27 Stages is now available in print and ebook.**)
Ciao a tutti! Hi, everybody! Sorry about the hiccup posting last week - by which I mean, no TT last Thursday - but I had a good reason (don't I always?). I've been working hard to get things done, writing-wise, and while I'm still lagging behind, I made some time this week to share another sampling of my biggest WiP ever.
So, with your kind indulgence, I'd like to share
Around me the spectators waved flags and signs and cheered – not only for their favorites, but for every rider coming in. All at once, there were excited shouts and piercing whistles all around. Everyone turned to watch the giant screens on the sides of the road. Renard, the rider Charles thought looked so angry, had cleared the second checkpoint in record time. He was presently burning up the road on the descents out of the park, occasionally leaving the less-daring motorcycle cameramen behind. They weren't willing to take the curves at the same rate of speed.
Clearing a bend in the road to fly down to the straightaway beyond, Renard shot past a rider who'd left the start house a full two minutes ahead of him. The next switchbacks in the road made the crowd gasp, and my heart pounded so hard I could scarcely breathe. Finally he swept past yet another rider and out onto somewhat more open road.
The crowd tensed, watching along the road for him. On the screen another dramatic scene played out. Renard had just surpassed the time of his teammate and fan favourite, Heinrich Brunn – quite easily, by the look of it – and was now making his way toward the finish. The seconds which separated them began to expand: Brunn's time was five seconds longer, ten, twenty. The standings on the screen shifted accordingly. Renard rose higher and higher, from fourth to third to second and then to a clear first-place finish.
My camera all but forgotten, I leaned over the barrier and watched eagerly for his arrival. I needn't have worried about missing him – the roar of the crowd swept along with him as he closed in on the finish line. The sound grew louder and louder still, every possible noisemaker being improvised and then employed. Cheers and shouts which bordered on screams, megaphones used to amplify shouts of joy, inflatable "thundersticks" thwapped together to produce manic, percussive sounds. People clapped their hands and banged on the barriers, jumping up and down.
And then, there he was. I gathered my senses and snapped photos of him approaching the line, one arm raised over his head in a show of jubilation, complete and utter joy on his face.
Back at the hotel, I had two thorough goings-over at the same time. The team masseur worked his magic on my legs – cooling the fire smouldering just beneath my skin – while Jerzy tore into me with a restraint I'd never seen before.
"Grandstanding," he growled, pacing the length of the room. "Shameless grandstanding, Ciccio. I don't approve of such things. It could have cost you time."
"But it didn't," I said, looking up at him from the massage table.
He whirled around and narrowed one eye at me, his signal that I should shut up if I intended to keep all my most precious body parts. The masseur kept his head down and continued working as though the threat weren't hanging in the air amongst us.
"It could have, is what I said. Save the shows for when you join the circus."
The blood drained from my face as shame filled it. He was right. Sure, I'd managed a phenomenal lead – fifty-five seconds ahead of Brunn, forty seconds ahead of Schlessinger and Maxxout, who would be marking my ass as a personal vendetta for sure – but starting tomorrow, the stages would be longer and harder, and I wouldn't be on my own.
"Work with the team, Ciccio, not against them."
I nodded, chastened. Jerzy remained at the foot of the table, behind the masseur, and glared at me before storming off. The masseur glanced up at me with a sympathetic look and I closed my eyes, exhausted.
...we stood at the barriers along the road, along with other spectators waiting for the stage to begin.
The riders wouldn't race within the city limits. They'd ride slowly together behind a car full of Tour officials until they reached a more open part of the road. Everything would get off to a proper start then, likely with a group breaking away from the pack to try and gain time, while the rest sat back and waited for their chances closer to the finish.
As for us, once the riders had gone past, we'd check out of the hotel, then drive our rental car to Castro Verde, where the stage ended. I'd take pictures of the finish, and in the morning I'd photograph the opening of the next stage.
This was the plan for the next few weeks, too.
