Words: Tom Southam | Photography: Ben Ingham | Date:
“Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.”
– Ernest Hemingway
Sometimes you just walk into a bar and fall in love with a girl. It happens all the time to me, and not just in bars. In restaurants, shops, train stations, dry cleaners, wherever. There are so many girls I fall in love with and yet almost none of them will ever know this.
Imagined love affairs are the perfect ones anyway, and after years of travelling through life in foreign places, my imagination has done rather well with the ladies. My actual success rate remains a lot lower, and that is how I should keep it.
When Ben and I staggered into the only bar still open at midnight in the town of Tolmezzo in north-eastern Italy, I knew we’d both fallen in love with Francesca. This girl had a smile that promised your imagination they could go to the ends of the earth together; she was welcoming, and she was fascinating.
Francesca told us she wanted to study film, and Francesca of course wanted to know all about the strangers in her small town. It was then that Ben announced that we happened to be making a film.
‘What of?’ she replied.
Ben pointed at my drunk, grinning face.
‘Of him, racing his bicycle up the Zoncolan!’
Too smitten (and too full of grappa) to think that anything at all was ever a bad idea, I happily nodded in agreement. I then added (for effect) that we would be ‘doing it in a few hours too!’
Monte Zoncolan is one of the hardest climbs I’d never seen. I had no idea what was waiting for me on its vicious slopes. Since retiring from racing my bike for a living and losing levels of fitness such a profession ensures, I had only recently started to know what it was to truly suffer on a bike.
I had been fit once but I wasn’t now. I was a cyclist once but I’m a writer now and I think I’m Ernest Hemmingway, staying up late into the night drinking and writing. And I eat too well, a moveable feast of hedonism and ideas. No more training schedules or race days. I had no right to be thinking I could race up a mountain.
If deep down I had known this was true, I didn’t let myself accept this truth when we went to the foot of the mountain a few somewhat more sober hours later to go through with it.
It can’t be that hard, I thought.
I had ridden many mountains before and my ego – the ego that had made me race uphill in the first place – was still fighting fit. As it would turn out, however, what hadn’t escaped my mindset had most certainly left my legs.
I cannot tell you about the climb itself. Like so many places I have been to in my life through bike racing, its beauty was completely lost on me. The only thing I discovered when I rode the Zoncolan was an internal battle.
Horizons dim and eyes lower as effort increases. On my map of the world there is no nature, there are no views, no scenery at all, there is just how I felt, and how much it hurt.
As soon as I began this particular climb I was hurting in a way I hadn’t ever done before. As I gasped for breath and zigzagged across the road, I saw the ghost of the rider I once was looking back over his shoulders at me. He laughed at how slow I had become and rode away.
The Zoncolan. I was taken aback by its unrelenting gradient: throughout my career I raced on a 42 inner ring and the lowest concession I’d ever made for a mountain was a 39×27. Now I was turning a 34×27 and I was desperate for lower, lower, lower…
It hurt so much my mind began to play the devil’s game, it began to question. The mind can be the enemy of the cyclist, and my brain had suddenly started receiving all these messages from parts of the body, openly panicking about how hard they were suddenly having to work. My legs, my lungs, my arms and my heart: They thought this kind of thing had been forgotten a long time ago.
But through the hurt, and the seemingly pointless and unending pain, I realized that I did have an answer: Francesca.
Francesca was a girl with a smile that I was never going to see again, and who I never really wanted to see again but who, in the depths of my imagination, I felt I might somehow impress by riding up the hardest hill I could find as fast as possible.
Like all cyclists, I have been an artist my whole life. And like any artist, I was willing to go as far as I could to suffer for my art. And Francesca was the muse for this particular act.
My muses have been many, constantly changing with the road. Some were just a face in the crowd, forgotten in a moment; some went on to become the most important people in my life. Whoever and whatever they are, if you can find them, find them everywhere, because when you do there will be nothing you cannot climb.