lojze klemenčič and the holy place
A novella in seven parts.
A brief note on cycling terminology for the unfamiliar:
Race terminology: a stage is one day in a multiple-day “stage” race such as the Tour de France. A three week stage race (e.g. the Tour, the Giro d’Italia or the Vuelta a España) is called a grand tour. The winner of an individual stage is a stage winner. The general classification, or GC, is the grand prize for the overall best time across the entire race, competed for by “GC riders.” Notable one-day races are referred to as classics and riders that specialize in these are called classics riders. A time trial is a race against the clock where riders compete either as individuals or as a team for the fastest time. A breakaway is a group of riders that escapes to the front of a race, separating themselves from the peloton in an attempt to win from afar. The peloton is the main group of riders.
Personnel terminology: A domestique is a rider whose job is helping the team’s leader. A sprinter is a rider specializing in a fast, bunch finish usually on a flat stage. He is helped in the final throes of the sprint by his lead-out man. A soigneur is a team staff member essentially tasked with taking care of the riders, doing massages, standing on the side of the road with food, etc. A sports director is a team’s head coach on a given race.
In Slovenian names, š is pronounced like sh, č like ch, j like yuh, and c like ts. Lojze Klemenčič is pronounced LOY-zuh Kle-MEN-chich.
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental. All images are from diskmaster.org.
It is amazing, thought Lojze Klemenčič, how many different things could be successfully flushed down a toilet.
Each time he tried his luck (pleadingly, frantically), the power of modern plumbing astounded him. He soon estimated that the toilet in Room 202 of the Campanile outside of Pau could handle approximately five crushed up syringes, a golf-ball sized wad of aluminum foil, or half a bottle of pills per flush. To purge the contents of the miniature pharmacy in his soigneur bag would take around ten minutes. Considering five had passed since he’d gotten the phone call, this was pushing it. A better man would have given up the fight, accepted his fate, his wrongdoing in the world. But Lojze Klemenčič was not a better man.
When he started to flush the pills down, he felt a tinge of regret. Sorry fish, he thought. Fish on testosterone. Roided out. There goes my Tour de France. Swimming with the fishes. Five minutes of watching pills disappear down the hole, an admittedly mesmerizing sight. In a different set of circumstances — perhaps entering a rehab center after having a kind of religious awakening — it would be peaceful to see the capsules and tablets converge into a whirlpool until there were none left. Unfortunately this was a police raid. (Allegedly.) When he dumped the last bottle down, he wished he had a piss in him to finish it off, to seal the deal. He could be vulgar like that sometimes.
Then it occurred to him: The bottles. You can’t just leave a bunch of suspiciously empty bottles floating around. Maybe, he thought, I could randomly distribute aspirin in some of the bottles, make it look natural. Just some bottles of aspirin, no big deal. But that’s also suspicious — who keeps a bunch of half empty, unbranded aspirin bottles? There was probably still pill residue on the inside that the anti-doping labs could sample via some magic machine. Like on those American cop shows. Forensic Files. He glared at the toilet, wishing it could save him again, but alas.
Lojze left the bathroom. He looked around, opened closets and drawers. It became very clear that this small hotel room provided nowhere discreet enough to hide his paraphernalia. Ideas came and went, hopes were dashed as soon as they appeared: Wait, maybe he could put the bottles in the hotel safe. But surely the cops — who could be banging on his door any second, any second now — would make him open it. What’s in the safe, you commie putain? Et cetera.
He needed an epiphany. A few minutes later, though they felt like hours, he found one. In a zipper pocket of his swannie bag, a roll of duct tape. Floating around the bottom of his backpack, a Swiss Army knife. (Before this ignoble act, the knife had previously seen most of its action cutting tags off of clothing and the foil topping off of bottles of wine.) He took both items out. His plan was rather crude and if the cops discovered it they’d nab him for hiding evidence or tampering with justice or whatever they called it. Still, he committed out of fear.
He tore the sheets off the bed. In the bottom of the mattress, he sawed a small slit — this was difficult as the knife was dull — and in the slit he stuffed the pill bottles. He taped up the gash and remade the bed, rolling about to make sure nothing was noticeable. Then he climbed back beneath the covers, shut off the light, and waited.
Thirty minutes, an hour passed. Then two. Then three. What the fuck, he thought, cortisol still bubbling in his veins. It soon became clear that the police weren’t coming after all. (But on the other hand, they could be here at any moment.)
