Folklore tells of a grand race which cut across impassable snow-capped peaks, and treacherous wind-swept shores. Over one hundred editions of the ‘Grand Boucle’ have rolled this giant loop, each writing the triumphs and tragedies of legendary adversaries.
And so it was, Renert found himself on a soft-sunny morning, sitting upright outside the Café au Réveil-Matin, in Montgeron - a small town on the southern edge of Paris. Shortly, a small man sporting an over-sized newsboy cap parked a bicycle nearby, sat down on the grass, and took a long draw on a dusty bottle of red wine. “Will that effect your ability to cycle?” enquired Renert. The small man fixed his gaze on the fox. “I hope so,” came the response. Renert came to understand the man had once been a chimney sweep, and although born in far off Italy, was trying to embrace the cultures of his new homeland, hence entering a new bicycle race, with high honours at stake. Happily, the chimney sweep would win.
Days later, while meandering along Rue du Faubourg Montmartre, Paris, Renert had happened upon a silver-haired business man, who seemed highly irritable and flushed with outrage. When asked as to his point of issue, the man spluttered “It has died of its success… of the blind passions that it unleashed… the abuse and the dirty suspicions.” “How sad,” replied Renert. “Did you know that would happen?” The man paused. “We just wanted to sell some newspapers. Not conceive a monster.”
One year later, Renert discovered that the little chimney sweep, bolstered by more red wine, along with oysters, coffee and champagne, and despite fist fights, muggings, clubs and guns, had repeated his feat, but was later unceremoniously stripped of the achievement, having swapped his bicycle for a passenger train. Had the monster refused to withdraw? Renert decided he should follow the path of this race, take to a bicycle, and discover more.
His next encounter was with a taciturn man, who wore what appeared to be motorcar racing goggles. But on his forehead. He was also proudly sporting a bright, yellow-hued jacket. “Where did you acquire this fine golden apparel?” asked Renert. “In Paris,” came the reply. “On Day One. And I kept it. Until the end, on Day Twenty-Two.” He later confessed to riding a rather awkward Lady’s Bicycle on Day Nineteen, for over one hundred kilometres. “Odd,” thought Renert, “Why make this demanding long race so much harder?” “Better than toiling on a farm?” came the reply.
Renert learnt more about this special yellow jacket, or more profoundly ‘Le Maillot Jaune’. One rumour suggested it was coloured so by decree of the angry newsman. And that after many years of the race, it was eventually decided to be bestowed on the winner, along with a prize, as extra incentive. A french wool company called Les Laines would sponsor the garment, each one embroidered with the initials HD. Its first incarnation was to be wrapped around the very muscular and broad shoulders of a Pious Man of Iron, who had travelled from the Italian town of Florence. Renert sat quietly at the feet of this concrete individual, whose face spoke of combat and much conflict. Eventually he spoke. "Good is something you do, not something you talk about." Renert pricked up his ears. “If you’re good at a sport, they attach the medals to your shirts and then they shine in some museum. That which is earned by doing good deeds is attached to the soul and shines elsewhere.” Such sentiment spoke of a very morally astute man, who had been locked in battle, for many years with a graceful, but calculating Heron. This soaring creature had been nurtured by a blind masseuse, had caused affront and outrage by his associations with a mysterious White Lady, and who had cast a shadow over the Grand Boucle itself, with his secret (but not so secret) weapon - La Bomba. The Heron was such a powerful competitor, that he once won a race by such as distance, that a radio commentator decided to broadcast dance music, while waiting for the rest of the race entrants to catch up. Renert began to sense this race was not just about bicycles.
Tick tock. Tick tock. Tick tock. Tick tock. Renert sprang to his feet. It’s not everyday you come across an angel. Particularly one riding a bicycle. The fox ran beside this blue-eyed divine messenger for as long as he could keep the pace. The rider’s short legs were spinning feverishly. His gaze fixed on some distant memory. “You ride like a man possessed,’ suggested a panting Renert. “It’s life or death,” said the angel. “And life is fleeting.” “Oh really?” coughed Renert, now struggling to stay on the celestial being’s wheel. “I used to work as a slaugterman. In Bettemboug…” The fox suddenly stopped in his tracks. This particular angel seemed to be either chasing a dream, or riding away from a nightmare. It was time for diversion. And an ice cream.