A ripple of applause made its way toward us, reaching a peak when the peloton passed. I smiled as Renard went by, clad in the royal-blue jersey which marked him as the Tour's current leader. I framed him carefully and took several successive shots while he raised his hand and waved at the crowd on my side of the road. An obviously disgruntled Jürgen Schlessinger of Team Maxxout rode alongside him.
A flare of excitement flashed through me and I continued taking photos of the rest of the pack as it streamed by, southward bound.
The whole event didn't last long. Even with all the behind-the-scenes 'mood' shots I'd captured, Charles and I had only been out for a couple of hours.
"Finally," he said with a sigh. "Now let's get our bags before someone steals them, and find some lunch before the restaurants close for some bloody siesta or something."
"There's plenty of time." I checked my watch for good measure. "It's barely twelve-thirty."
He shrugged and turned in the direction of the hotel. "Let's go to that pub again. It's English-owned and they had a nice fry-up listed on the menu. Could be worth trying."
Turning my head so he couldn't see me roll my eyes, I packed up my things. "If you say so, hon."
"I do." He took me by the crook of my elbow and led me through the crowd. "I suppose this whole travel thing isn't so bad, once you find decent places to eat."
"There are lots of great restaurants in Lisbon, Charles. You just have to be willing to try something different."
"And risk Montezuma's revenge? No thanks."
"That's what you call it in Mexico, I think," I offered in mild protest. A shake of his head dismissed me.
"It's all the same, darling. I don't doubt that some of this lot would do it on purpose."
"I think that's pretty unlikely. I mean, they'd lose business if that were the case."
"Not with the bloody Euro in the marketplace. Now they can do as they please without fear of losing their livelihood."
"You're talking like a businessman again. Couldn't we just play happy tourists and have fun?"
He held the door of the pub open and I stepped reluctantly inside.
"Maybe later," he said. "Right now, I want my fry-up, all right?"
"All right. But I'm having the cozido this time."
"Suit yourself – and best of luck to you."
While I warmed up with my teammates on the stationary trainers alongside the team bus, I puzzled over the lack of communication from Solange. Still no calls in response to mine. No messages, either. An unpleasant voice in the back of my mind insisted something was going on: she'd never gone so long without contacting me before.
When I noticed Rom watching me with open curiosity, I returned my focus to what I was doing. I couldn't afford distraction.
I thought about the route ahead for that afternoon. I closed my eyes and visualized the profile: a few gently undulating hills but mostly flat, with one climb once we were well out of Lisbon. The whole course would run about two-hundred kilometres. Remembering the day before, my mood lightened.
I could do this. I knew it.
Supporters watched while we warmed up, taking photos, calling out good wishes to us. I turned up the volume on my mp3 player and let the percussive techno beat drive me on. I looked up only when my trainer nudged me and motioned for me to adjust my position on the bike.
Shit. Focus, Renard.
I let the music play and narrowed my world to the rhythm of my feet on the pedals and to keeping myself steady on the bike. I concentrated until I didn't hear the music anymore, just the thrumming of energy passing through me to power the bike. My legs pistoned smoothly and the hum of my rear wheel reassured me of my steady pace. The longer I went, the better I felt and the clearer my head became.
"Come on, Abby," Charles said from where he lay under the covers, "let's go to sleep."
I looked at my watch; it was only seven p.m.
"I'm hungry." I stood and got my handbag. "I'm going out for a bite. Do you want me to bring anything up for you?"
Charles groaned in reply and rolled over.
"Fair enough. I'll be back soon."
Key in hand, I eased the door shut and went down to the hotel restaurant. I'd forgotten that the Spanish tend to dine late, with dinner beginning around nine at night. Most of the restaurants, including the one in the hotel, weren't even open yet. I certainly didn't want pub fare so I headed along the street in search of something light.
In the main plaza people mingled and chatted around the fountain and in the cafés and pubs. Fathers played with their children or sat with their wives (or girlfriends) sharing coffee or sweets at the outside café tables.
I felt decidedly out of place, flying solo as I was.
I bought an iced lemonade and sat on a bench in the plaza, wishing I had my camera. What wonderful shots I was missing!
