The Bookmaker – By Rigo Zimmerman

From the elusive pen of Rigo Zimmerman, Rapha Mondial presents ‘The Bookmaker’, the first in a series of stories printed in the magazine, and now to be released online.

23 March 2019

“You’re not liking the odds, Rigo?”

The Dane Jesper Hansen, one of the only English speakers in the peloton and one of the few non-Belgians I know who is actually be happy to be in the Grote Markt in Harelbeke for the start of the E3 Prijs, is looking at me studying the bookmakers’ chalkboard.

I point at my name written out in considered handwriting, Zimmerman, Rigo -120/1

“I never like the odds, Jesper, but I gamble more than most.”

Jesper’s face tells me he doesn’t really understand, because he actually likes this shit and he doesn’t know how much I need a win – one win, any win. He just grins and I notice how the tufts of bright white hair that stick out from below his cap are at odds with the dark Belgian morning that surrounds us.

We roll across damp paving stones to the start and join the throng of riders stood about like street-corner hustlers: racers ready for the off.

As soon as the gun is fired we move away, with low chatter the only noise, the usual cacophony of nervous laughter and cat-calling entirely missing. There is never any joking in Belgium in spring. Races there are as serious as life and death and betting slips.

As we roll through the neutral I can see how many tucked heads and thick, solid sets of shoulders are between the chief commissaire and myself. He is stood out of the roof of his red Opel at the front of the race, looking back at us with his cigarette in his fat face and his knitted, light blue KNWU hat pulled over his ears. I hate everyone filling the distance between him and me.

The streets are wide through the town but there are cars parked all along the roadside. Spectators stand behind them and between. The sky is dark but the rain hasn’t started to fall. All around the squeal of brakes on metal rims. On my left two riders hop up on to the curb and sprint up the inside of the parked cars. I see closed shops filled with unsold goods; I see open bars with paying customers.

More riders are up on the curb and passing on the outside. I’m on the left of the road with a Lotto rider next to me on my right. He is tall with red hair and his fluorescent yellow sleeves are tucked into black arm-warmers. He wears no gloves. His eyes are fixed right ahead; sweat rolls down the side of his face, his cheeks are bloated.

There is one every race, one rider you get stuck with all day, who you come to hate for no reason at all. This is mine and he’s a fucking steam engine.

Jesper’s face tells me he doesn’t really understand, because he actually likes this shit and he doesn’t know how much I need a win – one win, any win. He just grins and I notice how the tufts of bright white hair that stick out from below his cap are at odds with the dark Belgian morning that surrounds us.

Everywhere riders are finding themselves in the same tight spot. The languages of the bunch bounce off each other: Godverdomme! Puttana Eva! And then the sound of panic.

That’s the shout that goes beyond language, the frightened one, the sound of a fuck-up so imminent that it is a waste of breath. Then comes the noise of crashing. It echoes and shudders in my head. I listen to the sound of steel and bone collapsing into concrete behind me, and the wolves at the door of my mind bare their teeth. I hope, yes I really hope, there are a lot of them down. I don’t care who, as long as it’s not me.

Jesper passes and breaks the tension. “Faaking Belgiums” and he laughs. The Danes are crazy; it’s how they survive.

In Belgium racing isn’t just about cobbles, it is about the open spaces. Once we’ve passed through the streets of the town, the first 100km of the race, before the twisted lanes and the cobbled climbs, there is nothing but open space.

The open spaces are full of menace. You never want to see an open space, because an open space in Belgium is full of wind, blowing this way and that with no mercy at all for the bike rider who strays from shelter one moment too soon.

It’s there sitting on top of the acres of dark brown farmland that go for miles on each side of the road, it is there between each of the leafless trees, it’s between the branches and it waits with a grin around the end of the next hedgerow.

As the bunch thins out and the pressure increases before the upcoming climbs that merciless space gets even bigger. Soon it is taking up half the road, and as we are drawn into single file that space is everywhere but in the tiny bit of shelter from the rider in front. There is no moving through it now. The air all around is as thick as water.

