Some years ago I found myself sweating and struggling up the Col de Joux Plane – a high alpine pass, and semi-regular Tour de France climb, in the Haute Savoie.
It was a hot day. I’d already ridden the climb up to Morzine-Avoriaz, and followed this with twenty miles of ill-advised cat-and-mouse with a group of local cyclists.
They’d done me up like a kipper.
From the base of the Joux Plane, in the town of Samoens, they leapt (the salmon to my smoked herring) up the road in sprightly fashion, having pooled their reserves of energy while clinically sapping mine.
I would not see them again.
To make matters worse I had woefully under-resourced my hydration strategy. My strategy being to drink when I was thirsty, my resources being a two-thirds empty drinks bottle, and my oxygen starved brain cells concluding, wrongly, that a refill before the climb was not necessary.
Only a few kilometres up the mountain I was ready to do the unthinkable and climb off for a rest under a shaded tree. I was empty. A goner. My spirit drained like the final drops from my bottle. Had I given in to this urge I might still be there now, delirious, attempting to suck moisture from the foliage and living wild.
Feral and unhinged, barking at passing cyclists.
Offering deranged observations on choice of tyre pressure and favoured group-set manufacturer.*
Wild-eyed with thirst.
But this moment, my lowest ebb, was when Romain Bardet – mountain goat, Grand Tour contender, and the most French of all the cyclists – saved my life.
Appearing, like a vision in graffiti’d form, to offer inspiration.
“Super Romain Bardet” said the road, bringing me to a contemplative halt. I took a picture, dutiful documentarian of cycling ephemera that I am, and felt the vibrations of those who’d been there before.
The road lined with French people, their ‘allez Romain’ and ‘vive le Bardet’ ringing in my ears. Excitement in the air. Passing drinks and encouragement to riders, sucking the cyclists up the gradient through a cacophonous guard of honour.
I puffed out my chest, like a proud Frenchman, and pressed on the pedals.
A thousand imaginary eyes logged my progress, several languages of syndicated TV commentary increasing in pitch as they mispronounced my name. This was now a summit finish – a crucial Tour de France deciding summit finish – and no time for downing tools.
I promised myself a massive drink and a piece of pie at the summit café, and dug deep.
I didn’t, as I assumed I wouldn’t, see my French friends again. They were long gone. But they were merely the breakaway competing for the stage. I was Bardet, and sniffing the Yellow Jersey.
And I was in no mood to let my country down.
*Campagnolo, of course.