Old and New
So I rode my bike today. The third day in a row, which is rare for me, because I don’t ride my bike very much. Not anymore. You’ll probably want to ask why, because everybody seems to talk about it being a release and a joy and a place, where they can empty their head, and so they presume, it’s what it is for me - how I’ve been lucky to do it as a job, and I get that. I remember that place.
Riding a bike for me represents hurting myself, not suffering. I rarely suffered. No. Yet, I remember every day I did, and I wish it upon nobody else in the world, because it was horrible. This is not semantics. It’s got to do with memories. Suffering and hurting are two different things. I can hurt myself, other people make me suffer. Semantics. I’ve gotten to a point in my life, where I need to escape again, not to run away from anything, no, it’s simpler than that. I need to find myself again.
So I rode up Rocacorba.
It’s a mountain close to where we live, and a mountain I treasure for many reasons. Ironically, it’s not a nice place to ride, because it’s just terribly difficult. I find it weird how I chose that as the place to reboot my riding again, yet now, three days in, I realise why. It made me hurt myself, and I needed that. Maybe it’s what has been missing. I hurt myself in other ways, drinking too much constantly, pushing myself and others outside their comfort zone by being a hard person to live with. The one thing I haven’t been doing is riding my bike.
This is my third day in a row.
I rode out to our annual Easter lunch at the Latymer’s house, and I chose to go over El Angels, a route I’d previously never taken. Even when I was a pro and would ride to their house, I never went that way. I thought it would be fine but it wasn’t. It felt like it went on forever, when normally I thought of it as being an insignificant climb.
Easter Sunday on the first day of April. Bright and clear blue sunshine greet a gleaming newly washed bike. It’s my first day back on the bike after a failed training camp in Sierra Nevada. I was sick, and the team sent me home. It is what it is. I don’t put my left shoe on before my right. I don’t wear new socks for the first day of the month. My only ritual is a coffee, it’s a double shot and thickly textured. Back in Perth, Australia, we call it a 'Long Mach topped up'.
Today, I don’t especially want to go train hard; both from the sickness and the fact it’s just a so goddamn stunning day. After a week of racing Volta Catalunya for my top WordTour result to date, and then four days in the snow at Sierra Nevada, all I want is to be outside. In amongst the fields of bright lush green, golden yellow, young bees amongst the flowers and that Spanish sun.
For a young professional racer it’s a dream job on days like these. Optimism surges back to you like a wave. It will be a week until my girlfriend arrives back to Spain, so I’m going to be on the bike for as long as possible to avoid the loneliness of an empty apartment. It’s amazing what balance can do. And I’m talking about life now. I had never lived by myself before. In my first year as a pro I lived in Italy - specifically Lucca. Medieval, charming and quintessentially Italian. I didn’t like it. It’s great for five days but to live there, not so much. I endeavour the modern. The contemporary. In that way it kind of sums up my first year as a neo pro: flashes of brilliance but looking back it was more of a year of searching for the right things, the right place and people.
I live in Girona now.
My second year as a pro is much better. I know what I’m doing now. The move from Italy to Spain has cleared things. I don’t need to be a monk - drink some red wine! Have some chocolate! Go to Barcelona for the weekend! It’s okay. The only thing this live requires is to work hard and be dedicated to your job. But never forget it is also your dream. Pro riders can sometimes lose sight of that, I believe. The dream. And on Easter Sunday I loved every moment.
Within one kilometre of going up that climb I encountered two guys at the side of the road. They were all cool, Pas Normal Studio guys. One of them had a puncture, and they flagged me down for a pump. As they did one said, ’David Millar...’
I stopped. I explained, how I don’t carry a pump which is stupid but true. I then carried on. Further up the road, I asked a mountain biker if he could help the two guys down the road, but he couldn’t, so it is what it is. We left them. I got to the top, went into the monastery and bought a beer. It was sunny, so I thought I’d go and sit on the terrace. Outside I sat down and pretended to be A Nother cyclist, but then I realised it was cold and it made me suffer. I write suffer. I picked up my beer and went inside and sat in the dark and warmth. I felt happier inside. I looked at my phone, and I did what we do. After a bit the two guys I’d passed came in. They ordered a coffee and some Coca Colas. In fact, there were now three of them, dressed in Pas Normal Studio. Which is fine, but I thought there were a team. I then realised there were more of them outside. I thought about that. And I realised, that I’m CHPT3. They’re all sitting outside in the cold drinking coffee and Coca Cola in team kit, and I was sitting inside on my own in proper technical secret kit having a beer. It was weird, because I have my doubts about everything I do, yet that moment made me realise, that it’s okay to be different, as long as we do it excellently. I’m proud of our accomplishments with the brand. I forget to think about it on a daily basis, because we are often busy and always thinking ahead, one thing leads to the next, and I guess it’s just life being lived, and we all go through it as people, but then on a day like today, it makes me realise, that I need to remember to think about it - what we’ve accomplished so far, because it makes me proud.
