Just riding along, (or JRA) and that big question lobs up once again “What am I doing this for?”.
Most profoundly it appears during the middle of a long hard race or as a car door almost takes you out. Some way up a mountain when the view is already teasing you with it’s mystery, it starts to call out in time with the pain in your legs.
Sometimes we don’t have the right tools for the job, other times the skill, or the know how, the experience, an instruction booklet, someone to ask or nor do we know what’s on the other side or maybe at the top.
You’re on the start line ready to roll. You’ve prepared for this day for months. The regular weekly training rides have built you up to a physical and mental peak that you’re quietly comfortable with. Legs are feeling good. You’ve broken out a new kit just for today. You’re the embodiment of splendour as far as you care.
You’re next to one other, five others, maybe one thousand others, or is it 10 thousand? Maybe you feel all by yourself.
Someone just stopped the countdown to the start and then removed the clock. The finish line just vanished. There is no race, no competition today. Your number just got ripped off.
Are you lost, annoyed, frustrated or maybe it’s relief, anticipation, joy. Your heart’s probably racing.
The competition was just annulled, but your adventure took a giant leap forward. Without a race, without fighting to beat another, you’re left to battle yourself.
Everyone has a story, often it reads with how we want it to be but what it actually is, is the substance all others seek.
Alessandro, reported by his sister in Italy in September 2012 as missing, presumed dead, has a story.
Presumably the victim of the economy, saddened by the loss of his Father, he disappeared without trace. His home untouched, possessions all accounted for, bank accounts not accessed for more than a year.
On the Train
Stepping onto the train about to depart from Perpignan, I hung my bike on the hook, placing it so as not to have it flailing as the train leaned from side to side on the short journey to the sea.
About to take my seat a man tried to lift his commuter Dutch-style bike up through the door onto the train from the platform. Visibly, it was a struggle.
We organised bikes and sat on either side of the train, gazing from windows.
French in a thick Italian accent blurted out lively and amiably. Dressed in a track-suit and runners, carrying a small day-pack, this friendly chap and I exchanged pleasantries, Francais style. A bit of velo talk whilst noting the beautiful sight of a snow-capped Mt Canigou as it drifted by, interrupted by wisps of tall grasses slashing at the train.
Alighting at the same stop, velos ported, we bid adieu and were thankful for a trip lost quickly to a polite conversation.
Days later, a man in a track-suit stretched by the sea-shore, a small day-pack sat 50 metres away alone on a bench.
“Bonjour”. “Ahh Ciao, Bonjour”.
After discussing the randomness of the situation, a café meeting was organised for a few days time.
It didn’t take long to discover this man was into sky-running, an endurance form of running, on par with enduro mountain biking. Almost every second day he would run between 20-25kms through the surrounding claws of the Pyrenees. Not bad (ie, “pas mal”, such a typical expression in French) for a 47 year old.
The merits of endurance sports were parlayed and so it was the sky-runner sought to test the cyclist in a head-to-head battle over a 3km run.
Details were exchanged; let the fun begin.
From the outset the perception was such that things weren’t quite adding up. The bag was toted everywhere, the same attire permeated each day and the discourse was spirited, if not a little forceful. The challenge didn’t fit the scene comfortably.
Though given this perception, surprisingly Alessandro provided his full name.
So, what do you do when you meet a person who is reported as missing, presumed dead?
Have another coffee and chat.
Following the Course
Over the course of several café excursions, Alessandro introduced another fellow. Cesar, an Italian national, a man of probably about 70-something, now living in France. Most days Alessandro and Cesar could be seen talking wildly in Italian with copious amounts of vigour fuelled by vin rouge, each day to be celebrated just as the last.
In a mixture of Italfranglaise, mostly swearing in Italian, whinging in French and jokes in English, the story started to develop.
Cesar, once an avid climber/mountaineer, is now a little less nimble owing to an accident that provided him with a walking stick and a move to the sun and sea. He moved to the south of France for the climate, the culture, the food and the Catalan ambience. All very worthwhile features of the region.
Cesar though, after 10 years or more, has found himself facing up to what he sees as a mistake. The aura of the south has dulled, though he speaks three languages integration has not been possible. An insider still on the outside he travels from Perpignan to Collioure most days just to gaze at the sea for respite. Except in summer because the volume of tourists jam the transmission of vibes.
Coughing up a Lung
Between puffs and gulps, Cesar speaks in a throaty crackling deep tone, he would make an intense Actor, General or Tsar. Long long tales have you poised in anticipation and duress but throaty cackles lifts the weight and want to arrest your ears.
The Italians bemoan the state of their homeland, the economy and the running of the country. Both hail the ambience of the Catalan Med but sledge its closed doors. Each arrived to escape lands of which they had become resentful and distrustful. Finding the Promised Land, the growing tension between living in a place of Paradise but without their tribes has evoked a common spirit. It offers the chance to compare regions, customs and mores of the societies.
Sky-running Alessandro has all but lost faith and trust in his country. Without his job, without his Father, without a sense of security he lives without dependency on governments and financial institutions. Travelling light, he is afforded the luxury of freedom. Freedom from ties and traces.
Slowly the interplay between the gents develops. One man felt stuck and opted out, the other opted out and became stuck. Is it an Italian tragedy? The story could be so, but rather than that, it is merely but a rich story of substance. Things are as they actually are.
Cesar has found the medicinal powers of the Mediterranean satisfaction enough to continue his daily sojourns to the blue water and along the way met with a fellow that can in some way re-enforce that his homeland is suffering too. When you’re stationed on the Med and the problem is way over there, well, is that such a bad thing?
Alessandro weaved his way to the restorative powers of running over the mountaintops, taking flight from the Pyrenees Condors and circumnavigating a bull or two during various 4.5 hour episodes. He will return to his home soon enough, a new job in the health industry and his tribe await him.
In the End
Well and truly alive, the spirits of these two fellows truly shine and re-affirm for me that there is always another story that peers out from just beneath the surface.