Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Riding Through War: A Tale of Two Soldiers

I met Big Mike and Mike-Mike while fixing a bad case of chain wedgie on the side of the F trail near Rodalben. This 29-miles of "alt schule" singletrack is the German equivalent of east coast gems such as Jim Thorpe or Slatyfork: mossy rocks, tangled roots, tight squeezes, long climbs and retina-compressing descents.

The Iraq war had just started, and I was assigned to cover the big Air Force base and U.S. Army hospital in Landstuhl. Mountain biking was my escape from the brutal fruit of modern warfare: 20 year-old kids with missing eyes, feet and legs, still smiling regardless and eager to get back in the fight.

In my two weeks of exploring the area, I had only run into a few mountain bikers on the Landstuhl and Rodalben trails. There were a lot of U.S. military bases nearby, but at first glance, these boys didn't look military to me.

Big Mike had bushy brown hair that burst out of every opening in his helmet, while Mike-Mike's was Marilyn Manson black and straight, topped by a black wool skull cap. Both had thick beards that hadn't seen a trimmer in several months. But their accents were from the piney woods of North Carolina, and their speech patterns had the same cadence as a forward observer calling in an air strike.

"Looks like ya got some chain suck, brother," Big Mike said as they rolled up on their bikes. "Need a hand?"

I knew then that these boys were special ops, either Navy SEALS or Army Special Forces. They wore cutoff desert camo shorts and baggy sweaters, but had that lean, wiry look of men who carry rucksacks and rifles for a living, the thousand-yard stare of a sniper and the quick appraisal of a grunt walking point.

We sat and shared a smoke and I came right out and said it looked like they'd been eating some Afghan dust. They laughed and spit and said they were in the area because one of their Alpha Team members had taken some rocket-propelled grenade shrapel in his back and was being treated at the big Army hospital up the road in Landstuhl. They never let a friend come there alone.

These guys' names aren't Mike, but Special Ops never give out their real names. The nurses at Landstuhl call them all "Mike." If a plane from the OEF—Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan—comes in with special ops guys, the nurses will say, "We got a couple Mikes in this load."

Big Mike was big, like Dirt Rag's Maurice only with 8% body fat. Mike-Mike got his moniker because he rarely says anything, so they started calling him Motor Mouth in jest, then shortened it to Mike-Mike.

"We ride out here and sleep in the woods," Big Mike said. "After the moonscape we've been operating in, this is plush and green."

They had a hotel room but had set up camp in one of the many caves in the sandstone cliffs outside of Landstuhl. Sandstone is everywhere here, and in many different shapes, from hulking overhangs on the L4 trail to a seven-story high wall of Moab red rock just off the blue-yellow trail, to lichen- and moss-covered boulders on the damp north slopes.

Big Mike and Mike-Mike had both been treated for wounds at the hospital in the last two years and after treatment went right back to Bagram, Kandahar and all the other stony burgs. They made trips back with injured buddies and, because they love to ride, stashed bikes here with a friendly barmaid.

"She's something else," Big Mike said while Mike-Mike grinned and nodded. "We met her at a bar where she was throwing darts backwards between her legs and beating everyone in the house. We took her to Kuwait with us once, and she almost got arrested for wearing a miniskirt."

They rode some back in Afghanistan, but there the trail obstacles are more likely to be land mines or blast craters.

Mike-Mike perked up and told the story of how Big Mike was riding along a stony traverse when a loud BANG rang out and the big guy went flying over the handlebars.

"He popped up with his pistol in his hand, looking for bad guys," Mike-Mike said. "Dumb shit blew a tube and thought it was Osama bin Laden!"

Big Mike denied the incident ever happened, and then revealed that Mike-Mike wore the same pair of bike shorts under his wool caftan for a month because he had suffered from hemorroids and sitting on rocks had hurt his butt.

"Now look," Mike-Mike said, "When we ride or do anything back there, we wear local clothing and headgear. We ride singlespeed, 40-pound, rusted steel frame utility bikes that we scavenged from trash pits piece by piece."

Sometimes Big Mike and Mike-Mike rode the small horses favored by the Afghans in the northern part of that country; they played a rough game of polo with a dead goat for a ball.

"When we get back to (Fort) Bragg, we're gonna derby with a dead goat," laughed Big Mike. "That'll be a par-tee."

In Germany, they rode hardtails, a three-year-old GT Zaskar spray-painted flat black with a big White Brothers shock in front and a battered battleship-gray K2 dualie with a Girvin shock in front and some sort of coil rig in the back that Big Mike upgraded with parts from a blown-up Russian armored vehicle.

"It used to have a Smart Shock," Mike-Mike said, "Until Big Mike got pissed and gave it a lobotomy with his entrenching tool."

They've been riding the woods since they were teenagers, living mostly outdoors since indoors was a crappy trailer or a rundown farmhouse. They didn't know each other until they met at Fort Bragg, but grew up just 30 miles apart in northwest North Carolina, in the big mountains near the Virginia border.