We left the monastery at the same time. We being the PNS crew and the CHPT3 man. I rolled out and was actually up for a chat, and there were maybe eight of them, I’m not sure, it seemed that many, and if I’m being honest, I wanted to do a bit of market research. So they walked down the stairs from the monastery, I took the dirt path as I normally do. I thought, this will be cool, if I hook up with them on the descent, because I can have a good chat to them about why they choose that brand, and if they’ve heard of ours.
We did hook up on the road, but I just rolled by them, because they were being slow. It felt wrong. I sat up, looked back and shouted, ’you guys work for PNS?’
The guy at the front tried to move up, and he made it to me and said, “nah, we’re from Copenhagen, but we don’t work there. It’s a small world but not that small.”
Which I still don’t get.
I asked, where they were going. He said, ’we’re going short today, Flanders is on.’
I said, ’oh cool. What time does it start?’ He said, ’early, it’s a long one,’ and I was like, in my head, oh man, you don’t know I’ve raced Flanders, do you? You don’t know I’ve been with Gilbert in a two-up chasing Cancellara and Boonen in the final 20km, do you?
What I said was, ’oh yeah, I know. I mean. What time is it on TV?’
He didn’t really answer, and I figured if any of them were interested in bike racing, they’d hang with me on the descent and strike up a conversation. None of them did. So I carried on and was actually happy about that. I got to the bottom, and once on the road where I was going, I looked back to make sure, I didn’t have to worry about their group catching me up, and then me having to attempt social interaction again.
I saw a solo cyclist. My innate pro knew immediately it was a pro.
I’ve been at it for hours now. I saw a group coming down from where the monastery is, I forget the name, and so now I’m on the flat, and I want to test my legs. Just for a moment. I tuck down. Then I see a guy up the road. It’s kind of breezy, but he still goes the no-hands-check-pockets-thing. Either he is trying to seem cool, or he knows what he’s doing. In Girona the roads are filled with amateurs and pros and sometimes amateurs think they are pros, and they do all the moves, and you need to get a little closer before you can tell. You can always tell, when you get closer.
I catch him. He stays up by the handlebars, so I have to greet and chat now. I want to anyway - I’m not really training here, I’m just soaking this up, so I begin talking about the scenery. I mean, how can you not? It is idyllic spring. I hear the English accent. I see the kit, and I kind of put pieces together. Could this not be David?
He’s scanning me. My bike, the team kit. It’s obvious he doesn’t know who I am, which is normal, I guess, but I know him. And that’s what makes it great. I don’t need to answer silly racing questions now. It’s more like living things. We talk about life when back at home around the racing. Now, with Easter celebration, that kind of thing.
I know his kit. It makes me jealous at times. We see it on the roads in Girona. Our team kit is a label for all who support us. It is who we represent, our sponsors and so forth and I love that, because it enables me to live my dream. I’m proud of my team kit, because it makes me think about that I’m a professionel bike rider. The kit is a permanent reminder of the dream. But the CHPT3 kit looks cool, and who doesn’t like cool? Cool class. Button class. Those buttons. Yes. David suggests, I’d take this small little road because it’s different. Okay. So we shake hands, he goes off to lunch, and I continue on my melancholic pedal.
The rider is getting nearer. I figured this could be interesting. Eventually he made it up, not a big feat to be fare, and we spent the initial seconds of him behind me deciding whether we would ride together. I could feel him there, so I opened up the road inviting him to ride next to me.
Dimension Data, I noticed that first. Then the fact he was tall and skinny, and ohh-so-young. We said, ’Hi/how you doing/where you going’ in that metier familiarity. He told me what a beautiful day it was, so green, he was enamoured with the landscape and told me so. It’s normal to appreciate as April and May are sublime here, although it’s probably rare to share so early and enthusiastically in a male introductory conversation, especially a metier one. But now he does it. Then I thought, maybe we’ve met before, hence his openness and I said, ’have we met before?’
