Part One: The Choice

Words: Rigo Zimmerman | Date:

There is nothing more common in this world than unsuccessful people with talent; leave the house before you find something worth staying in for.

The hardest battle you’ll face in winter won’t be the conditions you have to deal with on any one given day, it won’t be with the frigid isolation either. The hardest battle you’ll face in those dark months will be with yourself each morning.

I still remember waking very early in the cold Tuscan winter when I was still a young man. I would wake early to the sound of sawing that came from the butchers below. Sawing and then thumping: carcasses being cut down to size. Back then, I woke quickly with a clear mind, and none of the confused fog that waits for me now when my world turns to face the light each morning.

My first thought back then was always of the cold, dead meat. There was no heating at night as I switched off my little electric heater in the hour before bed. The cold air made the temperature under the covers perfect: a cocoon of warmth in a bitter world. “I would be dead meat if it weren’t for these covers”, I would think.

Sometimes she would be there. We slept on two single beds pushed together but not bound by a double sheet, yet still she would sense me stir, and without opening an eye she would ask, dove vai?

She acted like it was the middle of the night but she knew it wasn’t. I never knew if she wanted me to stay or if she just thought she had to ask. I was going where I went everyday, out there into the cold, onto the wet cobbles of the street below, where the rumblings of life were beginning.

“Why do you have to leave?,” she would ask, half sleeping.

“Because I have no choice.”

“Si, you have a choice.”

I would think of the world that waited for me outside, the frozen hills, the slippery descents; the cold surface water that would creep its way up my calves, and bore so deeply into the bones in my ankles. I would think of taking my espresso at the café on the other side of Monte Santa Maria Tiberna, and how the waitress’ eyes would narrow when she would see the puddles of dirty water that followed me into the café, and marked the terracotta-tiled floor.

I would think of the stone floor in our apartment, too, and how the cold would certainly shoot right through me when I swung my feet out of bed and put them on the floor.

I knew that when I returned home this scene would be gone: the half-light, the warmth of our bodies, the promise that came from waking with her. If I stayed, I thought, we could enjoy the warmth inside our bed, set against the cold of the air and listen to the muffled voices on the street below. If I stayed, I thought, we could go back to sleep and get up late. We could go downstairs and across the street to Stefano’s café together. We could order milky coffees and pastries, and she’d laugh at me for wanting to eat a lot for breakfast and I’d say that Italians were crazy to just eat biscuits for breakfast. We could watch the butchers shop from there; the people going in and out through the bright light that reflected onto the wet tiles of the street.

There were a million things I could think of in fact that I would rather do than ride out into the barbarity of a winter’s day. There always was, there always is.

I would always entertain the idea of not going. It would be like a day off school, I would tell myself, and winter was long and no one would really know.

But I knew that I would know. I knew that I would think about where the food was going that I was eating, the weight I was putting on. I knew I would look up at the sky and think, “That rain is easing”. I knew I would see others on bikes, riding to work or to the shops, and I would think – “If they can be out in it.”

And then the afternoon would begin, and I would die my slow death. She would leave, and I would sit there feeling that I should have ridden; that I could have ridden, but I didn’t. I would imagine then my rivals all returning home; cold perhaps, exhausted maybe, but satisfied. Deeply, deeply satisfied, in a way that I now knew I couldn’t be. I would have given in. I would have lost the fight, and I would be sorry.

I did have a choice, but I told myself I didn’t. In winter I convinced myself there was no comfort for me from the moment I opened my eyes, until the moment I returned home from riding.

I knew that if the warmth of my bed after a night’s rest was a joy in the morning, it didn’t compare to the feeling of walking back into my house with a day’s work under the rain finally behind me; the smell of the first pieces of wood that would start to hiss on the fire, and the taste of the hot tea that I would make to warm myself on, while I waited for the water in the bathroom to heat. As an old Belgian I knew used to say with a shrug and a smile, when the rain was at its worst, and the conditions at their most appalling, “It will feel good under the shower.”

I told myself each day, when I opened my eyes to the sound of butchery and doubt greeted me whispering, “Do not to go, do not to ride”, that I had to go. There was no home and no hope in failing, no matter the weather, and no matter the difficulty.

Outside was hard: winter is hard like the truth is hard. But the only place in winter where a bike rider can find warmth isn’t under the sheets with their head turned to deny the day, it is in the moment that you walk back through the front door with the harshness of winter defeated behind you. Only there you will find your warmth; only there you will find your comfort.

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