Lojze extended the antenna of his cell phone and speed dialed his sports director. The call went to voicemail. He turned the light back on and put the hotel key in the pocket of his gym shorts before slipping into the hallway where he knocked on an adjacent door. Footsteps. Hesitation.
“It’s me,” he said in thickly-accented English. The door opened, revealing two scrawny American men in boxer shorts. One shouted:
“Hey, man, do you know what the fuck is going on?”
The other urged both companions to be quiet. “And Klem, shut the fucking door.”
Lojze did as instructed. The trio stood in the room and stared at each other. Like most panicked people, no one was exactly sure what they were doing or why they were there. This was subsequently expressed.
“What the hell is even happening right now?”
The man speaking, Joey Robertson, was, like Lojze, a climbing domestique — more senior but half as good. Next to him stood Steph Ridell, the lead-out man for their team’s sprinter, Federico Marcato, who crashed out three days ago leaving Lojze without a roommate. No one seemed to have received any further instructions. Scrambling for something to say, Lojze asked Steph how they’d gotten rid of their evidence.
“We flushed everything,” answered Steph. “Cut up the bottles and flushed them too.”
The trio spoke in hushed tones as though someone could hear them. Within minutes they’d pooled their collected hearsay into a workable theory: The Italian team Marzotto was raided by the French police around 10 in the evening. Their DS called a bunch of other DSes but not ours. Claeys-Barco was raided after that. Their DS called ours. A third team, yet unknown but possibly Dutch, may or may not have also gotten popped. The remaining outfits had every right to fear being next. (Dawn had not yet broken. It could still happen.)
Lojze’s phone rang. It was David Brand, their sports director calling him back. He answered it and put it on speaker. Then the whole conversation repeated itself: what do you know, what did you do with the stuff, and so on.
“I don’t think they’re coming,” Robertson ventured after a baseline had been established. “It’s, like, four in the morning.”
Brand agreed, verbally angry. He told them to go to bed and then hung up. The men looked at each other again.
“Our Tour is so fucking over,” Ridell muttered. This was both admission and prediction, mixed with frustration and a hint of relief. An excuse for anything else that went wrong. Robertson rubbed his eyes from drowsiness and sullenly agreed. Lojze, meanwhile, knew the outcome of this evening could have been much worse. And besides, the rest of the peloton would be in the same dire, sleepless situation. Silence hung in the room. The three men’s conversation had clearly ended. Lojze stepped into the hallway.
“Fuck the Tour,” he said, and left.
Lojze liked America and he liked Americans. As soon as he was shipped off from Italy to California, he let his blond hair grow out into long, surfer-like curls and traded his dour brandless training gear for baggy jeans and big billowing Nike sweatshirts that concealed his smallness. Friends of teammates grew curious about him. He seemed foreign and exotic, handsome in an effete and — owing to his big sunken eyes and a tooth-gap — offbeat way. The way certain models are beautiful and ugly at the same time. Lojze liked how in America, nothing was ever too serious and even those in abject poverty still had a shot at the NBA.
As a matter of assimilation into the self-centered world of the Marin County suburbs where Lojze and his teammates kept an apartment, Lojze quickly and casually disposed of his prior existence. This was easy business in a country where everyone’s lives could be squeezed into the same five stories. Lojze Klemenčič was born poor in the obscure, nebulous country of Yugoslavia-slash-Slovenia and later found success and prosperity in America. He was raised in a broken home, but thanks to hard work and dedication, now enjoyed life as a professional athlete. He left (“fled”) a collapsing communism and then thrived in the land of plenty. Indeed, it required little effort to become a caricature of himself, to wear the costume of the person everyone wanted him to be — the kind of person who confirms the stolid, majoritarian views of his new countrymen. In reality, a pawn of strangers. There were a lot of those in the 90s.
Perhaps, Lojze often thought after interviews, all lives are as simple as stories. My mother worked in the poultry factory in Ptuj, he would say. She was a single mother. She suffered from alcoholism. My older brother took care of me. I started cycling to get away from everything. All of these things were true of course, but he’d taken the diorama of his experiences and flattened it into a greeting card. No one here knew nor cared where Ptuj was. Or even Slovenia. Yugoslavia? A delicately-mentioned 60 Minutes topic. Yes, these details of his existence were always too bothersome to explain. It helped that Lojze had a certain shyness about him. He could dissolve any conversation by way of an embarrassed smile. Enough of this deflection gave him the reputation of a silken, elusive person; no one was really sure who he was or what he believed. But it mattered little. Lojze served his purpose. He was a tough, no-nonsense athlete who would do anything and everything to succeed. And afterwards, he was a fun drunk.
