Road Captain

story about cycling

Why am I here? Why am I even here? Why am I riding with these guys?

We should let them go. They’re no threat to us. These jokers aren’t GC contenders. They’re doing nothing in the mountains and, if they were, that’s not our objective this year. They won’t even be in the bunch at the end of the stage to mess up the sprints because they’ll fade. They just want their moment at the front so the TV shows their jersey so the sponsor is happy so the team gets funding for another year and they get to carry on riding a bike for a living. We should leave them to it. We’ve got bigger concerns.

I’m the road captain. I should be back in the pack, controlling the peloton for Nicholas. I should be helping him preserve his energy for the climbs. I should be running his errands. I should be collecting his gel packs. I should be marking the teams targeting the GC. They would’ve laughed in disbelief to see me haring down the road after this bunch of chancers. What kind of a team sends their road captain to the front so far from home? It’s madness.

Robert is clueless. He’s been directeur sportif since winter and he has absolutely zero aptitude for the job. He was an OK rider back in the day, provided someone told him what to do, but he never had the brains to run the show on the road, never mind calling the shots from the car. He’s got the tactical nous of an amateur. I’ve known some first class directeurs in my time, but Robert isn’t one of them.

A good DS has vision and can think on their feet. They know the team goals for each race and for the season. They prioritise each stage within the race, and know where the team leader needs to be positioned for each climb and sprint, and which domestiques need to be on hand to support them. And they have a realistic idea of what their rivals will do at any point in the race.

Robert has none of that. He panicked. Panicked and now can’t back down. He’s sent me down the road chasing six riders from six different teams who’re never going to stay away the whole day, and he left the rest of the team exposed without their road captain. That’s amateur. That’s a fireable offence.

And I have to pay for his stupidity. I’ll be spent by the time I’m needed. He has no idea what my job entails, no idea what a human body can put up with. We’re not robots. We’re flesh and blood. We don’t need to do this: we could reel this ragtag bunch in whenever we wanted. We could give them ten minutes and we’d still bring them back. We could give them quarter of an hour.

If I didn’t have a contract to negotiate, I’d tell Robert to get lost. I’d drop back into the pack to do the job I’m paid for. The sooner the clown a) learns how to do his job or b) gets his marching orders, the sooner the team can be serious GC contenders. But, as it is, I need him to know I’ll follow his instructions, however stupid they are.

And it would help if he gave us decent radios. These new ones are garbage.

This is a ludicrous pace for so early in a stage. These guys are going to kill themselves, and me with them. Chaps, you’ve done your duty by your sponsor. You’ve got their logo on the telly. I know you have contracts to settle. I know you have teams to impress. I know your mum is watching. But you’re going to be eaten up by the peloton sooner or later, whether you like it or not. Why not accept it and get back to a sane cadence? We’ve got the best part of 150 kilometres under a blazing sun ahead of us. There are two massive hills to climb. There’s another ten days’ racing. What’s your sponsor going to think when you go from the front of the race, through the peloton, and out to the broom wagon because you went off too quickly and you don’t have anything left to finish the race?

Actually, I don’t blame them. This is the Tour and they want to see how good they are. They want to make a name for themselves. But, a couple of riders excepted, none of these guys have the legs to make it stick. I’m looking around and there’s nothing here that frightens me. I could make them hurt. They think they’re going deep, but they haven’t got a clue.

Thierry is here because we’re due to pass through his home village in ten kilometres, and he wants to be up front when we do. I’m OK with that. I’ll happily sit back and let him bask in the attention. The flags will be out. There’ll be banners across the road. His nickname will be sprayed on the tarmac. He’ll take the cheers of his neighbours then gracefully drop back into the pack. Good for him.

Dominic is a little kid. He’s barely turned professional. You can’t come up from the amateurs and make a name for yourself straight away. You need to put in your hours in the saddle. You need the miles in your legs. His team is tiny. They don’t have a tour bus that sleeps them all. They’re staying in guest houses. They’re using the guest house pillows. There’s something suicidal about the way he’s rolling, trying to keep up with seasoned professionals. He’ll be a goner when we hit the hills.

