the other world
tour de france prologue
Editor’s Note: This year will be derailleur’s first year with its own press access at the Tour de France. I’ll be here in Denmark after which I will head back to Slovenia where I will be doing long recaps for key stages. Then I’ll return to the Tour for the last week for more reporting on the ground.
Thanks to the first round of the submissions process, we will also have lots of lovely new writers on board for the Tour, including one that will go out tonight by M.R. McVeagh relating crosswinds to genre fiction; an essay about chasing the Tour on Alpe d’Huez, more recaps by CM Jacobs, poems by Dane Hamann, a rest day interview with Luka Mezgec about coffee and much, much more. So for those of you in the not-other-world, you’ve got a lot to look forward to. For those not subscribed, you will want to!
the other world
There’s a somewhat obscure Slovene folk storyI’m obsessed with and have been for a long time. I’ve been saving it for the best possible moment which is probably right now. The story goes as thus:
Over the course of his daily walks, a curious abbot at the Stična monastery near Novo Mesto becomes obsessed with the mysteries of the nearby forest — the plants, animals, the quietude of the forest itself, where he can go and be alone with God. Nothing captures the abbot’s imagination more, however, than the cave. The cave peeks out from an outcrop of rock deep along the forest trail, where the light from the sky barely penetrates the dark canopy. When the abbot peers into the cave, it returns nothing but blackness. When he throws stones into it and listens, he is greeted with no response, even after minutes pass. The cave both enthralls and frightens him, and he is determined to learn what it is that lies at the bottom.
In order to do this, abbot enlists the help of a wiry peasant named Kadunjčar who has been living in a house owned by the monks for quite some time. Kadunjčar, owing to a series of social blunders and an irritable personality, does not get along very well with the monks at the Stična monastery, who themselves would prefer a more agreeable tenant. But he is lithe and athletic from his years in the fields and stubborn to the point of frustration. The perfect candidate for an ill-fated expedition. The abbot makes a deal with Kadunjčar: you go down into the cave and tell me what lies at the bottom and I will give you the house you live in. This is as close to liberation as Kadunjčar is going to get. He thinks it’s a sucker’s bet, and he accepts it. How deep could the cave really be, a hundred meters or so? These monks and their superstitions!
A few days later, the monks and the curious townspeople gather outside of the mouth of the cave. They fasten Kadunjčar to a rope woven together from those found in all the belfries of the neighboring towns. On the end, the monks tie a little bell which Kadunjčar is to ring should he fall into any distress. Upon hearing the sound, the monks will pull him right back up. With little ceremony but much nervousness, Kadunjčar begins to rappel down into the cave. Soon he is suspended into nothing. Minutes pass. Then an hour. He is surrounded by empty, dark expanse; he can hear nothing but his heart pounding in his ears. He tries not to panic. He thinks of the house. He closes his eyes, because at least he has control over that darkness. Then, after an unknown amount of time, his eyelids suddenly turn pink. He opens them.
Kadunjčar is suspended like a balloon over the earth. He has descended so far he has reached the other world. Heart racing, he nears closer and closer to the ground which is damp and rich with life. The other world is not unlike its own, yet it is somehow even more wonderful. He walks toward the banks of a wide winding river kissed by the fronds of willows. The sky is bluer, the clouds whiter. Suddenly he hears the sound of singing in strong voices. Anxious, he hides, but the voices find him. They belong to a group of beautiful reapers, tall, fair-haired, perfect human specimens inhabiting this familiar yet perfect world. One of them turns to Kadjunčar and offers him a scythe.
“Come,” he says, “Work with us, stranger. Just three rows, that’s all we ask.”
Kadunjčar has no idea what to do other than accept. He takes the scythe. He has mowed his own fields hundreds of times. His body is used to the feeling of this particular toil. And yet, when in the presence of these beautiful people, his footsteps stutter and he takes short, erratic strokes. He wants to hide from their stares, their perfect world bearing down on him. And in his ugly shame, after another distracted swing, he hears a sound, a horrible sound, somewhere between a clink and a shear. He looks down and the blade of the scythe is in pieces.
The mowers stop. They stare at Kadunjčar as though he has committed the worst possible crime, as though he had come from outside just to ruin their perfection which had existed untouched until this moment. Before anything worse can happen, Kadunjčar’s body is torn out from under him. He is being dragged across the grass, into the air, up through the sky. He grips the rope and shuts his eyes, a low moan escaping his throat. When he opens them again, his body is being pulled out of the mouth of the cave. The monks are standing around him, asking him what they saw. When he tells them, word for word, they can only stare in disbelief.
I am Kadunjčar. The other world is the urbanist paradise of Copenhagen. The mowers are the day’s commuters. I have just stepped into the bike lane with my suitcase.
Or, I can make a different analogy. I am Kadunjčar, and the other world is the Tour de France Grand Depart. Everything in the city is spotless, with throngs of people out in full national force in their Danish flag bucket hats. Copenhagen looks half like a postcard and half like one of those viral Twitter posts about how dense, walkable urbanism is illegal to build in America. The cab driver from the airport spends ten minutes telling me all about how Nordic Social Democracy™ is a paradise, unlike America where it costs $10,000 to give birth. They are all getting electric cabs next year, he says. I look around. Everyone is six inches taller than me and their noses are sculpted out of stone. Their disposition is very polite but in a way that is like they are staring past you. I have spent too much time in Slovenia.