Compared to such grand stories, Lojze’s truth was different and much smaller. Ptuj used to smell like the poultry factory before the government put filters on all the smokestacks. The city sat, ancient and still, on the fat green swells of the Drava river. In summer, clouds took on a pendulous quality, appearing too heavy for the sky. A similarly hefty castle, later turned into the showpiece of a minor Austrian nobleman, later still liberated under Tito, watched everything — which is to say, not much at all — transpire from atop a hill. As schoolchildren, Lojze and his peers dressed up in medieval garb with wooden shields and danced in plays. His mother never hit him. It wasn’t that kind of household.
The family rarely bought new clothes except for church. The house, small and inherited, grew dirty because his mother spent most of her time in a stumbling way. Her job at the plant involved separating chickens from their feet. A neighbor drove the boys to school. On Sundays she starched their shirts and begged for forgiveness — theirs and hers — while her children sat there cowlicked and sticky, twiddling their thumbs. The priest put communion on their tongues with fat, metallic tasting fingers. Lojze suspected his brother Saša came from a different father. His own left before the time in a child’s life when attachment is formed. It was a blessing his mother never brought other men around. Some of her battles were just lost.
Lojze didn’t focus well in school. He learned his Slovene and later his English. Passed everything barely. Read his Bible as instructed by his mother but only seemed to believe in the God that was punishing him and not the one that supposedly regarded him with compassion. Ashamed of the paucity of their life, neither of the boys had any friends. Saša, robbed of a childhood, became bitter and withdrawn by adolescence. Lojze on the other hand was useless and not very good at anything. The choice emerges: sports or delinquency, for kids like that. His mother put him in cycling because the team was sponsored by the factory and promised free equipment. She didn’t think much of it at the time.
Before cycling, Lojze would lay in bed and try and forget everything that happened during the day, an attempt to cleanse himself of memory and reach a state of complete blankness. He desired oblivion, believing he would have an easier time of life if he woke up not remembering much and spent his days thinking and feeling nothing. Cycling, the totality of its bodily exhaustion, gave him the closest approximation to this sensation which he then pursued utterly.
Unlike his peers in the sport, Lojze was not afraid. Of crashing, of climbing, of descending, of sprinting, of losing. And not of suffering. The second he clipped into his pedals, he shed all externalities and aspired to pure physicality. He became personless. The social structure of the peloton offered him his only opportunity for both equal footing with those better off than him and vengeance against them for their crimes of existence. He developed a knack for reading the pain in the faces of his fellow riders who could not hide their struggles like he did. His first coach, Matej Kos, did his best to sharpen this into racing instinct. Lojze outgrew him quickly.
When he won races, and sometimes they were intense battles, real victories against the bigger clubs from Ljubljana or Kranj or Novo mesto, he’d feel a burst of rueful glee, about a minute’s worth. But after climbing off the bike, winning a race quickly became just another thing he’d done. That sweet, familiar emotional emptiness resumed in him, a vacuum that swallowed everything, even joy. Still, Lojze won more and more, pushed himself further and further to the brink as though chasing something undefined and ever distant. This pleased him. All the pride in him lived in his body.
One day, a man came to his mother’s house inquiring about him. The man was short and wiry, his leathery skin indicative of a life spent outdoors. He went by the name of Jan Kotnik. Ten years ago, he was the best cyclist in all of Yugoslavia before he left that fumbling country for a mediocre career in Italy. Post-retirement, he ran an Italian development team in Friuli, just across the Slovenian border. He’d seen Lojze ride about a dozen races in Slovenia and made the family an offer. For Lojze, a potential career and a visa. For his mother, the promise that Lojze would learn Italian and finish school. Neither needed much convincing. Thus, in 1991, the year of Slovene independence, Lojze Klemenčič was gifted severance with the world that made him as it severed itself from the world that made it. He wisely ceased all communication with his family.
A month after the meeting, on a hot July afternoon, he crossed the bridge over the Drava in the passenger seat of Jan’s car. He would not return to Ptuj for twenty years.