Same for Aki. He’s a track racer transitioning to the road. He was brought in for the time trials. He should be concentrating on making it to the Champs-Élysées, maybe sneaking a podium on an individual time trial to prove he can cut it. He shouldn’t be sneaking glory on a quiet mid-week stage. If I was his team, I’d be furious with him. There’ll be words from his directeur when he gets back.

I don’t trust the guy up front. Werner is a Poundland Lance Armstrong. He’s back from a ban. He missed three drug tests. I heard him say in an interview that the testers messed up: they didn’t give him enough notice, he’d had an emergency, he was looking after his family when the testers called, blah blah blah. He’s a liar. He wouldn’t miss three tests in a row by accident. He plans his career with surgical precision. If he missed a test, it was because he had to miss it, because he was scared of what it would reveal. I don’t know what he has in his legs, but I bet it’s not natural.

Felix lives near me on the coast. We train on the same hills. We have friends in common. He’s a cocky little get. He’s not a contender; he’s got talent but he doesn’t have the character. He’s going for it today because he knows none of the big teams are interested. Everyone else wants a safe, sane pack finish, with no risk. The Tour isn’t won on days like today. This is a stage to survive with minimal fuss. We shouldn’t be flying along at this sort of lick. Felix will brag about this ride for weeks. This is his raison d’etre, his justification for the coming year. He’ll fake a mechanical before the end of the stage, you can bet on it, something that’s hard to pin down, like a problem with his derailleur. He’ll make out that he’s a victim, and claim that he’d have seen it through if he hadn’t had a fault with his bike.

Felix went to the same high school as Nicholas. They rode for the same amateur clubs. But when I compare the two, they’re completely different stock. Nicholas is tough. He’s a fighter. He’s a proper team leader. And he knows when to compete and when to conserve his energy, which is why right now he’s three kilometres back, in the warm bosom of the pack. You give every ounce of your being for a leader like Nicholas. You give him everything you have because you know he appreciates it. He sings our praises in interviews. He talks with the young riders to understand what they want from life. He explains how they can contribute to the team goals and how the team goals can help their career. On your birthday, he sends flowers. At the end of every Tour stage, he sends beers to the mechanics. He helped me and Rosemary find an apartment, close to the house he shares with Gita. He even arranged a taxi for Rosemary and Gita today, so they can watch the finish together. Which, hopefully, he and I can finish side by side in the safety of the peloton.

Nicholas gets in a foul mood when things go wrong and, if you’ve messed up, he’ll let you know he’s not happy with you. But it’s never personal. If he didn’t think you were good enough, he wouldn’t have you on the team. If you’re on the team, he’s going to hold you to a higher standard. And at the end of the day, he talks to you like a human being. You can build a serious challenge on a person like Nicholas.

You can’t say the same for Pieter. Mad Pieter. Pieter’s unlike any other rider on the pro circuit. Pieter loves pain. His greatest joy is to be out on his own, killing himself 150 kilometres from the finish on a heroic sortie for the line. He’s not a team leader and he’s the world’s worst domestique, but he’s a serious racer. He won every amateur race in Eastern Europe, but no one in the West would give him a ride. They didn’t know how to handle him. Which is understandable, because Pieter doesn’t follow orders. It’s all about how he feels on the day. I’ve followed him down a cat one descent and I can testify: he is nuts. He doesn’t understand the concept of danger. The way he takes corners is insane. I trust him, oddly enough. He’s always straight with you. He tells the truth. And there isn’t an unkind bone in his body. Or an unbroken one, for that matter. The fans love him.

Pieter and I talked about his racing style once, on a flat section of the San Remo. We were rolling along nicely, not too fast, not too slow, just back from the front of the peloton. I was asking about his kids − his wife was expecting their fourth: she seems to get pregnant every closed season − and I wondered how he decides when to leap off the front? ‘I mean, why not now?’ And he laughed and said, ‘OK, now.’ And he went. He didn’t even change gear till he was 100 metres away. And we were all looking around, wondering whether anyone would go with him, and no one did. And he went, and he built a lead and he kept going and he stayed away. The guy loves to hurt himself. He’s the only one in this bunch who could keep this pack away from the peloton.

