rapinage, but he also says that he was suspended for doing so. He’s made this into a class and race issue. You’re the racist. And he has tens of thousands of views.” Thiago posted about a hundred different images of me as a racer, with cartoon tears spraying out of my eyes, or my head overlaid with a baby bonnet and a rattle. Very childish stuff, the sort of thing that could only be enjoyed by the lowest, most common people. But he also posted other photos, showing the team managers and sponsors on the top clubs, all-white Europeans and Americans — contrasted against comic pictures of himself in a questioning pose, or sometimes, against African and Syrian refugees being blocked from Italian and Greek shores by white police and soldiers.
Thiago apparently had a sizable following on his Twitter and Instagram account. As puerile as his observations were, the comments in response to his posts were even more cretinous, truly incredible, an indictment of the rights of free expression, and yet they ran into the thousands. They ranged from short, approving replies in words and emojis, to ten-minute videos shot in bedrooms or on cell phones by teenagers. One of the most popular, (and to me most incomprehensible, not merely because it was untranslated from Arabic) was of a cleric in a white robe and round cap: he was lifting his long, bony finger to the sky and holding up photos of Thiago and myself, as well as photos of Palestinians protesting Israel. There was even one by an American comedian, whose audience appeared to think that the sport of velodrome racing itself was a joke; they were all laughing before he told the punchline. “Didja hear about this? The sport of velodrome racing is in crisis. What’s velodrome racing you say?” Hilarity ensues, as the clown pretends to struggle through his own amusement to complete the joke. The punchline itself was a dud, which for some reason made them all laugh harder. Americans are imbeciles.
Simone persuaded me to let her open social media accounts in my name. She urged me only to post photos of myself and to allow her to write the captions. The first photo she selected was of me crouched while going through a turn in the Tour de California. It was vaguely expressionist in composition, chiaroscuro, blurred at the edges, with streaks of color except for my face, which was so clearly defined that the viewer could see my stubble. The sunglasses reflected the crowds gathered at a street corner in Sacramento. I thought it was an excellent selection.
“I agree Albert, but the message needs to be that you are not intolerant and the slanders being made against you are false and that you find all forms of racism and sexism abhorrent. The sexism part will be an indirect dig at Thiago, of course.”
Her first caption was a profound rejection of all forms of racism. Her work, such as it was, was sublime. Without mentioning Thiago, or the tsunami of social media invective, or the near fatal attack, she thanked my coaches, my teammates and the supporters who stood by me. It was amazingly reserved, completely shallow, utter pablum: not anything like I would have written myself. Perfect for the half-wits who read these things, I thought.
We were friends again. She stayed at my apartment for a time after that, though she made a point of saying that she was not moving in. She usually met me down at the beach after my daily swim. She sometimes prepared tiny portions of remoulade or charcuterie for an appetizer: always just enough to enjoy, not enough to over-indulge. She managed my social media accounts to great effect, or so my teammates told me. One afternoon, while I was on a stationary bike in the infield, Simone parried some insult brilliantly. My teammates came over to ask how I could manage it all while training.
Simone did travel around Europe to cover other sporting events for her Quebecois employers. One day, she casually mentioned that we had multiple social media accounts together, which was more than many married couples had. Later on, she said that once we did ten loads of wash together, we were considered married according to Canadian law.
“Do you want me to marry you?”
“That is not how one proposes, Albert.”
I could see that it was in her thoughts: frankly, I had seen it once or twice before with other women, whom I knew even less well. I was not interested in this game. Marriage and the legal conventions that it carried with it were of no significance to me. I would find someone else if Simone left. I could go back to smoothies and an indifference to social media without any effort at all.
Eventually the time came when Thiago returned to the team. He was under contract after all. The Portuguese had orchestrated it such that he made a very public apology, acknowledged his errors and ascribed his conduct to the heat of competition. The Portuguese insisted I be the bigger man and publicly accept the apology. In the middle of the locker room, we embraced, kissed, and there was lukewarm smattering of applause, since everyone on the team knew we still hated one another. This was détente, not rapprochement.
Simone was gratified that she finally had a story. I told her in advance exactly how and when this little piece of theater would play out. When it did, she published within minutes a three-thousand-word article which described events in the proper perspective, finally explaining in understandable terms why someone in my position would have been so outraged at Thiago’s maneuver. Even though it was a practice race, Thiago should have been disqualified for trying to pass on the inside. Finally, someone said what needed to be said. As sports journalism goes, it was outstanding.
