On 30 June 2012 I returned from Aberdeen to Orkney. It was a tortuous journey - there was a thick haar and the plane was cancelled, so we were put on the ferry which took 6 hours to get back to Kirkwall. An amazing friend collected me from the terminal in the thickest fog I’ve ever experienced at going on for midnight and drove me the 15 miles home, back to the love of my life, Rik, and our amazing cat India.
What made the journey all the more horrendous was that 7 days before, I had undergone emergency spinal surgery, having been air-lifted down to Aberdeen with suspect sudden onset cauda equina syndrome. Apparently most suspect cauda equina syndrome cases are not cauda equina. But if it is cauda equina the results can be catastrophic if not immediately acted upon. The doctor I saw in A&E diagnosed a trapped nerve and if I hadn’t lived in Orkney he would have sent me packing. As it was they kept me in and did an MRI the next day. That confirmed the cauda equina diagnosis and on 23 June I had surgery that ensured I would still walk. Permanent damage had been done because of the mis-diagnosis but hey, c’est la vie.
So, recuperating at home, I was looking for something to keep me occupied. I was going to be pretty much bed bound for a long while and pretty stir crazy. My Mum suggested I watch Le Tour de France which had started on 30 June, the day I was making my challenging return home.
I have always preferred the long versions of any sport. Snooker matches that are the best of 33 frames, test matches, grand slams. I find that the longer versions enable the ebbs and flo’s to play out. The outcome seems more genuine, luck is (to an extent) removed from the equation and the true champion emerges. You can take your T20 and your first to 5 frames and take a hike as far as I am concerned.
I had previously tried to get my head around bike racing, but I’d just never got it before. Basically because I was watching highlights of one annual race. It made no sense to me at all. But the summer of 2012 was a total revelation. As I laid in bed hoping that by the end of Le Tour I‘d be able to pee without the aid of a catheter (which I was, thankfully) I learned what road racing is all about. And what an epic year to discover it. I have been hooked ever since. Road racing - and grand tours in particular - are utterly brutal. A single touch of wheels can end a riders’ race, they ride thousands of miles and go over the highest mountains. They are in teams but an individual wins the GC (general classification - basically the rider that does the three week race the quickest). I didn’t understand any of it till 2012. Why would someone sacrifice themselves for someone else? Why would sprinters make all that effort to get over mountains for the fleeting chance of a stage win - which is a win but not THE win. Why would anyone be happy being labelled as a Domestique? What the fuck is a puncheur?
Every day of that Tour, I would watch from the moment tv coverage started until the podium was being deconstructed at the end of the day, with Rik bringing me mugs of tea and banana custard. It took me to parts of France I had been to. I think I am right in saying that David Millar won a stage that year 45 years after Tommy Simpson had died on Mont Ventoux. But if I am wrong it doesn’t matter. In the summer of 1990 we had stayed in a “chicken shack” gite on the slopes of Mont Ventoux and had come up with a family theory that when French men retire, they go up Mont Ventoux in full Lycra on a racing bike and at the top they are given a beret, blue overalls and a moped, with a baguette in the basket and they come down to live out the rest of their lives in non-competitive joy. In 1987, my Dad had spent pretty much the whole of a holiday to France pointing out Mont Ventoux to my mum, my best friend and me. We still do it now - anywhere with a vaguely hilly view we say “look it’s Mont Ventoux“ and piss ourselves laughing.
Eleven years later I can’t remember the details of one stage from another of what race because, well, menopausal, but I watch as much road racing as I possibly can. The whole family is hooked, even my sister who hates sport. I obsessively listen to the Never Strays Far podcast with Ned, David and Pretty Pete because bike racing encompasses so much that is reflected in other bits of life and takes you down rabbit holes. It is esoteric and baffling and funny and cathartic and heartbreaking.
On the day of the 2023 British National road racing championships, held this year in my old home town of Saltburn, I spent the whole day reading this book (with the racing on mute - sorry Matt Stephens).
It is a total cliche but I literally could not put it down. I will not do it justice but basically during lockdown Ned bought a totally random piece of film at auction pertaining to be of a stage of the Tour de France, which turned out to be filmed on 30 June 1923 (yes, today is the centenary).
30 June. Again. And as Ned kept uncovering coincidences and links within his research and exploration of the film, so I kept being brought back to this key date in my life. My return from (up till then) the most challenging, scary and life-changing moment of my life. Since then I’ve had worse shit to deal with, but 30 June was the day I came home.
What I would say, simply, is read this book. It is beautiful, it is epic, it is totally personal and shows human vulnerability which it is humbling to be invited to share. It explains the tensions of continental Europe between the wars in a way that brings it shockingly to home (in a similar way to Edmund de Waal’s Hare with the Amber Eyes) and it tells the story of a quiet, ignored, athlete and man who deserves to have his story better known. It isn’t a book for bike racing enthusiasts, although that was my way in to it, it is a book about humanity or the lack of it. On the centenary of Théophile Beeckman’s lone attack on the 4th stage of the 1923 Tour de France I say chapeau Theo and chapeau Ned. You have created a masterpiece.