The wheel. There’s nothing else. Everything reduced to this. Two bands of rubber, a little air. Everything else has gone, but the wheel is getting closer. Ten metres. Five. Three. One metre, half a metre . . .
The best cyclists, although maybe not the greatest, are like diamonds. They sparkle, they drag your eye to them, but they shine only from reflected light. Without others around them, they’re nothing. Without a wheel to take, they’re not so different to me. This wheel, so close I could almost touch it now. Then it slipped away.
The sun hit the peak for the first time.
Vision narrowed to a point.
A single drop of sweat, shining on the handlebars.
No sounds but the wind and my breathing. Deep, rasping, hard. Harder.
Time after time, the road switched back on itself, like it couldn’t make its mind up how to chew me up.
There were twelve of us in total, but even this early in the climb, the road had separated us. A group of three up the road, two half a hairpin back. The rest are nowhere. Me? Alone now, just my breathing and the wind talking to one another to pass the time.
It was cold still, as we stood there to wait for them.
I was by the roadside, the first time I had been allowed. Last year I’d watched from Giovanni and Alicia’s window – the best view in the village, you could see the whole way down the road to the bend by the church – but still behind the glass.
But this year, when they came by, I’d be close enough to reach out and touch them. I knew I wouldn’t, knew I wasn’t allowed, but I could do. If I wanted to, I could do.
I’d be close enough for Papa to see me. Maybe he would wave this year.
I was wearing the dress he brought me back from Milan. The red one with the bow. He won something, not a race, but one of the little races in the race, and bought me the red dress to celebrate. I knew he would see me if I wore that. Me and Mama also.
There was the smell of coffee, and cigarettes, as everyone in the village waited for Papa and all the others to come by.
I listened for the policeman on his motorbike. He always came first.
The pain, when it comes, comes in waves.
Gentle almost. Each deeper push, each turn bringing it back, harder.
Climbing is the purest form of cycling. The pain is obvious, anyone can see it. There’s no trick to it. No way to make it easier. You just push, and it hurts, and you push, and it hurts. It doesn’t matter if you go slowly or fast, it still hurts. The only way to make it stop is to turn around. So no one does that.
My legs have a hundred miles in them from yesterday, and more from the day before. Another bend. The gradient drops enough to ease back half a notch, to gather myself before the next long stretch upwards. Always upwards.
It isn’t a competition, but it is. When there are two cyclists going the same way on the same road, it’s a competition. Even if they don’t both know it.
If I drop much further back, it will be impossible to latch on to the three on the descent, and I’ll be left waiting for the group behind to catch me.
The sun was nearly full in the sky by then, the asphalt slickened with dew and deepest black. The green of the mountainside and the blue of the sky.
As I rounded the final bend, the one next to the cross, I saw them on the roadside, the first crocuses of spring. Watching like a tiny crowd, white, yellow – and one magnificently red.
I coughed, spat, coughed again. Dirt and soot and soot and dirt and no matter how often I dragged a mouthful of water around my mouth it was the same. The soot from the motos, and probably the factories too when we left the last town, the dirt from the road. Endless dirt roads.
This was the last one. L’ultima. Never again would I be riding this cursed, beautiful bastard race. It’s shit. I’ll be home soon. I won’t get to stay this time, but soon I’ll be home and I’ll stay there. This might even be the last time I ride up this hill. When I stop, I’ll drive up it every time and I’ll laugh at the idea of ever bloody riding it again.
They were making all of us suffer again. One sodding climb after another. We left Brescia two hours before dawn, in the rain. Then the rain stopped, the wind dried out the road and the sun rose, and it was so damned hot and dusty and they kept fucking attacking. One after another. Attack after attack.
I just want enough time to stop and kiss Maria, and Giulia, to say hello, and say goodbye one last time. That’s why I couldn’t let the attacks go, because I needed to go on the attack. I wasn’t going to win today, but my legs weren’t even good enough to close the arseholes down.
I spat again, and dug again, and pulled the lot of them back up again, and breathed again.
