La Volupte: I Was Flying Today

La Volupte: I Was Flying Today

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About a year and a half ago, as I was just starting to get really serious about cycling again after dabbling for about a decade, Michelle bought me every past issue of Rouleur and got me a two-year subscription.  This is not a bike magazine.  This is a quarterly publication for cyclists.  It is printed on thick, heavy paper, and each issue is rife with pieces written by pros talking about a particular race, or mechanics putting in a 10 or 15 page piece on why they love tubs, how they select them or age them for a race, and how to glue one onto a rim properly.  This isn’t fluffy stuff about Astana’s soap opera politics or What’s Hot and What’s Not; these are pieces you read over and over again: a long account by Robert Millar about the stage to L’Alpe d’Huez when he took the Polkadot Jersey in the 1984 Tour.  Chris Boardman’s discussion on his Athlete’s Hour Record attempt, focusing on his collaboration with Royce and the effort that went into building the wheels for his ride.

Each issue starts with a two-page spread of an epic scene from road racing folklore on the left page, and on the right a well-chosen quote referring to the scene.  The first issue I opened had a photo Eddy Merckx, complete with grimace on his face, accompanied by the quote, “On some days I would sit on my bike, weeping from the pain.”  The next was of Bernard Hinault, growling at an empty road, paired with, “As long as I breathe, I attack.”  Seattle is filled with short, steep climbs similar to the Ardenne with gradients of up to 25% and up to 4km in length; one of the hardest things for me as I clawed my way back into cycling form was the pain of hauling my fat ass over our route and its 1.5km vertical.  These spreads reminded me to shut up and ride.  In cycling, suffering is glory.

If the life of a cyclist is about suffering, why do we do it?  Well, the fact is that on rare occasion, you don’t suffer.  I’m not talking about those days when you top up on amphetamines or EPO; I’m talking about those days when you find the rhythm and when you find that place in your head where pain doesn’t tread.  Many have sensed it, some have claimed to have felt it but haven’t, and fewer still have actually found it.  The French call this La Volupte.

I recently read Jean Bobet’s book, Tomorrow, We Ride.  This isn’t a biography of his older brother, Louison, but instead is a book about his life as a cyclist.  Obviously, that life is deeply intertwined with Louison’s career, but none-the-less, this book is about a passion for cycling that goes beyond careers and racing results.  In some places it is historical, in others touching, and yet in others is downright funny.  But mostly, it’s about a love for a cycling life. Jean recounts two cases where he found La Volupte.  The first was a training ride with Louison around Lake Como before the Giro di Lombardia.  You can almost smell the thick, misty air by the lake as he describes their ride and the perfection of that moment on the bike.  The second was on a lone training ride on the Cote d’Azur where he floated up one of the climbs on his route in perfect harmony with his machine and the gradient.  La Volupte is fleeting, and the spell is usually broken by some external interference, as was the case for both of Jean’s accounts.  On Lake Como, it was broken by the horn of a passing vehicle – on the Azur, by taking a sip of water from his bidon at the top of the climb.  In an instant, La Volupte is gone and what remains with us is an unquenchable thirst to find it again.

La Volupte translates roughly to “voluptuousness”, and while the first thing the mind goes to is a sexual definition, my favorite is, “the property of being lush and abundant and a pleasure to the senses”.   In a sport where pain is worn like a badge of honor, those times when cycling is lush and abundant and a pleasure to the senses are what makes us want to climb onto our bikes again tomorrow.  When Bobet returned home from his ride on the Azur, his brother asked him how it went.  His answer was simply, “I was flying today.”

// Book Review // Folklore // Nostalgia

  1. Nice words Frank, you’ve captured the capturing of the essence of suffering by those who have suffered in ways we mere mortals will never get close to.

  2. @brett
    Thanks, man. If you get the chance, check out the book and the publication – it is worth every penny. Changed my life as a cyclist.

  3. I’ll have to check out the book too. I just picked up A Dog in A Hat which in some ways sounds similar. So far it’s been a fun read. Great post btw man.

  4. @Marko
    Thanks, dude. I have had my eye on that book as well, you’ll have to let me know how it is. I also really enjoyed Breaking the Chain, although that is less about the cycling life than the doping life. Seems those two get confused a lot these days.

  5. The “I was flying today” line reminds me of what Roald Amundson said upon being the first person to reach the north pole. It was in deep contrast to what Scott said in trying to reach it. Scott said something to the affect of “this place is a frozen wasteland uninhabitable for humans”. Amundson, upon arrival, simply said “Today was a good day for skiing.”

  6. @Marko
    That is awesome. I had never read that, but you can really get how different their mindset was. Morale is so important, that’s also something I admire a lot about Shackleton; how did he keep those guys from just giving up and dying?

