This story, while written by me, belongs to and originally appears in the “Bon Courage” collection at LOVE NAIL TREE. Check it out here.
“Bon courage!” yelled people in the crowd. “Bon courage… bon courage… bon courage…” the cyclists were saying around her, smiling and nodding at one another. Bon courage, Angie whispered to herself. It was a phrase she first heard on a talk-show on a hotel television while she waited for Steven to finish showering. That was one year and four days ago. This year she’d come alone. This year was her first cat 1 race.
Categories (i.e. “cat”) in cycling are based on experience and/or placement in a number of races. Female cyclists start in cat 4. From cat 4 they can move into cat 3 either by scoring points with top-ten finishes, or simply by experiencing at least 25 races in a 12-month period. From cat 3 they must score at least 25 points by placing within the top ten in a 12-month period in order to move into cat 2. The same goes for going from cat 2 to cat 1.
The course was Tomblaine to La Panche des Belles Filles, a 199 km medium-mountain stage, otherwise known as what would be stage 7 of the 2012 Tour de France, a race that takes place across the sunny month of July. Angie’s race was for women, and so it was in February, and it was cold and rainy.
250 women in brightly colored jerseys and matching shorts—some heavy with sponsorship logos, and some with only few—were huddled within the starting corral. Elbows pressed to elbows, thighs to thighs; most riders were already clipped in, the mass was one great organism leaning upon itself. Each woman had a bib with a number between 1 and 250, and it varied based on how many points she had scored in races recognized by the International Cycling Association throughout the year. Somewhere near the center of the pack, with an already irritatingly pinned bib to the middle of her back, was Angie. Her number was 108.
The race official was speaking French into a megaphone. She’d taken French in college, and she figured this would help, but the crowd was so loud that she couldn’t make out what he was saying. Riders around her looked tense and some were shaking out their arms and jiggling their legs. Others just stared forward. When the mass began to move it was slow, and it took Angie twenty-eight seconds just to cross the starting line. They were a faucet draining out of Tomblaine, single droplets and dense pelatons of riders alike drenching the north-eastern suburbs of France.
Bon courage, she thought to herself every time she made a move and clicked a gear higher to leave a pelaton behind. She loved hearing the wish-wish-wish of her tires on the wet and narrow pavement.
She’d read several translations of the ancient phrase. Her favorite was: “take heart—don’t give up. Hang in there. Have courage in the difficulty you are enduring.” Every move she made was her telling herself that she was courageous; every rider she passed was an emblem of her taking heart.
Bon courage, she thought again as she began the initial climb just outside of Grandvillers, and when she came into view of the lead pelaton during the middle of the climb in Gerardmer.
“Bon courage,” she whispered softly as she sucked down water at the peak of Col de Grosse Pierre and while gripping her handlebars for the 14 km descent that followed.
“Bon courage,” she moaned as she felt the heavy lactic acid build-up in her quads as she climbed toward Col du Mont de Fourche.
“Bon courage!” she cried as she caught tailing riders from the front pelaton in Ecromagny, and as she pulled well within the pack at 30 km to go.
“Bon courage!” She screamed aloud when she felt her body crying for relief at the base of the final climb.
The outskirts of La Planche Des Belles Filles now in sight, she screamed “bon courage!” and heard groups of spectators yell it back to her. “Bon courage,” she called to bib 35 and then to bib 42, knowing there was a chance they might resent her for it. The final 2 km took everything from her, somehow managing to crank while knowing there was nothing left. Her body ached and her lungs were ablaze.
Bon courage, she whispered as she pulled beyond the 10th place rider, securing herself placement. Bon courage, she whispered again as she pushed hard on her pedals. Ten… nine… eight… seven… She heaved into her last stroke and dipped her head for a flashy finish.
She felt the cool rain water mixing with the warmth from her face. She looked at the sky, feeling the familiar elation of her heavy-pounding heart, and she smiled.