The ground thuds underneath me, like bombs dropped from a B-17: thud, thud, thud. Every 20 metres we all hit the gap between the concrete slabs of those shitty Belgian roads.

In the only shelter I can find, 40 riders back on the far left of the road, I have an inch, sometimes an inch and a half, of tarmac. On my right is nothing but the wind, waiting to take me by the shoulders and stop me in my tracks.

This is racing: pedalling inches from total defeat.

Blijf in het wiel, my concentration always taunts me in the language of the country I’m racing in. Bike riders race in any language, Blijf in het wiel. I can feel the rider behind me thinking the same thing of me, and I think it of the rider in front.

The pace is on and if he lets go, there will be a space that I can’t close. I watch for the telltale sign of a hand coming back to offer a sling when the pace gets too much. It doesn’t come, the shoulders stay crouched: tension and fear hold us all together.

There are no TV cameras yet, but there are riders trying to make good an escape that likely will not get anywhere near the finish. No one will even remember this when the race is all done and dusted, but already battles are being fought and lost. The weak are being exposed and trapped. The stage is being set. The Belgian Insys team is making the pace uncomfortably hard.

I look into the Bollés of a baby-faced Frenchman on the ARM team, “Il y a une échapée?” he begs.

He must be a neo-pro, I think. He has the look of a boy who wants to be a man but doesn’t understand what that is. So I tell him what others told me, “It’s not like all those pretty pictures in the magazines, is it now?”

And I move away. He’ll learn to keep his mouth shut, and one day I’ll probably have to kiss his ass for a job.

Just before we turn into the lanes the scramble starts. The Belgians know every inch of footpath they can jump on to move up, and every white mileage post they have to miss when doing so. They know how hard the grass is on the verges, and if they can be used to move up, and they all know how wide the road will be when we turn.

I feel like I am in a washing machine, I move up and more riders pass through impossible gaps and then I am not where I want to be. I hold my breath, stick an elbow into a rider I never want to see again and dive through the corner. The speed increases and I know what is coming. Thirty riders back is OK, and then we take the right and hit the cobbles.

We twist and turn and climb in slow motion. Cobbled climbs are about control; it’s not you in charge, it’s those fucking stones. They are the whores on the docks and like a drunken sailor you have to give them everything you have. I am in the tiny gutter trying not to look this mistress in the eyes, and to save what I can.

Then I see the ‘king’. Cap worn backwards over his helmet, leg-warmers cut off below the knee, still in his old leather shoes and toe straps. While the current is dragging everyone else under he is floating to the surface. To other big riders a semi-classic like this would be a training day but he has the hunger, even in his old age, and he glides past: fibres of muscle and the hunger of a farmhand, a man of this land, of this place, of these races. He moves away with riders scrambling in his wake.

We crest the climb and gasp for air. Now the pressure is on. A group of six has escaped but by now it is hard to tell what is happening in the race. Conversation flits between riders and the domestiques from the teams that care, Nordeca, Interwetten, take their turns to go back to the cars to find out what the situation is.

A rider from one of the small Belgian teams tries to push me off the wheel in front. A fucking kermesse rider, I hate these guys. They pay their own wages in the hope of getting a start in the big races and doing enough to get into a team that will pay them to ride their bikes - and those are few and far between. They will ride for nothing, the rest of us ride for next to it.

I ask a rider from the American Com-Tech team with a red Avocet computer on his bars how far it is to go. He just shrugs: “Aww, man, this fucking thing hasn’t worked since the first climb.” He has a polystyrene hard-shell helmet on, like he’s expecting a rock fall. I can’t see his eyes behind his sunglasses but I know he’s lying. If you have an advantage, why give it away?

I count heads: it looks like the group is 40 riders, so I assume it is 60. There are always more than you think. The odds have changed, I think: 60 to one. I’m impressed.