I wish, in my current emotional frenzy, I could tell you some fun, cute things about Danish culture or about the arts or architecture. Okay, I will say one thing about the architecture: the Danish starchitect Bjarke Ingels’s buildings are actually quite middling by Copenhagen standards. The city has a culture of well-built experimental and quotidian architecture, all finely, meticulously detailed. They are constantly building here: new housing, new shopping centers, everything made out of high-quality materials, each joint machined to the point of perfection — this is the other world after all.
Indeed one is filled with a sense of how livable public space can and should be — where the bike lanes are packed and the roads are nearly empty of cars. Yet, the Danes, in their insular protectionism, make it quite difficult to use the transportation if you are not a resident, lest you have change in coins or an app you can download only if you have a Danish phone number. I take out my Slovenian sim card in my burner phone and put the Danish one in. When I don’t know where I’m going on the bus, the driver gives me that same stare. A cappucino here costs six euros, but it’s okay, everyone here gets paid high wages.
I got here three days ago. I’ve been spending most of them in a press room getting phone calls every hour. I am working in journalism, and right now, if you haven’t heard the news, Europol are bearing down on Bahrain Victorious. They raided key team staff and riders days before they came to Copenhagen, and then raided them again yesterday morning.
Being a journalist forces me to be some kind of honest. So, in the spirit of honesty, I’ll tell the truth: nothing is really alright. Every hour, I check my phone to see American democracy crumble further and further, in a binge-long existential crisis I can’t stomach to watch. It is hard to focus on bike racing in general. I want to go back to Ljubljana and hide. I’m passing through the world with my brain sawed in half, following the Slovenian press corps around because I do not want to be alone and I do not want to make my own decisions. They are very generous towards me, and forgiving.
Now, It’s a few hours before the first riders will leave the starting gates in the time trial. I still don’t feel like I’m here at the Tour de France. There aren’t butterflies and unbridled joys like last year. I am working. I hear the Tour de France music over the intercom and I remember Richard sitting through the teams presentations in Brest with me even though they were boring, and I try not to cry because Jesus Christ could I use his guidance right now. I miss him and can’t imagine what it’s like for those who knew him longer. I feel like an orphan. My relationship to everyone here is different without Richard. I am totally lost, and were it not for my colleagues at RTV, I would be even more lost still.
Like the mowers’ scythe, my purpose is an instrument that has become foreign to me.
In the other world, everyone has questions. What’s going on at Bahrain being the most pressing one. This time last year, I let Matej Mohorič borrow my books. I would say we know each other pretty well now, but this is just another thing that engenders feelings of dissociation because those relationships are revealed in times like these to be mere trick mirrors. I am not a soft journalist and I am not soft on doping, though I am not obsessed with it like others. I think people say those things about me because I’m a young woman and also because I retain some degree of empathy for individuals enmeshed in systemic problems.
I made my peace last year with the realities and difficulties of the sport. I try not to let my emotions get in the way anymore — at least not with stuff like this — and work is just work. But that doesn’t mean I’m not constantly refreshing Twitter or that my consciousness doesn’t resemble a hamster on a wheel. This kind of shit is like whacking a bees nest. I don’t know what to say about the race because I’m too busy getting stung. Anything can happen in the first week — it’s an unpredictable parcours — crosswinds, cobbles, the works. I just hope it’s not carnage; scandal I can handle, but carnage is more difficult.
I’m at a cafe. People ask me whether Pogačar will win again as though I can see the future. It’s probable, I say. Or he could be so marked that the rest of the peloton makes his life miserable. And how’s Roglič? I spoke to Roglič for forty seconds at the teams presentation. He said, one question, Kate. And I said, you look pretty relaxed. Then his eyes lit up. He got me. That was the one question. I’m just enjoying it, he said. That’s true, he did appear in a good mood, certainly better than last year when he was quiet and tense. I read on Twitter that Jonas Vingegaard teared up on stage. He passed through the mixed zone and in the other world, people cheered the loudest.
I rent a city bike through an app. I try to ride to the press center but there’s too many people in the streets and my bike handling skills are not very good. I step off. The sky is gray and threatens rain. I get a text related to Bahrain. I send four texts back. Four more texts come back my way. I’m in the cafe because the press office is far as hell away in a convention center. I was supposed to be staying with friends of a friends in the suburbs but I elected to schlep it out in 2-star hotels because I can’t bother with coordinating my life enough to even think about the train schedule. I am writing this down in an attempt to coordinate my life in some small way. It’s not working. Accordion music plays outside but it’s different than the accordion music you’ll find in Ljubljana.
I am not going to pretend like everything is alright at the Tour de France. Everyone is on edge. The fans are celebrating the presence of their heroes in the streets while the journalists’ palms sweat. I forgot what a shitshow the Tour is compared to other races — it’s a whole city on wheels that pops up and barricades everything. I see people I remember from last year, and we look at each other knowingly. Pop music plays outside, a jarring juxtaposition. Nobody likes this. The riders on Bahrain Victorious, if you’re deciding to show some compassion, have been utterly upended before their biggest task of the year. I keep thinking about bright-faced Matevž Govekar who joined the team a month ago watching all this shit unfold somewhere far away near Idrija.
A Twitter notification, a DM that reads: any news?
Let me be frank here: Cycling had the opportunity, if not many, to ban a lot of the guys with a history who plague its ranks. They didn’t. So we live with this suspicion, the riders are forced to live alongside the past. We are re-traumatized again and again, the wounds re-opened. That’s what I’m thinking about, that is all I am thinking about. Alpe d’Huez may as well be a month away.
Every hour passes like sandpaper against skin.