The Great Blaireau

The one time I raced Cristophe Blaireau was at La Petite Lame de Scie, a punchy and brutal little bicycle race over three sharp climbs near Andorra. The course profile quite literally looked like a saw blade. La Lame was a big deal for small-time riders like me.

Why Blaireau showed up, I still can’t say. I’m not even sure how he found it. Our little race should have been far beneath him, even if the champion had begun to slow down by that point. He had crashed on the cobbles in the Ardennes the month before, and cracked on the final stage of a weeklong race in Switzerland before that.

He could draw a crowd, that’s for sure. There were no barriers and little security at races in those days, nothing to stop fans from running up and chatting up riders. Being mobbed by fans wasn’t a concern at our level — what fans? — but Blaireau drew people like a magnet. It was impressive to see how patient and charming he seemed with everyone he met. He was easy to spot — not that he was bigger than any of us, or particularly handsome, but he knew how to wear what he had: a thick, virile head of brown hair, dull blue eyes and a serious, thinking brow and chin.

He had an ability to be exactly charming enough, and it struck me that he might not have a lot of friends. I watched him give a young fan a quip and a nod, then dispose of him with a smile that was at once friendly but clear that the kid should go. He seemed like the type of person who no one would think to make plans with, like he belonged to another existence occupied only by him. But if anyone asked, you would certainly say he was a good bloke.

Then there was the thing he ate. A masseuse handed him a little parcel of deli wrap. Blaireau unwrapped it, and in his hand was a little gray, shimmery blop. It looked like a piece of head cheese gone bad, or like a slug in a raincoat. It was nothing I recognized. He inhaled the whole piece in one swallow and then chuckled to himself, perhaps remembering something.

He turned and looked up at the mountain, and I did, too.

The first climb of La Lame was long and not overly steep. A breakaway of seven riders got out almost immediately and the peloton let them. There are few favors in cycling, but some riders are beneath concern.

The breakaway is a ritual that has always existed in cycling, when the old and stubborn, the young and scorned, and anyone truly desperate for recognition zooms out ahead in a vain, self-deceiving attempt to win. The peloton double checks that no one of significance is in the break and lets them go to enjoy a few dozen kilometers at the head of the race. Meanwhile, those of us with an actual chance to win would hang back to ration our energy intelligently, knowing we would chase them down eventually.

I don’t mean to sound full of myself — I was no Blaireau. But at that time I had proven myself to be a game puncheur, one of those riders who lived for the single-day races when I didn’t have to think about the next day. I was small and nimble, and I adored profiles like La Lame. Those long, steep, winding roads were made for the sudden attacks and gamesmanship for which I was known.

I said earlier that riders didn’t work together then like they do today, but I did have one ally. Benjamin Bordet was my opposite and equal. We came up in the sport at the same time, doing the same races, and after so much time on the road together we wordlessly and seamlessly slipped into a symbiotic relationship.

He was sickly to look at, but his long gaunt legs encased twin diesel pistons that could pump at a steady, metered pace. He rarely attacked or responded well when a rider tried to leave him behind, but he was good at breaking the will of those who tried to keep up with his infernal consistency. He had low awareness for the dynamics of the stage or those around him. He channeled all of his focus into his pedal strokes, measuring their timing with carpenter precision.

Our unspoken agreement was he would let me ride in his slipstream for maybe three-quarters of a long climb, conserving my legs. He wouldn’t mind, because on that last quarter I would be his protector. The tops of climbs were where riders attacked the most, hoping to take the crest and use the descent to distance themselves. When the accelerations came, I would repay him by letting him stick to my wheel while I tried to close down the competition, or create distance for ourselves.

Depending on the stage profile, he might have the better day, or I might. One was as good as the other, and there was no question we were better together. La Lame suited us equally — he liked the length of the climbs, and I liked their brutality.

But that first climb was hard for both of us. After the breakaway got far out ahead, Blaireau took command of the front of the peloton at a pace that none of us anticipated. It’s hard to imagine that even his regular competitors would have been comfortable. It seemed obvious that he was out to prove a point — that whatever the reason he was racing with our kind, we needed to be made an example.

The day’s obvious stragglers fell back more quickly than usual — those who were hoping to use the race as a tuneup for one of the longer stage races in a few weeks, or whose legs clearly weren’t going to agree with them that day. Bordet and I were maybe six riders back from Blaireau, and every time I looked behind me, the pack behind would be thinner, from a few dozen riders to maybe 14 or so, strung out in a long line that seemed ready to snap in several places.

Blaireau never looked back. If he was punishing us, it didn’t show. He sat on the front third of his saddle, over his handlebars, each downstroke like a stab at the earth. It wasn’t personal; Blaireau intended to subjugate the road and we were collateral in the fight.

Just before the summit he broke off the front of the peloton and ascended, going up and over the top, then out of sight. I was as stupefied as anyone, but this was my time, too. I took off, making sure Bordet saw my wheel, and together we easily overtook the riders ahead of us to become the new head of the peloton — there seemed to be little appetite for the chase.