Roberta had a radio, and she always let Mama stand close enough to hear it. Sometimes it told us when they were coming, sometimes it was just static and coughs. Today they said the race was split into groups, and that Papa was in the second group, so I knew that when the first policeman arrived, Papa might not be there yet.
Papa has been racing for longer than I’ve been alive. I don’t remember when I first watched him race through the village, but the first time I went to watch him race with Mama was last autumn. It was a big important race and at the start there were so many people, all of them in their racing clothes, with their bikes, and their teams, and their cars and their helpers, and I couldn’t see Papa at all.
But on the road, I could always see him. Maybe he didn’t look at me, but I know he knew I was there, because he always looked like he was trying a bit harder when I was there.
I could hear engines now. The smoke was grey against the sky, and the motorbikes were whining because our road, our mountain, was so steep. Everyone in the village was proud of our mountain, proud of our village, and our little white church stood at the very top of it, and proud that every spring the Giro d’Italia, the most important race in all of Italy, would race by our village on its way to Milan.
The best part of riding up a mountain is that you won’t be riding up a mountain forever, but that’s also the worst part.
We’d ridden together from the hostel, and only separated as the road turned upwards. First six and six, then three slip away, then me. Easily divisible, simple fractions. We all knew the route. Some rode together, some alone. But we all rode upwards. Towards the village, the cobbled street, the church and then the descent. One more climb after, but this was the one. The only one we’d come for, if we were honest.
Suddenly I wasn’t climbing, bliss, but the road wouldn’t keep still, never stayed flat, and then I was climbing again. Relief, washing over me like an ocean wave, only to withdraw as fast as it had come, leaving brackish salt-water sweat and shattered breath.
Why wouldn’t they just let me be? This fucking stage had 160 more kilometres, and three more mountains to go and they wouldn’t just let me be for this one bastard climb. They all knew it was home up ahead. They’d ridden past it with me last year, and the one before, and the bloody one before that. They’d been riding past it since before Giulia was born, since the year I was so strong I had time to kick, leave the others far enough behind that I could snatch a crocus to pass to Maria, snatch a kiss from her, and carry on before they even saw the church spire.
That was the year I won the thing. The year that Maria and I were married. Then next year Giulia came. It got harder to leave, but it got easier too. Every win, every envelope full of cash, it was all for a reason. First the little house, then all our plans for what I’d do when I finally stopped climbing on this bastard bike and got my life back. The payments got bigger, and they kept on at me to come back, but I’d told them this was it. L’ultima. They weren’t getting me back on that bike.
Umberto was going, the prick. Why was he doing that? He was nobody. I no longer had the strength. But Rudi did, and he hated Umberto, so he spat, cursed and he went, and then I could go too, the others hooting like fucking owls at us all.
The boys from the village were all running around, kicking a football and chasing the dogs through the streets. They had to cut through the back streets, right past our house, because Papa and the other racers were coming up the road and everyone knew you weren’t allowed there. They were noisy and trying to get attention like all boys do, but Dommi was with them, and every time they passed by he paused a little, and smiled if he saw me looking.
Sometimes I smiled back.
Behind the crocuses, the houses. It looked like no one had lived in this tiny mountain town for decades. Boarded up still, before ski season brought it back to life. The sting of sweat in my eyes and on my sunglasses made the whole place look softer. The air was so crisp, but through the haze the houses looked like impressions.
Then I saw her, watchful and suspicious in the doorway. She must have seen enough cyclists riding by to not be surprised, but she still looked angry. She looked like she could have been standing there watching riders pant and moan their way by her front door for three generations, but she offered neither encouragement nor sympathy, just a hint of acknowledgement.
I looked down, and up again, the road was so steep here, and I couldn’t even pull myself from the saddle to force the effort. It seemed to take half a lifetime from the moment I noticed her to when I pulled alongside her. The light had reached her, or I had noticed it framing her in the doorway. Squinting against the sweat in my eyes, it looked like she half-raised her arm towards me then, as I came close enough for her to reach out and touch me if she took a step forward.
I could see the corner where the church stood proudly against the sky, but it was more than half the village away and the cruellest gradient was still to come. I clicked uselessly at the gears again and uselessly they clicked back at me. I’d been in the bottom one for four or five kilometres, but I couldn’t think properly any longer.