The last of the summer evening light gave the plaza a nostalgic feel. The sepia-toned light cast soft shadows with an almost liquid texture in the fading heat of the day.
Finishing my drink, I decided to go and get my camera. Maybe I could still get some good photos after all. I hurried up to our room and slipped inside quietly, hoping Charles was asleep and would stay that way.
No such luck.
"You're back," he said sleepily.
I stopped, putting my camera bag back on the table. "I thought I might get some photos. It's a beautiful evening."
"No, no… Why don't you come to bed? You can get your little snaps in the morning."
I wanted to protest but I was in no mood to argue. Instead, I went to the window and pulled the curtains closed on the plaza.
My 'little snaps' would just have to wait.
With each crank of the pedals, liquid fire ran through my legs. My skin burned in the late afternoon heat radiating from the tarmac. A grimace carved itself into my face, a death's-head grin for exquisite suffering under the summer sun.
Up ahead, a motorcycle swayed to and fro, going slowly up the steep incline so the camera operator on board could keep filming. In its wake the crowd on either side of the road spilled toward us, swallowing us up in a constantly shifting, screaming mass of humanity – all of whom were too close for comfort.
All the usual chaos of a mountain stage on the Tour d'Europa.
The peloton had broken apart prior to the climb, with the leaders and the better climbers forging well ahead of the pack. The blur of colour and noise on either side of my head was lost to my tunnel vision and the sounds inside it.
"You're doing fine, Ciccio." The voice in my earpiece was Michael, our directeur sportif's-second-in command. "Once this climb is done it's straight down to the bottom for the stretch to Granada."
That we were doing well wasn't news to me. That it wasn't Jerzy's voice in my ear, however, was. Brunn had caught up with me after we'd cleared the previous, rather dodgy, descent, where I'd thought he was well behind me. Now he was recovering on my rear wheel and Rom and Attila were doggedly leading us up the hardest climb of today's stage.
I still had no intention of letting Brunn ride my slipstream all the way into Granada. His job – at least for now – was to help protect me and keep the Royal in my possession as long as possible.
Right now the greater threat was Schlessinger, coming up slowly alongside me. Maxxout's blue-green team colours stood out even in the confusion of the crowd surrounding us. I refused to look his way, knowing his smug expression awaited me.
There was a basso profundo shout from somewhere in the crowd as Schlessinger made a subtle gesture in my direction – something between a wave and an obscenity, I thought – and then he crept upward, first aligning himself with his support and then slyly sidling next to Rom.
I ducked to avoid a carelessly-handled German flag, and heard yet another guttural shout, this time cheering Brunn on. There was no point in responding, no sense in coming any further out of my trance. Some of these people cheered for all of us, which gave the riders the will to dig deeper and make the climb. Others were oblivious to the mayhem they caused while they mugged for the television cameras, and frankly, for the most part, so were we.
We only just made it into Granada before the end of the race. I changed quickly into my walking shorts and left Charles unpacking at the hotel before hurrying to the finish line, camera in hand, still hoping to salvage something of the day. The crowd was raucous and I knew something huge was happening. Fuming over my continued lack of credentials, I pushed through the crowd, trying to get close to the road.
Thanks to a generous group of Germans, I managed to squeeze up to the barriers where I could hold my camera out and snag some shots. I managed just a few as the breakaway group crossed the line, fighting for the stage win in a bunch sprint.
The chanting began soon after the sprint ended. It started out at a moderate tempo, accentuated by handclaps: "Brunn! Brunn! Brunn! Brunn!"
I looked up at the screens showing an overhead shot of the final stretch into Granada. Five cyclists – two of them in Alta VeloCidad's violet and grey colours, one in Maxxout's blue-green, one in the red and blue of Ligne Infinie and Renard in the distinct Royal jersey – had broken away from the peloton and were bearing down on the finish with all their might.
One in particular was swiftly pulling ahead.
At this, the chanting grew louder, and one of the Germans next to me began to pound out a steadily intensifying rhythm on the barrier ahead of us. With every thunderous whap of his hand on the plastic banner taped over the railing, my heart sank lower into my stomach.