The descent curved wide left before cutting back right. I finally glimpsed Blaireau again maybe 30 meters away, taking that right hand. He was descending fast, his body in the same coiled position it had been when he had broken free of us, and his neck still stiff, aiming his head dead straight.

From that angle I finally caught a glimpse of his eyes. They were the size of dinner plates. No, bigger. Like bike tires, and black like them too. Fixated, only seeing God knows what.

The descent went by quickly. I had trouble remembering to help poor Bordet as I hung over my handlebars and Ieaned into the curves, my knees nearly scraping the ground.

Bordet was with me by the start of the second climb, but barely. His long frame made him top heavy on a bike and an awkward descender. As he went to pedal by me and take his turn as shepherd, he gave me a glance that said what the hell has gotten into you.

I stayed right next to him.

“His eyes, Benjamin.”

“His what?” He hadn’t seen.

“His eyes. Blaireau. He’s not well.”

“He’s climbing like a bloody goat. What do you mean he’s not well.”

“His eyes, Benjamin. We have to catch him.”

He searched me. This was not our accord. And I knew the danger of pulling him out of his rhythm — his style of racing only worked if nothing broke his singular focus, and I was threatening that. Bordet was one of the few riders I would ever call a true friend, but no agreement was ironclad on the road.

“You can take my wheel,” I said. “I’ll get him, I don’t care if my legs fall off. But I need you with me.”

The second climb was hardest of the race — about 30 kilometers long, and alternating steep and steeper sections of climbing to the top. Midway through, the tree line stopped, so that if you looked up, you could see the road and every miserable point along your near future. It was for that moment that La Lame was designed. Every rider who got to that point had to ask and answer for themselves if they were willing to sacrifice what was necessary to win.

I rode like a possessed man to get there, and Bordet stayed faithfully close as we distanced what was probably a now-scattered peloton. I can’t recall the forest portion of the climb. My only desire was to go fast, and that superseded the fatigue I should have been feeling. I didn’t even have the frame of mind to note that I was probably in the form of my life. And Bordet stayed quiet — whether he noted my form, too, or was simply measuring pedal strokes, I can’t say.

When we broke the tree line I saw Blaireau again, closer than I thought, but also changed. His back bowed out so that the nubs of his spine were prominent through his kit. His teeth showed and they were gnashing. He wasn’t sitting on his saddle any more, and I’m not sure that he could. He seemed bigger.

And I knew we could catch him. I knew if we maintained this head-down, breakneck effort, we could catch the great Blaireau. I don’t know what motivated me. At first I think it was to see what had happened to him, but somewhere along the way it became to conquer. I could catch him. And then what? Behind me, Bordet measured pedal strokes.

Coming out of the trees, it was as if we had ascended to the moon — the hillsides were rock and gray dirt. The wind whipped and wrapped around me. I felt buoyant and blissfully alone. Blaireau’s figure grew in my vision. I was close enough to study his form. It was loose, and surprisingly unsure of itself. He threw excess motion into his knees and elbows. But Blaireau would launch off his pedals, like he wanted to leap off his bike. I thought he could escape orbit at any moment, and I would go too if I was within his gravity.

I drew closer, maybe a few hundred meters now, and the summit came into view, too. The possibility of catching Blaireau became real, phased into form in front of my eyes. As I dwelled on this, I didn’t see Blaireau become the beast. I looked up and his kit was in tatters. He may have been eight feet, nine feet, 10 feet tall, and he was no longer stiff-necked and focused, but rather lashing his head against the wind and the mountain.

He seemed to animate the environment. The wind began to sting and kick dust in our faces as the beast grew madder and madder. His skin was sallow and pale, his sleek haunches high in the air, sinew threatening to erupt through his skin. His hands enveloped his drop bars, and with each pedal stroke his body seemed to grow again, Blaireau surging in height and his skin tightening and his veins bulging from his calves like coiled worms struggling for air.

I pulled closer still. It didn’t occur to me to slow down. I wanted to be closer, to lift off with this creature, to feel what it might be feeling. The wind against us, I only faintly heard my name behind me. I turned my head, Bordet was red-faced, evidently screaming for some time. When I turned back Blaireau was looking at us. We were nearly on his wheel. His eyes were black planets. His mouth a not-quite grin, he opened wide and I could see that he had gritted his teeth into jagged little mountains.

I stared into death, and yet I resented myself for wanting to hide, for wanting to fall back with the shrieking man struggling at my wheel instead of riding right into Blaireau’s noiseless maw.

I missed a slight right bend and clipped a metal guardrail, spilling over the side of the mountain and tumbling 20 feet over the rocks. I looked myself up and down — not a scratch. I swear to you, not a scratch. I scrambled as fast as I could back up the rocks to the road.

And then I saw Bordet, seemingly frozen to his rhythm, ride right up to the teeth of Blaireau. I saw Blaireau, now larger and unholier than anything I have ever known, in a motion that felt both mechanical and decadent, lean over my friend and chomp him, snap him, and swallow him whole like a lizard might.

Blaireau disappeared over the crest once more. My bike was flat on the ground, undamaged. I looked back and a handful of riders were just emerging from the tree line far below — they’d seen nothing.