Nonchalantly perched on a low stone wall the fox happened upon an eagle, supping on a rapidly melting ice cream, with an air of devil-may-care detachment. “May I join you?” enquired Renert. The eagle nodded to an empty patch of stone to his side. Renert purchased a fresh ice cream from the nearby vendor, and they both sat in silence, with nothing other to do than enjoy frozen fare, on the peak of the Col de la Romeyère. The eagle had flown all the way from Castilla-La Mancha, in Spain, in order to compete in the race. Which as Renert discovered, was going quite well. But before further conversation could occur, a distant sound of car horns and much shouting caused the bird’s pupils to expand rapidly. He dropped the ice cream cone, and in seconds was out of sight.
The fox would learn that there were a number of ways in which the race could be won. Some would enact a physical duel with their rivals, others would wait until signs of weakness were shown, and then pounce, and then there were those who treated the entire procedure almost scientifically, reliant on their ingenuity and an apparent approach of economy of effort. One such individual crossed the fox’s path under a cloud of public antipathy and contempt, much directed from his own compatriots. Monsieur Chrono was an elegant fellow. His blue eyes suggested a frosty soul. “I can reduce the race to a few simple calculations,” he told Renert, as they both sat on the deck of a gently bobbing wooden boat. “I only deal in seconds,” stated the Frenchman, who had just become the first rider to win the race a record five times. Renert looked along the boat’s flank. He noted ‘The Whistles of 59’ painted along one side, and wondered whose whistles they were. “It must have been very hard to have done so many calculations, to win so many times. Did you drink lots of red wine, and eat oysters washed down with coffee and champagne?” Monsieur Chrono laughed. “Well… it certainly wasn’t mineral water. For me, success is all about preparation. For which there is nothing better than a good pheasant, some champagne and a woman.” The Fox raised a brow. These champion cyclists are very contrary and complex fellows, he thought, while jumping ashore.
Perched astride his mobile, upright seat of learning, Renert would meet many a memorable creature. The Badger was brusque and impassioned. The Phoenix became a national hero, winning the race at the first attempt, entering as a last minute replacement. And The Lion of Mugello, who shared the same country of origin as the Phoenix, was unusual in that not many lions liked to smoke. He was also very good at travelling down mountains, one adversary warning “The only reason to follow him downhill would be if you had a death wish.”
Such sentiment took an uphill significance one particular day, as Renert turned a street corner, bumping headlong into a broad-smiled gentleman, replete with bowler hat and tightly-wrapped umbrella. “Terribly sorry old chap. Hope there’s no damage.” “Not at all,” said the fox, brushing his fur back into alignment. “It was my fault.” “Head in the clouds?” asked the man. “You could say that. Where are you off to?” The jovial Englishman prodded the tip of his umbrella skyward, in a mock-jousting gesture. “I’m off to fight with a giant.” “A giant? How brave of you. Where does he live?” The gentleman, who Renert later discovered went by the name of Mister Tom, was en route to the south of France, with the intention of battling with the God of Evil, the Giant of Provence. This mythical colossus was reputed to live in the Testing Place for Heroes - a barren land, where sacrifices were made. The giant never forgave weakness, staring down on his foe with a bald face so terrible it resembled the crater-pocked, dusty surface of the moon. The fox’s throat grew dry. “And you plan to take on this giant, with just your bicycle, and an umbrella?” Mister Tom had the most beguiling smile. “Through courage and cunning you can achieve a great many things my furry friend.” He gently patted the crown of the fox’s head. “And if it doesn’t work out…” Renert never did discover Mister Tom’s alternate ending.