  7. I have some info on how Shackleton kept his group alive. There’s good news and bad news from a Velominatus’ perspective. I hope it won’t upset you. See below from The Independent (British newspaper that nobody reads):

    It has had 100 years to mature, and has been on ice all that time, but no one has actually tasted it. So it remains to be seen whether the Scotch abandoned in Antarctica by Ernest Shackleton is “a gift from the heavens”, as one whisky lover declared yesterday.

    Three crates of the stuff, along with two cases of brandy, have been excavated from beneath the explorer’s hut at Cape Royds, which his team quit in haste in 1909. The spirits, entombed in ice ever since, have been dug up by a New Zealand heritage group restoring the hut.

    The MacKinlay’s whisky, made by an Edinburgh distillery now owned by Whyte & Mackay, is a defunct blend, and the company is salivating at the prospect of recreating it.

    Shackleton’s expedition failed to reach the South Pole in 1909, running short of supplies after a four-month trek from the northern Antarctic coast. After turning back just 100 miles from their destination, his team sailed from Cape Royds in a hurry, with winter ice already forming in the sea, and left behind some equipment and supplies – including the spirits.

    Two crates were spotted under the hut’s floorboards in 2006, but were too deeply embedded to be salvaged. They were finally dislodged after the New Zealanders drilled into the ice, finding an unexpected bonus: an extra crate of MacKinlay’s and the two cases of brandy. Whyte & Mackay’s master blender, Richard Paterson, said: “If the contents can be confirmed, safely extracted and analysed, the original brand may be able to be replicated. Given the original recipe no longer exists, this may open a door into history.”

    Some of the crates have cracked, and ice has formed inside them, which is expected to complicate the job of retrieving the contents. But Al Fastier, team leader of the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust, which is carrying out the restoration work, said he was confident that the alcohol was intact, “given liquid can be heard when the crates are moved”.

    However, the aroma of whisky emanating from the ice which preserved the spirits for more than a century suggests that some bottles may have broken.

    Two years after Shackleton’s expedition, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first man to set foot at the South Pole. Shackleton, meanwhile, made an ill-fated attempt to cross the Antarctic continent from sea to sea. After his ship Endurance was crushed by ice, he mounted a rescue of his crew, bringing them home without loss of life.

    Mr Fastier said the Heritage Trust would decide in the coming weeks how best to tackle the “delicate conservation task”.

    Obviously it’s encouraging to see Shackleton had the right stuff in the bidon (beer of course would have frozen), but what the f***??? was he doing on “Royds”???

  8. @George
    Contrast

    “Great God!, this is an awful place.” -Scott on the South Pole.

    “Today it was a great day for skiing.” -Roald Amundsen on reaching the South Pole for the first time in history.

  9. The bigger question is why did he leave it behind?

  10. running short of supplies after a four-month trek from the northern Antarctic coast

    Aren’t ALL the coasts of Antarctica “northern”? and I would definitely like to get me a taste of that Scotch.

  11. @frank

    Wow, great post. I am slowly finding my way around these halls and each turn shows me something new and worthwhile. Guess I now know what to ask the wife to get me for Christmas!

  12. Came tantalizingly close today! That, in itself, was quite a feeling””and why I ride…

  13. I bought ‘Tomorrow, We ride’ a week ago. 6 days ago, I finished it, having been unable to it put down.

    Bobet’s sparse, elegant style and truthfulness for me mirrors his hard work and pure dedication to his more talented brother, and in broader terms the simple but hard life of a professional cyclist in the ’50s.

    The brief chapter on ‘La Volupte’ is only a few paragraphs long, but in this short space Bobet explained why I love cycling better than I’ve ever been able to!

    One day, I’ll have a bike on with an inscription the top tube, “Demain, On roule…”

  14. @Tom
    A+1. It’s one of those haunting little books which takes only a brief moment to read but burrows deep into you and stays around much longer. I often think of it – more particularly the “I was flying today” quote – when I am out on one of those solo rides when there is just me, the rhythm, the road and a stoopid big grin on my face.

  15. Beautiful book. Le Volupte captures those moments on a ride that stay with you hours, days, months later. Sometimes we hold back, but this chapter gives us permission let go and let the magic unfold.

  16. @chiam

    Beautiful book. Le Volupte captures those moments on a ride that stay with you hours, days, months later. Sometimes we hold back, but this chapter gives us permission let go and let the magic unfold.

    Very well put – agreed completely!

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  18. La Volupte is a too rare Nirvana. There are moments of rides from 20 years ago that I still remember not because I was experiencing La Volupte but because I was suffering and wanted to crawl into a hole and die. Every turn of each pedal was a battle of will.

    I didn’t know much about bike riding then but had a passion born of watching Le Tour De France in the 80s and early 90s.

    Some of the best cycling memories come from moments of pain, some from being hopelessly lost in a foreign country (in this case France, where any stranger on a bike is made welcome), and some from the moments of human kindness when lost.

    The bicycle is the greatest machine invented. Its simplicity familiar to all and the experience it gives available to most.

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