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He attacked every hill in a rage of effort, as though at each pedal thrust to stamp on his own frustration and avenge an insult. Take that and that and that! Our settled domestic routine was paying dividends in results, and being licensed to a French club had immense advantages. Our racing programme was organised for us, and our travelling expenses negotiated. Without the club’s provision of transport, the ambulance’s protracted breakdown would have cost us dear in lost opportunities to race. The big bonus though was being able access our prize money. By mid-May our cash was running low. Few ordinary people then possessed chequebook bank accounts and there was no such thing as the credit card. Cash was king. Jock, in particular, felt the financial strain and before the Tour de Champagne had his suitcase packed ready to return home. Without affiliation to the BCR, his £100 prize-money would have passed direct to the NCU and remained out of reach until the season’s end. But now, inside the month, our winnings awaited claim from the Rheims branch of the Federation Française du Cyclisme. We simply presented our licences, signed on the dotted line and emerged clutching our wad of banknotes. The joy of that first big payday! It was more than money. It was tangible evidence of a success that no one could gainsay. That day we walked on air. Annie and Francine, two very attractive demoiselles, worked behind the counter at the FFC where, to the envy of all their friends, they got to meet lots of bronzed, muscular, sexy Frenchmen, racing cyclists all. But we were special, or so we thought. We were English, the only English, and they seemed to enjoy having us chat them up. It was bold-as-brass Jock who suggested inviting them for an evening meal in the ambulance. ‘Have a drink, have a drink, have a drink on me,’ he sang, an out-of-key Lonnie Donegan, as heads together behind a filing cabinet they pondered their decision. The idiot’s going to scare them off, I thought, and was astonished when they emerged to say, ‘Oui, ça va.’
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As the great day approached our anticipation gave way to anxiety. What would these chic French girls make of our rudimentary living quarters – especially the greasy stove and kitchenette littered with bottles and cans? And what had swayed their decision? Was it just curiosity – the chance to go slumming in a menagerie? We went into an absolute frenzy of tidying and cleaning, swabbing the floor, scrubbing the grime-encrusted pans, folding our blankets and stuffing them with all our other meagre possessions out of sight under the bunks. Remember, as ex-squaddies, we were trained in the arts of ‘bull’. But nothing we did could disguise the fact that our ambulance was simply a boys’ hostel on wheels. We strove mightily to impress. A big questionmark surrounded the choice of meal. Our self-appointed master chef Jock volunteered himself to prepare his pièce de résistance of steak and spaghetti, preceded by a hors d’oeuvres of grated carrot in an oil and vinegar dressing, with dessert of fresh fruit salad. Finger-kissing superb! Such unexpected quasi-français cuisine would knock them cold with its calculated sophistication. Furthermore, to demonstrate how deeply we were embedded into French culture, we purchased a bottle of cheap vin de table. We showered, shaved, dressed in our best clothes, Brylcreemed our hair and with increasing nervousness sat on our bunks to await their coming.