Their love for mountain biking has kept their friendship going despite hard times in the field. They had been friends of Sgt. Gene Vance, a talented mountain bike rider and Special Forces member from Morgantown, West Virginia, who was killed in action in Afghanistan in May of 2001.

"Every ride on every trail is made in his memory," Big Mike said. "He gave it all for his country and we never forget our own. Never."

I ran into the pair several times during my stay in the area and they were always eager to talk bikes and hesitant to talk about the war in Iraq. "Too many friends there," Big Mike had said. A week later they went back to Afghanistan, the war that you're not seeing much of on TV, and slipped back into the mountains, searching for bin Laden and a little schweet singletrack.

Riding their trails in Germany:The Rhine-Pfalz area is southwest of Frankfurt, not far from the French border.

To ride the Landstuhl trails, take Autobahn A62 to Landstuhl, just past Kaiserslautern. The L-series of trails begins just inside Landstuhl.

Take the main street (Kaiserstrasse) and turn right at the Chinese/Vietnamese restaurant. You'll see some stone steps leading up the hill by a stone statue of Jakob Becker, the patron saint of these well-kept woods. All the L-trails (L1, L2, L3 and L4) wind around the area, including the beautiful Berg Nanstein castle on the hill above Landstuhl.

To ride the Rodalben trails, take the A62 toward Pirmasens. Exit at Rodalben. Go into the small town, park just past the first gas station, then backtrack about 200 yards and head up the trail with a wooden railing. Stay on the F trail.

As far as riding in Afghanistan, Big Mike and Mike-Mike say if you aren't packing heat and wearing Kevlar shorts, your sorry ass will belong to the Taliban. Go to Rodalben and Landstuhl and have a beer on them at the Street Café. And give Louise a kiss.

© 1998-2004 Dirt Rag Magazine


Socially awkward.
That’s what Mom used to say about me. She was only partly right. I was awkward socially, physically, romantically and spiritually. There were only 334 kids at Massasauga High, but I was able to disappear with just about no one noticing or caring.
If I had any claim to fame, it was as the little brother of Charlie Czerniak, the greatest football player in the history of the Massasauga Rattlesnakes, the guy who took this fading Western Pennsylvania town’s dreams on his back all the way to the 1996 Division A state championship game. Charlie got knocked out of the game in the third quarter and we lost by two touchdowns to Washington East, but in Massasauga, nothing goes as planned.
Charlie was the handsome quarterback; I was the unexpected little runt that ruined Mom and Pop’s plans for a secure future. Mom was 43 when I was born underweight and asthmatic. She had to quit her job at the Sears catalog store to tend to my medical needs. Dad had a logging and mill operation that supplied timbers to the local mines. Until I came along, he figured he had timber work for the next ten years, which would get Charlie through community college and him to early retirement.
Although he was eight years older than me, Charlie never tried to boss me around or tease me. We shared a bedroom and an old Golden Retriever named Flurry.
Charlie had lots of friends and things to do while I preferred to be alone or with Flurry. When I was seven, he taught me how to ride his beat-up BMX bike and those wheels became my wings. There wasn’t a lot to Massasauga, but Flurry and I explored every inch of the woods on that bike.
One of favorite photos is of me riding past our white, wood-frame house on Penn Street, Flurry a blur of motion just behind my back wheel.
That fall, when the Rattlers were beginning their run at the state championship, I rode home from school and saw Mom standing in our driveway, her hands touching her temples as she stared at the mound of honey-colored fur at the curb. It was Flurry and I could tell he was dead.
I rode past Mom and the house and the dead dog and pedaled as hard and as fast as I could, hot tears touching my ears as I rode deep into the woods. My rage allowed me to ride over branches and clods, but I was stopped by a small log-pile on the trail. I went down hard and the handlebar punched me in the gut. I lay in the cold, tall grass, my sickly breathing coming in short, wheezing gasps. The world collapsed around me and I was suffocating. I could hear laughter and tires squealing at the high school, but I could not make myself move.
Then I felt a strong hand grabbing my coat sleeve, turning me over toward the now-purple sky and the face of my brother, his blue eyes wide with concern.
He reached into the pocket of his red-and-gold letter jacket and pulled out my inhaler. He held my head as he placed the plastic nozzle between my lips and pumped an astringent mist into my lungs.
“Damn, damn,” he said. “Relax. Breathe slow. Easy.” He had tears in his eyes, too. We both cried softly in the woods, the he picked up my bike and we walked slowly through the growing darkness toward home.
“If you’re gonna be working out your problems on that bike, I better show you how to ride in the woods,” he said, his big hand on my shoulder. “I take my worries there, too. Makes me feel better, puts things in perspective.”
By the light of a flashlight, Dad had dug a hole next to the vegetable garden. We wrapped Flurry in his favorite blanket and slipped him into the grave. I was all cried out.

