It’s over for another year. No, not the ongoing agony of the less than mighty Tigers in the Australian Football League. Unfortunately that particular course of midwinter depression has some weeks to run yet this year.
I mean Le Tour, the annual helicopter TV travelogue of the France département of Theme Park Europe, with forays into adjacent shows like Switzerland and Spain. For three weeks we are treated to glorious HD scenes of rivers and lakes and bridges and dams and plains and hills and towns and castles and cathedrals and art and food and . . . and . . . and . . . mountains. Whoa, what mountains!
Oh, and a bike race.
I don’t know exactly when I started taking a chunk out of the midnight hours to watch a couple of hundred mad men in flashy skin suits pedal a few thousand kilometres through the world’s biggest wine and cheese party. But I think it must have been in 2007 when Cadel Evans was runner-up in Le Tour for the first time.
I switched on to get a look at the curiosity that was an Australian capable of winning the Tour de France but, with all due respect to Cadel and his colleagues, it was the scenery that hooked me. What I knew then about bike racing was just a nano-blip above zero. A decade later, I think I have a handle on it . . . in about the same way I have a handle on nuclear physics.
I know about bicycles, of course. They have two wheels, handlebars and chains and things. I had one as a kid, for my paper round and going to school and generally hooning around. As an adult, at some stage in the mid-80s, I acquired a bike with gears, which was a first for me. I never did get the hang of them. My wife made me wear a helmet – which was fortunate because my bike-riding non-career ended when I came off one day trying to jump a concrete kerb and landed on my head. I don’t know who was more shocked – me or the little old lady at whose feet I came to rest.
I never rode again. Not for me the heroics of the pros. They regularly trade blows with kerbs and bollards, resurface roads with their skins and keep the medical profession up to date on how to mend busted bodies. How anyone can do anything when his pelvis is broken I do not know, let alone ride a bike . . . at speed . . . up and down a mountain. But, courtesy of Le Tour TV, the world has seen it done, most recently in just the past week or so.
This sort of performance is not a one-off. Time and time again these alien-looking compositions of skin and sinews fall off, grimace a bit, then get back on and pedal away. In the Giro d’Italia this year (oh yes, I am officially a tragic) the leader dived head first into a snow bank and then was almost apologetic that the best he could do after that was come in fourth. Goddammit, he should have taken the hint.
Likewise those riders who cross the finishing line “no hands”. You know what I mean – they sit up straight and wave their arms in triumph high, wide and handsome. Well, I would tell them, if I ever got the chance, to pay attention to the fate of Constable Oates who essayed a similar move one fine evening in England’s green and pleasant land.
All right, he wasn’t winning Le Tour like Chris Froome but he was in a similar mood – more hubris than triumph perhaps but nevertheless on top of his world. According to an eyewitness, one Bertram Wilberforce Wooster, he was proceeding “no hands” along a country road near the entrance to Totleigh Towers one of England’s premier stately homes. “His whole attitude,” Bertie says in his memoir, The Code of the Woosters, “was that of a policeman with nothing on his mind but his helmet.”
Oates failed to notice that he was being chivvied by a sporting Aberdeen terrier, “all whiskers and eyebrows, hareing after him hell-for-leather” with the clear intention of nipping said constable on his blue-clad ankle. As Bertie observes, riding “no hands” requires that you not be interrupted, or you’re likely to swoop into a sudden swerve. “And as everybody knows, if the hands are not firmly on the handlebars, a sudden swerve spells a smeller.” And so it happened, one of the finest smellers Bertie says he has ever been privileged to witness.
I sometimes wish I had a Scottie to take with me on my walking tours of the many scenic footpaths in my little corner of the universe – because the operative part of the word “footpath” no longer applies. These are paths that these days we mere pedestrians are forced to share with cyclists. Walkers are at constant risk of collecting in the small of the back 100kg of lycra-ed loon travelling at, I dunno, the speed of sound maybe. This is no laughing matter. You get no warning, not a bell, not a shout, not even a telegram or a letter. One moment you’re ambling along enjoying the remnant bushland along the creek bank, birds chirping away as birds do, and the next you’re stumbling off into the snake-infested undergrowth as a UFO whizzes past on its way to conquer the Death Star, or something.
I’ve been tempted to carry a stout staff or maybe an iron bar that I could thrust into the spokes if I were quick enough. Then there’d be a smeller, better than Oates’s. The downside, though, is that some bike-riding beak would not accept my argument of extreme provocation and curtail my bushwalking with a term in one of Her Majesty’s establishments for preventing grumpy old men causing mayhem among the passing populace.
Maybe a Scottie like Constable Oates’s nemesis would be a better solution. This dog, Bartholomew by name, has a beetling brow, the jaws and teeth of a crocodile and the disposition of Presbyterian preacher of the old school. He is given to muttering beneath his breath in Gaelic. He enjoys causing smellers. As Bertie says, after Oates got his, Bartholomew stood over the stricken bluebottle “looking down at him with that rather offensive expression of virtuous smugness which I have often noticed on the faces of Aberdeen terriers in their clashes with humanity”.
