Le Tour de France and Hope

Originally posted July 2016. Chris Froome’s race and win of Le Tour de France this year with his fellow Team Sky riders will always be fixed in my memory even though I wasn’t there. Instead, I watched most of the events unfold late night on TV in Sydney Australia (about 17,000kms away), and the final leg from Dallas (a fraction under 8000kms away). Despite the distance I felt the life and hope and humanity in each day and didn’t want the race to end.

My father was recently diagnosed with a cancerous tumour near his spine. On July 7th 2016 I flew from Dallas, Texas to Sydney, Australia. Upon landing in my long time hometown I heard news from my current home about the Dallas shootings. My phone was filled with messages wishing that I was safe, yet my thoughts were with those who couldn’t say that they were.

On the first night in Sydney my Le Tour watching routine began, the coverage starting at around 10pm (or 7am Texas time according to my body clock). What a first night to watch as Froome pulled out a surprising downhill win!

The next day I travelled to the small town my father lives in, about two hours South of Sydney. What do you say to someone that has cancer but still looks ok (or as good as he ever did since his previous battle with cancer)? How do you respond? The answer, it turns out, was to go for a drive, my father driving. When the conscious mind is otherwise occupied it is possible to discuss what can’t be discussed. So he talked. After a few hours together my Dad tired and I retired back to a rented room just across the road from him. How do you approach what may be the last time you see a parent? Try to do a morning-to-night every day, or go for quality over quantity? Perhaps like Le Tour this was not a sprint, but about turning up day after day, and I had turned up.

Soon it was 10pm and I flicked on the local coverage of the event, which runs until around 1:30am. You may not know but cycling is a big deal in Australia with several top class cyclists, and also a competitive Aussie-led race team. Sydney is where I bought my first proper road bike. My old flatmate used to cycle in competitions. The last time I’d stayed up to watch Le Tour this late at night must have been about 10 years ago with him in our rented place in Sydney.

Different times alright, already evoking sentimentality.

Those were times before the financial crisis, when the world somehow seemed less harsh, times before my Dad had cancer again. Sydney is where I walked away from what should have been a life and death cycling accident, dazed and bloodied, but alive. Apart from my beautiful wife and child, what have I done with my second chance since then?

Dad wants more time to rest so we agree to meet in the afternoon, and head out on a drive to the picturesque town of Gerringong. In my bag I have a video camera and I point him down a small road leading to the coast and the choppy sea in the hope of finding a quiet spot to get some footage of him. He went along with the idea of filming so that I could show his grandson and soon-to-arrive granddaughter when they grow up. Now we were actually doing it. We finally come to quiet spot looking down rolling hills to the water, the golden winter sun setting behind. As the car came to a stop I realise that we are parked at a graveyard! Dad realises too after a few seconds and we can’t do anything but laugh. We find a spot on the other side of a park to do some filming. You would think it should be awkward but he just starts talking about his life. The wind picks up and I move closer to avoid some of the strong gusts being picked up in the microphone. The video shot is closely cropped tight to his face, with fluffy clouds in the background stark white against a golden blue early evening sky.

My neck aches as I wake hours later on the small couch in my room, the TV buzzing in the background. Michael Matthews from Australia wins the stage of Le Tour. It is after 1am in the morning on the East Coast of Australia. At best I’m half awake, maybe less. In this halfway house of consciousness I think about my project to write a book about what is important in life, by telling a story about who I am. Who am I? This question would be at best be brushed off as vanity during the day, but at night it hangs there in a not-very-rhetorical kind of way. Mark Cavendish, winning multiple early stages of the race is from the Isle of Man where I spent the first 12 years of life. Matthews and Richie Porte come from the place where I spent the next 22 years, Australia. Froome is riding for the UK where I lived for 6 years before moving to Dallas, and rode the most miles of my life so far in and around London. Memories from these periods in life compete for my identity like riders in a race. Sitting in the dead-quiet of a country town in Australia I feel like the last 10 years since I left didn’t exist, maybe longer. Time is collapsing in on itself, as if the moment I left Australia was only yesterday.

