Back in the Saddle


Eugene Christophe Tour de France



I always associate the Tour de France with colour. Firstly, there are the colourful fields of sunflowers that have come to symbolise this yearly adventure and then there are the team kits. In 1919, just after the slaughter of the Great War, the Tour set about its pilgrimage around the departments of France. As money was in short supply and industry had not yet recovered from the black and white of conflict, dyes, ironically, were not in abundance. So, the decision was made to wear grey. The problem here was that if everyone looked the same, how could anybody identify the race leader as the peloton flashed past? The answer was to kit the leader out in a different coloured shirt, yellow.


It was the Frenchman, Eugene Christophe who was presented with the first ever maillot jaune after he had led the race for several stages with only five to go. Some in the watching crowd thought this rather amusing as the poor bicyclist looked like a canary so, they laughed. Christophe was non-too impressed. This, after all, was his renaissance as he had been denied victory in the 1913 race through an unfortunate series of events. Christophe had taken the lead from Odile Defraye of Belgium and was building a commanding overall lead when he was hit by a stray motorcar. Remember that this was 1913.


Anyway, the upshot of this was that Christophe was unhurt, but his front fork had been snapped in two. As many cyclists appreciate, bodies can heal themselves but bikes cannot. I’ve seen plenty of cyclists take a tumble, tear off skin, splinter bones, and bleed, but the first thing many of them do is to check that their bike is alright. Cyclists are a selfless sect.


Poor old Christophe’s race was run, but he was accepting non of it. Instead of throwing in the towel, he threw his injured bike onto his back and ran eight-and-a-half to the next village, where he found a forge. Like many of his ilk, he was a skilled mechanic and was able to forge a new fork. He ought to have received a jersey just for that! However, he made the mistake of asking a seven-year-old boy to work the bellows that fed the flames. Never play with flames in the Tour de France unless you wish to be caught and punished (eventually…ask Lance Armstrong).  As a result of his ingenuity, Christophe was penalised 10-minutes for using outside assistance.


You would think that this story deserved a happy ending, but it didn’t get one. In the 1919 race he broke his forks and came third. Again, in 1922, he was in the top three contending the race when…guess what? Yup, the bloody fork snapped again. It would appear that no matter how hard you try, no mater how good you are, or how unlucky you have been, sometimes destiny does not smile on you.


At junior school, we learnt about Robert the Bruce and his sports psychiatrist spider.

“If at first you don’t succeed, try try again.”

Bloody brilliant! Another piece of inspirational advice that has helped me during these six decades.


Plotting your course through life is to be asked to be blown by winds that arise without warning, have no discernible pattern of behaviour, and then, just for good measure, blow you completely off-course.


I have neither compass nor maps. I could be anywhere and the possibility is that I am in exactly that spot, anywhere. A while ago, it would have been nowhere. Then, I was certainly adrift and at the mercy of winds that had set themselves against me. I was drifting, waiting for the next current to take me where it wished. That was until a few weeks back when something happened.


“What happened, Matthew?” This is the voice of my counsellor.


We had not spoken for over nine months; since I got better. I would reply that I didn’t know what had happened; only that something had.


“What’s changed?” The counsellor again.


I would think hard for a moment and respond with a wilting, “I don’t know.” 


And that’s the truth. I have no idea what has changed. My Dad is still dead and the argument that we had has still not been resolved. I am still a supply teacher and earn a woeful amount compared to what I have earned in the past. My wife still worries about me. My wife still worries about Katalina. My wife still worries about all those things that she has welcomed into her life through marrying me. Katalina is still struggling and frequently answers my offers of help with denials and the name of Christ taken in vain. The daughters don’t really speak to me, preferring the understanding ear of their mother. I actually found myself walking a number of steps behind my wife, the eldest daughter and the youngest one, as we strolled into town the other day.


I am still not as dynamic as I once was, but I am moving. I don’t worry too much about what is around the corner because life is not a street and it doesn’t have corners (or throw-ins). I no longer hate the profession in which I am working. I am, however, wary of it in the way that a lion-tamer, who has once been bitten, shies away from placing his head into the creature’s mouth.


A few months ago, I pondered the relevance of the process I was going through and wondered if I would emerge a better person, a new man, a great dad, a lovelier husband. Something may have happened and I may have got a little better in those departments, but I think that the point of my burn-out was not merely so that I could reinvent myself as some third-day-prophet. All I wanted was bits of me back. I wanted some of those ingredients that used to be in my DNA. I wanted to look in the mirror and recognise the man that the boy had become. I wanted to be able to say that I had tried my best. I may have failed in whatever venture I thought I was going on, but I ended up somewhere; here!


