13 April 2018

The Mountain We Climbed

Two cyclists climbed the mountain.

Image from Tripsite

Their long, arduous pedal strokes channeled their fear, rage and loneliness into jagged thrusts through virages.  They funneled their darkest secret into energy that helped them push against headwinds on deceptively narrow straightaways.  

They would reach the summit but feel no sense of pride or elation about it.  Years later, each of them would say exactly the same thing:  Yeah, I did that.  To this day, others are more impressed than they are with their feats.

Both grew up in working-class enclaves--one in Scotland, the other in Brooklyn and New Jersey.  They have remarkably similar stories about being bullied and ostracized, and how they both felt the need to escape.  It drove both of them to France.

The American stayed for a time and has returned several times since.  The Scot achieved great professional success there and returns for various gigs.  

They both climbed the mountain.  And, after their descents, they realized that they would have traded that experience, and all of the others, for a life they could not have led until they crossed the valley.

As you might have surmised, I am the American.  What you might not have realized until now---I didn't, until a couple of hours ago--is that the Scot in question was the first Anglophone to wear the polka dot jersey (for the King of the Mountains) in the Tour de France.  In one of cycling's more famous photos, this rider is seen descending a mountain in the 1989 Tour, alongside Laurent Fignon, Pedro Delgado and eventual overall winner Greg LeMond.

In the 1984 Tour de France.

I am talking about someone who went by the name of Robert Millar.  Yes, that Robert Millar.  The one who finished fourth overall (then the highest standing for an Anglophone) in the 1984 edition, when Millar won the polka-dot jersey.   The following year, the Glasgow native would have a Vuelta a Espana victory "stolen" by riders who colluded for a Spanish victory.  Two years later, Millar placed second in the Giro d'Italia:  still the best finish in that race for a cyclist from the British Isles.

Millar, even after retiring from the sport, garnered great admiration and respect from former rivals and teammates, not to mention fans.  While my brief racing career brought me no money or fame, my life as a cyclist gave me, if I do say so myself, people who admired and respected me for riding up the mountain.  And another.  And another.  Some of the folks who shouted "Bon courage!" I would never meet again, but others became riding and training partners for periods of my life.

But even though Millar was a better, or at least more accomplished and recognized, cyclist than I ever was or will be, we do have remarkably similar stories.

We are the same age: only two months separate us.  And in addition to our class roots, we have other similarities in our backgrounds.  In particular, each of us had a parallel experience.  For all I know, we might have had it on the same day:  When we were five years old, the boys and girls lined up on opposite sides of the playground.  Robert in Glasgow felt the same way as Nicholas--"Nicky"--in Brooklyn:  different.  "But there was no way to communicate that without the other boys beating me up or picking on me," Millar recalls.

She took the words out of my mouth!

Philippa York

Robert Millar no longer goes by that name.  Today she is known as Philippa York.  While she has a bike with mudguards and a wicker basket for "going to town", her knowledge of the gradients and lengths of climbs around her home on the South Coast of England is "suspiciously accurate," according to a Telegraph article.  "I still like that rush of speed, but that's only downhill," she explains.  "I can't go fast on the flat or uphill anymore and I accept that I am going to need every gear on my bike."

I can relate.

We climbed the mountain.  And we are here, now--female midlife cyclists, both of us.

N.B.:  I want to thank one of my favorite bloggers, "The Retrogrouch", for alerting me to Philippa York's story!

One of my early posts will tell you more about the mountain (actually, one of the mountains) I climbed.


  1. Nice post, Justine - I like how you found those parallels between yourself and Philippa.

  2. Justine, how did you not know?

    The worst ever theft of a mountain TDF stage win was when our heroine was misdirected by an official just before the finish!

  3. Brooks--Thank you for your compliment--and directing me to the article!

    Coline--Her resume should include at least a couple more stage victories, not to mention a Vuelta and Tour--and possibly a Giro--victory.

    Life isn't always fair, is it?

  4. Thank you for sharing this. Two inspiring women.

  5. MT--Thank you. You just made this woman blush!