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windows: prose poems
Recollections for the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift 2023
Hammer (Stage 1—Clermont-Ferrand > Clermont-Ferrand) The peloton takes the shape of a sledgehammer—dense and overwhelming on the narrow countryside roads. It’s bearing down on history—the first yellow jersey of this year’s race. Individual riders flash from the front in the hazy light of the early kilometers. But the mass of the peloton proves irresistible. The riders steadily smash through small stony villages. They douse their burning thirst with cold bottles. They refuel—food wrappers flutter like butterflies in their hands. They slam around corners. They keep watch. Each solo attack wanes to a paper-thin margin under the relentless pace of the peloton. Then it is no more. They ask, confidently—who can possibly do damage to us, the rampaging bunch? In the closing uphill kilometers, a few strong teams—their power mythologized by pre-race reportage—stamp on the pedals. They aim the face of their final strike at the nail of earth—the peak of the punchy ascent. But before they can land the blow, one of their own blasts by. And suddenly, the Belgian flag is flying down the city streets. The hammer has slipped—the missed win as rued as a busted thumb.
Rain (Stage 2—Clermont-Ferrand > Mauriac) Clouds as dark as fresh asphalt linger behind the riders. Much of the mental aspect of bike racing is dealing with threats—when to chase the strong rouleurs away in a break, when on the side of a mountain to launch an attack with already burning quadriceps. The riders must keep their eyes on all of the chess pieces even as they move in the peloton’s vicious tumble cycle. When the rain comes down, the riders ghost through a shroud of white mist. When it lifts slightly, the thick summer trees have grown greener. The new roads gleam like bottomless rivers. Wheels whip riders off their lines as sudden as jumping carp. Every wet corner is approached as one would a wild animal. Sometimes they bite, feasting on carbon and skin and bits of bar tape. Crashed riders are wide-eyed with the sudden shock of the bike’s betrayal. The race thins as the riders gallop up the day’s ending incline. Lessons have been quickly learned—dangerous moves are covered. The sprint is full of feral energy on the wet road. Black, red, and gold crosses the line first again—but this time in the pattern of the German flag. Guts (Stage 3—Collonges-La-Rouge > Montignac-Lascaux) Salt appears in streaks. As if it were gesso brushed in hurried strokes onto the navy blue jersey. A depiction of suffering. Abstract in style but real in application. The rider hangs her head and pushes again. Prying out any power she can. Hands on the drops. Brake levers, unconsidered. She must feel as if she’s running through shallows toward the shore, the rogue wave of the peloton breaking thunderously behind her. Her legs churning heavily in the water. Feet sinking slightly into the sand. The pain is scintillating. Her muscles are bursting into bright grains. She wills herself on. The crowd wills her on. Her directeur sportif wills her on. The gap hangs cruelly at an indecipherable time. The last kilometer is long. The peloton can see her. The world is shaking with nervous energy. A small rise in the road, barely visible on the day’s map, drowns her legs in lactate. And still. She’s out of the saddle to give one last push. Everything has been given. The sprinters rush past. The watery blue stripes and gold stars of the European champion roar across the leaf-littered finish. Bellows (Stage 4—Cahors > Rodez) The Tour is an accordion. Not only in the ups and downs of its history or as an archetypal roadside earworm. But in the fluidic swell and squeeze of the bunch as well. The shape of the course as road furniture squeezes available space and then relaxes into wide ribbons of asphalt. The way the crowd and its sounds collapse and explode as the riders sweat and battle their way up mountain paths. The mesmerizing movement of the trees as seen from the helicopter. Time itself. The breakaway’s lead balloons to a surprising number of minutes. The distance seems unbridgeable. A veteran French rider is virtually in yellow. But then, pressure is exerted on the bellows. The breakaway tires—their exhaustion inflamed simply by breathing as they hit the day’s climbs. The peloton condenses the gap. The way the minutes tumble down is nearly deafening—a howling note of effort. Unbelievably, almost all the air is blown from the break. The yellow jersey tips back to its owner. Another lone rider in a navy blue jersey—this one more used to racing on grass than asphalt—decides not to surrender to the countdown. She thrashes her pedals, sprints the descents. The rules of time wobble. She grits her teeth on the last rise as if tearing chunks out of the minutes. She crosses the line—arms aloft—smiling and defiant as she drinks in the air.
