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Cycle of Life

By Carol Walske (with thanks to Fern Marder)

A young boy waits by the side of the road: You crane your neck to see. You want to step into the road for a clearer view, but your father pulls you back. Not a moment too soon. A half-dozen riders burst into view from around a corner. They come bounding, hurtling over the pavé. You know what it feels like to run over the cobbles, the breath knocking out of you as you come down hard on a rough edge or slip on a slick smooth stone. Their bones must be rattling; you can see even their skin shuddering from the incessant jolting. You can see their arms trembling, too, from the effort of navigating over the treacherous surface. The two front riders veer into the gutter – the gutter you were about to step into. Your mother screeches, fear or rage at the riders, you’re not sure which, and your father with a muttered oath grabs you and your sister back still further. You gasp as the riders go by inches from you. The other four riders in the breakaway have come to the smoother-surfaced gutter too. You can see the sweat and spattered mud on their faces and hear them pant for air. You imagine you can hear their hearts drumming. The last of the breakaway riders blur by and you feel the wind of their passage brushing your face and tugging at you like an invitation. Your older cousin, whom you’re sure is jealous of your skill on the bike, draws a deep, shaky breath. Then he looks at you and says scornfully, “You couldn’t do that.” Still caught up in the moment, you just stare at him, while your loyal younger sister pipes up, “Oh yes he could.” You turn your back on your cousin and look down the road after the diminishing riders. You think, “One day I’ll be one of you.”

The rider eyes the gap to the breakaway: Today the wind changes from enemy to friend and back again. At times it pushes at you and the whole peloton like a giant hand. A constant voice, a constant force as strong as gravity. Sound all around you: cheers and clamor of the crowd, beat-beat-beat of helicopters, honk of team car and roar of moto and car engines, whirl of your wheels on tarmac, squeak of saddle, click of gears, creak of alloys, occasional crackle of radio in your ear. Shout of “Service!” behind you, snatch of conversation between two riders, rush of air in and out of laboring lungs. Stink of diesel in your nose. You see nothing and everything. You catch only quick glimpses of trees or town or spectators. Mostly, you watch the road. You watch for potholes, fissures in the pavement, manhole covers, gravel or sand in the bends, debris chucked by spectators or brought by the wind. Alert to the slightest change of pace, you watch the legs and shoulders and hands around you. You are exhausted from the incessant press of the wind, but still you fight on, each breath defiance and every pedalstroke a counterattack. You don’t think about the burn in your legs, the chafe of sensitive skin against saddle, the ache across your shoulders, the sting of sweat in your eyes and the dryness of your mouth. You are pure will, sheer commitment. The road is a ribbon rolling out in front of you saying “Come.” You go into the wind. Second by second, you pull back the last rider until you are finally on his wheel. You are among the leaders now, but you lose the sprint by centimeters. Only then, at the end of the ribbon, do you stop, get off your machine, stretch your aching muscles, get bath and massage and food. You think, “Tomorrow I’ll win.”

A mechanic stands at the steepest part of the climb: You’ve worked eight—no, nine Tours since the last one you rode. All morning people have been yelling abuse at you, from the tourists who want to park in this favored spot and the race authorities who treat you like so much traffic furniture. It is hot, and the constant stream of cars, buses, bikes, motos and pedestrians has kicked a veil of dry dust into the air. You wish your overalls didn’t stick so in the heat. Fleetingly, you envy the riders their thin jerseys and shorts, but then the next moment your heart goes out to them for needing to grind their way up the mountain in this sweltering summer. The constant giant murmurous noise from the spectators swells to a clamor: they’re coming! You hold back a group of half-naked young men who would push right through the barriers. In trying to restrain them, you miss the four who pass in the breakaway. The incoherent and intoxicated young men give up and run toward some other viewing spot. Relieved, you turn to what you’ve been waiting for all day: the sight of the riders’ faces. You spot the patron of the peloton, he who is never safe in his yellow. He doesn’t see you; he is grim and focused on the road ahead. Behind him the pretenders and the ever-hopefuls. You spot your team’s captain, safely tucked behind his two lieutenants, among the first dozen riders. You watch and measure their shades of suffering, their determination, their courage. Each one pedaling gamely by lightens you, and you forget that you’re hot and tired and grumpy. You think, “I wish you wings.”

A greying man, walking with the aid of a cane, still trim and vigorous: You work in a bike factory and sometimes, for a little extra wage, in a bike shop. You have bikes in your garage and think vaguely that you should be selling them. Your sister, who helps look after you now that your wife is gone, is always after you to sell them. Your wife understood; she would come with you sometimes and watch while you polished them and cared for them. It’s hard to stand for so long out in the chill grey damp, but you stubbornly persist. You have a good vantage point, here on this dangerous corner 800 meters from the finish line. You have been here before. The hubbub around you rises – the three riders in the breakaway are inside the last kilometer. The leader swings effortlessly through the turn; the other two go wide but pull back in. The peloton is coming fast and all in a bunch and you hold your breath. Not even a touch of the brakes at a time like this. The mass of color and movement separates into legs flashing, tired, set, excited faces, shoulders working, elbows going out, shouts and a few curses. But they all come through, all safe. You let out your breath softly and long. It was wet the day you fell at this corner. You look at the back of the peloton thundering down the last stretch and think, “I know your dream.”

 

 
 
 

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