Training rolls on. 67 days left until we leave for France. I had to check my flight itinerary today to remind myself that it is really going to happen. I checked the transfer and hotel schedule. I looked again at all the stages of this year's Tour de France route.
The first week will be our wake up call:
Stage One: 123 miles, flat.
Stage Two: 129 miles, flat.
Stage Three: 122 miles, hilly.
Stage Four: 133 miles, flat.
Stage Five: 122 miles, flat.
Stage Six: 130 miles, flat.
Those are just words on a screen right now: essentially meaningless, without the capacity to actually hurt me. But what they represent is a series of unknowns that are too vast to quantify. Right now, I can't bring myself to think past the first week but at some point I'm going to have to.
The thing about getting ready for something so inconceivably overwhelming is that all of the months behind July evaporate completely. August? What is August?
August doesn't exist. Every pedal stroke leads to July. My entire life ends in a glass of champagne on the Champs Élysées. Not really, but sometimes it feels that way. The calendar is so short this year. When did the months start passing like this? I just put my arms around April and May is barreling down on me. Do you know what comes after May? June. We leave for France in June.
Last week I kicked my daily life in the teeth and made a break for it. I flew to Chianti with a bag full of kit and sundresses. A driver picked my up from the airport in Florence and drove on winding roads until we stopped in the middle of a town not more than 100 meters long. Lecchi. Population 110?
When we arrived, all of the loud parts of my life got quiet. My hosts put me on a loaner bike and sent me down the road with a route map. The landscape twists and plunges here, then rises with emphasis. Up, down, up, down, up, down. It's the kind of riding that sneaks up on you.
Technically, I'm here working on a story about InGamba Tours, but I've taken the occasion to make a necessary escape. I'm going to settle a while and put my head down and pedal. I'm in good hands, being cared for by a group of people who have made a profession out of caring for people. Jorge minds the bikes, Raul minds the bodies, Joao and Brad handle everything else.
I'd never had a soigneur-style massage before last week when Joao said to Raul, "Prepare her for the Tour."
Then he turned to me: "Raul is one of the best soigneurs in the world. In three weeks he will change your legs completely." I have no idea what this really means, but I promise to tell you later.
Soigneur is a French word that means "one who cares for others" and Raul embodies this. On the first day, he handled me delicately. The following afternoon things were different.
I don't speak Portuguese and he speaks only a few words of English, but we both speak a little bit of Italian which he used to communicate the following message: "I'm going to have to hurt you today. It's for the best. It will be good for you."
For 40 minutes I breathed strategically to manage the pain. How do you sit calmly when there is a thumb in your quad muscle? Breathe into the pain. My second massage was harder than the ride I'd done that morning, but Raul was right – by day three he'd loosened my chronically tight calves and unraveled a knot in my left quad that I'd assumed was a permanent fixture.
Raul and I rode together on Sunday and I climbed at a pace just under tempo while he rode quietly beside me, grinding out 40rpms in the big ring. He is a former Portuguese national champion. He's the kind of character that only needs one name. The sticker on his bike, which would normally have one's surname, instead says, "RaulSTRONG" - a remnant from an inside joke.
It was an easy day on the bike and I made no efforts. We rode in the sun and talked in broken Italian. I had the feeling that I must be fairly unimpressive. How will such a mediocre girl complete the tour? The question is out there so we may as well acknowledge it.
This morning I rolled out with the group of men that are here for a weeklong eating-drinking-riding tour. As is often the case with excited men on fast bikes in a beautiful country, they fucking drilled it from the start. Freed from family, work and obligations, I can understand why they couldn't help themselves. I tucked in behind an English skyscraper of a man named Peter (he's 6'8") and held on for dear life while we cruised at 42kph on a long stretch of rollers. I managed to stay on – with a few strategic saves by Joao, Raul and Tom – for a little over an hour before peeling off to do some focused threshold intervals on my own.
As I was leaving, Raul put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Haidy, Ti fai bene." (You were good/You went well.) His eyes were urgently sincere in a way that probably only Raul's can be and I was overcome with a feeling of relief. Later when I was on the table he stopped his work to reiterate the sentiment.
I didn't need Raul to believe in me, but I can't deny that it helps. My body is the only one that can deliver me to the finish in Paris - I have to deal with what I've been given - but the role of confidence can't be underrated.
I'm astounded by the support of people who were previously little more than total strangers, overwhelmed with gratitude and – suddenly – bolstered by the support of a small Portuguese man with only one name.
Ti fai bene, Raul. Grazie.