He said, ’no. No, we haven’t.’ I looked as conspicuously as I could at his bike, his jersey, then his helmet, trying to trace more info, and I found the sticker on his helmet, an Aussie flag and O’Connor. Ben O’Connor, Australian. Neo-pro.
I had no idea who he was.
He said, he had been sent home from Sierra Nevada, where he’d been on a team camp and fallen sick. So rather than spread the sickness he was immediately returned to barracks aka Girona aka the Professional Cyclist’s Home From Home.
We talked about the mundaneness of being on the top of a mountain on a training camp, and considering Sierra Nevada was covered in snow while he was there, it made me understand, why he had been so open about the glories of a Catalan spring day. I guess he could relate more closely with the beauty and freedom on that day on that particular ride. Which was the same for me.
I enjoyed talking to him. I could talk to him in a way I’d forgotten I can talk to people. We talked about his job, the scene, our experiences, and it wasn’t long till we peeled off - maybe we spent ten minutes talking. He told me, how he loved what we were doing with CHPT3, and how he loved the look and the technical details and in particular the buttons. He loved the buttons. The fact that it didn’t look like you were on a team while pointing to his own jersey. That really made my day, and I said so in a rare fit of visible joy. I said, ’that’s it, it was designed for us!’
The whole conversation lightened my day. It reminded me of who I am and where I come from. The rest of the afternoon was spent chasing children and talking to friends before riding back home again. It is only 30 km directly, and I set myself the challenge of doing it as fast I could. For some strange and bewildering reason, probably the flashbacks of being a professional from briefly riding with Ben, that’s what I decided to do.
It had been a wonderful day. I got back into town, parked the bike, got inside our apartment, sat down and looked at some random cycling results. Someone did good there, someone not so good there. The usual. Boiled down, you are either on form or not on form. It is what it is. I’ve won twice before. Smaller races... in New Zealand and once in Austria - nonetheless joy is the overriding factor. I’m a couple of weeks away from winning a big stage at the Tour of Alps, certainly my biggest win, but I don’t know sitting at this table. For me, it’ll not just be a win in a normal bike race, it’ll mean more than that. The value is more. The attention is more. The presence of Chris Froome and co. And also it’ll be the way in which I win and the stage around it. Mountain pass, long range aggression, and then a huge roll of the dice in the final gamble in the valley. I can’t wait - I have no sprint. It’s my style and I think it attracts appeal - but it’s the only way in which I can win.
I’ll have the TV camera at my hip in those final kilometres, which will be a funny one. I’ll be half ecstatic to be on the verge of a win. And then half scared of being caught. Imagining my girlfriend with much more nervousness than me watching will certainly give a push - a drive to win. The thought of the work all your teammates did all day to keeping you safe/ready to fire when you tell them “I’m good” is another. The shouting in your ear from Alex the director sportif - to hear a friend in a time like this will be inspiring. The list can go on and on.
And then I’ll win. The finish line being a whole new experience for me. The photographers all clambering around with lenses ready to fire in your face; a microphone and the presenter throwing down questions. And all I’ll want is someone to embrace - hence why I’ll throw myself into Jesus’ arms (our Soigneur).
And I’ll need to soak up the moment and the jubilation before the next days racing starts a whole new day. At the end of the tour in Innsbruck I’ll win the Young riders jersey too. My Mum will ask me if I’ll have time to see Innsbruck to celebrate. And then I’ll come home to loved ones and the meaning of it will sink in. Pride comes from all corners. A win is not me. I’m a piece of one big puzzle. And a puzzle is never built from one piece.
It’ll happen. I don’t know it yet. But it will happen.
I ended up doing the slowest time trial of my life. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the effort was the same, it hurt and I took myself to the limit for the duration - I even stopped at a petrol station to buy a packet of gummy bears to avoid complete nuking - and the whole time I was reminded of just how hard it used to be, and how deep I would constantly go in those days. I didn’t miss that. Yet, I was happy to be reminded of it, and it made me understand a bit better why I am what I am, for better and worse.
My father-in-law had a cold beer waiting, and he asked me how it was, and I said to him, it was horrible, because it reminded me how hard it used to be, and then I said, I loved it though.