20 July 2008

The Frontier

Today I saw part of the Tour de France coverage on TV. The Tour is divided into 21 stages, each lasting a day. One stage might be long and flat, another a race against the clock, still another--like today's--an arduous ride, full of climbs.

Today the TDF cyclists pedalled through the Alps from France into Italy. I recognized the road: I pedalled up and down it myself seven years (already!) ago, on my last bike tour. You don't forget a road like that: beautiful and treacherous, like the countryside and the journeys some of us take through it.

Seven years ago, I cycled in the opposite direction from the ones in which the racers rode today: I was coming back into France from Italy. But I encountered the same kinds of climbs and descents--through a cloud, then and now. Except they descended into light rain and slick roads; I, on the other hand, was pedalling under a preternaturally clear sky just a few minutes after emerging from nearly opaque air.

For today's riders, the wet roads were a danger: A wrong turn or even pedal stroke could send half of the pack tumbling to the pavement. What a lot of people don't realize is that a road surface slicked by a light rain is even more hazardous than one washed by hard rain: The light rain mixes with oils and other substances that would be swished away by a harder rain. The resulting film has ended the day, and the Tour, for more than one rider past.

Rain is not the only hazard. At high altitudes (2000 meters+ on that ride), clear, sunny skies sap moisture from your body: Cyclists, hikers and other sorts of adventurers have met their endings without realizing they were dying. So you drink even when you don't think you need it.

Clouds or sun, wet or dry, coming or going, there is also the frontiere--what we call the border, what others might call the boundary. There stands one of the longest and steepest climbs of all. On one side it's called Col d'Agnel, on the other, Colle d'Agnello. For me, for today's riders, for anyone who crosses, this climb is one of the most difficult anyone will face. (If I recall correctly, it's the second-highest peak in the Alps, after Mont Blanc.) For the racers in the Tour, it is an ascent that will soon be followed by a descent and a stretch to the end of the day's stage; for me, it was a climb that prepared me for yet another, one of which I had a premonition while pumping and gasping my way up Agnel/Agnello.

After decending the Agnel side, I pedalled another thirty kilometers or so to a village that was probably abuzz during the ski season but was, on that summer day, all but deserted. It was late in the afternoon; even though I was in much better shape than I am now, I was ready to eat and collapse, in no particular order. I spotted an uncharacteristically boxy building which I figured--correctly--to be a ski dorm. A couple of young men, probably caretakers or other workers of some sort, looked like they were fixing a pump or some other necessity of the building.

Pardon, monieur. Y-a-t'il une lit disponible?

J'en y crois. Demandez l'acceuil.

So someone was at the reception desk. Good sign. I found him; he explained, "nous voulons fermer ce nuit; il n'y a pas des voyageurs."

Sauf moi, I deadpanned.

Oui. Yes, I was the only one.

Je suis arrive d'Italie. J'en ai ascende le Col--I pointed in the direction of Agnel.

He stared. Je suis tres, tres fatigue, I sighed in a tone of voice I almotst never used, especially around another male.

D'accord. Quelque chose sera possible. He said perhaps he could do something, just aller a manger--he pointed to a cafe down the road--et reviens. Yes, I would come back, I said. He motioned for me to follow him and pointed to a shed. "Velo--la": I could leave my bike there.

I walked down a road that crossed a creek to the cafe. The Eagles' "Hotel California" played on the radio; the Beatles' "Get Back" followed. I remembered reading somewhere that "Hotel California" is one of the most widely played songs, and the Beatles the most commonly played group, on French radio.

Aside from me, there were only a few regulars, all of them at the counter. Actually, considering that it was a Sunday evening during the off-season, I was surprised to see even those few. They were chatting; I glanced down the road and the mountains I had just pedalled. For the following day, I'd planned to continue on toward Annecy and Chambery. I knew there would be a few more climbs--one of them, Izoard, is one of the more famous ones on the Tour. Beyond that, I only knew there would climbs, though I didn't know which ones.

That was part of the premonition I had on Agnello. The rest of it went something like this: I would have to repeat a climb, but after that, I wouldn't have to do any others.

I had no idea of what any of that meant. However, I knew somehow that I would confront something and that afterward, I could not remain as I was. After crossing the frontier, so to speak, I couldn't go back.

Two days later I pedalled le Col du Galibier, one of the two most famous Tour climbs. And I had that revelation that I'd never have to do it again; later that day, I finally confronted myself in the person of a middle-aged woman going home from work in the town of St. Jean de Maurienne, practically next to the frontier I'd crossed at Agnel/Agnello. After seeing the way she occupied time and space, as a woman--the way I'm supposed to-- I knew I couldn't go back, though I tried.

Now I'm here and don't want to be anywhere else. Nor do I want to go anywhere else but wherever's next, whether or not I have to cross a frontier. And I'll climb if I have to, but only then.

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