Ride along

by Nicholas Reid / 04 June, 2015
Experience the rivalry, cheating, exhaustion and endurance on and off the 1928 Tour de France course.
David Coventry: a remarkable way with words. Photo/Mandi Lynn

The Tour de France in 1928, with most riders on fixed-wheel cycles that lack modern gearing systems, 5476 bone-shaking kilometres around the map of France, southwest from Paris down through Brest and Bordeaux, over the unsealed and perilous mountain roads of the Pyrenees, along the Mediterranean coast and back north near the edge of the French Alps. There are punctures, crashes, spills, cracked wheels, non-functioning brakes, handlebars and whole cycles twisted out of shape, bruises, abrasions, open wounds, broken bones, fights between cranky and overwrought riders and frequently the peril of death on the open road. There’s exhaustion, nausea, sleeplessness, rivalry between teams and some cheating.

If David Coventry’s vivid debut novel were only about the sport of cycling, it would be one of the most gruelling novels about a sport ever written in New Zealand. But it’s quite a bit more than this. In 1928, the first-ever English-speaking team competed in the Tour de France; they were three Australians and one New Zealander. To this (historical) team, Coventry adds a (fictitious) fifth member, the novel’s first-person narrator, a bloke from Taranaki.

The novel is as much about the narrator’s consciousness as it is about the great sports event. The narrator reflects on “Frenchmen who believed our presence to be an amusement of some cruel kind”. He reflects on money matters and sponsorship and how teams are arranged and the inequity of it all. He reflects wistfully on churches and cathedrals at various stops, and how they offer a kind of security he wishes he could feel. But most of all, he reflects on his own troubled family background.

Note: it’s 10 years after the Great War. The narrator’s elder brother served in the war and was psychologically damaged by it. At the time, the narrator was comfortably in New Zealand. And there’s another family trauma that emerges. Guilt is a huge theme in the narrator’s thoughts. And it gets worse as the race approaches its final stages through France’s north-east, where villages still lie in ruins from the war. The very sight of them clangs on the narrator’s nervous system. We sense a grand metaphor in this novel. Participation in the Tour de France is, for the main character, an act of atonement. It’s about endurance and survival rather than winning, just as the war was.

TheInvisibleMileHow the narrator expresses himself is often poetic, occasionally almost surreal. But then this is in an age before drug testing. Coaches routinely give cyclists cocaine to pick them up before the day’s cycling begins. The hero, via a mysterious woman who floats in and out of the novel, relaxes with opium in the evenings, as well as downing huge quantities of red wine. One could say it’s no wonder he gets poetic as exhaustion wrenches at his brain. But this would be to underrate the deftness of Coventry’s way with words, the pungency of his images, the visceral sense of historical reality.

A truly extraordinary first novel.

THE INVISIBLE MILE, by David Coventry (Victoria University Press, $30).

Nicholas Reid is a writer, poet and historian who blogs about books at Reid’s Reader.

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