An excerpt from

Ghosts On The Road

Gareth Cartman

Stage 4 – Brest to Sables d’Olonnes

Henri Pelissier

First fog, now mud. We’re caked as we leave Quimper, the rain pulling at our jerseys, weighing us down, but by evening we’ll have the sun for the first time this Tour and we’ll dry those jerseys by the beach. Oh yes.

I, of course, will have the sun first. I’ll attack in Nantes. Soon, Francis is going to soften them up with a few attacks, we’ll relay for a while so long as there’s no commissioner around, and boom - off goes Pelissier number 1, coasting into Les Sables d’Olonne to receive the rapturous reception from his adoring crowd.

Who’s your winner today? Why, Henri Pelissier, as always.

We’re rolling through the hedgerows now. Francis is shielding me from a slight sidewind, Lambot is the other side of me, like a ghost.

Something’s not right, though. My handlebars are coming loose, must have been shaken up by some of those potholes earlier. Not to worry, it’ll be a good chance to put my rain jacket on as well.

I pull over to the side of the road and fumble for my toolkit. Zip stuck, I pull at it but something’s wrong. The peloton has attacked. You don’t attack the leader of the race - what the…?

“Hey, Francis! What’s going on?”

He looks back, but he’s gone with them. My own brother.

Fucking traitor! My own blood…

My hands are shaking, I’ve been tricked. They’ve screwed me. All this time we were saving our energy, they were saving theirs for this attack.

I can’t screw the headset with all this shaking. I try to get my arms in the raincoat, but it’s inside out. Of course it is. It would be. And I’ve screwed it the wrong way, it’s too loose. I try again, but it doesn’t feel right. Why can’t I do this fucking simple thing?

My own brother. He’s gone. He can’t be worried about the rules. This is family. With families, there is only one rule. Brothers don’t attack brothers.

I’m raging. I tighten the headset and I’m back on the bike, but how much time have I lost now?

I’ve got 300km to go, it should be plenty of time, I have to push. I need dynamite. There’s one pill for the stage - rations for dynamite as much as anything else - but it won’t kick in straight away. I find it, at the bottom of my musette, covered in crumbs from this morning’s sandwich, and swallow. It’ll be another 20km before I feel its effects. I devour a cutlet to push it down.

Lorient. Checkpoint. I don’t slow down until as late as I can, wearing those brake pads a little with a sudden skid and the smell of burning rubber.

⁃How minutes many? I mean how many minutes? Shit, I can’t talk.

⁃5 minutes - there’s 18 of them, Ficelle. They didn’t stop long.

⁃Shit. Where do I sign?

⁃Sign here, and go. You’ll catch them. They’re relaying, but Desgrange won’t stop them. Says it’s good copy.

⁃Merci.

I leave Lorient. It’s clear everyone here wants me to win, so I don’t stop for long. A few good lads give me a push as I go. Henri Pelissier, man of the people.

As I leave the town, the dynamite starts to act. My legs feel new, my lungs can take in another litre of air. My vision has improved, too. That’s what I love about the dynamite, every time you take it, something new happens.

Here’s Barthelemy, I hold his wheel as long as I can, and offer a relay. He’s up for it, we relay for a bit - and we’re fast enough, but Desgrange pulls up in his Brasier and leans out of the window:

⁃No relaying, Pelissier!

⁃What? You let the peloton relay but not me?

⁃They’re not relaying, they’re riding like real men out there, Pelissier. Stop relaying and ride.

Barthelemy has slowed off anyway. Too young to play an old man’s game.

⁃This is stupid, Henri. You want the best men to win this race? Let us do our job.

⁃Shut up and ride, Pelissier. Relay again and you’re out.

Here’s the lad from Calais, Goethals I think his name is. The guy who was selling socks at the start of the stage. Peasant. He’s out of his saddle, riding like a cyclo-tourist. I suck his wheel for a couple of hundred metres and offer him mine. And back and forth and back and forth until I’ve used him enough and I swing round and pedal hard.

Another one gone. Tick.

Still no sign of that peloton, but plenty of riders being spat out the back. They must be going like a train.

And then that thud every racer fears.

The thud of a pothole, the sound of rims on concrete, it’s the back one this time. I stop to fix it, pull the inner tube off from around my neck, only two left now. The wheel comes off quickly enough and I remove the stitching like a pro. The nerves have gone, I’m left with adrenaline and dynamite, flooding my veins and I’m not shaking any more, I’m fast. I am at one with my wheel - I am the tyre. I am the inner tube. I am the rims. How fast am I? A record, surely, but not one that will ever be reported on.

Shame. That would have made good copy, Desgrange.

La Roche Bernard, feeding time and Machurey has cooked up a proper feast. Chicken legs, again, cutlets, again, only a handful of baguettes left, and most of it’s gone cold.

⁃The food’s cold, Machurey, what’s wrong with you? Can’t you keep it warm?

⁃You’re 20 minutes behind, Ficelle. You think I’m going to keep it in the oven for you? Come on, move it.

⁃20 minutes? 20 fucking minutes? I splutter. I’ve lost twenty minutes and that puncture can only have been five, at most. Twenty minutes.

