The Invisible Mile, by David Coventry

The Invisible Mile, by David Coventry (Fiction)

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The 1928 Ravat-Wonder team from New Zealand and Australia were the first English-speaking team to ride the Tour de France. From June through July they faced one of toughest in the race’s history: 5,476 kilometres of unsealed roads on heavy, fixed-wheel bikes. They rode in darkness through mountains with no light and brakes like glass. They weren’t expected to finish, but stadiums filled with Frenchmen eager to call their names. The Invisible Mile is a powerful re-imagining of the tour from inside the peloton, where the test of endurance, for one young New Zealander, becomes a psychological journey into the chaos of the War a decade earlier. Riding on the alternating highs of cocaine and opium, victory and defeat, the rider’s mind is increasingly fixed on his encounter with his family’s past. As he nears the battlefields of the north and his last, invisible mile, the trauma of exertion and disputed guilt cast strange shadows on his story, and onlookers congregate about him waiting for revelation.

From: The Invisible Mile, by David Coventry

Chapter 1

I suspect none of us have ever foreseen the gaze of so many thousands, these faces and the bodies behind. These 50,000 eyes, brown, blue and hazel, all staring. I sit on the seat as Harry steadies the bicycle. He’s tall and he stands at my handlebars, looking past my shoulder. His own eyes are quite distant, their whites bloodshot with coffee and sugar and a hundred varying queries. The cobblestones make the wait awkward; I fear my bike is going to topple before we set off, a fool before the Paris thousands. I ask the time but no one will answer me. It is within the hour in which the Tour starts and that is all we know. 9:20 is our due; when it’ll arrive I can’t say. Harry nods at me but then his jaw stiffens as a draft of noise comes off the crowd. He blinks and this sound flattens for an instant, the faces and mouths and all the brilliant eyes dim, fold and brighten again. I adjust the brake lever. I make the change in racing position. Then I change it back.

It should be warm but pockets of night still sit in the shadows, its air running over our arms, over the run of nerves which have pimpled the skin. A pretty girl leans out of the crowd on the balcony above trying to get a rider’s, any rider’s, attention. She’s wearing a coat but pleasantly all the buttons that matter are undone. One of our team says, ‘Phew.’ It’s Percy and his accent’s rough, so rough the French look at their shoes when he speaks. He’s nervous and slaps Harry on the back. Nobody looks him in the eye. At least not Harry, because I know what he’s contemplating as he looks back at the crowd, what half the men are asking as they ready themselves.

‘What’s –’ Harry starts.

‘What’s what?’ I say back.

‘Do we know –’ But he stops again as he’s drowned out. All the noise, the cathedral sound of le Tour. Another team has left the line. We each wait out our turn, suspended on the rattling noise of the city.

I doff my hat the girl’s way. She seems to shout something out. I smile at all of us. Harry asks me what her name is, but then the crowd begins again. It surges, the sound seems to move and gather, setting a high point in its tide. He twists his neck and elbows my side. I nod and see what he is looking at. We all sense the dense weight of the eight touristes-routiers standing in the rear about to set off on a warm-up. Some I recognise. François Louvière is amongst them. I go quiet. As does the crowd. I watch him stretch his legs.

Harry’s squinting once more. I watch him because I believe I know what he is thinking, what he is doing: he’s asking how the dark has fallen outside his house, he’s asking what might be on the table inside the house at the end of the road at the start of the plains, for it is that approximate time back far in the south. He’s thinking of the room where his wife stands beside the quiet boil of the pot. I know how comforting these thoughts can be to one who fears the noise, the cauldron sound of murmurs growing to calls and shouts and moans. It surrounds us, crawls under our shirts and runs along our skin. The sudden loneliness hits and you turn and look around and think back to the things of food and drink, of love and quietness. I know because everyone fears the noise.

‘Hey,’ Percy calls out to the girl. She winces but grins. Three Australians and two New Zealanders, we can’t know what we sound like this deep in Paris. And I say Paris but we are really in the outskirts at Le Vésinet, but still, the city is here.

Ernie Bainbridge yawns. He starts humming a song, but Percy interrupts, or is already interrupting as he had never really stopped talking. It’s a nervous monologue, joking and serious and uncertain. Words he’s said before, said before we left for Brussels, said when we flowed out of Perth that March dawn. Something about mornings and Percy Osborne.

