Once through the ski resort and over the brow of the hill the road started to descend. For 10 kilometres it fell in loops like butter curls to the valley floor. To one side, the hill was dusty and gravelly while to the other it fell away sharply, occasionally into depthless ravines, now into gentle slopes peppered with boulders, rocky outcrops and stunted, hard trees.
Nick zipped up his gilet and settled into the drops, keeping his centre of gravity as low as possible. As he swept around the bends his inner leg bent outwards at the knee, while his outer leg was locked straight, balancing his body weight. He had done this descent many times and felt he knew each twist and turn, each wooded section, where there were barriers and where there were none and the placement of each concrete rain water run-off flute. His pace picked up; many times he had passed no-one on the descent, whether coming up or going down and it was rarely used by cars so he had no fear of encountering a vehicle.
He briefly registered the goats to his side but they roamed freely in this part of France, grazing on the spare grass and dancing over the rocks. As he rounded a bend the goats had just crossed the road. A kid, pale and delicate, unsteady and startled, looked round as Nick bore down. He grabbed at the brakes, momentarily forgetting that this hire bike was using the continental set-up where the front brake was controlled by the left hand lever and the rear brake was controlled by the right hand lever. His left hand grabbed at what he thought was the rear brake. Immediately he felt the front wheel shudder. He let go and squeezed the right hand lever. His 25mm tyres slowed and he began to skid. Just as he felt the bike was under control he hit one of the concrete run-offs. The bike jumped in the air and he lost contact with the handle-bar. There was a barrier at this part of the road shielding a sharp drop. The bike slipped beneath the barrier and he watched it fall, somersaulting down the scree and bouncing off the rocks. Nick himself hit one of the barrier supports with his head and as he slid round he felt the sharp metal slice into his neck by his helmet strap. He lay still.
Jeff and his son Roger headed slowly up through the trees. They were in their lowest gears – 34×32 – Roger ahead, Jeff struggling some 20 metres behind. The beads of sweat dripped from his nose and chin and collected on his brow and slid into his eyes. Jeff squeezed his eyes shut to ease the stinging but it did no good; both eyes were blood-shot and felt filled with tiny grains of glass. Just ahead he saw Roger drifting in and out of the mist.
Jeff and Roger were on the third day of their Alpine journey: 100 kilometres a day, 2000 metres of climbing, returning each day exhausted but exhilarated to their pensione in Bourg d’Oisans, tired and sweat soaked, flecked with dust, ready to soak in a hot bath before a fine dinner and a deep dream filled sleep. Jeff loved cycling with his son; Roger was light and strong and young and was easily quicker than Jeff who had the miles in his legs but was no longer young.
Jeff looked up from his Garmin and saw the bike as it slipped under the barrier and somersaulted down the slope. With his weakened sight he at first thought it was Roger who had fallen and he stamped on the pedals, his aching thighs and protesting muscles burning with lactic acid and fighting against the extra effort.
Jeff reached Nick just after Roger who had leapt from his bike, leaned it against the side of the road and was fumbling for his phone.
‘There’s no signal,’ he said. ‘I can’t get a signal.’
‘Here, try mine,’ said Jeff, handing Roger his phone.
Jeff knelt down beside Nick.
‘How are you mate?’ he said.
Nick lay still. He was on his side with one arm stretched out under the barrier and hanging in space; his other hand, grazed and shiny with blood, rested on the tarmac. A pool of blood was spreading beneath his head. His helmet was cracked, his Oakley glasses nudged to one side but still shielding his eyes.
Roger was holding the phone.
‘I’ve got a signal,’ he said. ‘It’s ringing. Bonjour. Er, do you speak English? There’s a cyclist, oui cycliste, he’s had an accident. Accident. Oui, accident. Where?’ He turned away.
‘Where are we Dad?’
‘Col de Sarenne,’ said Jeff. ‘Below Alpe d’Huez. About half-way from the summit.’
Roger relayed the information.
‘They want to know what happened,’ he said.
‘You can see what’s happened,’ said Jeff. ‘He’s had an accident. He seems unconscious. He’s bleeding. A lot.’
‘Where from?’ said Roger, looking down at Nick.