Charlie was true to his word and every Saturday morning that fall, even though he was sore from the punishment he had taken on the field the night before, he showed me how to ride trails.
“There are two things you have to remember,” he said. “One, a rolling wheel never falls. Two, look where you want to go, not where you don’t want to go.”
He made me ride over that log pile again and again. He’d stand on the other side of it, kneeling in the rusty leaves. “Look me in the eyes,” he would yell. “Don’t look at the logs!”
I kept my head up and looked down the trail at his ruddy face and the bike rolled over with ease.
“It’s when you stop looking where you’re headed that you get in trouble,” he said, patting the back of my Sears winter coat. “And there isn’t any trouble that you can’t ride out.”
By the time snow had covered the trails around Massasauga, I had learned Charlie’s lessons well. I took some bruising falls by hesitating before log-piles and creek crossings, but speed became my friend. And that stuff about “looking where you want to go” had seeped into my life off the bike, as well.
I realized that instead of moaning about my role as an outsider, I had to stop grabbing the brakes and move toward the things that made me happy. I began reading more about the animals and plants that made up the Massasauga woods and this made my forays there more meaningful. I learned that there are real Massasauga Rattlesnakes, not just kids in football pads. I decided that when spring and warmer weather arrived, I would find such a snake. Not to capture and turn into a pinned specimen, but to meet a fellow resident of the Western Pennsylvania woods.

Not long after, Charlie graduated from Massasauga High. He was too small for the college football recruiters, so he took a few computer classes at the community college in Washington PA. But he soon heard another calling, and taking his own advice about rolling wheels, joined the U.S. Army and left Massasauga for training as a paratrooper and Ranger in North Carolina.
His letters from Ranger school were exciting and it was obvious that he had found his purpose in life. The skills that made him a star quarterback had also made him an outstanding soldier, a natural at leading men on dangerous missions in perilous places.
On Sept. 11, 2001, all of our lives changed. I was beginning my freshman year at Massasauga High when I saw the towers fall; in the pit of my stomach, I knew that Charlie would soon be in harm’s way.
He was now a Ranger sergeant, leading a team of expert soldiers somewhere in Colorado where they were training for mountain missions. His letters were always very upbeat, but lacking any specifics about his training or future assignments.
Not long after 9/11, he was sent to Afghanistan. Now his letters were few, but always full of wondrous tales from that exotic place of hookahs and warlords and tribal feuds. He had made friends with two Special Forces guys, both of them named Mike and both rabid mountain-bikers. They cobbled together some bikes and had a few laughs and a few beers on the local trails.
In an e-mail photo, Charlie looked very different. He had a thick, reddish beard and his shock of blond hair was hidden under some kind of woolen wrap. Charlie was smiling, but his eyes looked weary, or maybe there was smoke in the air.
We didn’t hear much from Charlie during the next two years. Mom got scared once and called the Red Cross, but all they could say was that he was on a special mission and was alive and well.
Late one night, the phone rang. I heard Mom gasp before she ran down the hall. It was Charlie; he was in Germany and little drunk. He had escorted a wounded comrade to the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl and had just a few hours before his flight back to Bagram was taking off from Ramstein.
After Mom and Dad talked with him, I got my turn.
“Hey bro, wassup?,” he slurred. “They got this gal here, Louise, she can throw darts backwards, between her legs! I’m in love!”
He had never talked to me like a man before and I felt a thrill run through me as I imagined this contortionist vixen in a smoky German bar. Well, what I imagined that scene to be, since I’d never been in Germany, never been in a bar and had never been with a woman.

That situation would change soon. Her name is Jenny and we met in biology class. She didn’t squeal or scream when we dissected a frog together. Lab partners became friends who wandered in the Massasauga woods, poking under logs and scooping muck from stagnant ponds.
I was now 16 and feeling like a real human. The bike and brown-eyed Jenny were at the center of my life, and while I wasn’t a big man on campus, I could stand in the woods at dusk and look at the glow from the high school football field lights and not feel that I was missing something.
December was about to arrive and the critters in the forest were going to ground for the winter. The logs were a bit icy and I bobbled a bit as I rode my Cannondale over my old nemesis. I had to laugh at how things had changed, how much confidence I had and how the future looked so promising.
I’d outgrown my asthma years ago and my breath flowed in cloudy streams from my lungs as I pumped the bike home. I tuned the corner on to Penn Street and smiled at the golden glow of our kitchen and the anticipation of sloppy joes and Tater Tots.
Then I saw the car in the driveway. My stomach flipped when I saw the government tags and “U.S. Army” stenciled on the door.
I kept riding, past my house, past the school, past Jenny’s house. Past everything that seemed so right and so stable. It was all flowing down a black whirlpool of fears as I pushed myself harder and harder, desperate to kill the panic with tears and lactic acid.

Charlie wasn’t killed by the roadside bomb, but when he woke up in a Landstuhl hospital bed, he wished he had been blown to bits. Through the morphine haze, he could see that his left leg was wrapped in a thick layer of gauze and tape. His right leg was missing.
That was his “chocolate” leg, the one he used to leverage those long touchdown passes. It was his anchor on the bike, steadying himself for leaps of faith and hard left turns.
Charlie was in Germany and his leg was shredded on the side of a dirt road in the outskirts of Kabul. After three years of stealth combat missions, it would all end in a banal Humvee run to the supply depot for toilet paper and Gatorade.
There was a Purple Heart medal pinned to his pillow, but all he could think about was his leg and what that loss would mean.