Pieter won a stage at the Vuelta and a stage at the Giro, so maybe he’s going for the full set. I can see him leaping off the front at some point. I’ll happily let him go if that’s what he wants. Good luck to him. The rest, well, they aren’t up to it and they’re getting mad at me because I won’t pull my weight. I’m sitting on the back and letting them drag me along. They take it in turns to lead, and they take it in turns to drop back and yell at me. I keep telling them, I don’t work for them. It’s not my job to help their team out. I’ve no reason to push the pace. I’m employed to help Nicholas win the yellow jersey. That’s my job.

I was never going to be a GC contender. I can climb. I can hold my own in a team time trial. I can ride all day. But I don’t have the raw talent to win races. At amateur level, maybe, but not with the pros. I was lucky that the older guys in the peloton saw I could serve as a water carrier and took me under their wing. They trained me to trade my ambition for the requirements of the team, and what they taught me has stood me in good stead my whole career. Whenever there’s a contract to negotiate or I need to move teams, the directeurs sportif know I’ll do a good job. I don’t cause trouble. I don’t ask for glory. They’ve got enough glory boys on their books. What they need is worker ants who’ll graft for the collective. Me.

They know that all I want to do is ride my bike. To mount my saddle in the morning, climb off in the evening, having roamed the countryside in the time in between. I don’t care if I get soaked in a downpour or skid on ice or battle through a snow storm: it’s all riding. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I’ve lived by this maxim: cycling is the greatest thing a human being can do.

Which isn’t to say I don’t like winning. I won plenty of races as an amateur. I was better than everybody I rode against. I beat the kids in my neighbourhood and then I beat the adults, too. I picked up prize money here and there, but I was the amateur’s amateur: I would have ridden for nothing. Then someone put the idea into my head that, if I was prepared to move to the Continent, there were teams who might take me on as a professional. It was the greatest revelation I could’ve heard. I never imagined someone would pay me to ride.

My mum and dad bought me a one-way ferry ticket to Zeebrugge. I rode against the might of Belgium, and nearly starved to death. All I could muster was semi-pro races against seasoned veterans. I didn’t win a single race. I didn’t get close. No team was interested. I returned to Roydhouse defeated.

Except, an Irish journalist I’d washed dishes with in Mariakerke mentioned my name to an Italian DS, and I found myself in Italy because his low-level team was short of a cyclist. They sent me all over the country to make up numbers on a team that sported the name of their sponsor’s coffee machines on their chests. Our results were of little consequence. They only wanted publicity within the picturesque Italian villages we rode through. I was a billboard for their product, and happy to be so because, for the first time in my life, I was being paid to ride.

And I went from one team to another, each a little better, and my dream was coming true in real time. But, the fact is, I haven’t won a race since the day I left Roydhouse. That’s the trade I made. I gave up winning to do the thing I love. And most days, I’m cool with that. Winning was a function of being better than everyone else: it was a product of my circumstances. But my circumstances changed. The people I rode against in the pro teams were better than me. They were freaks. They were so good, entire teams were built around them in order to beat the other guys who were better than me.

Some of those riders were naturals. And some of them relied on chemicals for their advantage. And as I saw them head off into the distance, leaving me floundering in their wake, I could tell the difference. I could always tell the difference. It’s impossible to compete with cheats.

This has gone on too long. I need to do something to mix it up. I need to disrupt the pace or I’ll be sitting with these chumps for the next three hours. I need to push them to make them hurt. They’ll soon see sense.

I need Pieter’s assistance. I’ll have a word.

‘What do you reckon, Pieter? Shall we put these rookies through their paces?’

I knew he’d be up for it. Everything is funny for Pieter. We’ll let Thierry have his moment of glory, then make our move. We’re about halfway through the stage. There’s a long cat three climb right afterward, which is perfect. I can climb. Pieter can climb. Aki the track racer will struggle on the hills. Thierry will fall away after taking the applause. Felix will think up an excuse to get off his bike. Dominic is new and can be out-thought. So then it’ll be Pieter, me and the drug cheat. We’ll find out what’s in his heart, as well as his veins. As soon as we lose him, I can slow down. Until then, we’re going hard.