‘We’re gunna sink,’ he says.

‘You’re a nervous nelly,’ Ernie says.

‘A bridge’ll be out and you jokers’ll go down. I won’t be there, I’ll have quit.’

Harry smiles and opens his mouth.

‘You’re nervous,’ I say.

‘Damned right, I’m nervous,’ Percy says. ‘I’m nervous. I’m filthy. I’m filthy nervous.’ The repetition seems to help, seems to summon up some new pluck I hadn’t noticed previously because he whistles to the girl, doffs his hat and waits as she blows a kiss across all of us. She beams but this time I can’t say if her smile is a secret gift for Harry, Percy, Ernie, me, or indeed for Opperman who’s happily listening in and keeping quiet, or if it’s a gift for the broad sweep of the scene she must be seeing from up there; tens of thousands bright.

‘Do we know,’ Harry says, ‘what –’

‘What signal we get?’ I ask, and Harry nods.

‘Who?’ asks Percy.

‘Us. What signal do we get to start?’

‘Hubert?’ Harry says, and turns to find Opperman, who is concentrating on his handlebar tape.

‘How do we know the race has begun?’ Percy asks.

Opperman puts out his bottom lip and shrugs. ‘I dunno, Percy. When we’ve started racing, I’ll let you know.’

Percy mumbles something, says in half a voice not quite his own: ‘Asked for a captain and they send us young sonny cadet here.’ His brow is furrowed and he’s thinking, surprised at where this voice came from: some butcher in the lane, a broken digger at the station selling stamps and newspapers, perhaps a relative who’s been here before. It’s all as if he’s taken aback by the sudden need to be another to be himself.

‘It’s not the Sinai,’ I say.

‘You mean the Somme.’

‘Fuck the Somme.’

‘Do we go to the Somme?’ Harry asks.

‘Oppy?’

Our leader jerks his head at Ernie Bainbridge, who nods. ‘Not really,’ he says.

‘Somebody do some more star jumps,’ Percy says, and Opperman laughs as he bends to adjust his toe clips which do not need adjusting. An official waves for us to move up another place towards the line and the crowd sounds out like the inside of a wave tearing itself apart; we know a favourite has left the line. We look at one another and wonder which of the darlings has made their start. Monsieur France shouts to us from up ahead. He’s our manager and speaks without uttering a word of English. Mister France. We take bets on his first name. ‘What’s he saying?’ Percy asks – but we know it doesn’t matter, what he says, not in this noise. It’s the look in his eyes that tells us what we need to know, and it is saying we are up next, the next to ride into the howl this city makes when men are set free.

*

We were hosted by Le Vallois Cycling Club at Les Loges-en-Josas. We lived in an attic as the chalets were overrun by the French Olympic team. They too were there to train, man machines. Much to admire in their movements on the track. We watched them in the misted mornings, before our training had us on the roads covering anything from 40 to 60 to 95 kilometres. They streamed around the track like the chains between their sprockets, they seemed effortless, a calm fury in their speed. We mimicked their hunched stance over the handlebars. Monsieur France manhandling us in our saddles to get our arses in place.

Calm fury. Harry said those two words on one wet morning at Versailles and they made me smile as we walked those grounds, not so far distant from our lodgings.

We burnt the effects of the sea in weeks of endless concentration and blind application. We boiled water in the room with eucalyptus leaves Percy Osborne had stuffed in his pack and placed towels over our heads and breathed in the steam. Our sinuses were thick from colds and everything else we picked up on arrival. Bainbridge was particularly affected. He had a stomach complaint and we stopped often to allow him to vomit the breakfasts we received in the early morning. A sight often seen: Ernie Bainbridge with his fingers in his mouth coughing and hacking beside a culvert away from the side of the road. He wished to be alone as he went through these moments. Privacy was hard fought.

They drank coffee by the pot and stared at their shaking hands. I read letters from London sent by a family member of such a distance it burns to think whether she is related at all; I have seen her name written a few dozen times, the men we see competing, hundreds.