The team was a well-oiled, insurance company-bankrolled outfit called Assicurazioni Generali-Friuli, known to all as AGF. They rode Bianchi bikes and kept their clubhouse in a squat, garage-like building off a farm road perpendicular to the Torre river near the town of Pradamo. It was a good location, not too far from the Alpine climbs, full of rural training roads where the boys didn’t have to worry about traffic. Most of the other riders were local to the region. Those who weren’t usually came from enough money to live with each other in inexpensive apartments. But Lojze, who possessed nothing, lived with Jan and his family in their spare bedroom, a situation in which he often felt like a stray dog adopted by very nice people. Jan’s five year old son Niko, trailed Lojze like a trilingual shadow, babbling half-understandable stories at him, waving around a cork gun. Lojze taught him how to play cards. He found pride in watching Niko’s big, intelligent eyes follow the motions of Lojze’s clever deck shuffling. Later in life, when Lojze felt especially restless, he’d recall falling asleep on Jan’s red sofa, his eyes drifting from old Italian movies with the volume turned down low to the terra cotta floor, the tiles blurring together in that split moment right before unconsciousness.
After he finished school, things got easier in that cycling became his entire life and made all his decisions for him. Jan was warm and generous at home, but when it came to coaching he took a far more firm approach. Not cruel but stern. He maintained high expectations. Lojze trained both with the other boys and alone with Jan. Increasingly those solo sessions took place on the time trial bike, Jan driving in the car behind, shouting instructions over a megaphone. Flatten that back, Lojze, flatter, really lean into it. And slow your cadence. Don’t go burning too quick. In rain, in cold, in the summer sun, they worked like this. And when they finished, they engaged in intense discussions of this work. Back in those days, everything was done by feel, by sensation. A racer didn’t wait for instructions over a radio. He trained his instincts just as he did his legs, his lungs, his heart. With every race, Lojze learned and remembered something, becoming, over the years, an encyclopedia of precedent.
The first race he won with AGF was a time trial in Morgano on a day with weather so muggy the skinsuit he wore became more skin than suit. A dinky little colonnade in the town square featured curious people peeking out of their windows, flower boxes in full bloom. Farmers pitched canopies and sold asparagus grown nearby. A chapel at one end of the colonnade leaned slightly to the right, careworn and hollow-looking. Such sleepiness in contrast to the clamor of a cycle race made the whole scene rather comedic. On the scaffolded grandstand, a man’s voice escalated in volume and cadence as though reaching the climax of an aria upon sight of each rider zooming toward the finish line, and soon after he crossed it, the whole recitative would begin again. The young man deemed fastest was assigned to the hot seat, an anxious position from which he was frequently displaced. Sticky with heat and near last on the start list, Lojze observed this cycle until the time came for Jan to drive him to the start in a town fifteen kilometers away, where a smaller crowd formed.
About the race itself, there wasn’t much to remember. Beneath a yellow awning, a man held Lojze’s bike as he clipped into the pedals, contorting his body into a familiar aerodynamic teardrop. Another man held a stopwatch. Three seconds passed. Then the stopwatch man gave the fatal cue. Lojze rolled off the ramp, rounded a corner, shifted his hands from the bullhorns to the skis and once they were there, he immersed himself in a closed state, focusing only on the road in front of him and the timekeeping apparatuses of his body: his cadence, his breathing, his pulse. He disappeared from the world, though those around him could still see him. Something clicked that day. For some reason, he felt no anxiety, as though having consciously decided that he did not and would not fear the clock. This was welcome and rational. The clock remained steady and objective — he was the one who moved against it, in opposition, and he was what he could control.
Jan drove the car behind him with the spare bike, shouting things lost in the passage of air. Halfway through the course, Lojze caught the rider in front of him, and did so again three kilometers later. His legs and lungs began to burn, but he ignored them. He listened to the machine patterns of his rhythm in counterpoint to the slowness of pain. His concentration was so intense that the race transpired in an alternate, shorter period of time. It began off the ramp, passed in a vacuum of streets and breathing, and ended in that crowded little town, his name being called out at a fever pitch by the man on the scaffolding. Ten minutes later, news came that there would be no one faster. The rest of the day was like a bad movie. An old Italian man, perhaps the town’s mayor, slipped a medal around Lojze’s neck. Lojze stood on the podium waving at strangers who would forget who he was the second they turned to head back to their cars. Rivals glared at him. Teammates too. Jan shook Lojze by the shoulders, giddy with excitement. That was the nicest part. Then, like a rainstorm, the event withered and left its mark on the landscape. Filled up trash cans and displaced dirt. Twenty minutes into the drive home, Lojze fell asleep in the backseat of the car.