Haha, I just realised I’m going to be Pieter’s lead-out man. I’m setting him up for the win. Ah, well, Robert told me to get to the head of the race, so that’s what I’m doing.

Jeez, the whole village has turned out for Thierry. Look at this. They’re going nuts. This is lovely. They’ve waited for hours, with their barbies blazing, watching the Tour cavalcade trundle past. The kids have crammed their pockets with free sweets and bottles of water and coffee sachets. They’ll have followed the live feed to work out where we were. Once they saw the helicopters appear down the valley, they’d know we were due to arrive. And then their boy comes through at the head of the race. Beautiful.

He’s doing it the right way, too, smartening himself up before hitting town, taking his hands off the bars to receive their blessing. It’ll never get better than this.

Man, I’d love this to happen to me, for the Tour to come through Roydhouse and everyone at school to see me up front. I was still amateur when the Grand Depart came through Wapentake. Just knowing the Tour was heading our way made me giddy. My team, the Townhouse Road Cadets, cycled the course a fortnight before, gurning for imaginary cameras. As I climbed around the sharp elbow on Holmehouse Hill, I saw my name on the road; my cousin, Looby, had sprayed it the night before. That’s still the greatest single moment in my cycling career. I was hoping it’d still be there when the race came through, but the council had covered it up.

I remember how swiftly the riders went by on the day. All that waiting for barely a minute of action. It was worth it. A bunch of us gathered on a grass banking outside the home of a cycling couple we hung out with. They put on snacks and coffee and made us omelettes, and the TV was on in the house so we could keep track of where the race had reached, so we knew how long we needed to wait. We could see up and down the road for quarter of a mile each way. The streets were packed four deep from three hours before the race was due. It was a carnival atmosphere, everyone laughing, everyone in good spirits. Little kids ran alongside the Yorkshire Tea truck and gathered bottles of water to drink on the curb. Police outriders got rousing, ironic rounds of applause, which they took with good grace.

And when the riders came through, we were ready for them. I didn’t even spot who was in the lead − it was a breakaway with no one we’d heard of, with none of the British contingent involved − but it didn’t matter. We put everything we had into cheering them on. We leaned forward into the road, beseeching them to go faster, just as we’d seen people do in the Pyrenees on TV. Someone had an Alpine cowbell, yelling Allez, Allez. And though I read afterward that the riders were bewildered by the turn-out over the two days, they never responded. They were pros, riding the biggest stage of their life. They concentrated on the job in hand.

Right, we’re through the village. That’s the sentimentality out of the way. Time to take in a bit of sustenance, because I’m going to need it. Squeeze a quick gel through my sealed lips. Slug a mouthful of water. A few breaths. The bottom of the climb. Here goes.

‘Hey guys, I’m sick of you complaining that I’m not doing any work. Come on, let’s go.’

Full beast mode. Don’t even think. Just drive those legs.

Pieter’s turn. OK, who’s come with us? Ah, there goes Thierry, dropping off into the distance. Fair enough. He got what he wanted from the day. His mum and dad will finally understand what he does for a living. His school teacher will finally see he hasn’t wasted his life. That girl who rejected him for being a cycling geek will, at long last, regret her mistake.

I’ll let Pieter drag us till the next hairpin, then I’ll get onto Aki and Dominic. I need to push them hard if this is going to work.

‘OK, newbs. It’s your turn. You’ve been bugging me all morning about not pulling my weight, so you need to step up, too. You need to graft.’

Jeez, I can’t believe they fell for it. Look how hard Aki is working. The lad’s got heart.

‘Dominic. It’s your turn. Push as hard as you can. The peloton is closing. This is where you prove you can handle being a pro. Show us what you’re made of.’

The daft lad has listened to me.

‘Keep going, Dominic. A nice long turn. No, don’t bother with water. Fight it. Drive. This is where pro careers are made. Until you’ve bossed it up a climb like this, no one will believe you’ve got what it takes. Drag us up there.’

God, he’s doing it. Aki has the brains to pace himself. He’s falling back so he can travel at his own speed. But Dominic’s hanging on. If he knew what was good for him, he’d team up with Aki to help each other out.