"BRUNN! BRUNN! BRUNN! BRUNN!"
I looked up at the times on the screen above the road. Brunn had broken away from Renard and Schlessinger. As I watched the broadcast, the other rider in Alta VeloCidad's colours dropped back, head hung low, slowing while he drifted to the side of the course to wait for the peloton to pick him up. Renard's domestique was exhausted, unable to help him any more.
In spite of the late afternoon heat, my arms were covered in gooseflesh.
I didn't know why I wanted so much for Renard to win, but I did. I wanted it with all my heart.
As one, the crowd turned their attention away from the screen to watch Brunn's actual arrival. His name was no longer being chanted, the crowd was screaming it, the noise riotous and manic until my heart raced so hard I could barely keep my camera in hand. I managed to lean out across the barrier to capture his arrival. I squeezed the release and the shutter obligingly snapped shot after shot in quick succession as Brunn lifted his hands from the handlebars of the bike and waved to the tumultuous crowd, long before he crossed the line.
The sky grew dark, the clouds gathering for a late-afternoon shower. Photographers instinctively covered their precious cameras and other equipment as thunder rumbled and rain began to fall. I couldn't speak for the others, but I was slightly relieved. In the muggy mid-afternoon heat, the rain brought some relief after standing out on the tarmac for so long. The rainfall was short, but intense, over almost as quickly as it had begun, leaving shallow puddles to reflect the reemerging sunlight.
As the helicopters hovered overhead, harbouring the arrival of the riders, more photographers assembled until the lines of our designated box seemed completely arbitrary. A final few arrived at a dead run, one of them vaulting the barrier to take a place directly in front of me.
"Hey!" I jostled him out of my way, gesturing angrily toward the road and the line at my feet. He shook his head and made as though to take the spot again, before another man reached out for his arm and tugged him roughly to one side. I glanced over to find my supporter was the French photographer who had sneaked me inside the barriers a couple of days ago. He smiled warmly and gave me a wink and I couldn't help smiling in return.
The crowd noise ratcheted up a notch – or ten – and all of the photographers took their positions. Some lay on the ground sniper-style while others, like me, knelt precariously in a line, aiming our cameras down the final stretch. The rest stood waiting, ready to jump or shift as necessary to capture their shots.
A rising roar of excitement rolled toward us, chasing the bunch sprint as it thundered our way. The battle for the stage win was fierce, and even though I'd photographed a few finishes already, this was the first time I'd seen one from this point of view: through my lens, it seemed that they were barrelling straight toward me with no sign of slowing. Several riders skidded through the water still on the road, losing control of their bikes before they could slow down.
One moment I was taking photos of riders crossing the finish line, the next I was backing up and stumbling over the feet of one photographer and being knocked to the ground by the elbow of another.
I landed hard, breath wooshing out of my lungs even as I held my camera aloft in an attempt to protect it. I was aware of equipment scattered around me – lenses, battery packs, memory cards – some of it mine, some of it theirs. Then the base of a crowd-control barrier was at my back, the sharp metal edge of one foot biting into me.
Winded, I lay on the pavement, my eyes closed, one hand clutching my side as though I could press the pain so deep I wouldn't feel it any more. I was dizzy; taking quick, short breaths had pushed me to the point of hyperventilation.
A moment later the sun broke through the cloud, warming my face before shadow settled over me.
Brunn and I were riding at speed amongst the peloton, but the group containing the sprinters was well ahead of us, gunning for the finish at the end of this flat stage. From Valencia to Torreblanca, Alvaro had sparred with Teodoro, promising his own victory to even the score with his brother. Teodoro had instead assured us all of his own imminent victory, going so far as to predict a one-second gap at the finish.
Braggadocio, all of it – but the good-natured teasing between the brothers was enough to entertain the rest of us for the length of the stage.
A burst of shrieking and screaming across the team's radio frequency was difficult to comprehend. Either Jerzy had just slipped over the edge into insanity, or somewhere closer to the line, one or more of my teammates had made a tactical mistake.