After this episode, my life returned to normal for many weeks. Protein smoothie; bumpy morning ride to the velodrome; either road training or weights and timed sessions; a healthy lunch; a swim in the afternoon; Simone when she was in town; a sensible dinner; an hour or two to read; and then again the next day. Even with Thiago, things became normal again, which is to say that we secretly hated each other, and competed fiercely but fairly in every sprint. My social media accounts became a minor success. Every week or two I would split a bottle of wine with Simone, but when I was especially self-indulgent, I would take a draw off Jacques’ lit cigarette and savor the burn all the way through my eyelids. It was my principle vice.
In September, the team headed over to London for a UCI event at the Olympic velodrome. The trip was also important in that we renewed many of our sponsorship deals while we were there, and this trip would be no exception. Simone had been sent to Portugal again to cover a surfing competition, so I was without her for practicalities. The Portuguese entered me in several events, including several scratch races, elimination races, and Madison races. The finale was to be a Kieran race. On the entire trip over there, I wondered whether the man in the bowler hat from the Magritte paintings would be driving the Derny again like he did during the Olympic games. I fully expected to take the rainbow jersey.
The races did not go quite as well as I expected, though. A young German sprinter whom no one had ever heard of took the scratch race and I only finished fifth in the elimination races. In the Madison races, our team finished first, mainly through the efforts of myself and Thiago. That left the Kieran.
On the last day of the tournament, I was at the velodrome early. I wanted to be ready, as Thiago and I would represent our club, and it would therefore be as close as we would get to a head-to-head competition. Sure enough, that man was there again. Horse face, black suit, grey waistcoat, bow tie and bowler hat. Jacques told me that this man had been an event official in London for almost fifty years. At the start of the Kieran, he appeared from out of the tunnel, and he drove the Derny on to the track and along the stayer’s line. Back erect, the old man looked straight ahead and pedaled the motorized bicycle steadily forward with an implacable equilibrium. He did not seem to notice any of the racers, the coaches, or any of the living. To look at his face, one must believe that the line ahead was his only thought.
The bell rang and the racers in the Kieran began to follow the Derny. As it increased in speed, so did we. The first five laps of this race are a test of discipline. One must conserve one’s energy yet not lose position relative to the other racers. To be a well-positioned second or third at the moment that the bell rings for the last lap is the goal. The final lap is an all-out burst of power and sprint.
I was in good position as we approached the sixth and final lap. I was third, with an American in first slightly on the inside and Thiago in second slightly to my outside. When the bell rang for the final 250 meters, I leapt ahead, furiously pumping right past the American, who was clearly exhausted. Behind me on the right, a Belgian rider slipped between me and Thiago, forcing the North African higher into the embankment than he wanted to be. I could see a straight line to victory, provided I blocked Thiago and the Belgian. As we approached the last embankment, I was ahead, but both Thiago and the Belgian rode high with the intention of passing me on the inside as they descended. I maneuvered to block them out and keep them high, feinting toward the outside even as they plummeted. Our tires clashed, rim on rim. Thiago hit the line with his shoulder, which popped and cracked at the same time. Everyone in the building heard it. The Belgian skidded to the infield and was hit by a trailing racer.
I flew through my own handlebars, like the ancients between the horns of the charging bull. After that, nothing. I wanted to get up and charge at the stupidity, the shameless pride and deliberate recklessness of the Algerian, that led him to destroy my victory, but there was nothing I could do, except to look at the lights at the top of the arena as they were turned off one by one.
I could hear my mother’s voice, and I detected with great certainty the odor of her insipid brand of perfume. I tried to speak but it was clear that there was some obstruction in my throat and nose. I could see that I was connected to several tubes and wires which were connected to a number of monitors. A man in a seafoam green shirt occasionally looked down at me. Then my parents were there, speaking to him in English that I could not understand.
In another day or maybe many more, I could speak, though it was very painful. “Mama, where is Simone?” I asked.
“Who, dear?” was the reply.
When I tried to speak next, perhaps a day or two later, it was after I had been awake for a long time. I had noticed that the staff would wheel the bed out of the room periodically to mop and clean the floors. On this occasion, they moved me down to a set of double doors that opened on to an interior courtyard. I could see the blue sky and the grass. Through the open doors, I could hear people talking outside. I also distinctly noticed the smell of cigarette smoke, and I assumed that one or more of the people whom I heard talking must be outside smoking. I asked aloud, “Can I have a cigarette?”
My father appeared in view and said, “Oh there’s no smoking here in the hospital, son.”