Ah, another one gone. Felix lasted longer than I thought, but he’s stalling. Is he getting off his bike? Looking down at the cassette? Slipped chain, is that what he reckons? Haha, I knew it. That kid is a wuss.

Nothing wrong with Dominic’s heart. He’s still going. Time to give him another wind-up.

‘Son, the pace is dropping. This is the Tour. You need to drag us forward. We need a Gang of Four to get away once we’re over the top. Come on, dig deep.’

The poor lad is wobbling.

And he’s gone.

Credit where it’s due, he’s still trying. A gentle breeze and he’ll be over, but he’s fighting. He’s better than I thought.

Man, this crowd is loud.

Pieter gets the KoM points. I’ve no problem with that.

So we just need to get rid of Werner. We’ll lose him on the descent. Whatever he uses to supplement his blood cells, he doesn’t have the guts to go full-on down the slope.

This is fast. This is dangerous. Pieter’s on my wheel, I’m on his. This is a road that would make me travel sick if I was driving by car. We need to follow the TV outrider to understand the road. One slip and we’re goners. That is a long drop. I keep seeing Werner out of the corner of my eye. He’s descending better than I thought. Still, it’s a long way to go and he’s outside our slipstream. Pieter and I need to press on. We rode down here three years ago while Werner was on his ban. We have a better idea of the bends than he does. Wech, Pieter, wech.

Ooh, I’ve just had a dangerous thought. I’m in the top three for the stage. The top three. If it stays like this, I’m on the podium for the first time in my career. Pieter will take the stage, no doubt. I won’t fight him for it. But I’ll be on the next step down. I’ve never been on the podium at a Grand Tour before. Top ten a couple of times as a team but, me on my own, never! But I could be today. Gulp.

I need to stop thinking about it. That’s not my role. I’m a worker bee. A domestique. A road captain. I don’t win things. But damn it, if it’s going to happen, I don’t want Robert calling me back. I’m going to pretend my earpiece is broken.

If Pieter’s going to be first, I want to be second. I want to stand above Werner on the podium. I want to look down on the cheating bastard’s head. I won’t let him beat me today. I don’t want to be graceful in defeat. I’m sick of shaking the hand of cheats. I’ve spent too many rides pretending I didn’t care what was in their veins, pretending not to know why they could fly up a cat one climb while I struggled at the back. Well, not today.

Where’s Pieter gone?

I took my turn at the front, got my head down, dragged it out as far as I could, but when I spun out so he could take over, he was 100 metres down the road. He’s gone. I could wait for him but there’s no point. He’s spent. This the first time I’ve seen him like this. Mind you, I’m normally in the pack when he makes his breakaways. This is the only time I’ve seen him up close. Maybe that’s the gamble for him, the risk of blowing up before the end.

There’s no way I’m backing off. The pack might be broken up and I might have done the job I set out to do, but I’m not going to hand the win to Werner. He’s not having it. If he wants it, he’s going to have to beat me. And he’s not going to beat me. I won’t let him.

No one else. Just me and Werner.

Just Werner and me.

Wow, that’s a huge TV for a village this size. Let’s have a little look. I want to get a sense of how far ahead we are.

Jeez, that’s a serious pile-up. Wow, that’s a mess. I should count my blessings. If I’d been back in the pack, I’d have been in the middle of that. Well, that’ll cause a bit of disruption. I wonder how many riders got through before the crash? It might buy us a few minutes.

So, here we go, the final incline before the summit finish. This is nasty, just as I like it. Six kilometres at 9%. We’ll see how Werner copes. Let’s see what he has in his legs. Whatever happens, I’m going to finish ahead of him. I don’t care what he’s on or what he’s done to be here, he’s not going to be beat me. I don’t care if fifty riders come flying passed, I’ll finish higher than him.

My last gel. My last drink of water. I haven’t seen Werner take on any sustenance for an hour. I guess he’s out gel packs. I’d imagine the cars couldn’t get through the crash.

Here goes. Out of the saddle. Push.