Brunn glanced at me, his expression inscrutable, save for a flicker of concern in his eyes before he turned back to the matter at hand.
Listening to the invective spewing over the airwaves, I had the feeling things weren't exactly going according to plan at the finish.
We pressed forward, the final roundabout looming ahead when Attilio gave a shout and bumped shoulders with another rider who was riding too close as the curve tightened.
Rom broke through the last few cyclists blocking us and I followed close on his wheel, the two of us making our way up to the head of the pack to lead the group through the roundabout and down the short final stretch.
We breezed our way down Avinguda de Sant Jordi, avoiding the concrete lip of the island separating the lanes of the road, but other riders weren't so lucky, judging from the shouts of the crowd and the skree of titanium on pavement which followed the final turn.
Rom fell back behind me in short order and Brunn was soon at my shoulder, a slight grin on his face the only indication that he was pleased with how things had gone. As far as I could tell, there wasn't even a hint of curiosity regarding Jerzy's previous rant, not one iota of concern for Alvaro or Teodoro or for how they'd fared.
We'd find out soon enough.
I did my best to remain professional as Renard stepped out to receive his Royal for the stage. A strange melancholy came over me as he stepped off the podium and shook hands with the town officials and other guests, before making his way backstage.
I thought of his expression when he'd checked on me after the crash and felt a slow melting inside. Ridiculous. A schoolgirl's crush, and I was – what? – at least ten years older than he was. At least.
I made a mental note to look up his birthdate online when I got back to the hotel. Or maybe I'd look it up on my netbook from the bar before I went up to the room. I didn't really feel like enduring any snide comments from Charles when I returned to Barcelona.
Then again, maybe he wouldn't be making them anymore, now that I'd called him on his "phone mate" and everything.
Drifting back to my car, I paused as a shiver ran along my spine in a light, tingling caress. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I turned toward the Village, where the remainder of the crowd milled around just outside the team areas.
There was no-one there, but I would have sworn I'd felt his gaze on me, if just for a split second. I clucked my tongue dismissively. I'm getting dotty in my old age, I reckoned, and resumed my walk to the car.
When the feeling came again, I took out my camera, aimed it over my shoulder, and clicked the shutter. I'd examine the shot when I got to Barcelona.
James sat on the edge of the big bench, his head hung low, only chancing a glance at Jerzy as he moved away. He caught my eye and his expression was one of purest misery. He'd fucked up and he knew it.
And so did Jerzy.
"It was stupid! Careless! What the fuck were you thinking?"
"Jer-" Alvaro didn't get the chance to finish.
"Where was your focus? On your stupid jokes with your brother? When you race you aren't brothers, do you understand? You are teammates. You are riders, nothing more!"
A torrent of rather colourful Spanish followed, and Teodoro, seated next to James, winced.
Adrie was reflected in the back window of the bus even though he stood just out of my sight. When Jerzy turned on James, Adrie's arms were folded across his chest in the posture of someone about to be sick.
"Sloppy! I should send Goosh out there tomorrow in your place, if I only could. He'd do a better job, if that's the best you can do. You had it! You fucking had it, and then you let the American get it? The American? It's his first fucking Tour and your third, and you still let him by? You fucking Brits are useless!"
I couldn't bear to watch any more but I couldn't avoid hearing it.
"Did you see how he was riding?" Adrie shouted back, and the murmur of conversation in the main cabin of the bus silenced. "It was too dangerous to hold the line, Jerzy. If James hadn't let him go, he'd have taken the whole lot of us out! The pack was too goddamn tight!"
"I watched the video, Adrie. I watched it. Where the fuck was your defence?"
"I shouldered as hard as I could, and he came back with more," Adrie answered calmly. "That little fucker is crazy. The finish was suicidal in that last turn – you saw how many got taken out by the kerb – and, frankly, I thought I'd like to end the stage without a busted collarbone or a broken neck."