I wanted to finish it there. I told my wife that I had completed the book I was writing and I felt satisfied…for a short time. Upon sleeping upon it, I realised that I couldn’t stop there. It was not a magical journey through hell and back, nor was it a rite of passage. Life just rolls on until it stops and it’s a sunny day outside and it is making me feel happier, but I can’t mistake temporary cheeriness for resolution. There are too many other things that I wish to consider.

Take betrayal for example.


Big group friendships are not my thing, they never have been. Like the rest of what happens to me in this life, I didn’t realise how much of a believer I was in friendship and trust. Trust, not the hospital or academy version, though they do serve to point out the irony of the word’s application.


“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect looking backwards. So, you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

Steve Jobs  


Trust is a big bet. It’s a wager on a person or idea that may come in, or may fall at the first. I want to trust. I want to believe that the world is secretly a good place, that all the crap that flies around is just a temporary shower. It will get better. But, as the saying goes, before things get better they must get worse.


Things can get very bad. Count your blessings, many of you may say. You live in a free country that obeys the rule of law. The Conservatives may be in charge but they’re not Nazis. Infectious diseases are not very common and there hasn’t been an outbreak of the Black Death for quite some time. Terror attacks do happen but nobody has had chemical weapons deployed against them…yet. Child mortality is not even an issue. People live longer. Poverty is bearable for those who have the money to ignore it. Britain’s Got Talent is not always on telly. What’s not to be happy about?


Not too happy with the world.


That stage has now past. My membership of the miserable old gits society has lapsed. The search for happiness is as futile as the search for the Grail; it would have once existed and it may still exist somewhere, but the truth is that there are lots of vessels to drink from and lots of things to drink. Blessed are the happy for they shall soon find something to spoil it and blessed are the miserable for they shall infrequently find something to put a smile of their faces.


There is a smile on my mush as I write. Well, it’s not really so much a smile as something that is not a frown. I have a forehead that is furrowed from years of training. When I was a teenager, I learnt to furrow my brow so that it resembled a freshly ploughed field. I was doing this out of vanity. I had the plague; acne, huge explosions of it all across my face. It’s not just the reddening eruptions but the yellow lava that bursts forth after harvesting. I hated those spots and their stubborn refusal to depart their illegal squat, so I took to toothpaste. After each fresh eruption, the ground would be covered in mint flavoured anti-zitant. It not only smelled healthy, it burnt the offending intruders. There is only so much dental health treatment that you can spread upon one’s face so I took to frowning.


Frowning made a lot of sense to me. It was a way of looking thoughtful whilst really creating a sort of Wolds for the forehead. I love the Wolds as they are this undulating stretch of hills that create little Brigadoon valleys for walkers and cyclist to discover; and then disappear into. My plan was that my burgeoning population of spots would be tempted to do the same thing. Eventually, the spots disappeared though I think it was completely unrelated to my dental hygiene or furrowed brow policy. They just slowly decided that I had been tormented enough and moved on to some other, as yet, untormented-teen. Unfortunately, the spots left their mark, a ploughed forehead that would stay with me forever.


Hey, relax.”

This was the voice of my Turkish barber (former barber). He was a stocky man who had a tendency to talk too much whilst managing to never really engage me in any sort of conversation. His approach to cutting hair reminded me of a film that I had seen that was set in a Turkish prison, Midnight Express. There was definitely something scissorly sadistic about his love of number twos. He did tend to give a good hair cut and never once came close to damaging me with his cutthroat razor. I watched every move he made.


“Relax,” he said again and I thought it was a prelude to something that could reach the national newspapers. “Your forehead, it is all rumply.”

“Yes, it’s been like that for a long time.”

There is only so much time one can spend on rumply foreheads and my Turkish barber seemed to get the drift. I changed my place of haircut soon after that.


Now, I don’t regard what the barber said to me as a form of betrayal. It was only a barber’s slip of the tongue and barbers let their tongues slip for many hours every day. The real betrayals come in the form of friendships in which one party has a vested interest that the other is unaware of.


My wife has an invisible radar that detects such fake acquaintances whereas I do not, on the contrary, I am often a fridge magnet for fake friends who stick to me through good times and fall off during bad ones. I would have been the marshal in High Noon hoping to call in friends and neighbours in my hour of need, only for them to turn their backs because they had themselves to think about. When people turn their backs on you, it is the very worst of things. Betrayal! Oh, and it’s alright if they come back later and apologise. We didn’t realise that they were going to shoot you. Do those nails hurt? They do look a little painful.

images-21   Me, in a former life. Or was it Gary Cooper?


No, it’s not okay to do that to one’s fellow man. So, I may forgive, but forgetting is not an option. 






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