Machurey’s enjoying this.

Insane. I stuff my pockets with everything I can and I’m out of La Roche Bernard before La Roche Bernard can see me.

I eat, I ride, I eat, I ride. The sun comes out and I feel the dynamite lit up in my stomach, my arms are alive again and the pain in my thighs subsides. I ride, I fly, I have to catch them, I have to find them. Into the headwind I go.

We’re 20k from Nantes and like a broken down car, I feel everything start to shut down. Headlights, gone. Engine, gone. Is it the headwind? Has it blown the life out of me? Is it the dynamite? Was it not the good stuff?

Each pedal stroke feels like a new one. Pedalling squares, Alavoine would say. I have no momentum. Nothing. I feel an impulse to throw up. My mouth is dry. Such thirst. I can’t go on.

And on the horizon. The traitor. Francis, my brother, who stabbed me in the back and attacked with the peloton. I know that back. I remember following him on the daily milk round, I remember following him when he first learned to ride, he kept his feet hanging off the pedals so he wouldn’t fall over. I remember his back when he attacked me outside Quimperle.

The road widens and I approach Francis. He has tears in his eyes.

⁃I can’t do it, Henri. I can’t do it. He looks brutal. What did they do to him?

⁃Why did you go? Why did you do it?

⁃No helping. You know the rules. They’re riding like animals.

⁃Who is? Who’s up there?

⁃Alavoine, Christophe, Lambot, Steux, couple of others - Masson, maybe. They’d planned it.

⁃Fuck. I knew it.

⁃I’m going back to Paris after this. I’ve got nothing left. I can’t run this race.

Do what you want, brother. You abandoned me, I abandon you. Admire my back now.

With every pedal stroke, I put metres between myself and Francis. He really is a broken man. I need to get away from the sound of his sobbing. But my thirst - oh boy - the thirst. I forgot to fill up my bidon in Nantes.

I’m riding into walls of colour, where did they come from? A red, and a green, and oh, my eyes, this is a spectacle. My mouth. It’s falling. Or rising. I don’t know what it’s doing. Froth. I’m frothing. Oh sweet froth, you’ll do for a drink.

Stop this, Ficelle. Straighten up. Stop zig-zagging.

I’m hanging left. I’m falling. I’m down. I need to drink. 

A door, a knock, a man answers. Yes sir, today’s your lucky day, Henri Pelissier knocked at your door and asked for a drink, and yes, honey, I do believe he was frothing at the mouth. What did you give him? Oh, just a cognac, my dear, to take the edge off. Cut the phlegm. It certainly seemed to liven him up. He stood on this very doorstep, so he did, stood right there, dripping mud onto my hydrangea, and did he look like death itself? Well I guess he did, honey, I guess he did.

I’m leaning against the wall of his house, what miracle juice is this? I asked for water, he gave me firewater. It burns at the back of my throat, it pours fire into my veins, it shoots into my legs and my feet and my toes and I heave, dry heave. This stupid race, what am I doing it for? Why this? Why now?

He’s leaning over me, is that concern on his face? Do I look that bad? I’m beginning to realise who I am and where I am - I’m in an unknown man’s garden dry heaving over his flower bed, caked in mud with the veins in my head throbbing. I need a change of scenery.

I’m back on my bike, and I’m back up to speed. I’m fast. I’m lightening fast. I’m skimming over potholes and spitting out dust. I’m burning up tyres and passing traitors who couldn’t keep up with that peloton. What was that drink? I tried to pay the man, I think, but he refused. Wouldn’t take a centime.

And now Sables d’Olonne. The saltiness rubs into the wounds, this is no place for bleeding men. I take the corners into town, each one bringing with it greater lucidity. I take each one at full speed, break first - take the racing line - inside and out - practice everything you can at all times, even when you’re a beaten man. And now the rage returns, the rage and the fatigue, it’s the wrong cocktail for a bike racer, rage and fatigue. On the rocks. The men who attacked, the traitors, the workhorses who took advantage of my mechanical, these low-lives. No doubt back in their hotel rooms, or on the beach, or in the cafe, while I, Henri Pelissier, the fallen thoroughbred, practice cornering.

And with that, I think, a finishing line has gone past. Men in the road, a clamouring, hands, arms, moustaches, and as I fall, the smooth cobblestones of Sables d’Olonne feel cold on my cheeks. Don’t move me, just let me lie here. Just five minutes. Just five more minutes.

Two arms, two unwelcome arms, lift me and I’ going with them. A pen. A piece of paper. The froth drops from my mouth onto the paper and a voice says don’t worry, that’ll do, we’ll take you to your hotel room.

He’s lost 35 minutes, says one voice. I’m still here. I am present, you know. Or am I? 35 minutes is a lot, but it’s not insurmountable, says another. Christophe’s the leader now, says the first voice, I hope he wins, I like Cri-Cri. I’m still here. Will you stop talking about me while I’m here? Alavoine’s the one for me, says the other voice, he’s a true gentleman.

And I close my eyes, and the voices fade, and my race, my Tour… it’s over.