My rear wheel slipped and skidded on a viscous, vicious little patch and I slid and nearly lost it. I heard her breath over my own then – a sharp, scared inhalation that sent a flutter through her red dress before she turned away into the door.
It’s not good enough to know how to hurt yourself to be great at this arsehole sport. That’s enough to be good, but to be great you have to go looking for that hurt, day after day after day, for one week, two weeks, for whole goddamn years. I would do that and I would revel in it. Feeling the pain surging through me and knowing I was spraying it over all the others.
I don’t know when I started to fear the pain, but I fucking hate it now. I want it to stop. I want to roll up to Maria and put my bike down and never pick it up again.
But there she is. There. With her giant, stupid yellow hat so I could spot her so quickly when I could hardly see for sweat and soot and shit. Giulia was in front of her, red dress like a beacon.
Rudi and Umberto were still in front of me. God knows how many others were in front of them, but they were long gone, and I just needed a second alone, so I pushed, and I pushed, and the younger owls started hooting that I was going, and the others, the ones who knew said woah and easy, because they knew.
It was fine, they were letting me go. I was out of the saddle and my wheel slipped and I pushed this way and that to stop myself falling. Fucking roads, all grit and chips and Christ knows what.
I could hardly see but I could see them. This was too much. This wasn’t pain, it was something else, like every part of me was trying to escape this race, and I’d be pulled apart as they went.
It was like a snapping. But I could nearly touch them now.
It was like a snapping. Like my heart was trying to escape.
How had it come to this, this point, this point where my vision was a point, and what was the point?
There was nothing, absolutely nothing left except pain and I couldn’t start and I couldn’t stop.
Everything flickered and shook like an old-fashioned TV picture. All I could hear was whooshing and I thought I’d fall. I even felt my head hit the ground.
He was here at last. He must be. The first four or five of them went past in a haze of dirt and smoke and shouts, then we waited. I could feel my heart beating and I counted it to pass the time. 236 beats until I could see the next group.
But where was Papa? Their jerseys were so dirty, their faces so black. They looked like Luca and Regina after the fire, when they’d stood in front of the house, two or three of their best things smoke blacked and ruined at their feet, and the whole village standing around watching their house smoking. Imagine having a job that made you look like that every single day while you rode up a mountain. Imagine being that brave. That was my Papa.
They were twenty metres away, ten, then one rider surged clear. But he wasn’t clear. He wasn’t right. He was on the floor.
The others swept by. Papa must be in the next group.
The rider was still on the floor and we were all rushing over.
The ground rushed up to catch me, but it smashed me in the head as it did.
I could still see but I couldn’t see any more than the spot.
A corridor that someone was running down, and then the spot filled up with red.
They were crying before I could see, and I still think I knew. Mama says I couldn’t have but I still think I knew.
I saw him and I know he saw me, his eyes were open then, his eyes that found me and then they lost me.
And then Giovanni and Luca were picking me up and I was screaming to put me down and I could hear Mama crying and I wanted to cling to him and not let him go and if only they had put me down I’d have held on to him and not let him leave.
At last, the church was there, and so were the three. Of course, they waited, what had I been thinking? Catching them on the descent? We always waited for everyone. Kidding myself I was a pro, and this was a real race. Oxygen-starved, exhausted fever dreams.
The others were slow coming back, dribs and drabs, but the day was heating up and the crickets were waking up and starting to chirrup in the meadow, and it was so lovely it didn’t matter at all.
Every year they come. Every month. Every week. Every day. In dribs and drabs, in ones and twos. Then once or twice a year in great groups. They come and they come and they come. Fast and slow but always they look like they hate it.
Why do they do it if they hate it so much? Why do they keep on coming? Reminding me every day of that day. Why do they keep on coming?
Looking down the road, I saw the last rider make the turn, and slightly weaving, make his way up the final 400 or so metres to us, heavily breathing apologies that none of us needed or expected.
She was still standing there as I turned away, her red dress almost luminous against the sky and the grass. She was still looking down the road like she was waiting for another rider, even though we were all here.
Someone always has to be last, just like someone has to be first.