Charlie was sent to the Walter Reed Military Hospital in Washington, D.C., a long day’s drive from Massasauga. We got there hungry and tired, but didn’t want to wait a minute longer to see him.
We were escorted to his room after passing dozens of identical white, antiseptic rooms with corner TVs blaring ESPN, the occupants hidden beneath maroon blankets and tousled sheets.
Charlie was asleep when we walked in. He seemed smaller, his gaunt face still raw from the bomb flash, a rough pale stubble where his once thick beard had bloomed.
A nurse came in with a clipboard and a tray of pills and syringes. She wiped Charlie’s brow with a damp washcloth and his eyes flickered, then closed.
She touched his shoulders and rocked him slightly. He blinked awake, and tried to focus on our faces.
He struggled to speak, but the tears that welled in his reddened eyes and spilled down his cheeks needed no translation.
Mom cried into Dad’s shoulder and he slumped against the cold wall. I grabbed Charlie’s hand and squeezed hard. “Relax,” I said. “Breathe slow. Easy, easy.”

Charlie got his new right leg in March, but he had little interest in climbing out of bed for therapy. He spent his days sending e-mail to his friends back in Afghanistan and trolling the Internet for news from the war. He didn’t answer my letters and messages, and barely spoke to Mom and Dad on the phone.
Mom talked with a counselor, who agreed with her that a visit to Massasauga might do some good.
That weekend, a green Army hospital van pulled into the driveway and Charlie rolled down the ramp, a black wool cap pulled around his brow and his right pant leg pinned above the spot where his knee used to be.
An orderly shouldered Charlie’s duffle bag and a case containing a new carbon-fiber and titanium leg.
Dad had built a plywood ramp and tried to push Charlie inside, but Charlie shook his head and turned to me.
“Let’s go to the woods, bro,” he said. “I can’t stand being cooped up.”
We rolled down Penn Street and turned the corner into the woods. Spring was a few weeks away and the trails were still frozen mud. The branches were just beginning to show buds, so the high school building and the football field were visible in through the trees.
Some kids were tossing a football around, playing tackle throwback on the hard turf.
Charlie tried not to notice their game, but he winced when he saw the ball spiral through the cold air.
We skirted the field and turned into the thick of the forest. There were tire tracks preserved in the frozen muck, Velociraptors from my bike.
Ahead was the log pile. Not the original, but the latest incarnation I had crafted the summer before. I tried to turn the wheelchair around it, but Charlie grabbed my arm. He aimed the wheelchair at the pile and pumped his arms furiously on the wheel rims. The front wheels began to climb the obstacle, the the rear wheels slipped on the skinned logs and the chair crumpled to the right.
Charlie fell hard to the damp grass and cried, “Noooooo!”
I reached for him, but he barked, “Don’t touch me!”
He pulled himself up to his left knee, then grabbed the chair and forced it down into the muck. Charlie raised himself into the chair and backed away again. This time he swiveled around and headed back to our house. He didn’t say a word as he rolled up the ramp that Dad built.

We had to share a room, but we didn’t share much else. Charlie sat in his wheelchair and listlessly watched Jerry Springer and Oprah on the tube. He would lift his head when there was news from Iraq and Afghanistan, but would turn away when explosions flashed on the screen.
He never went out, but Dad convinced him one Saturday morning to help with building a new shed for the lawn tools. Dad and Charlie and I took the old green Ford pickup to Home Depot, the wheelchair lashed to the truck bed with bungee cords.
Charlie seemed happy to be in Massasauga again, smiling at the new Dunkin Donuts and Borders bookstore that had sprung up around the Home Depot. He hopped out of the truck on his good leg and reached in back to unhook the chair.
Just then a loud-mufflered Silverado pulled into the parking lot, the crew cab stuffed with wide-shouldered young men in red-and-gold letter jackets. They hooted and hollered as the spilled out, then fell suddenly silent as they saw Charlie, his khaki pant-leg dangling empty and a wheelchair in his arms.
No one knew what to say, so they said nothing. The boys shuffled into Home Depot and Charlie set the chair back in the truck.
“I’ll wait here,” he said to us. “I’m not feeling up to this.”

Charlie didn’t come to supper, so Mom made him a plate of salisbury steak and peas for me to take to him. He was propped up on his bed, just below the shelf of trophies and ribbons he’d won at Massasauga High.
He was wearing a pair of boxers, so I could clearly see the reddish skin that had been sewn around his stump. He had always kept it hidden with an elastic sock, so that was the first time I’d seen it.
I put the dinner plate on my cluttered desk and picked up a foot-long scrap of shedded snakeskin, blotchy with patches of grey and ivory scales.
“I found this in the woods last year,” I said, turning the skin over in my shaking hands. “Its from a real Massasauga rattlesnake. They’re pretty rare, you know. Their habitat is getting killed off from Ontario down to Morgantown.
“But they’re tough and are adapting to man’s intrusion by getting smaller, harder for predators to find and they need less prey to survive. I know about this guy and lots of other critters and plants because of what you did for me after Flurry died. Remember when you said, ‘Look where you want to go, not where you don’t want to go?’
“This is where I wanted to go. This is my calling. And I let off the brakes, too. Momentum. I’m a rolling wheel, thanks to you. I’m not preaching to you, Charlie, but I love you and believe in you. Go where you want to go. Mom and dad and me, we’ll be there with you.”
Charlie turned away and buried his head into the pillow. It hurt so bad to hear his muffled crying, but I stayed in that room until he fell asleep.