We watched races, the Bordeaux–Paris Classic, we watched the track. Extraordinary riders, the shape of them as a group. We tried to imitate cycling as one, each pump of the leg in tune with the man in front, the man behind. Our bodies pitched forward, la cadence. We found a smooth speed. I purchased clothes from a shop in the lane. I bought a beret. My teammates laughed at me, but soon had the same urge to melt in when crowds became too much. Yes, we mimic the French, but that is what we must do to survive. Seat position, head position. At a six-day event we were introduced to the crowd. We did a circuit of the indoor track and waved and men and women yelled. Opperman said we’re a boon for French racing, foreigners of a truly foreign kind.

We had our lights turned out at 9:30pm. At night I could hear Bainbridge talk in his sleep.

At six we’d arise to ride again, to be laughed at once more by Frenchmen who believed our presence to be an amusement of some cruel kind. They pointed at our outdated machines and our tyres and soon we were forced to buy them anew. Thin, road-quick tyres we hadn’t seen before arriving on the continent. We bought new handlebars so we could align our backs as we imitated the French. We found new pace, and while training with the Olympic team we could match them for speed on the longer days: Harry and Opperman stretching out leads once they passed the 100-kilometre mark. We rode with intent. Fitness made us machines to match the new bikes we were later given for the Tour by the organisers. Cycles that took weeks to get used to, to fine-tune into something that fitted our bodies and their complexity of shape and form.

I did not trust my new machine at first, none of us trusted them. The fittings came loose, the handlebars shifted, the seat twisted when I made an effort on the pedals. It took us two weeks to make the bikes roadworthy. And when finally we did, they flew. Harry wrote home making complaints. He wrote to O’Shea, the former champion who’d taken him under his wing since Harry first won the Timaru–Christchurch, two years after my first compete, who’d become his mechanic and made his machines fast. He complained in letters. Read them out loud in the attic before sending them on. We’d murmur our agreement.

We walked in Paris and I wondered how it was just as my brother said it would be: grand avenues and shrunken alleys, horse-borne heroes unmoving in statue and a million shuttered windows shaken by the tremor of perfect light, all of which we rode through in the long evening as we became one with the bicycles.

We fought our first battle racing from Paris to Rennes. It was still May, Spring, a season laced with winter hailstorms and sleet. At 2am we rode. We hunched over and pedalled outside the peloton. We were not there to win, just to practise and compete, though we found the five of us in the lead. After five minutes we were looking over our shoulders. The Frenchmen were lazing, just drifting at a pace akin to an outing in the heat of summer down shaded lanes. A sluggish education.

We slowed and felt the pack swallow us. We rejoined at their pace, and we listened as they chatted. These powerhouses, with their immaculate bodies and fine-tuned machines just talking as if on their way to a village tavern. They talked. I watched Harry listen, his eyes flicking from racer to racer as laughs were had and stories shared. Opperman, he wanted to run ahead but somehow knew this was just a ruse, some pretend waiting game. We cycled beside greats, André Leducq, the Algerian François Louvière, Nicolas Frantz from Luxembourg and current champion of the Tour. They were mere men until one of them, Leducq, the French road champion, punctured and the 31 other riders went mad and bit their lower lips and powered away. We went with them. It was a race suddenly. Men turned to sweat as muscles unwound, tightened and convulsed. The conversations disappeared, all went hard at the road. The leaders swapping out, letting others take their slipstreams for a few minutes before peeling off and letting another head the pack in the vanguard. We kept pace. After 40 minutes Leducq had rejoined the peloton and the pace once more fell away and the conversations started up again. Hands off the handlebars as men gestured and protested or agreed. A fraternity of riders heading south-west towards Brittany. I heard Louvière speaking Arabic and it felt familiar.

I came 19th, one place behind Harry, 11 behind Oppy. He rode beautifully and was in the papers. The owners of le Tour, L’Auto, mentioned our names.

We raced to Brussels with the flu deep in my body. Harry’s cones became loose and he had to leave the race to have them fixed. By the time he had rejoined me, Oppy had disappeared. He’d latched on to Nicolas Frantz and gone with him. I was lost, coughing out mucus. Harry was a pacer. The erratic speed of the continentals wasn’t to his liking or technique and we lingered near the back until I cried off before the borderlands. I returned to Versailles by train. During the journey I drifted in relief, the train rocking me through to a state I hadn’t experienced since being merged with these men to a group, a calm. A calm, for I wasn’t ready to ride so far north, not yet. I arrived at the club late in the evening to find news that Opperman had come third.