And now my teammate Nico Hermans has looked around the group and seen me amongst the other dirtied faces. When he sidles up to me his eyes are wide and I know now that he is up for this one. He has hauled his large Flemish frame over La Houppe, Berg Stene and the Boigneberg and he is getting twitchy.

‘Hey, Rigo. I am good, I am good. Are you good?’ he pants.

‘Yeah, I’m good.’ I lie because I want him to have to think about asking me to work for him, but he won’t. He’s just as selfish as the rest of us, trampling each other underfoot to get our way.

“When the break gets caught, you go up the road, I’ll wait.”

Of course you fucking will. Never go first. Never.

I deflect. “I’ll go back to the car, and see what Pellecini says.”

Our sports director, Roberto Pellecini, will, I know, be next to useless. I raise my arm anyway and drop back to the car. I think of that very morning when he’d asked me the same thing that he’d asked me every day that I’d seen him: ‘Come sono le gambe?’

How are the legs? What a stupid fucking question, I thought. All I’ve done is walk out of my room to breakfast, how do I know how my legs are? They are still there, there is still blood flowing to them…

‘Bene’, I’d told him.

Pellecini is the scruffiest Italian I’ve ever seen, his shirt permanently untucked but always worn unbuttoned with a gold chain on display. He came to the team with the bike sponsor and the handful of Italian riders who had been amalgamated in uncomfortable fashion with the rest of the mix-mash of northern Europeans who had found themselves racing for Maspex–Nordeca. The lowest-ranked Division 1 team, it is the last bastion of the chancers and the desperate.

Pellecini skipped the team meeting the night before because his pregnant Belgian fiancée was waiting for him to go to dinner. He has a wife and daughter at home in Italy, of course. He was just happy he remembered to swap his wedding ring for his engagement ring. His life is a ticking time bomb and like most ex-pros it has been since the day that he retired from racing.

Now here he is with his head out of the window of our white Fiat barking like a dog.

I tell him the news, “Siamo rimasti in due.”

He pauses, as if counting to two is difficult.

“Farò quello che vuoi, voi due.”

‘Do what you want’ isn’t the answer I’m looking for.

He gives me four bottles.

“Ancora cinquanta chilometri.”

Fifty kilometres, the real race hasn’t even yet begun. I can see Jesper up there, bouncing around. I can see all of the Dutch Novatech team, well drilled and well dressed.

On the small lanes cracks are starting to appear. Three Italian riders move up on the other side of the road with total ease, one is the Italian champion Beppe Annunziato, wearing fresh white socks over his shoes, not even appearing to breathe.

The break of six is still dangling out in front with a dwindling lead and we are coming to the climbs that people who watch at home know the names of, where people start to care, and the crowds are so dense at the top you can taste the cigarette smoke, and the drunken yelling from the side of the roads has started to get loud and abusive.

We pass the Eikenberg, the Taaienberg and then I start to think – through eight years of my professional career I’ve won five races, five single days when I’ve won, and yet I’ve woken up each race day thinking the same thought, ‘Maybe today I’ll win.’ And this season more than any other I know that if I can just win once it will all be OK. This year I have to beat those fucking odds…

And now I’m still here, so maybe today. Maybe if I don’t listen to Hermans and I can keep close I have a chance. I’ve been fighting for so long, I just want a fucking chance. And today maybe I do; I haven't even dipped into my left pocket yet where I keep the little folded pieces of foil with the pills for the final push. Just in case, Rigo, just in case.

But in that moment the small bunch slows and the riders behind come up on the riders in front too quickly, others brake, or move too sharply, yelp and then fall, and I go with them.

On the floor I’m surrounded by people shouting and mechanics holding wheels and panting from the run from the car, the red-headed Lotto rider is screaming and holding his collarbone, my right hand is swollen.

I know.

I know with the certainty of a broken man that my betting slip can be torn up, I’m not getting back into that race. There will be no fight through the cars, no mechanic leaning out the window and adjusting my brake, no hand into the left pocket for one last effort. All I see is a chalkboard with odds next to my name – and they just keep getting longer.