I’d like to say that things magically turned around that day, but they didn’t. But Charlie began working with a therapist at the VA hospital in Wheeling and started the long process of learning how to use his high-tech carbon leg.
His stump was often raw and throbbing after these sessions. On more than one night he sat on the porch and self-medicated with some Kine bud. Mom and Dad didn’t mind.
Summer passed and Jenny and I were now seniors, seriously in love and looking to the future. One September afternoon were were leaving the high school when I noticed a figure moving between the tree gaps in the woods. It was Charlie and he was straddling his old blue Yeti, using the bike as a crutch as he and the carbon leg walked in the forest. I though I heard him laughing.

From that day on, Charlie devoured life in big gulps. He attacked the mission of walking with the same zeal he had for recon patrols. He was walking unaided by the first week in October and by Halloween the doctors had adapted his leg for use on the bike.
He came back to Massasauga High for Homecoming Week. Now twice a hero, he basked in the warm regard of his friends. That winter we tried a little log hopping in the woods. It took a few tries, but we laughed our way through it.
Spring followed and graduation came and it was time for me to pack my own bags.
My two-year study of the decline of natural habitat of Sistrurus catenatus, also known as the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake, had won me a Western Pennsylvania Conservancy scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh.
Jenny and I loaded our bikes on the roof rack and drove down Penn Street and past the woods, looking exactly where we wanted to go.

Previously published in Dirt Rag Magazine

The Suicide Note of Marco Pantani

You will read this after, so I want you to know I was happiest on the bike.
For all of my memory I felt the most at home
With my feet on the pedals and the world moving around me.
The perfume of grease,
mentholated embrocation
and the heat in my legs.

We saw the movie in the small cinema in Cesenatico,
Disney’s little elephant who could fly.
I flew away on my bike that afternoon,
A boy’s eyes wet with tears of humiliation.
The harder I pedaled,
The higher I flew,

I learned to use my skills,
To fly above my hurt,
You called me hero, but I heard only taunts.
Pedal harder.
You called me campione.
Pedal harder.
You called me cheater.
Pedal harder.

I’m sorry, but I could not pedal every hour of every day.
I could not keep those thoughts
From my sleep.
So I filled my hours with tricks to stop the endless chatter of
God and family. Sin and redemption. My face in the mirror.
My imperfections magnified.
Pedal harder.

I held the biggest prize above my head
My heart was full of joy and peace.
My mother and father wept at my achievement.
But by the next dawn I was filled again with shame.
Pedal harder.
And when the next prize was taken
Just hours from my grasp
All was black inside
And I could only recoil from the light.
They wanted to punish me,
But I was already in prison.

I fought back, of course.
To be my own superhero,
A Pirate, a criminal beloved for his audacity.
Accepted as flawed. Accepted.
But I could not accept myself.
I cut away at my face,
but I could not slice into my disfigured soul.

Do not think it was all for nothing.
There is so much that I cherish.
Thank you, my dear friends,
For your hands reaching out for my slippery fingers.
I did see your signs on the climbs,
My name in fresh paint that clung to my tires.
I appreciated your hands on the small of my back,
The cool water spilled down my neck.
A million roadside kindnesses over the years,
Grazie. Grazie. Goodbye.

It is not so bad to be an Elephantino.
I just wanted to be a boy.

Previously published in Dirt Rag magazine.

