The first thing I saw was the wheelchair.
The first thing she saw was the doper.
If you’re thinking that I’m the one who comes off looking like a dick, I couldn’t disagree with you. Not that this occurred to me at the time. I mean, I was regretting plastering on my shit-eating wheelchair-user-greeting grin, but that was only because I knew I’d been recognised. I might have got away with it otherwise.
If I hadn’t caught her eye. If she hadn’t been a cycling fan. If I hadn’t gone onto autopilot and behaved as if I was doing some charity event for disabled kids.
I used to do a lot of that, having been a disabled kid myself once. There are still pictures floating around: seven year old Ben Goddard, with brave gap-toothed grin and gleaming wheelchair, next to Ben now – or, at least, Ben last month.
And the girl in the wheelchair in the café in this run-down seaside town was impressed by none of it. She met my eye, wearing a cold, blank expression that I supposed I’d have to get used to, exchanged a glance with her friend, and then looked down at a magazine on the table. I was pretty sure that it was Cycling Monthly, which was unfortunate if I was right. There was a five-page feature on great British hopes, and I was great British hope number seven.
Well, not any more, I wasn’t. I’d dropped off the list, not just of great British hopes, but of ordinary decent people you’d want to pass the time of day with. My unfortunate little EPO habit had been exposed, and any self-respecting cycling fan would be perfectly entitled to give me the sort of look that I’d got from this girl.
And apparently I wasn’t going to escape the cycling scene, however far I thought I was running away from it. Apparently I was always going to be Ben Goddard, doper, has-been, disgrace.
I thought about leaving. I told myself that it was very bad luck that the first place I’d walked into had contained someone who recognised me. After all, most people don’t. Remove the Lycras, helmet and sunglasses, and a cyclist looks like anyone else. Joe Public could pick Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish out of a line-up, but the rest of us are unrecognisable. I was just a white guy in his twenties, a bit skinnier than average, and I’d be safe in the next place, probably.
But I wanted coffee. And I wanted it now. That was one element of the cycling life that I didn’t know how to give up. And why should I deprive myself of my recommended daily allowance of caffeine just because some opinionated bitch was glowering at me? I bought my coffee, and sat in the murkiest corner of the shop under a picture of a dilapidated Italian hill town in shades of cow-pat, and glowered back. Except I didn’t glower at her; I just glowered at the world in general. She got in the way occasionally, that was all.
I couldn’t hear what the two of them were talking about. I couldn’t even be sure they knew who I was; but when the girl in the wheelchair went off to the toilet, her friend (who’d got up to hold the door open, but otherwise left her to it) came over to me.
‘Excuse me,’ she said, ‘but you’re Ben Goddard, aren’t you?’
This woman seemed like she’d be more likely to approve of my being Ben Goddard, so I admitted to it. ‘I am.’
‘Would you – would you mind signing my magazine?’
This was really not how I’d imagined my new, non-cycling, life starting out, but a friendly face was a friendly face. And hers was friendly, and quite pretty, too, in a freckly, red-haired, snub-nosed kind of way. ‘Sure,’ I said. I scrawled my name on the front cover, right across the Union Jack held aloft by the women’s pursuit team, who would no doubt be horrified to be associated with me like this. With that in mind, I added the date. ‘There,’ I said. ‘It’s a collector’s item now.’
She looked quizzical. ‘First thing you’ve signed since the news broke?’
‘And the last,’ I said firmly. ‘Should I put your name on it?’
‘Why not? Vicki. With a C K I.’
‘And your friend?’
She laughed. ‘Better not. Polly’s got principles.’
Ouch, I thought.
Then Polly herself reappeared, giving me a dirty look in passing, and Vicki got up in a hurry, and didn’t speak to me again. But she winked at me as they left.
I waited for the door to close behind them before sighing with relief and returning to my coffee. It was not amazing coffee, but I supposed that was something else I’d have to get used to. A discerning palate was a luxury that I could no longer afford. I considered the items I’d collected that morning. A copy of the local paper. The cheapest smartphone I’d been able to find. A pen; a notebook with some useful addresses – the Jobcentre, some lettings agents – copied into it. It didn’t seem like much to show for this alleged new life of mine. I could barely feel the weight in my bag as I traipsed back to the dingy bed and breakfast I’d booked myself into yesterday. The icy January sea breeze should have refreshed me a bit, but it didn’t; it blew straight into my face and just felt like yet another thing to make life difficult.
Still, it was warmer than my landlady’s Arctic glare, the one she gave me when I slunk in. I muttered ‘Good morning,’ and then realised it wasn’t morning any more. I’d have to get some lunch, but I couldn’t face going out again, not just yet, so I trudged up the narrow stairs to my room, instead, and lay down on the bed without taking my trainers off. It couldn’t make the covers any nastier than they already were, and anyway, what was the point?