Jeff reached gently beneath Nick’s head and felt his neck. When he drew his hand away it dripped with darkening blood.
‘It’s his neck,’ he said. ‘It’s been cut. It’s deep. And he’s had a bang on his head. I think there’s blood coming out of his ear.’
‘They say they’re on the way,’ said Roger. ‘They’re coming from Alpe d’Huez, be about 15 minutes. Thank you madame. Merci.’ He turned to his father.
‘They say don’t try and move him but to try and stop the bleeding. Press a cloth on the cut and hold it.’
Nick stirred. His face was pale; beads of sweat were drying in the sun. His eyes flickered open.
‘Who are you?’ he said. ‘Where am I? What happened?’
‘You crashed,’ said Jeff. ‘Coming down the Col de Sarenne. You’ve got a cut in your neck and I think you hit your head. There’s an ambulance coming.’
Nick looked at him, seemed not to hear.
‘Col de what?’
‘Sarenne, Col de Sarenne. Other side of Alpe d’Huez.’
‘I’m tired,’ said Nick. ‘And cold.’
Jeff removed his rain jacket from the back pocket of his jersey and draped it over Nick’s shoulders.
‘Goats,’ Nick said.
‘What did you say? Coats?’
‘Goats,’ he said again. ‘Fucking goats. I hit a goat, a little one. What do you call a little goat?’
‘What, a baby goat?’ said Roger. ‘A kid.’
‘Not a kid,’ said Nick. ‘I didn’t hit a kid, it was a goat.’
‘A baby goat is a kid,’ said Roger. ‘I mean a kid is a baby goat.’
‘I hit a kid,’ said Nick. ‘Shit.’
There was no-one else around. Far below Jeff could see a couple of riders toiling up the road but they were at least 40 minutes away. The road was in poor condition, cars tended to drive up to Alpe d’Huez from Bourg d’Oisans and then turn around and go back down; they seldom continued through the town and down the Col de Sarenne. Jeff remembered when the Tour had taken this route in 2012 and ascended the Alpe twice; he had been with a group from the club and they had ridden half-way up the Alpe and stopped at a fairly clear section on bend number 12. Three hours they waited before the peloton arrived, preceded by the Tour caravan and the marketing vehicles scattering packets of salami, tissues, hats, cake, Haribo, condoms, madeleines, biscuits and other detritus which was either caught by the watching crowds or was kicked over the edge to collect in the bushes and trees. A Frenchman, Christophe Riblon had taken the victory after two ascents of the Alpe.
But now the Col de Sarenne was all but deserted. The weather could change in an instant in the mountains and now the sun was fading behind the clouds and a mist had gathered. Already the two riders far below had disappeared from view.
‘Talk to me,’ said Nick in a low voice. ‘Talk to me please.’
Jeff gestured to Roger with his eyes to move away.
‘Where’s he going?’ said Nick.
‘Nowhere,’ said Jeff. He’s just getting a drink.’
Jeff had removed his neckerchief and tied it gently around Nick’s neck covering and sealing the wound as much a possible. It was now soaked in blood although the blood seemed to have stopped flowing. Jeff held his hand over the wound.
‘My name’s Jeff, this is my son Roger. We’re here for a week riding the Cols. We’ve done Alpe d’Huez that was yesterday so today we wanted to climb from this side; not many people do that. Tomorrow is a rest day and then the day after we’re doing the Galibier. Roger is nearly 16; he’s at school obviously, he’s been riding for about 4 years, he’s dead keen. I ride a Canyon; Roger’s got a Pinarello.’
Nick had closed his eyes. His breathing was slow.
He opened his eyes and saw Jeff looking at him.
‘I don’t have a son,’ he said. ‘Or a daughter. I don’t have any children.’
‘You’re still young,’ said Jeff. ‘There’s time.’
‘No,’ said Nick. ‘There isn’t time. You think there is but there isn’t, not for me anyway.’
‘Don’t say that,’ said Jeff. ‘You’re going to be okay, you’ll get through this. It’s bad but it’s not that bad.’
‘Thank you doctor,’ said Jeff. ‘I don’t mean surviving. I don’t know anyone and I’m not going to meet anyone. Not now.’