Annie's Wheel

I like to think that I'm immune to romantic love. Oh, that doesn't mean I'm not excited by the joys of a long, wet kiss and God knows I crave the feeling of skin on skin beneath the sheets as much as I love the hum of thin tires on fast pavement.
But I always thought that I was the carrier of that particular bug, not the hapless victim left broken-hearted in some European train station as the object of desire (me) disappeared on the TGV line back to Paris.
Until I met Annie.
The first time I saw her was at breakfast in Avignon. I was staying in an achingly beautiful hotel that had once been monks' cloisters: thick walls of hand-cut Provencal limestone, panoramic windows open to a courtyard of autumnal golden oaks and a stone fountain overrun by a thick blanket of deep green moss. I wandered down to the breakfast room for café au lait and almost bumped into her as she filled her china cup with English breakfast tea.
Her auburn hair was expertly cut to collar length and her teeth were perfect. But there was no smile for me, just a quick quizzical look through huge green eyes and thick lashes, then she turned and walked back to her table.
But from that vantage I knew at once that she was a cyclist. Her tanned legs were muscled and the morning light streaming through the courtyard highlighted delicate reddish-golden hairs behind her knees. She carried herself well: good posture, and her gait was athletic with a hint of swagger.
But like most men and probably a good percentage of women, I filed the image away for possible later use in a poem or for when the ride got boring and I needed a pleasant spot to park my mind while my legs spun a million circles on the road home.
I was in France on newspaper business, but impulsively hooked up with a four-day biking tour of Provence when the weather and my appointment calendar cleared. I had been to the area often, but always as a passing journalist chasing the peloton and my next deadline.
As legions of poets and painters have discovered, Provence is a realm of the senses.
One year I stayed for a few nights in a honey domaine near Carpentras where bees and their hives were carted from lilac field to honeysuckle maze to clover meadow, the juicy fruit of their labors then captured and mixed into thick liquid gold. The setting was magnificent but the sweetness of the domaine's air was gagging. I sought refuge by riding a borrowed mountain bike to nearby Mont Ventoux's arid and chilly peak to escape the sugary swelter.
I reached the peak in the purple moments after sunset. Almost immediately the sweat on my jersey began to form ice crystals. I shivered and bitched all the way down the mountain. When I reached the tiny ville of St. Colombe, the air was again warm and heavy and I rolled silently onto a grassy berm, collapsed next to my bike and fell into a deep sleep filled with dreams of almond-eyed concubines with honey-dipped lips.
And there was that night after Bastille Day in Gap, when I slept in a tiny room above the noisy bar while my American friend drove off with the zaftig owner of the restaurant.
Or last year, slightly drunk and exhausted from writing, on a ridgeline above Vaison-la-Romaine with a full moon above and laughter-music rising from a festival in the town below. Couples strolled together, holding hands, a growing buzz in their loins. And I, as usual, was the lone traveler.
As you can readily surmise, romantic frustration had become my personal theme in Provence.
But when I saw gorgeous Annie pulling her suitcase toward the cycling tour van a few hours later, I knew my lonely days were about to end. I would at last have fulfillment, or at least a sweet night. My confidence was high when our eyes met (hers so green!) and she said in Italian-tinged English (the first words she would say to me!), "Oh, when I saw your Cannondale jacket, I thought you might be a rider."
A rider. Yes, that I am. World class. Master of the Alps (well, one or two particularly difficult Tour climbs). My name's painted on the Ventoux macadam, just up from Pantani. Allow me to pull you up the climbs, my dear.
I was not so brash as to actually say those words, but I allowed my demeanor and languid attitude to do the talking, yawning slightly as the van climbed toward the massif while the tour's neophyte riders were tense with the anticipation of pushing their wide-seated hybrids up these storied pitches.
We arrived at our first hotel, a collection of medieval buildings joined into a gourmet paradise. And my heart skipped madly when I realized that Annie and I would be staying in adjoining rooms, in a remote corner overlooking vineyards that rolled northward to the Ventoux.
She boldly asked to see my room, and walked past my country bed, her hand lightly stroking the quilt on her way to the window.
One didn't need a psychology degree to read these signs. The web was set and the fly was cleared for landing.
But this one was special. She was obviously a quality person, a professional writer in her native language and somewhat of an expert in subjects both Tuscan and culinary. To waste such romantic capital on a sordid one-night stand would be criminal. If I played things right, I could stretch this into a wonderful week of passion, capped by the usual teary drama and my emotional escape into the Paris rain.
We headed out for a quick warm-up ride, a 12-mile scoot through the hills to tweak the bikes and, in my case, provide a little appetizer of what's to come.
We quickly moved to the front of the ragged pack, a dozen or so wobbly tourists and a few real riders. Annie gave me a big-eyed look and said she was "a bit shaky on the downhills and could she just follow my line?" I couldn't have written it better myself.
We coasted down the hotel hill and chatted with a friendly woman from Maine who wore pro team kit and seemed to know what she was doing. My audience had doubled and the curtain was about to rise. No vulgarity intended.
The course map showed that this loop had a medium-sized hill in the middle and a short but steep return to the hotel. As I was deciding whether to spin up the climb while whistling arias from Le Boheme or do my famed Lance Dance, Annie rose out of her saddle and picked up the pace.
I smiled at this coy provocation. The girl has spunk.
I responded with a faster cadence, but the bike seemed sluggish. I put more power to the pedals, but my legs felt heavy and Annie climbed away, now 20 yards ahead.