L’Auto took his photo. We were complimented and applauded in the strangest ways.

On the team’s return we came together and fêted him. We bought the best meal we could afford. Many of the French riders joined us and we drank wine, something that made my heart stand and salute. The French who took our company made conversation in fractured English. It was amusement for both sides and in exchange Harry and Oppy tried their poor French. We talked until dawn when the wine took us all out onto the streets. We asked ourselves if we were ready. No one had an answer.

That was all in May. Now it’s June. June 17, 1928, and I tell myself to wake up.

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Harry checks the spare tubes he has wrapped around his body like strange eels. We carry four of the things. Any more punctures than four and we will be forced to unstitch the inner tube from the canvas bag it resides within, then use glue and a patch before stitching it up once more. We’ve heard tales of men bribing local seamstresses to do their work, begging them not to tell the officials who linger about the race hoping to add hours to a rider’s total, to shove him back in the pack with a bad wish. I recall stories told that night after Brussels. Battles between riders and officials. I think of them and look around searching for their protagonists amongst the riders, believing that they must all be here somewhere, even if they aren’t racing. I realise I have no idea what they look like, though I have formed faces for their heads. So I ask: these men of fame, whose memories are they made of? For surely they aren’t real. They all seem an eternity away, though I understand that they are not, they are at the distance of that flag fall, or whatever signal we shall receive to begin this thing. For at that moment we will all be in this race together, its pasts and this moment, each suddenly unveiled to each other. We wear matching deep blue shirts with a green band. Who or what these colours represent no one has said.

I start concentrating, shift the periphery out of focus and think about the shape of my body draped over the frame, the adjustment of each angle of joint and limb – each so vital, more so than the organs within. Indeed, all we need is a heart for blood and lungs for air, all the rest are extra weight. We are soon to be engines. Soon to be flyers, eagles, bats, whatever kind you like. White caps and goggles, a mouthful of bugs and dust.

We depart 10 minutes before the gaggle of routiers, 40 minutes after Alcyon-Dunlop. The official starter nods, counts down and points the five of us on our way. We push off. We have, it seems, finally left New Zealand.

Despite this, my legs won’t work. I’m coasting with limp limbs rotating with the wheels. Ernie looks behind him and sees me struggling. He mouths at me, I hear him perfectly as if his mouth were beside my ear. I shrug and he yells. There’s nothing but the slow glide from the push Monsieur France had given my behind. A sensation like butterflies in my thighs as they slowly turn. Harry looks back, then the others. A cry from the crowd. There is nothing, and it seems there will forever be nothing. I am a skiff pushed out into the wash, surrounded by surf sound and drowning men. I am a failed tide. I move, but it’s a strange powerless movement amongst the shapeless noise, the volume of rows and rows of shouting mouths. Whose faces do I see? I look for them, family, and friends. Of course I see no one, not until I see a scarf around the neck of a woman. It is yellow, bright. Harry sways outwards, his bike following his gaze back over his shoulder. I see our manager shouting at me, he’s running alongside shouting. I grin at him. Slowly, with a curious returning, my legs begin to move, migrating energy from my thighs to the road. Harry says something and I find myself following him as I have time and again.

Someone. Someone deep in the crowd laughs and I join in for a moment.

Hallelujah, as the angels say.

Now we flow down the street, the dawn light bouncing off green steel. We are beneath the stare of thousands. I struggle to deal with their dimensions and I do calculations in my head. A habit of a habitual amateur mathematician; I struggle to resist giving numbers to things. The air remains hard with sound. We are within a shell. Children scream, though I doubt they know who we are or what it is we are doing; they are screaming for the sake of the scream, the facial contortion that lets their air join the others’ (their parents, their siblings, their friends, and so on until each person on the end of each held hand is a part of this sound). It’s immense and I know we all do it, we all fear the noise. It’s everywhere, all about us, so we don’t listen. We ride into a silence only we know how to make.

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