Jeff was silent. Nick spoke again.
‘I knew someone once. I thought she and I would always be together. I thought we’d have children. She wanted them but she couldn’t have them. We couldn’t have them. And then she left me.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Jeff.
‘Cancer,’ said Nick. ‘Breast cancer. We thought she’d get over it and she did for a bit. But it came back. It always comes back. Bloody doctors said it had gone. It hadn’t gone, it was just hiding. And then she died. She lost her battle with cancer. They always say that don’t they? So and so lost their battle with cancer. They don’t say that about other illnesses do they? He lost his battle with typhoid. He lost his battle with MS. Do something for me, will you?’
‘Of course,’ said Jeff. ‘What is it?’
‘If I don’t get through this, would you take some flowers to her? I planted a tree in her name at the Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth. You’ll find her.’
‘Don’t say that,’ said Jeff. ‘You’ll get through this. We’ll ride the Galibier, you and me and Roger. You’ll see.
‘Do it please,’ said Nick softly.
The ambulance arrived and the paramedics gently pushed Jeff aside and started their work. When they had gone, Jeff and Roger mounted their bikes and continued up to the summit. It was cold and it began to rain and they didn’t talk very much. Jeff was tired but he settled into a steady cadence in his lowest gear and got there eventually; the last 400 metres were the worst, he thought they’d never end.
Sidmouth was busy and crowded with an air of fading grace. Memories of all the country’s wars seemed etched in the faces of the elderly people who strolled slowly and deliberately along the sea-front. Jeff and Roger sat in the tea-room of Fields department store. The neat pinafore clad waitress brought their tea cakes dripping in salty yellow butter. Roger was hungry and ate a sandwich and a slice of lemon cake. Jeff sipped his tea. The tea cake was glorious; he could feel his waist line expanding. They sat in the restaurant in silence. Families sat quietly together; many were here to visit a frail grand-parent and take them to tea; they tucked in napkins, cut up sandwiches into bite sized portions, checked how much sugar was wanted.
‘Come along,’ said Jeff. ‘Let’s go.’
They stopped at an old fashioned sweet shop and Jeff bought 200 grams of liquorice toffees – his favourite. They came in a little paper bag. He toyed with the idea of buying some fudge but decided his teeth weren’t up to it. Roger asked for a sherbet fountain and walked along the street sucking up the sugar.
They drove up the steep hill out of town, past the observatory and the caravan park and the twisting, steep road that led to Branscombe. Jeff was glad they weren’t cycling up this hill; it was a struggle even in the car.
It was a glorious afternoon with a deep blue sky and the sunlight glinting and firing little points of light on the waves.
The donkey sanctuary was busy. Lots of young children in buggies, mechanical and motorised wheel-chairs, lots of family groups and people with disabilities. Jeff had bought some flowers in the town and he asked at the information centre for the location of the tree.
The paddocks sloped down to the sea. One day they would follow the path down to the beach and maybe follow it all the way to Beer and sit on a bench in the sunshine and eat ice creams like fathers and sons were supposed to do. One day, but not today.
They walked through the extensive grounds past the various paddocks which contained all the rescue donkeys. They found it eventually on a little avenue of similar trees. Each tree was accompanied by a plaque with a message to a loved one – a father, wife, sister, mother, grand-parent; there were many dedicated to pets – cats, dogs, the occasional budgie.
Jeff tidied up the plot and removed some dead leaves. The tree was flourishing and looked healthy. The plaque was simple:
Jenny. Beloved wife, friend and lover. Death will not part us. Nick
Jeff arranged the flowers.
‘Shall we do another trip?’ said Jeff.
‘You choose. Tenerife? We could climb Mount Teide, longest climb in Europe. Corsica? Or Lanzarotte maybe.’
‘I heard Lanzarotte’s very windy,’ said Roger. ‘And bare. It’s a volcano, you know.’
‘I know. Majorca then. Stay in Puerto Pollensa, I know this great hotel. And we could do Sa Calobra. I did that 10 years ago when I came out by myself. You’d love it.’
‘Okay,’ said Roger. ‘Let’s do that.’
Roger held Jeff’s hand as they walked back to the car; he hadn’t done that for a long time.