This is a poem I wrote in memory of my father-in-law, who passed away peacefully on Sunday. He was an avid cyclist and chess player, as well as a brilliant filmmaker who retired to the south of France. We often watched le Tour when Neela (his daughter and my partner) and I would visit Uzès in July. Cycling fans will recognise cycling commentator Paul Sherwen’s brilliant cliches.

CYCLISTS DRINKING TROUGH

For an English Cyclist in Uzès

(for Peter Griffiths 1930-2020)

 

When you broke away

“in the form of your life”

the cat was put among the pigeons.

We were sampling this tour

from the sharp end,

riding out of my skin for hours to make the cut-off,

on the rivet, about to crack

“in a spot of bother”,

and taking the sticky bottle

at the back of the bunch.

 

How much longer can we wait for you

to take a natural break

on the castle tower,

to hit the High Mountain stages

turning your pedals in anger,

dancing most immodestly on the pedals

willing your machine to Olympian feats,

with the kids already in their own private hell

in their locker rooms of pain

digging into their suitcases of courage

 

or hitting a French wall

suffering as they have never suffered before

as the elastic stretches to breaking point?

 

Who would have dreamt it?

The Brit soprano belts out God Save the Queen

on the Champs Elysées

to honour a wheezy featherweight retro Mod

fist-pumping victory in yellow lycra.

The lads, tanked up by lunchtime

say Waterloo, chant Trafalgar, remind the hosts

with Agincourt’s two fingered salute.

 

I remember the idols,

& I’d put a good word in for the flayed time trialler,

winning on his local aerodrome,

or a blood-doped Texan Faust,

& a coked up Italian grimpeur

Il Pirato, for the Belgian Cannibal.

 

Remember Tommy Simpson

skinny as a dehydrated greyhound

who’d drink cognac in dark corners

in café chairs facing the operatic street,

who climbed into the clouds

on aviator pills

& died on a mountain

with a cooked heart.

 

Remember that time.

Remember the London to Brighton:

gone at breakfast, back for supper!

That was good enough in ’48!

 

Remember the blue Mercedes (subtly scuffed and

scraped and shoe-horned

into your medieval village.

Remember your wife Fabienne’s Fiat Punto

you’d driven to Ventoux, with son No 3,

daughter (No 1) and son-in-law (No 3).

 

Then the car conked

right on cue beside Tommy Simpson’s

movingly littered monument.

 

No way north of there (we thought)

way past the Ventoux treeline

but a few minutes from the ski-station and victory!

 

We turned around – we had to –

things looked barren but beautiful

from his mountain

which became our mountain, our France,

but timeless too…

 

Back to the town

(at the “business end” of the things)

& we’re taking the prize

and a favourite glace au chocolat noir

in the shade of Café De L’esplanade,

(your haunt, your second club)

ogled by a pack of blanched tourists

knocking elbows.

While les patrons of café semaphore rudely gesture

with their foul cigarettes:

They’re back, the English!

The Duke in cravat and brogues

buying up our ruins.

They’re everywhere these days

winning le Tour

with RAF decals on their bikes,

importing their own plumbing supplies

for their villas in the Pyrenees.

 

Blowing smoke in their faces, you’re

unstoppable, old Croydon Mountain Goat.

High tech but Old School, sort of French

but not French at all.

 

And the fans, they’re singing that song again,

about God saving Queens.

But merde, you go back to The Tele crossword

and the 64 squares,

insouciant as usual, cool

not dull, but triumphant,

counting the stocks, leaving innocuous tips,

dozing off in Harris tweed cap,

chess

 

retired and getting back to the problem

– checkmate in three –

at the pointy end of the business.