A fine, warm day, for this time in winter, and the tussocks in my garden beginning to stir with the breeze.
“Where do you want to ride?” Bartali asks.
“Up Lockhart’s Hill and back,” I say, without any thought to wind direction. On the slight uphill rise to the top of the valley the wind comes at us sideways.
“Oh no, we’re going to have a head wind going up the hill.”
“Straight out of the north-west,” Bartali says. “The good news is, it’s going to be in my face, not yours.”
The sun is low in the sky to the west, and in the tawny paddocks the sheep are back lit, as if they’re in a surreal painting, licks of light along their backs. The Hawkduns, too, are becoming planes of shining white.
A few years back I took a six- week painting class in Cromwell with the artist Megan Huffadine. Each day when I left class and drove back through the gorge of hills I’d see everything in terms of paint colour and brush stroke. The sensation would fade after a few hours. It made me wonder, though, how artists must see the world around them. They deal everyday with light and colour and texture. They must walk around in this heightened state of awareness all the time.
For me being on the bike is a chance to bring back some of that attentiveness to the land around me. Close to the ground and travelling at a speed easy to assimilate sights and sounds and smells, the feel of the wind, the lift and curve of the road. Now when I drive these roads I see the roads through a cyclist’s eyes – imagine what this hill would feel like to ride up – or remember that time I did it, breathing and counting each lamppost.
From the corner of the Ida Valley, to get any relief from the wind, I have to bike right up behind Bartali’s wheel. With the climb and the wind it means making momemt to moment adjustments to keep us both safe. It’s exactly the type of brain work I hope helps guard against dementia. And using thigh strength helps too. I read that somewhere.
Gradually Bartali pulls ahead. I don’t call out but plug on, slower now that I don’t have his shelter from the wind. The wind blows directly in my face, bringing a sweet earth smell, reminiscent of molasses. It takes a few moments to work out what it’s coming from. Sileage. Not that there are sheep in these paddocks by the road, but somewhere around here a farmer has fed out to the stock and there are traces still in the air.
The gap between Bartali and me opens up. He’s way up the road before he realizes I’m not on his tail anymore, and slows down.
“You have to call out,” he tells me when I catch up. “If you get a wheel behind in this wind, you’re gone out the back.”
“I was gone, just like that,” I say. And for a while, as we continue cycling into the wind, he calls out, “Are you there?” “Yes.” “Are you there?” “Yes.” “Are you there?” “Yes.” It reminds me of three year old grandson Sonny this morning, when he was walking with me to the shop.
“Are we there yet?” he said, even though we hadn’t reached the end of my drive.
To the stone house and no further.
We turn at the stone house beyond Lockhart’s Hill. I’ll know I’m fitter when I want to go beyond here, further towards St Bathans.
On the bike home Bartali calls out now and then, “Are you still hanging in there?”
“Yes!” I call back.
It’s our ritual when we approach the village to race through it. In summer there’s a traffic sign that lets us know how fast we’re going – 38, 40 kph. Not in winter, but we speed up anyway. Bartali stands up on his pedals and takes off. It’s so preposterous for me, his turn of speed and my state of exhaustion, that I laugh and don’t even attempt to keep up. When he circles back to me, I say, “You’ve got another whole super- gear.”
“I wish that was true.”
“Well, compared to unfit me you have.”
“The trouble is I compare myself to what I used to be capable of,” he says. “I used to be strong on the hills, and a middling-good sprinter. It was a good combination. But I’m 73 now. Those days have gone.”
Will they even begin for me, now I’m 60? Who knows. It’s a hot bath I’m thinking of right now.
And a cup of tea.