I once knew of a rider who swore he got a job solely because he never raced with sunglasses. His new boss, he speculated, recognised his face amongst the many. That was enough.
For the tenth time in as many minutes, I check the time. The round face of the watch stares back, dwarfing my skinny wrists, its hands slowing to a near crawl. Looking past the seconds ticking away, I feel proud of those wrists – skinny and brown. Lucky really, I spend an awful lot of time looking down at them, gripping and white-knuckled, to the bars below.
The mechanic fettling outside seems to drop his spanner every time my eyes close, erupting with yet another chorus of foreign expletives. I try to sleep all the same, sprawled across the back seats of our team van. But as the sun rises in to my eyes, the noises outside amplifying in my head, I soon lose hope. Instead, like most mornings, I slouch off in search of caffeine.
Across a gap between two abandoned buildings, vines lope from one wall to the other, hanging lazily in the Sunday morning sunshine. Weeds shoot strong and tall from the dirt, sprouting up between the mossy paving stones, each fighting for their own glimpse of sunlight amongst the busy foliage. It looks like a good life: each plant respecting the other’s need for light. A still, tranquil chaos. Something I know little of.
And then they catch my eye through the leaves: a wall of darkness branching across the sky. The mountains: the amphitheatres of my dreams. I focus on their grandeur for a second, my mind wandering high up to twisting tarmac and thin air. There are the roads I have been thinking of for months, they have dragged me out of bed as rain hammered on the window, they have driven me out into the cold from the safe haven of my warm apartment. And then my eyes drop to the pavement, feet briskly walking away. I daren’t dwell any more on what’s to come. I have been dreaming for months and now they are right here, staring me in the face.
Eventually I find what I set out for, in a small village hall. The coffee is burnt and served in a white plastic cup by an old woman with kind eyes. Perhaps she is already taking pity, aware of the pain the afternoon will herald? I take the cup and a small piece of brioche, and head back toward the team. As I wander, I dip the pastry deep in to the cup, searching solace and homely warmth from the black liquid. For a moment I forget the reality of the day ahead, forget the weight of my dreams and the intensity of those mountains.
A couple more turns of the watch face and I am all of a sudden lined up at the start. One of a few hundred nervous faces, some staring blankly forward, some laughing nervously and attempting to make small talk. The drool of the announcer, that strange foreign language I have all but my very fingertips upon, swirls around the quaint cobbled square. Elbows clash, shoulders bump, the announcer ramps up the volume and intensity, and the day begins.
The race is a blur. My concentration never wavering from what lies ahead, but eyes firmly focused on the present, on the wheel in front. Every movement, every breathe, is measured, considered. The finale looms large in my mind, as it did in my eyes hours earlier. And it consumes me. I feel it, in my pulse, in my legs. It’s like the feeling moments before a first date, over and over, for hours on end.
And then is it right there. Ten kilometres to go. I look up at the road, twisting far up into the clouds and my stomach finds the next gear in that familiar lurch. It looks impossible. I am meant to be a professional, people have turned out to watch us scale this climb, for entertainment, and here I am questioning if I will even make the top.
The gradient bites almost immediately. The pain of the next hour settling in to my legs and grabbing a hold of my lungs, squeezing out the air and the hope from within. The noise of the crowd floats through my head, my eyes sting with salt, still focused on the wheel in front, my thoughts solely in the present now.
I start to think of my journey here, to this country, this bizarre career. The taxi driver who somehow found the address I had scrawled on the back of one of my mother’s brown envelopes. Dragging my bags up four flights of stairs. The nightmare landlady. Eventually collapsing on the bed exhausted. It was late and I had been travelling all day, but as I lay there taking the ordeal in, the bookshelf opposite had caught my eye. It was empty. Home felt ever so distant in that moment.
And as I climb, it feels even further removed. The flat and quiet lanes I grew up on a million miles from this crazed mountain. Packed so close to so many, yet so alone, I am aware that I’m just another face in a crowd of many. I know how my day will be judged on this tarmac, how my character, my future, will be decided by how quickly I rise through these masses. But what drives me towards the summit is those very feelings from that bedroom, that first night. It’s that bookshelf staring back at me. And so I push long past the point where I should give in, stop pedalling and simply walk away.
The gradient kicks up, levels off, corners and flies up again. A mountain is as much a mental assault as a physical one. I know where the top is, 212.3km, the number is ingrained in my each and every thought. But still, every corner, every false summit, I beg for the finish to appear. I know it won’t, but I cling to the hope it just might. It’s a relentless hour, and I am sure if I could see the watch, its hand would have stopped.
Summoned from the furthest reaches of my psyche over and over during those sixty enduring minutes, is that feeling of loneliness, of having to prove myself to everyone and everything, of defiance. And it is this that pulls me, one gasping breath at a time, closer to the top, closer to my dreams, closer to where I think I belong.
Read this essay alongside many others, as well as a range of photography from the Mountains Project in the book Mountains: Epic Cycling Climbs.