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.
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
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,
retired and getting back to the problem
– checkmate in three –
at the pointy end of the business.