The Maine woman pulled up next to me and began chatting away, oblivious to the growing ache in my quads. "Look at Annie," she chirped. "She's so strong."
The road wound around the hill, so there were moments when we lost sight of her, a situation that turned my anxiety into full-blown panic.
I kept up a brave front, trying to hold a conversation about the virtues of boiled potatoes while the fire in my legs was creeping into my lungs.
There were several false summits and each deception pushed me deeper and deeper into despair.
Potato woman and I reached the top and saw Annie coasting slowly down the other side. My God, she was waiting for us.
We finally caught up with her at a T-intersection where she had stopped (the shame!). Instead of pulling up, I powered around the corner and sprinted off, hoping against hope that she would think I was being kind to my new friend from Maine and this was the real man, big-ringing down the road.
But within seconds she swiftly pulled up behind me. As the hill to the hotel approached, she turned on the afterburners and climbed, climbed, climbed. My thighs were in tatters and in my confusion the Maine woman easily passed. "What a great view," I sputtered, but my ruse was weak.
Annie's torrid pace had brought us back to the hotel well before the rest of the riders, so the three of us rested on a low stone wall. Maine woman wandered soon off in search of water or spuds. I was alone with Annie and my self-disgust.
Instead of mocking me or even mentioning my lack of motor skills, Annie suggested we get some coffee at the hotel's quaint little shop. When we got there, the shop was closed, but Annie went to a side door, flashed her angelic smile and the owner quickly agreed to make us two café au lait.
We had a great talk about life and writing and food, then walked together to our rooms to prepare for the evening meal. Since we were both seasoned travelers and everyone else on the tour was part of a couple, we agreed to be together at dinner to continue the conversation.
I was barely out of the shower when she knocked at my door, a vision in a black miniskirt and turquoise top, her hair still wet from the shower. Be still my beating heart, this is a woman who can get ready for dinner in 15 minutes. I was smitten, dear reader, and didn't care.
Dinner passed in a haze of flavors and fragrances and seven wines and two desserts. There was a huge full moon in the dark sky. Annie was a bit silly from the wine and demanded in a pouty but persistent way that we should end the evening with a moonlit swim in the hotel pool.
She asked one of the guides if that was possible and he responded that he, as an experienced triathlete (what kind of cad refers to himself as a TRIathlete?) would get the hotel manager to allow us to use the pool after hours.
I, too, was a bit giddy and we ran up to our rooms and emerged quickly with towels, clad in cotton robes and yes, swimsuits. And the cad was there, bellowing in that slim young man sort of way, already posturing and posing.
Annie dropped her robe and dove into the bright green glow of the pool. The air was freezing but the water was only slightly warmer. The three of us (sigh) had mock races and some tipsy synchronized swimming routines for the video camera. My hopes for romance were shrinking in the chilly water.
The manager came down and told us that some of the guests had complained that our whoops were keeping them awake, so could we please return to our rooms. But Annie wasn't through. She swooped through the now-closed restaurant and cadged a glass of red wine. We tiptoed up the steep stairwell, where she announced that she would take a hot bath and sip her wine.
Exhausted from the ride and the rich food and the cold dunking, the player had been played out and all I wanted was to slink into my bed. As she turned her key and turned to go inside, she turned her head and gave me a quick kiss.
"Wake me up at 7:15, okay? A domani!"
I was wide-awake at six and planned my whole morning routine around knocking on her door at exactly 7:15. I prepared every item of my riding uniform to give the impression of casual elegance, an older but wiser rider who wasn't easily swayed by a pretty face and a little kiss that found its way into my dreams.
I rapped my knuckles on her door and half-expected her to pull me inside and lead me to her bed. But all I got back was a sleepy groan and a plea in Italian for more time.
Angered, I swore that I would ride away from her and never look back.
I don't have to detail the humiliation that followed. Suffice to say she out climbed me on the shoulder of Ventoux, was shopping for fabric when I rolled into the next big village and completely lost me on the way to L'Isle sur la Sorgue, our lunch rendezvous point. My mortification was multiplied when the smug Triathlete drove past in the tour van and informed me that I had missed the turn.
When I caught up with her in the town, she was posing for photographs by the famed river. She had caught the eye of a professional and he was captivated by her intimacy with the lens.
Like a lovesick puppy, I fetched her a coffee and sulked by the stream.
Oh, dear reader, she was not through with me. After a long afternoon ride to yet another ancient walled city, she goaded me into doing an additional 12-mile loop. Rain began to fall as we rolled out of town; our fellow travelers were checking into the hotel, where warm showers and plush mini-bars awaited. I sighed and accepted my fate.
The rain got heavier and heavier as we climbed. I was bonking on unrequited love and felt like I was riding in molasses. I had to stop to scarf down an energy bar, knowing that she was already far ahead, tapping her Italian leather bike shoes on the tarmac, full of nervous energy.
For the second humiliating time, she was waiting at a t-intersection. We climbed even more and she pulled away.
But then the road began a steep drop to the valley floor a wicked set of rain-swept switchbacks that required surgical precision. Descending was her weakness, and my only hope for redemption on that damp day was to release myself from her hold and soar downward, a fallen angel headed to Hell or the hotel.
I passed her on the second hairpin, she seemed a bit wobbly, fragile. But I was now full of fury and paid no heed, veering from the inside of the turn to the outside arc, dodging a fishtailing Citroen and gaining speed down, down, down.
