The digital age is, undoubtedly, here. It’s unavoidable and it’s exciting. But the more I work digitally, the more I crave to still interact with good ol’ fashioned print. Books. Magazines. The two reasons why I wanted to become a writer way back when.
A great friend of mine, who now lives in Sydney, had the fine idea of putting together a collection of his cycling photographs, many of which were taken during our annual trips to the Tour de France.
The process was simple. He’s a designer by trade, has put together magazines for the past 15 years or more, and always produces beautiful work. All I had to do was supply some words.
The Black Ribbon was a really rewarding project to be involved in: a little publishing venture born from a long friendship and a shared love of both cycling and the printed form. We’re already in the process of planning the next installment.
You could feel the mountain pulsate with life. They would report the following day that up to half a million people were present: many camped several days in advance, now lining the road, two, three, four deep at the very best vantage spots. Waiting.
The patrons of le tour have turned waiting into a fine art. You find your desired location, stake your claim and then you wait. It can take many varying forms: how you got up the mountain often the defining factor. Those who rode, those who walked and those who drove well in advance of the road closures and the chaos. Lying prostrate on the grass. Slumped in a heap. Sitting in a shaded deck chair with a beer in hand, many more within easy reach.
Alcohol and altitude form a heady mix. Combined with hours to kill they make grown men dance on an 8% gradient, some 2,000 metres above sea level, where many hours later the best bike riders on the planet will do battle. The reason for the waiting.
These hallowed passes, their legend 100 years in the making, where riders grow wings and names painted on the road become permanently etched, are also where the sunburnt and the wind whipped now bide their time to a Euro pop backbeat. Where a radio, a rigged up flat screen TV in a Dutch motorhome, the faint buzz of a helicopter provide a spike in anticipation. They’re coming. They aren’t coming. Back to waiting.
Back to bread and cheese. Back to a game of cards. Back to being one of the half million on the mountain, who return year after year because there is simply nothing else quite like it.
They waited for Coppi here.
Three men, mid-forties, with matching Philippe Gilbert t-shirts stretched over ample bellies, initiate a sing-a-long to a tune that, at first, only they seem familiar with. A few more Belgians eventually join in. Evidently a popular number in Ghent. They’re on their feet. Swaying in unison. Waiting.
They waited for Bahamontes here.
A large group of friends mill around, draped in orange flags, laughing, occasionally ducking back into their state-of-the-art camper, emerging with more food, beer and the latest report on the race unfolding somewhere below us. It’s thumb twiddling at its most advanced and also at its most nonchalant. They’ve been doing it for 25 years, three-weeks in July that marks both the depth of their friendship and the passing of time, following the Tour, stage by stage. Waiting.
They waited here for Merckx too.
And then we’re not. We are instead scurrying for position, waking from our slumber, sobering up. With the caravan already passed, it can only be the race itself. The helicopter becomes plural, rising into view, marking the progression of the peloton from the sky. The radios and televisions now sit idle, having done their job informing us that Schleck junior had escaped after a audacious attack on the last climb, still 60km from home; and that Evans was in dogged pursuit, chasing down the seconds that he knew would make all the difference in the end.
The contours of the road are now clearly defined by the mass of humanity that clings to the mountain, some desperate to see the whites of the riders’ eyes, some simply happy just to get a view, all being precariously held in place by a lone member of the gendarmerie and his whistle. And there are those die-hards who, despite the rising tide around them, choose to stay seated, as though leaving their chairs to get closer to the action would somehow be a betrayal of the comfort it has provided, almost disappointed that the wait was now over.