With travel comes knowledge. By now, the fox was some distance into his long journey around the Grand Boucle, and much the wiser for it. He had determined that this extraordinary race was not just about the competitors on their bicycles, but also about the landscape through which they travelled. The road, with all its up and downs was a meandering metaphor for life itself. There were races within races. And life was often hard, and unpredictable. Yet, at one stage, Renert found himself in the company of what he decided was in fact ‘the predictable’. Such was the prowess of this particular race entrant, predictions and bets were only made on who would come second, when riding alongside this most reliable individual. Sporting slicked-back, shiny-black hair, the shadowy man seemed to enter a dark place when on his bicycle. Off it, he told Renert “To make the race as hard as possible, I attack myself.” The fox nodded. “How strange. Isn’t that what your opposition is supposed to do?” “I have a sword above my head when I ride. The only danger I face, is me.” Sensing a muddle of misunderstanding might occur, Renert bade farewell. Which he was much relieved to have executed so early, when later unearthing this particular cyclist went by the name of The Cannibal.
Further up the road, Renert was pleased to briefly share the tarmac with a sprightly young foal. “Do you know about this amazing race?” he asked. “Indeed I do,” replied the foal. “It comes wrapped in red polka dots. And tastes so very sweet.” Foals are not so bright, decided the fox, and took the next exit. It was through this change of direction, that Renert stumbled upon Joop - the most successful rider of them all, that no-one had ever heard of. “What makes you so anonymous?” probed Renert. “History is my witness,” he replied slowly. “Nobody wants to know who came second.” A fox is taught at a young age to be first. He couldn’t see Joop making a good fox. And took his leave.
This journey of discovery, following the biggest race in the world, made Renert realise that those who took part were so very varied and diverse. Much like day and night, they could be bright and beguiling, but also obscure and scary. Into which the latter category firmly fell his next encounter. “I can see why they call you Il Pirata,” suggested the fox, as he sat beside a pocket-sized pirate, replete with trimmed facial whiskers, single gold earring and bandana-wrapped bald head. “Yes. I'm a nonconformist,” said the man, “I behave in the way I see fit. I have freedom of thought.” “I can relate to that,” said Renert. Yet for all his freedom, the little pirate seemed somehow trapped. Despite having won the race, and worn the special yellow jacket, there remained an air of shyness, and detachment. Even paranoia. All these battles, thought the fox, this race is so demanding.
He was relieved when the mood was lightened by a man called Andy, who sat with the fox by the bank of the Moselle River. It was here that Renert became acquainted with the complex world of in-race etiquette, unwritten rules, and the chivalrous entente cordiale within this mysterious, multi-membered entity known as Le Peloton. Paradoxically, within the bosom of this form existed both sanctuary and asylum. It was a place of solidarity, but with the next breath of wind can turn into a hunting demon of frightening speed. Its members, as Andy described, can also turn on themselves. Better to be a lone wolf, thought the fox. The complex machinations of the race were once summarised thus, by one of its colourful participants "If you draw your sword and you drop it, you die." While skipping stones across the water, Renert, feeling intrepid, asked Andy “What happens when you stop racing?” The tall man, who had once famously sported the virtuous white trousseau of the best young rider, replied wistfully “You don’t recognise your legs any more.” Renert gazed down at his hind quarters. It was time to move on.
Befuddled with so many stories, sprung from the elastic narrative which this prodigious race had spun, Renert was just about to turn and head home when a flash of light and blast of hot air whipped his face whiskers into a knot. Eventually, he managed to catch up with the source. “I am the Manx Missile,” the fox was told, as he stood, untangling his whiskers. “How befitting.” Just when the fox thought the story was at a conclusion, he then became enlightened with the daring do inherent in the pursuit of emerald attire. For, alongside the yellow jacket, and the white, and the red-spotted, there also existed a green version - championed by the fast and the fleeting. Whilst thankfully not locked-on-target, Renert listened to the Missile man explain the high-risk world of the speedsters - who would enact a trope of anonymity for a whole day, only to appear in the final moment, out from behind a train, to win the day, and with it the right to claim the verdurous prize in Paris. “I thought taking trains was against the rules?” said Renert, confused. At journey’s end, the fox was indeed among exalted company - standing alongside the Grand Boucle’s most prolific victor - as no other cyclist had fought and won more contested races than this unique individual. “Why do you ride?” asked Renert, seeking a means to close his book on the race. The Missile paused, dropped one leg back across his machine, and before racing off into the distant horizon said “As long as I’m riding a bike I know I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”
FURTHER STORIES TO FOLLOW
All artwork and images © James Straffon 2017.