Bertie, it strikes me, reveals here imperfect sympathy for the victim of this mini hound of the Baskervilles, given that elsewhere in the Wooster chronicles gathered by P.G. Wodehouse he, too, is brought asunder by Bart the bounder. But when you know of the cycling prowess Bertie has shown over the years, you can understand the contempt for the show-off Oates that he shares with Bartholomew.
Bertie himself declared that he once took the blue riband in a choirboys handicap at some village sports, a shining trophy to place on the mantelpiece alongside the scripture prize he won at school. Furthermore, at Oxford, “on bump-supper nights” he used to ride “jolly fast” around the quad at his college, singing comic songs. Well, I suppose he would, go fast I mean, given he was apparently naked at the time. Bertie has tried to play down these achievements, modest fellow that he is, but to no avail – he was still drafted to perform what was his crowning achievement as a pedal-pusher. I don’t say this is up there with winning Le Tour three times, or even once for that matter, but, by golly, I’d like to see Cadel or Chris strike out just after midnight on an unfamiliar machine, not having ridden for years, over an 18-mile course along country lanes, without a map or even a light, and come safely home. Of course, when I say “I’d like to see” I mean on TV from my comfortable chair with some soothing libation close at hand.
Anyway, that’s what Bertie did one night at Brinkley Court, his Aunt Dahlia’s establishment in, appropriately enough, Worcestershire. Having checked the tyres, the nuts, the brakes and “the sprockets running true with the differential gear”, he headed out into the great world. His epic ride, as described in Right Ho, Jeeves, is worthy of a poem by Browning or Longfellow and is rendered even more meritorious by the fact that Bertie was totally unfortified for the ordeal, unlike on his Oxford circuits where, he confessed, he had the benefit of some chemical assistance. “I was icily sober,” he reports on that fateful Brinkley night, “and the old skill had deserted me entirely. I found myself wabbling [sic, see *FOOTNOTE below] badly, and all the old stories I had ever heard of nasty bicycle accidents came back to me with a rush.”
Chris Froome and the other cycling fiends must have recalled them too, the other day in le Tour when they all came sliding and slithering down the Alps. When the picturesque mountain clouds empty their contents, a couple of centimetres of rubber is not much to cling to on a slippery dip masquerading as a road. Even Bertie would have suppressed his inner Aberdeen terrier to admire their fortitude and concede they might well have been capable of conquering rural Worcs in the dark. In the event, neither Chris nor Bertie pressed on to their individual triumphs with much harm done – for Chris, although the strip of epidermis he left behind on that Alpine bitumen was such that it will be forever Kenya, he was able to ride “no hands” down the Champs Elysees unbothered by Gaelic hell-hounds; for Bertie he survived with only a certain amount of, as he puts it, physical anguish in the billowy portions and a momentary disturbance in his mental universe.
Some people might have viewed Le Tour 2016, I suppose, as the unfolding of a kind of pre-ordained sequence, so dominant was the winner almost from the off. Nothing disturbed his destiny. As a Wodehousean I knew what it really was. I could see the grand plan. Bertie recognised the hidden hand directing his agony and delivered his verdict: “All’s well that ends well.” That so, Jeeves?
*FOOTNOTE: My copy of Right Ho, Jeeves is the American edition, published by Little, Brown and Company. For some reason Mr Little, or it might have been Mr Brown, changed the title to Brinkley Manor, turned “Court” into “Manor” throughout and adopted American spelling. Most of the changes amount to very little (or maybe very brown) but produced oddities such as “wabbling” and “indorsement”, and two country houses both infelicitously named “Manor”. I guess these Boston bureaucrats felt Plum’s American readers couldn’t cope with expressions such as “right ho” and “court” being a house not a theatre for the Perry Masons of this world. We should all be grateful they didn’t decide to make a real job of it and put the blue pencil through everything they felt Americans wouldn’t understand – e.g. “bump-supper nights”. I suggest you consult Dr Google; the whole thing’s too tedious for me.
ANOTHER FOOTNOTE: Lest anyone among my small but perfectly formed readership think I am wilfully ignoring the events of Nice during Le Tour, and then St Etienne, be assured I am not, as indeed I could not pass by the long list of other outrages in recent times. But what else are ordinary people to do: arm themselves with pitchforks and march purposefully somewhere, anywhere, all the while giving a spirited rendition of Do You Hear the People Sing? There is no knowing when or where evil will strike next. I suggest the only thing most of us can do is carry on unbowed, finding comfort and humanity where we can. For me, like my fellow online Wodehousean Honoria Plum, that has meant for many years now seeking solace and inspiration in the works of Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse. I recommend her blog, Plumtopia, as a haven of sense and sensibility. And remember, as the great philosopher George Harrison intoned: all things must pass.
AND ANOTHER: For the smart alecs among you, there is no inconsistency between my desire to punish the excesses of bike riders on my footpaths and my lack of recognition of the interference the chevaliers of Le Tour (and the Giro) suffer from pedestrians. In case you haven’t noticed, Le Tour’s roads are for the racers, not for sharing, and it’s all right by me that Chris Froome whacked a spectator on his way to victory.