Défaillance: an interlude, a parody

They’re good wheels, he thought to himself. They’re good wheels and they’re strong and true and light. Not the best wheels ever made; not the most expensive. Not as good as a hand-built set of Italian wheels, the sort of wheels that Pantani rode in his prime. But good wheels nonetheless. American wheels.

“Muck straight gauge,” he said to no-one in particular as he spun the wheels holding onto either side of the axle with both hands, feeling the smoothness of the bearings, feeling for any pitting in the races: that slight tension, or catching of the motion that would be his signal for further maintenance.

Cyclists spend a lot of time obsessing over wheels, he thought. Only a damn fool would think that they weren’t the most important part of a bike, with the possible exception of the tyres. There was a reason that Merckx fussed over his wheels – like everything else – and had his hand-stitched tubulars curing in his basement for months or years to harden them against punctures.

It should be axiomatic that a good set of hoops will give greater performance benefits than all the carbon handlebars and brake levers in existence. More weight saving, faster sprinting, effortless climbing. Attention to detail; spending money where it counts, not just on aesthetics.

He ran a stiff bristled brush over the tyres and inspected them closely for cuts and embedded glass or stones. Michelin. French tyres. More grip on the road than an ex-wife’s lawyer on your wallet. He only used French or Italian tyres; never German. Most of them were made outside Europe, anyway, he lamented. Outsourced. But Michelin, as well as performing on the road, took him back to his time in France, before it all turned to merde, with his guidebook and the old Renault with a beautiful woman in the passenger seat and a case of Veuve Cliquot in the back seat waiting to be chilled and drunk. Avignon, Gord, Salt. The spring sun bright and strong, before the Dutch and Belgians in their camper vans arrived. And there was Paris as well. Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it,* he thought.

Venice was good, too. Although it was too far from Bormio and the mountains to be worth a damn, it was a fine city nonetheless. They had fine duck to eat and at Harry’s bar they would decant the Valpolicella if you asked nicely, so you didn’t have to drink the bottom of the bottle, which would spoil a good wine.

His hands were tired and sore from rebuilding his bike. They were good hands, but were aging and worn and had spent too much time avoiding shop work; too much time at writing, he thought, which always seemed to take too long, no matter how hard he worked at it.

Wheels 1
Climbing brings its own special mix of pain.

But not as tired and sore as his legs. He wondered what glory there was to be gained from racing. There was more suffering than glory. No matter how good your wheels were, it was your legs that mattered. The spectators at the roadside had the right idea; a hamper of cold chicken and warm baquette and a bottle of chilled Soave from the Veneto region. They could appreciate the sounds and the colour of the racers. But the racers themselves, fixated on the wheel in front of them; that tiny distance of just a few inches between their own front wheel and the rear wheel of the rider in which they were drafting behind.

Racing was all about following wheels, he concluded. There was no glory in following wheels. The worst riders were those who were never in the wind; never out on their own on a long breakaway; never with their noses low to the handlebars, their lungs tearing themselves inside out.

Too harsh? Most racers, at least the honest ones, spent time in wind and time chasing wheels. It was how the peloton worked. No-one could begrudge a fellow racer for wanting to follow a wheel, to take some respite from the work or to better his position. It was just tactics. And the best racers knew when to work and when to follow. Only the truly exceptional didn’t have to follow other wheels; they were the wheels that the rest tucked in behind.

But that’s not you, he thought, thinking of the dull and creeping pain in his legs. Every year it took longer for his legs to recover after a race. No longer was it the day after that was the worst, but sometimes two days after. On the third day it was gone; but the second day was when it truly hurt.

Wheels 2
The wheels fade into the distance.

Un jour sans. There was no other way to describe his weekend’s ride. Never let them hit you solid, he thought. Words to live by. But in cycle racing there was no feinting or ducking. You could either hold the wheel or you couldn’t. Simple as that.

And that weekend he hadn’t been able to hold the wheels. The cat. ones on the front, with legs like the big knotted ropes used by Basque fishermen off the coast of San Sebastian, driving the pace; making everyone else suffer to hang on the back. How do you like it now, gentlemen? Watching the gap grow inexorably; two inches, then four, then a foot, then a yard. Suddenly three bike lengths and they were gone. The gap so small but completely unbridgable.

He’d banged on the bars and shouted his best European curses. But it was all over. There was no truer feeling of defeat than being dropped. Pure and simple. Take your best shot and watch it go wide. There were many skills to master in racing, many subtleties that spectators can’t fathom; but the true test comes when the pace picks up, when whatever strengths you have in your head don’t matter and the only strength that counts is the strength in your legs. And your courage.

There would always be other chances, he thought, fitting the front wheel into the dropouts and carefully tightening the quick release lever up to tension. Défaillance was temporary, but shouldn’t good wheels last forever?

Wheels 3
Chasing, or being chased…

* Not an original thought, but this is a parody after all.

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