Chances (Stage 5—Onet-Le-Château > Albi) Hot sun. Still trees. Browning fields. Sun-bleached rooftops of small villages. A sky so flat and blue it’s either infinite or simply a painted backdrop. The riders are putting in hard work up and down river-worn valleys today. The short leash has been busted out once again for the break. The pre-stage favorite out with illness—-more teams, more riders tantalized by their chances for a win. Bottles and ice socks. Bottles and ice socks. Bottles and ice socks. The peloton sheds layers on the short climbs. Riders drifting backward in the heat. More bottles and ice socks. The rider who yesterday broke the bellows that fed the fires of the main contenders takes points to earn the polka dot jersey at the day’s end. A bike race consists of a thousand moments so subtly different they blend together into one complete stage—rare are the moments in sync with chances for the win. And so, at the crest of the uncontested bonus climb, another solo attack releases like an arrow. The rider tucks behind her bars, drives into the open space between her and the finish line. The time gap shrinks but then becomes static—the bunch and the soloist seem to be locked in orbit with each other. She sprints all the way past the line to be sure. A hand to her mouth in disbelief.
Toil (Stage 6—Albi > Blagnac) More heavy sunlight. Deep summertime shadows. The grassy shoulder of the road is dry and rough. Fields of dusty sunflowers gaze at the sweat-glossed riders. A small group has escaped and toils to hold its gap. The peloton still aims for a sprint finish—it is tightly bunched on both narrow farmland roads and village streets. As if merciless miles and harsh heat haven’t proved attritional enough—crashes catapult a few riders across the smooth asphalt and into the coarse vegetation. Standing shakily, they check the machine of their bodies and their machines of the road for damage. They settle back into the saddle with bone-deep fatigue and pain. The peloton snakes onward. Fast wheels hum pleasantly as they cut through the air. As the kilometers to the line evaporate faster than the seconds to the trio out front, doubt begins to grow—have the sprint teams miscalculated one final time? The brave break zips through roundabouts. They are nearing the end—their strength, the finish. A chicane that doesn’t match the physics of the effort for a bunch sprint guillotines the peloton. The head of the sprint powers on—desperately chasing the last remaining rider from the long, long breakaway. They are almost within touching distance. But once again, the individual perseveres—breaking open every last vein in the mountain of herself to search for that invaluable thing called belief that will get her to the line.
Battle (Stage 7—Lannemezan > Tourmalet Bagnères-de-Bigorre) The overcast sky provides a roof over the land—and the riders are going to punch through it. The high point of the race awaits. They approach the climbs like an army marching through the valley to battle. They set hard stares at the grim heights and impenetrable conifer slopes. There’s no denying the pain to come—no hiding on the mountain when the percentages hash the peloton. Very quickly the team lieutenants are drawing ragged breaths along the gutter—and a podium-worth of rivals charge upward in double time. They’re over the top of the first climb and begin the descent to the final altitudinal attack of the day. One chooses the right lines. The other two are locked in a cold war—feathering brakes and anticipating allies. A ragged group bridges to them—but the rider who dared on the descent enters fog like a shade seeking redemption. All the riders are mere shadows in the haunted flare of headlights in the mist. A whistle sounds GO NOW! in the mind of one—she’s at a point on the climb that she knows deep in her muscles is the place to bombard her rivals with watts. Amid the clouds and concrete and dark shapes yowling on the mountainside, she catches the lone escapee and ruptures the race in her favor. Finally, she crosses the line, eyes bright with the effort and joyful relief. The other survivors of the legendary mountain stagger in—the race placings nearly solidified after so many brutal days. Truth (Stage 8—Pau > Pau) They call it the race of truth. Which is to say, a pure bike race. A rider alone. Against the clock. Against the parcours. The land. Weather. Against themselves. Their limitations. A race in which they close all the doors within themselves and open new ones in a search for a way beyond their abilities. All of this is true. But truth can be found on any other stage as well. There is truth in reaction—when a rider is red lining and their rival accelerates—what does it take to go with them? There is truth in choice—when to attack the bunch, when to press on. There is truth to be seen in a side-by-side bunch sprint. In gradients breaking the peloton like glass. Today, though the truth has already been exposed—almost geologically—the riders excavated and scraped away by the long days in the saddle until their very foundations have been revealed—the end result still seems fragile. Making it around a time trial course is not easy. Staying upright. Staying in fortune’s grace—avoiding mechanicals or flats. Staying within time losses—or making gains. Staying resilient. Perhaps this is the truth. Becoming the moment, not being lead by it. Ensuring victory. A jersey. A place on the podium.
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