This is excerpted from Need for the Bike, translated by Allan Stoekl and published by University of Nebraska Press:
An extended meditation on cycling as a practice of life, the book recalls a country doctor who will not anesthetize the young Fournel after he impales himself on a downtube shifter, speculates about the difference between animals that would like to ride bikes (dogs, for instance) and those that would prefer to watch (cows, marmots), and reflects on the fundamental absurdity of turning over the pedals mile after excruciating mile. At the same time, Fournel captures the sound, smell, feel, and language of the reality and history of cycling, in the mountains, in the city, escaping the city, in groups, alone, suffering, exhausted, exhilarated.
The Texture of the Roads
by Paul Fournel
Suddenly the road gets smoother, my legs turn more freely. Automatically I shift into a higher gear, move back on the saddle. I've just changed départements, changed texture.
Every département, sometimes every district, has its own way of tarring back roads; each has its own idea of ideal asphalt, of perfect paving. For the cyclist, this is translated by a little bump when a boundary is crossed, and by a new feel in the ride.
In the mountains, where the winter cold bites into the tar, and the summer heat resoftens it, the road's texture is rough and dark: a Beluga that livens you up with tiny vibrations, stiffening your perineum and, little by little, making your hands tingle through the gloves. In the descent the roughness comes up on both sides of your spine, as far as your shoulders, where it vibrates to the same rhythm as your arms and palms.
On the climb, on really hard days, every bit of gravel is a minuscule mountain you climb in addition to the mountain itself - it's then that they say the road is 'paying back' badly, which clearly means that you have to give more.
When in spring I get back on my familiar roads, I find the frost has bitten into the surface; it's crazed. Over winter the trucks have opened potholes. The repair crews have patched them with black gunk they smooth over with the back of a shovel. Generous guys make a mound,stingy ones leave a hole. In both cases I bounce around and my tires pick up gravel bits. If I don't swipe them off with my glove they bump every 2.198 meters,and I risk a flat. Heat and cold, along with hundreds of cars going over them, are needed for these dark patches to merge into the overall asphalt, leaving a stain that stretches out over the years. On these rough-textured roads, spring rains trace out streaks of red earth, storms scatter broken branches, and autumn dumps wet leaves.
In the ditches nettles and brambles shoot up, calf high. If the road crew is late, green grass sprouts right in the middle of the road, through the broken crust.
When I return, the road in the valley is fine-grained. It's light in color and follows a canal, as smooth as calm water. My breathing is easier, and if I step on it, the road 'pays back' well. By dint of riding little back roads, long distance trips, loops around my village, I've built up saddle memory.
From the packed dirt of the old Dolomite passes to the smooth cement of the autoroutes (I've been able to ride them before their official opening to car traffic), via the beautiful coatings that make you feel as if you're on rubber, and the cobbles, and the roads laid down in slabs that go 'plock plock' at the expansion joints, I could write a catalog of all the sensations I've registered.
The cyclist's derrière is the locus of historic dramas, of furious boils, of sneaky swellings that alter the outcome of races. For me it's the locus of a particular intelligible sensitivity. With my eyes closed I'm sure I could recognize, just by sitting in the saddle, the texture that a road long ago inscribed in me.
© Paul Fournel
University of Nebraska Press
also from Need for the Bike
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