I was waiting at the bridge when she arrived, a little too smug but I really didn't give a damn. Without a pause, she launched into the waiting climb, a steep straight ascent. But I wasn't ready when she stopped halfway, pulled over and beckoned to me.
"Isn't this great," she said, her cheeks flushed and large green eyes bright with excitement. Spread before us was the valley, golden in the fading afternoon light, castles and stone bridges visible in the distance.
We rode together back to the hotel and quietly went to our rooms. This time she was in another wing. Good, I thought. I needed distance, but longed for intimacy.
She sat next to me at dinner that night, but I shared my conversation with everyone at the table and saved nothing for her alone.
No goodnight kiss and no lingering looks. I slept fitfully, woke before dawn and was the first person in the breakfast room.
I went to the bike garage to get ready for the final leg to St. Remy, where the cycling portion of our journey would end. I no longer cared if I beat her, I just wanted to feel the power and speed on the bike that I had known for years but seemingly lost in Provence.
I fiddled with the bike and noticed that the front brake was set too tight. I usually do my own bike work, but because this was a guided tour and we were riding their bikes, I left the prep work to the guides.
And then I checked the tires. Only 90 pounds. I always ride with 115 to 120. Whenever I asked the guides to check the pressure, they assured me the tubes were at their limit. No wonder I was slow. Why didn't I see it? The Triathlete was sabotaging me. He wanted her. It was all so clear now.
I know what you're thinking. Only a knob would let someone else set up his bike. Only a paranoid ass would think he was being set up. Today we would discover the truth.
I rode strong all day, thanks in part to Brian, an L.A. hipster who had grown tired of keeping a slow pace with his fiancée and moved up to the A Group, which consisted of me and Annie.
Like pros on a breakaway, we formed a tight knot that zoomed up hills and swooped down valleys, taking turns at the front with clockwork precision. Annie was caught up in the formation; she couldn't break out of the paceline or she would fall back.
Brian and I stepped up the pace as we entered the mountains and lost Annie completely on a wonderful five-mile descent that had us wheel to wheel at 45 miles an hour. We screamed and yelled and rode like kings into the next village.
We waited for her and then we worried. I asked a passing rider if she had seen an American woman on the road.
"Qui," she said. "A'droit. She turned right."
We wouldn't find her again for another hour and when we did she was angry, accusing us of missing the turn and insisting that she lead the final leg to St. Remy. She and Brian exchanged bitter words and he rode off silently and swiftly.
Annie and I rode back together, and she wouldn't let up. She was driving me crazy, but now I was the one who couldn't break away.
The next morning I left Annie a wakeup call, but she mumbled and put the phone down, off the hook. I went for a ride with the friendly woman from Maine and a model-beautiful guy from Manhattan by way of Kenya. The spin was fun and the comradery delightful. As we pulled up to the hotel and put the bikes away for the final time, Annie rode up, out of breath. "Why didn't you wait for me?," she cried out, but not with anger.
She was animated and wanted to go to the local market before we took the bus to the train station.
She had planned to visit a friend in the Vaucluse who was trying to open a small restaurant and hotel in a remote village.
I told her she should come with me to Paris, a throwaway line that felt like cardboard in my mouth. To my surprise, she said she'd think about it.
She was restless away from the bikes and it made me nervous to see her carrying on an argument with herself about the virtues of going to Paris with me or staying in the Vaucluse.
She didn't make a decision until our bus was pulling up to the train station. "I'm coming to Paris! See you on the train."
I did see her on the train, but only long enough for her to borrow my cell phone and disappear.
She was antsy waiting in line for a taxi at the Gare in Paris and practically crawling out of her skin as we searched for a certain little bistro in the St. Germaine district that she insisted we visit.
She stayed that night in a hotel room the tour operators had kindly provided, but asked the next morning if she could stay in my room, as I had business in the city. I thought I was going to cry.
The day was cold with a hard rain. We grated against each other. I took her to meet a wonderful Parisian family that ran a famous bike shop near the Arc d'Triomphe, but her impatience was obvious and almost rude. I welcomed the respite when she left the room to look for a jewelry shop near L'Opera. I sat at my laptop and wrote, filing my story to New York in the late afternoon, then took a nap as the drizzle continued to fall.
It wasn't love, but something similar. An intimacy that was too close for friendship but not emotional enough for real passion. The end for me came that night when we were running through the darkened streets, rushing to find a taxi or the route to another café. Off the bike, she could not stop moving. She was obsessed with movement and I could not take it anymore.
I grabbed her arm and told her I was going back to the hotel. Paris had always been a romantic city to me, even though I was always alone there. I preferred to be alone than to have anger in my heart.
A few hours later she showed up at my room and I let her sleep in my bed. But I took the couch.
At dawn, I looked over at her, asleep and still. Whatever demons pulled at her in her waking hours had disappeared and she was at peace.
When she did rise, the energy flowed back with a rush. I told her I wanted to sleep late and she should go down for breakfast by herself. I got dressed and walked down the wet avenue to my favorite bakery. At a corner table I had a croissant and coffee and looked out at the lovers sharing umbrellas, the married pairs ducking into shops and the slickered children darting off to school.
When I got back, Annie was closing her suitcases and calling the bellman. She was heading to the Vaucluse and I was going back to America on the afternoon Air France flight.
When her taxi arrived, I walked her to the door and kissed her cheek. She sat in the back seat and looked away as the taxi disappeared in the rain.
A month later I received a letter from Annie.
"My dearest Nick," it began.

© 2002 Dirt Rag Magazine