Another silence, this time including the group at the back of the bus. Only Brunn had ever been so bold with Jerzy in the past, and he got a special pass by being his best friend.
"You've been drinking...?" Charles put his cell phone on the bedside table and gave me a quizzical look.
"Not much. Just a little wine with dinner. You know, as you do." I shrugged and went through my suitcase, digging out my nightgown and slippers.
"Are you upset about something?"
The disingenuousness of the question was insulting.
"Charles, how do you play at ignorance so well?"
"Come on, Abby." He stood and came over to my side of the bed to stare down at me while I changed clothes.
"You can't honestly be this oblivious." I looked up and met his eyes, daring him to pretend further.
Instead, he returned to his side of the bed. After a moment's silence, he sank down onto the bed and sighed. "This is why I thought we should consider…"
"I've already told you why I don't want that." I got under the coverlet, and Charles kept his back to me.
"I'd just feel better, Abby, if I thought you had someone with you when I'm away."
"No, you'd feel better if I said you could have someone with you when you're away. That's what this is all about."
"No, it isn't."
"For all I know, you already have."
I turned onto my side and resisted the urge to sigh, too.
"I didn't want you to feel this way about it," he said.
"How else would I feel? You're talking about taking a lover." I turned to face him and found him staring at the carpet, shaking his head. "And me, giving you the okay."
"No, I'm not."
My throat tightened and I got out of bed. I stood up straight and smoothed down my nightgown, trying to keep my hand from shaking. I held up the other hand and started counting off: "You put down the phone when I come in the room, you stay late at work even if you don't have to, and you get more phone calls than you need from work…"
"That's not proof of anything, Abby. Circumstantial at best."
"Give me time..." I gathered my clothes and piled them into the laundry bag. "I'm sure I'll dig up ample evidence soon enough."
Charles said nothing, just exhaled softly behind me. I got back into bed and pulled the blanket up to my shoulder after putting my back to him. Silence stretched out between us until he switched off the light and lay down.
The pub was practically empty and I wasn't really surprised. The team made up the majority of the patronage of the hotel, and most of them were either with their families or attending the festivities in the city centre.
The server led us to a circular booth in one corner. I liked the enforced privacy of the set-up right away. Between the high edges of the booth seat, the plentiful greenery scattered around the top and the low lighting in the pub, there was little chance of someone spotting us.
Abby ordered a white wine and the server looked expectantly at me.
"Una birra, per favore," I said, figuring today I'd earned at least a beer.
We sat in silence, which gave me a chance to consider a few things. First, there was the fact I'd repeatedly run into Abigail in the pubs. The second thing was that I always found her alone, in spite of her claim she was married. I'd yet to see this phantom husband, though she said he'd somehow played a part in her photographing the Tour.
Any mention of her husband saddened her – that much was clear. When we discussed the stage, or I told her about events on the road, her mood improved. Every time she laughed – or even just smiled – I felt myself getting drawn in deeper than ever.
This is bad. Very, very bad.
My heart clenched tight with understanding: married woman or no, I wanted her. Never mind the Solange debacle. Never mind her mythical Charles, wherever he was. I wanted Abigail White, and I couldn't have her.
"Federico? What are you thinking?"
I had to laugh. Why do women always ask that? If men were ever honest enough to answer with the truth, women would never come near us again.
"What's so funny?" she asked. "Tell me."
"You really don't want to know."
"Sure I do."
Her wide eyes searched mine, and I had no choice but to be honest. Maybe it would be best if she did go away.
"For a while I was thinking about the next stage," I said. "Then I thought about how I keep finding you alone in these places. Then I wondered where your husband really is. And then…?" I shrugged, hoping to make light of my next thought. "I started thinking how much I want to kiss you."
I looked down at my drink, not wanting to see her disappointment. I'd had enough of that in the past week to last me a lifetime.
I sure hope you've enjoyed them.
And in addition to all the lovely photos accompanying these excerpts, I'll share one more pretty photo.
Of course, it's of my favorite cyclist, who provided much of the inspiration for the story.
And you know what?
I reckon many of you will understand why that is.