My Dad has never been a cyclist but I update him on Le Tour the next morning nevertheless. It gives us something to talk about and I fill him in on the trials and tribulations of my early morning laps cycling at the lake in Dallas. We drive to the beautiful little town of Berry. It is my turn to talk from the subconscious as I’m transported back to the dry dusty air of White Rock Lake in Dallas. Early morning anti-clockwise circuits there are my meditation, and I ask him with compassion about whether he thinks he’s had a good life. He does. It seems that we’ve run out of smalltalk and now we are just talking without the filters and barriers people regularly place between one another in life. His prognosis is not good, we both know, yet he retains hope. Hope is often all we have to hold on to. Hope is enough.

Drowsy, I wake to see Peter Sagan and Chris Froome sprinting towards the line. Fast-forward, and I wake and see Chris Froome running up Mount Ventoux without his bike, just adding to the surreal nature of the time. The days start to blend together as Dad and I go for morning and afternoon drives and talk, properly, for the first time as adults. At night I escape to Le Tour and to an indefinite time and space. Perhaps if I keep this routine up forever then Dad will live. The next day the news from Nice comes in, and the world in 2016 comes back with a crash.

The trip is coming to an end, as I must return to Dallas to care for my wife who will soon deliver our daughter. It seems trite to talk about the beauty of death and life but that is exactly what this couplet of Dad and Daughter-to-be is. My Dad’s spirits are lifted by my visit and his soul is glowing through the thin skin which wraps his frail body. A new life is imminent on the other side of the world. A little girl who he has never met and maybe never will, yet who has part of his genetics and life force, through me to her. The events of Nice are not the beautiful cycle of life and death but an aberration, not of the heavenly world, but in the realm of man’s personal responsibility and decision making.

The train back to Sydney is not running from the local station and so I am dropped at the bus stop for the journey to the next major town in order to pick up the train. Dad and I hug briefly and there is not much more to say. He is not one for sentimental goodbyes. It seems unusual that we’ve actually had this time together. Having the opportunity to say what we needed to seems like it will always be more remarkable somehow than when the time finally comes that I don’t see him again. That could be months or years away. He doesn’t know. None of us know how long we’ve got.

In Dallas, Blue bows are tied around trees in support of the officers and others that were shot. Dallas police officers are now the targets for love and support, an outpouring of the grief of Dallas and the grief of the world.

Le Tour is in the morning Dallas time, yet I keep watching at night, maintaining my vigil after my son, and then my wife have gone to bed. The race is still going and Dad is still alive, his “chemo” and “radio” beginning in earnest. In the last days of the race it is raining and the unthinkable happens, Froome crashes. He recovers and continues on a teammate’s bike, his leader’s yellow jersey torn and bloody.

The following afternoon I talk to Dad, and he’s in good spirits but more ethereal again than physical, almost 14,000 kilometres away.

The race finally finishes in Paris and Froome and Team Sky win, teammates going across the line arm-in-arm.

Even in 2016 this shines as a moment of hope. I didn’t want the race to end since I didn’t want hope to end.

Afterwards some people on social media talked about the race being “predictable”, yet I can take predictability, I reckon, if that means people doing superhuman things day after day that let us see positive examples of humanity clearly for ourselves and in ourselves.

Getting up and fighting the battle day after day is not only a perfect metaphor for life, it is life. We can bring hope to others, or fail to through our inaction. We are not helplessly at the mercy of the world, since we have the responsibility to create the world that each of us live in every day.

Hope is not passive. It takes courage to face the world. It takes courage to change the world for the better, starting with yourself.

It seems pointless to spend all of our time arguing about what we don’t believe in rather than standing for what we do.

* * *

Update 7th July 2017. It is Tour de France time again. My Dad lost his second battle with cancer in January of this year. He was cremated and we scattered his ashes in the sea not far from the graveyard and the place I’d filmed with him. The end to this chapter seemed quite poetic. A man of the sea (he had been in the merchant navy, a co-owner of a trawler, and an avid fisherman in his life) was finally back home. I imagined his spirit flying in Port Erin in the Isle of Man. A place thousands of miles away, but connected by the mighty oceans. The place where he came from, and now returns to.

(When I wrote this article I was listening to Matthew West’s Do Something https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_RjndG0IX8 which was being played on Dallas radio quite a bit. Not normally the sort of life-affirming stuff I listen to but I like the sentiment…and the call to do something in society, politics, the world of business…to be a leader).

Brett Cowell

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Artist, Coach, Entrepreneur. Author of The Good Life Book totallifecomplete.com brettcowell.com actlz.com @brettcowelltw

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