Words: Paul Fournel Illustration: Jo Burt
The bike left my father one Sunday morning ten years ago. It happened between Bas-en-Basset and Aurec in the Haute-Loire region of France, in solitude. He was climbing a small hill which I would not describe as laughable because cyclists – even those who are used to the Ventoux or Izoard – well know that you can explode on a two kilometre hill which doesn’t go up that much.
Let’s just say that this incline should not have been sufficient to end his riding.
‘Something’ tightened in his chest, imperiously letting him know that the bike was leaving him after 70 years of companionship.
He went home without saying anything, at the pace of his pain.
For ten years the bike has been in the garage, upright, ready to go. It is oiled, its wheels are pumped up, it is mountable, perhaps there is still something to eat in the pannier on the handlebars?
No doubt for a long time my father thought he would get back out on the road. In any case, he never said anything about it, ever. Now that he is more than 85 years old, he knows he will not set off anymore.
The other day when I was driving him in his car, he asked me to take a detour so we could go back over that little hill. So I left the main road to take one of those tiny little roads that sink into the countryside and which we had surveyed so many times together.
When we arrived on the incline, he said to me: “It’s here.” I slowed down. “I tried to go up it in the 24 tooth,” he continued, “but the pain was too strong. I turned back.”
Then, one thing leading to another, since we were there, we followed the road. It ascended winding in the forest, all speckled by the sun, narrow, grainy, with the smell of mushroom and of hot earth of this end of the summer.
At the place called The Cutaway, the slope becomes more severe. My father had changed sprocket. He went with a 22. He had never liked to ride too small a gear. There, he explained to me, his childhood friend had fallen in the clump of stinging nettles below. Then he said nothing more because the slope was too tough. I felt him try a 24 but he held on. On the descent, he explained how, 60 years earlier, he had dropped his mate Madel, passing in 52×14. He warned me to watch out for the left turn because it loops back on itself. Then, after the little bridge, we started to climb again.
At this point, the road climbs into the meadow. It is in full sun. There is not a cloud on the horizon and we can see the bends above which hug the curve of the mountain. Far away, we can make out the deep valley of the Loire. It is lined with the shade of green trees which will soon turn yellow. That will be the time of lovely autumn outings when you put on long sleeves in the early hours. My father said to me: “I remember the time I put on golf trousers cut to the knee and big checked woollen socks!” We climbed in silence, our breath short. The sweat that fell down his face, gathering in drops on the point of his chin and falling on his frame. He rusted more than one this way.
When we reached the summit, after the long left turn which was already less steep, the view opened out on the plains just down below. The red-roofed hamlets nestled on crossroads, the beige cows on their green background. The roads narrow and empty. Occasionally a tractor. The road is gentle, one of the rare pieces of flat in the whole of this region. A moment to savour letting your legs turn, hands on the tops, nose in the evening breeze. He was in 52×16. We went through a village, then another with a brief slope before plunging towards the valley. We swallowed it up, standing on the pedals.
“One year, I punctured twice in a row on this bitch of a road,” he said. I remember it very well because I was riding behind him. It was no doubt the summer during which I punctured 16 times myself.
Crossing the hamlet, he made the same silent gesture to warn me about the manhole cover that still hadn’t been replaced in its housing.
The descent is technical. If you want to go fast you have to have the design of the bend in your head before committing yourself totally. It’s essential to know your roads well.
My father descended with his hands on the top of the handlebars, at full tilt, as usual.
Then we arrived at Aurec, on the banks of the Loire. I felt a sense of disappointment. “Everything has changed here, look, they have built everywhere. They have redone the road. It goes straight up. They know nothing about cycling. There is nothing worse than a climb in a straight line.”
We climbed it anyway.
Through the whole of our trip, we remained side by side, shoulder to shoulder. I stayed on his left, like two peaceful cyclotourists, changing speed at the same moment, taking the corners together, rolling on.
But now that we have gone back out on the road together I know that it cannot last and that, soon, he will go on ahead of me.