I’ll let myself look back after that third bend. I should be able to tell if he’s come with me or not. If he has, I’ll go harder. If he hasn’t, well, I’ll go harder, regardless. I need to knock the hope out of him.

He’s gone. Man, he’s two bends back. That’s what, 300 metres. About half a minute on a hill like this. He’s hurting. I know he’s hurting. Well, I’m going again, pal. I want you to see me pull clear, like I had to do with every drug cheat throughout my entire career.

I’m gaining ground. I’m pulling away. I’m leaving him for dead. That’s a minute. Maybe even more. My legs are screaming but it’s working. I need to keep going. I need to keep putting the hammer down. I’m slaughtering him.

There’s no one else in sight. I think that might be Pieter down at the bottom of the incline, but there’s no way he’s catching me.

This is scary. This is my stage to win. This is me, at the top of the podium. I just need to keep going. I just need to keep my wheels turning. I just need to stay ahead of Werner. I just need to hold my nerve.

Four kilometres to go. Four nasty kilometres and then that beautiful finish line.

I can’t believe it. Winning a stage of the Tour. Me, the perennial domestique, the eternal road captain, the worker bee, finally standing at the top of the podium like I did as a kid. If you’d told me at fifteen that I’d win a stage on the Tour, I’d have laughed in your face. Things like this don’t happen to kids like me. All my friends, teasing me, asking when I would win the Tour. Man, I’m doing it. I’m going down in cycling history.

This is scary. Haha, this is so scary. Well, no one can say I haven’t earned it.

What a day for Rosemary and Gita to see me at the finish line. Haha, they might have expected Nicholas to take the flag today. They never dreamed it could be me. I don’t blame them. I never dreamed this would be me, either.

Two K to go. I thought the crowd would be crazier than this. This is the most subdued Tour crowd I’ve ever seen. I know they don’t know who I am, but still, this is the finish of a Tour stage. This is as big as it gets.

One K to go. A bit of a tidy up. Zip my shirt. Flatten out the creases. I’m going to enjoy this. What do I look like on the screen?

Damn it, there’s more footage of the crash. Wow, that doesn’t look good. That looks awful. How come they haven’t cleared it away?

That’s Nicholas’s bike. It’s trashed. Those are Nicholas’s legs on the stretcher. I’d know those legs anywhere; I’ve followed him often enough. There’s a blanket over his face. Why is Robert out of the car beside him? Shit, this is serious.

Man, this is serious.

200 metres.

Oh shit, what happened?

Rosemary. On her own. Stood in the middle of the road. Flagging me down. Flagging me down. Why does she want me to stop when I’m so close to the line? God, she’s crying. She’s distraught. This is serious. What’s going on? Does she honestly expect me to stop? Why isn’t Gita with her? What’s happened to Nicholas? God, what’s going on? I can’t see Werner anywhere. He must miles back. I have at least a minute on him, maybe even two. I need to stop. I can’t not stop. I need to stop.

‘Honey, what’s the matter? Where’s Gita?’

‘Oh, Clem. It’s awful. We saw it live. Nicholas was leading the pack down the hill. Dominic was tottering all over the road. Nicholas came round a blind bend and ran straight into him. It was carnage. Nicholas flew over his handlebars and into a ravine. He didn’t stand a chance. His bike landed on top of him, thirty metres down a steep cliff. Dominic got back on his bike but he was delirious. He got half a mile down the hill when his heart gave up. The ambulance couldn’t reach him because of the crash. A farmer nursed him till he was gone.’

‘They’re both dead?’


‘Rose, I did it. I drove Dominic on. I wound him up.’

‘I shouldn’t have stopped you. You need to finish the race. You’re so close.’

‘How can I?’

‘Nicholas would tell you to do it. Dominic would, too. They’re racers. They’d understand. Get the win.’

‘I don’t see how I can.’

‘Walk the bike across the line. Don’t celebrate. Push it the rest of the way. It’s 200 metres.’

‘Follow me. Walk with me. Honey, please.’

This is rotten. These cleats are a nightmare.

‘Werner, no. No. Stop! You don’t know what’s going on. You need to listen, man. Stop, Werner. Stop. Oh, you bastard. You vain, cheating bastard.’




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