I stared at the cracked plaster of the ceiling and thought about my options. Part of me wanted to pack up and leave. Meeting those two girls had to be a bad omen, that part of me said, and I should get out before worse happened. I’d been in town five minutes. I had nothing to keep me here. No home, no job, no friends. I’d only be throwing away the cost of a train ticket and two nights in this dive; it wasn’t a high price to pay for another jab at the reboot button. I’d been unlucky, that was all it was.
But there was another voice that said: you’re going to have to get used to this, you know. If two people recognised you in this little town, what do you think it’ll be like in a big city? Do you really want to quit so soon into this?
Besides, it added, while I was thinking about the word “quit”, you don’t believe in omens.
Except of course I did. I was as superstitious as any man in the peloton. I used to throw spilt salt over my left shoulder, stroke black cats for luck, turn my race number upside down if I was allocated 13, just like anyone else. Look at how I’d ended up here, for God’s sake. I’d stuck a literal pin in a literal map. (It had landed in the sea, but that was neither here nor there. This was the nearest bit of dry land.)
I was a quitter. Of course I was. If I weren’t, I’d have taken whatever ban they handed out to me and badgered my team into keeping my contract open while I retreated to Majorca to keep up with my training and wait out the two years in penitential fortitude. Instead, I’d flounced (there was no other word for it) into my team principal’s black glass living room and announced that I was quitting the team, that I was quitting professional sport, and that I was quitting cycling altogether.
Henri had raised an eyebrow and carried on eating crisps. I suspect, with the benefit of hindsight and a cool head, that my act had solved more problems for him than it had caused. I’d only got in this mess because I was shit-scared he wouldn’t renew me beyond next year. Now he had an excuse not to. At one stroke I’d turned myself from a liability into a scapegoat.
I’d like to say that at least I felt better for it, but actually I didn’t. The hot mess of shame and anger was still boiling away inside me, and now there was the embarrassed consciousness of having behaved like an idiot. More of an idiot than I already was, I mean. It felt like I’d let him win.
For the thousandth time, I reconsidered my options – the options I’d had at the time, and the options I had now.
I could have dropped Henri in it. Or could I? It’s difficult to work out the share of blame. I know that what I did was one hundred per cent wrong. And I knew that when I was doing it. But does that necessarily mean that everyone else was one hundred per cent right?
I called to mind those little hints that perhaps I should talk to Dr Wolfsen; that ultimatum, that if I didn’t match Caprini’s performance I didn’t have a future in the team… But Henri had never said it in so many words: There’s always EPO, you know. He’d left that kind of thing to Dr Wolfsen. So much for Henri: he could maintain plausible deniability, could claim he’d just been acting out of concern for my health, had no idea I’d take it that way. Dr Wolfsen: I could finger him – except somebody else would probably have done it by now, if it was possible. Mélanie, disposing of the evidence, and knowing what she was doing, and hating it. (Not as much as I did, I thought.) Jorge himself. Caprini… (But perhaps he really was that much better than me…) I had no hard evidence. I’d just be another rumour on top of all the other rumours, and I couldn’t afford to get sued by Henri, the way Leclos had.
OK, nobody could afford to get sued by Henri, but I couldn’t afford much else, either. I wasn’t quite stony broke, but I needed to get a job fast.
And that job wasn’t going to be in cycling. I’d meant what I said to Henri. I was done with cycling forever. I’d left that world and I was going to start a new life doing something completely different. Where nobody knew me. Where nobody knew what I’d done.
Except for Vicki, with a C K I. And Polly, who had principles.
I didn’t really care what job I got, so long as it wasn’t in cycling. Chicken processing factory, sewage treatment plant: why not? And no, it didn’t have to be here. I didn’t have to worry about things like pins in maps any more.
Except… Say I went to Manchester, for example, started all this again. Or Leeds. Or Brighton, or Penzance. It didn’t matter where: sooner or later there’d be a cycling fan. And it might not be on day one. It might be a month into a new job. It might be two years in. I might have met somebody. I might have got married, had kids, even, before somebody said, ‘Excuse me – are you Ben Goddard?’
If that happened, would I up sticks and move on?
No. And even if that never happened, I’d always be waiting for the other shoe to drop. In fact, if I got a job – and I had to get a job – I’d have to drop it myself, or find some other way to explain a six year hole in my CV. I might as well wait for it here.
I sat up, reached for the newspaper and turned to the Situations Vacant.
A Spoke in the Wheel is coming on 6 May 2018
Copyright © 2018 Kathleen Jowitt