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They arrived by car, late, heralded by peals of laughter. Nerves, we assumed charitably, – unless, of course, clapping eyes on the ambulance for the first time, they were in real hysterics. Maybe they were more scared of us than we of them, since they were accompanied by an apologetic driver/chaperone, somebody’s brother or cousin, who hung back, smiling fulsomely, whilst looking repeatedly over his shoulder as though ready to do a runner if we took offence at his uninvited presence. We all shook hands rather awkwardly. Then the giggling recommenced as we gave them a guided tour of the ambulance, bumping bottoms in the confined space. We demonstrated the folding table and bunks doubling as benches, on which they were expected to sit and eat. ‘It’s very basic!’ I apologised. ‘Absolutely!’ said Annie. ‘But full marks for effort. You are, after all, men living alone.’ It sounded like a well-rehearsed comment and, exchanging glances, they suddenly doubled up again into paroxysms of uncontrollable laughter. ‘Oh, you must excuse us, please!’ they spluttered. But the more they excused themselves, the more they laughed over whatever secret it was they shared and had no intention of disclosing. And the more they laughed and tossed their heads and their luscious hair glinted in the soft glow from the storm lantern, the more beautiful they appeared. How could we possibly take offence? In fact, the comedy was so infectious that extrovert Jock unashamedly began to play himself for laughs. The girls observed his preparation of the meal with critical amusement, as he pretended to count each stick of spaghetti like a miser, demanding, ‘Combien en voulez-vous exactement?’ and then, with a pantomime gesture, tossed the steak in the pan as if it were pancake. ‘Attendez!’ exclaimed Francine. ‘J’ai quelque chose.’ She dashed off to the car and returned with a covered dish, which she revealed as the most exquisite quiche decorated with tomatoes and olives. The appearance of competition distracted our chef long enough for his steak to curl up and burn, something we were only alerted to when smoke began drifting into the ambulance. Vic tried to waft it out and tripped over the table-leg. Cutlery and plates slid onto the floor. Nothing was broken, but for a while hysteria reigned and then redoubled as, to demonstrate our high standards of hygiene, I washed the floored items in a bucket of cold, soapy water and wiped them on our one stained tea towel. The steak wasn’t
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the only culinary disaster. In the confusion, Jock forgot the pasta, which overcooked until it resembled a tangled pudding fit only for the pig bin. Perhaps unsurprisingly after all that, their perfumes drowned in cooking odours, the girls picked politely at their plates and ate almost nothing. They drank none of the wine, though Annie swirled hers like a connoisseur, sniffed the glass and held it critically up to the light. (Plonk!). From their handbags they had produced napkins to cover their knees. First the chaperone, now the napkins – was some self-defence mechanism at play, I wondered, predicated by someone’s Maman? What exactly was it they feared: food poisoning, kidnap? For our part, napkin-less exiles from John Bull’s island, we showed them the ravenous bikies’ way, gobbling everything: burnt steak, sloshy tangled spaghetti and especially Francine’s delicious mouth-melting quiche. ‘C’est bon!’ we assured the girls and their embarrassed chaperone. ‘Mais bien sûr!’ they chorused, pushing their full plates aside. Really they were very sweet and couldn’t have thought too badly of us, for afterwards we were invited to see where they lived and we all squeezed into the chaperone’s cramped car, the girls sitting delightfully across our knees, for a bumpy sensuous tour of the suburbs. In the eyes of Vic and me, council estate lads, Annie’s parents’ comfortable bourgeois dwelling, with its nice Louis Quinze reproduction furniture, oil paintings and polished parquet floors, looked enviably sumptuous. Nothing much came of this encounter. We remained good friends with the girls, but our ambitions left small space for romantic involvement. For their part, young and chic, they had wide choice, so why should they be bothered with apparently penniless comedians, whose prospects, to say the least, were questionable? When Pierre and Eliane came to hear of our little soirée, they too roared with laughter. Clearly, in our naivety, we had missed the true depths of this comedy, which had something to do with Englishmen cooking badly in the land of haute cuisine. Nevertheless, we rated this as the best and happiest evening we ever spent in the old ambulance. Not everyone in the BCR was as welcoming as Pierre and Eliane. André had been the club’s one and only real star until we blew into
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town. He was an excellent rider, a later winner of the ‘Tour de Merde’ and the coveted lanterne rouge of the Tour de France as member of a Paris-Nord-Est team; also he was somewhat acquainted with our island, having raced there in the 1954 Tour of Britain as domestique to the victorious Tamburlini. However, he wasn’t exactly joyous in our presence and his aloofness spoke volumes: the publicity and acclaim surrounding our successes had been to his detriment and, sick of sharing top dog spot with a bunch of foreign interlopers, he determined to put us in our place. One day he invited us for a training ride. ‘He will show you the countryside around Rheims,’ Pierre said reassuringly. Taking this to mean a gentle, sightseeing tour, we made no special preparations, arriving at the pre-arranged rendezvous in sweaters and full-length trousers strapped up below the knee. We carried bulky musettes. Our bikes had mudguards. There to greet us was an André stripped for action: shorts, vest, racing cap, spare tubular criss-crossed over shoulders, chain dripping oil. He shook hands without dismounting and then took off like a greyhound from the slips. A modest 16/17 mph of side-by-side cycling with interludes for chatting was our normal training mode. Frequent racing took care of any need for speed-work, and turning recovery rides into races seemed to us a formula for burnout. But now we were in a race and no mistake, with André storming off at the front. His chosen route was through the Montagne de Reims, slope after sun-drenched slope ablaze with verdant ranks of venerable gnarled and twisted champagne vines. Whenever the road ahead rose, so did André, straining every sinew out of the saddle to drop us. Honour demanded we stay with him, whatever the cost in pain. He attacked every hill in a rage of effort, as though at each pedal thrust to stamp on his own frustration and avenge an insult. Take that and that and that! This, he seemed to be saying, is my cycling fiefdom and my master class. Two and a half hours later, every pore exuding, we squealed to a halt before the towering Rheims cathedral, where we were christened honorary champenois in our own holy sweat. In all that time, not a single word had passed between us. We must have covered over 90 kilometres. The landscape had flashed by in a golden blur of lanes and dusty by-ways, and clinging to André’s back wheel, we had paid no attention to signposts. So much for ‘showing us the countryside’.
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Our limbs throbbed from heat and fatigue. André’s strained salt-lined face told of his impressive efforts to show us the way. ‘Alors, ça va?’ he growled, extending his hand. I felt a bit like a public school fag after taking a beating from prefect Smythe-Major – was I supposed to shake it and say thank you, Monsieur André? In fact, that’s exactly what happened. ‘Oui, merci, André!’ I replied. ‘Ça va!’ And we all solemnly shook hands and he pedalled off. We never trained with André again. But thereafter his attitude towards us visibly softened. His indignation must have been requited; he was much less aloof and on occasions even greeted us with a smile.

The quasi-British team at the start of the Tour de l’Ouest, 1958. L to R: Lach, Pusey, Andrews, Hewson, Ricketts, Brown, the masseur, Bartrop, Sutton, Mater.

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