I grabbed my bike, and in my adrenaline, sped off past the empty bicycle by the side of the road that used to be occupied by Bordet. I didn’t think to mourn; it seemed imperative to continue. As I overcame the climb, I saw Blaireau’s sinister figure bombing down into the valley, and farther ahead but falling back were two riders who had taken part in the day’s breakaway.

I’d forgotten about the break. They should have cracked on the second climb so that they would be easily overtaken at the start of the final climb to the finish, but Blaireau was bearing down on them, and reached them as the trees returned to the landscape. I rode as fast as I could, and when I reached the forest I nearly ran over the body of one of the riders. He was a kid, one of those fresh-faced, plucky, dime-a-dozen rouleurs who hadn’t yet learned what his place in the peloton was supposed to be. The other rider and his bicycle were nowhere to be seen.

The second half of the descent was dark, the branches and leaves blotting out the sun. All around me I thought I saw the detritus of dead bodies. A fading yellow leaf might have also been a scrap of torn kit. The shimmer of a creek through the bushes could have been a set of eyes still open, gaping, and possibly viewing the world for the last time.

I had to catch Blaireau. It would be too late for the breakaway, and I’d made peace with that. But at the finish line were dozens, if not hundreds, of people waiting to greet the champion who would be met by a monster grown hungry. Between us and the finish were a series of turns that had been engineered into a sheer cliff a long time ago. Those spectators wouldn’t see us until the moment we arrived. No one would be able to prepare for the beast.

The final climb to the summit finish was long like the second, but not as maniacally steep. It broke the tree line with about three kilometers to the finish, and as I emerged I found that I had nearly caught Blaireau again. I could only assume that he had taken time disposing of the riders — I’d seen none of them, only his last victim, an old-hand named Thomas Chapanelle who had nothing better to do late in his career than ride breakaways until his heart felt like bursting. Blaireau swiped Chapanelle with one hand while riding, sucking him up feet first like a Twizzler.

Blaireau and I were the head of the race. I didn’t know how to stop him, but perhaps with some element of surprise I could knock him over and warn the people at the finish. I was sprinting now — there were under two kilometers to go, and I needed his wheel. As I approached, his figure filled my view. I don’t know how he stayed on his bicycle, he might have been two stories tall, every fibrous muscle bulbous and visible and working in his back, every inch of him as determined as I was.

The one kilometer banner approached. The finish was behind a sharp left bend. As I took his wheel I felt a wave of fatigue crash down on me at once — all the strain I had somehow denied myself that day, accumulated. I was suddenly aware of who I was and what I was facing. Where had I been until then?

Under and past the banner. The meters falling by. Blaireau didn’t notice me. 500 meters to go. There was no choice.

I put in another hard dig and pulled astride the beast’s left side. I kicked his back wheel towards the ledge. He felt the nudge. I kicked again. He turned his head and loomed his face over me. I kicked again, and I thought I might disappear into the void of his eyes. I saw him lift a massive hand to swipe at me. The final bend approached. I’d be dead before the line.

I kicked again, but the beast wouldn’t give. I did, and as I fell I barely escaped his grasp, his fingernail knifing me down the right side of my body.

I laid on the road on my back, struggling to breathe. I turned my head and Blaireau had stopped and stood in full height, staring back to me, heaving, barely hidden from the finish line by that final bend. If he wanted to kill me, he could have. He could have swallowed me as easily as he swallowed Bordet. He could have manipulated me like a toy. But he got back on his bicycle and disappeared once more.

I put myself back together just enough to get on my bike. To what end, I don’t know. The smart thing would have been to turn around and maybe warn the straggling peloton far behind me. But I was 200 meters from the finish, and I heard the crowd. I heard screams and a roar, and if no other part of me wanted to see this to the end, my legs did.

The sound overwhelmed me as I came around the rock wall. I was encased in noise and color — my vision was going. It felt like thousands, not hundreds, lined the final stretch of road. I thought I saw spots of blood over the crowd and they looked like pretty polka-dots; entrails strewn about in triptych patterns.

I stopped at the line. Blaireau towered above the scene, a Boschian figure, presiding over a happy slaughter. I saw people huddled around him, giving themselves to be devoured like chicken wings. I saw his winsome smile. As I collapsed, I thought to scream.

I awoke in a hospital bed. A perfectly lovely nurse greeted me.

“Hello, how are you?”

Evidently I was fine — alive. She told me that she had heard all about the race, that it sounded pretty eventful. I tried to speak, which she anticipated, and she told me to relax, that I was okay, that I would be okay. That not only had I survived the race — “what a nasty little cut you got on that crash over the guardrail” — but that everyone was talking about what a performance I gave. The bravery, the daring, the sheer determination and grit I showed to go toe-to-toe with the great Blaireau.

She said that Blaireau had been impressed, too. He sent flowers and a note, which the nurse read aloud:

“‘Thank you for bringing out the best in me. I only hope I returned the favor. Votre ami, CB.”

The nurse smiled, and said he seemed like a good bloke.