In 1992, you started hearing things. Kids came up fast and then disappeared overnight. Thighs on sprinters got bigger. Whispers around about ex-communists. One kid got thrown out of AGF before he even showed up and no one knew why. It was all bullshit, Jan said. Lojze won three races that spring and Jan’s phone rang a lot. Some German kid had a stroke at 19. Records were broken.
In May, a man in a suit from an American team met Jan and Lojze in a cramped laboratory in Venice. The lab’s resident doctor, a bespectacled man who hummed and prodded too much, hooked Lojze up to a bunch of machines and made him perform a number of intense physical tests. When the adults in the room spoke, it was as though they were speaking about a racehorse. Even Jan. The man in the suit — Michael, Matthew, a name like that, no last name, Americans never have last names when they want something from you — seemed satisfied with what he saw. He shook Lojze’s hand before leaving to talk with Jan in the hallway. When Jan returned, the impression on his face told Lojze that something had been settled.
The rest of the negotiations spanned a couple of weeks. Lojze’s salary seemed an unholy amount of money at the time, the kind of money that makes a young man walk differently around his peers. Jan took a Polaroid of a smiling Lojze holding up a jersey that said Team Corel and tacked it up in the office. Everyone, including Lojze got the sense that a story had ended successfully — hard work had paid off, the talented persevered over the untalented. All that remained was waiting out the rest of the season.
On notably hot days when Lojze and his teammates went on training rides, they’d divert from the given path and strip down and swim in a lake or the river just to cool off. All those hours riding in the sun made their thighs and legs appear to belong to different races. They made jokes about each other’s dicks and the women they’d never fuck, shrieking as the cold water submerged the contours of their sinewy, defined bodies. Lojze began to notice an uptick in these diversions as the year progressed. Last summers have a certain finality to them, one that slows time into cinematic fragments. Meals are warmer, conversations more longing. Children grow faster, speak more eloquently. In easier races, he even went into the breakaway just to see if he could make it to the end — and he did once, to great fanfare. He indulged, it could be said, in the capricious lastness of things.
Late at night, he often found Jan on the sofa watching news clips of the war in what was once Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia to someone as young and irreverent as Lojze was a concept only people Jan’s age cared about. Soon no one would remember the grandparents who died fighting for socialism just as Jan’s great grandchildren would remember nothing of some old cyclist named Jan Kotnik, who on that same sofa, told some kid named Lojze Klemenčič, who never forgot, You remind me a lot of myself when I was younger, going to the ends of the earth to chase down what you want.
Be real careful with that.
The start line in Pau was a shitshow. A total wasp’s nest. Two sounds reigned supreme: honking and shouting. Fans clamored behind the barriers undeterred by the scandal, and they, too, were yelling over each other’s noise, yelling just to gossip and plan escapades to the bathroom. Teams, journalists, and personnel sprawled out across the nicest road to be found in Pau. It was stuffed to the gills with white, gray-roofed chateaux overlooking a river. Everyone on its tarmac got in the way of everyone else.
1997 was Lojze’s second Tour — he’d ridden (and abandoned, due to illness) his first last year. He knew the starts could be like this, especially before a big mountain stage when the press needed to get their two cents in on what could happen a few hours from now. However, given the events of the previous night, no one seemed to care much about the mountains anymore. The great Pyrenees had been unfairly reduced to mere backdrop for hearsay.
None of the riders dared utter a word about what happened. There were too many microphones around. Lojze had never seen the press corps in such a frenzy, each reporter seemingly in the thrall of his own personal Christmas. On a normal morning, only the real nerds (the kind of journalists constantly scouring the ranks for the next big thing) had any reason to speak to Mr. Lojze Klemenčič. He was a minor figure in the pageantry of cycling whose name precious few knew how to pronounce properly. But on the morning before the seventeenth stage, the journalists forced their way through the paddock grabbing riders left and right just to hear their opinions on the situation. Even B-minus climbing domestiques with funny names.
Earlier, the two disgraced teams, Marzotto and Claeys-Barco, attempted, unsuccessfully, to vanish. It was all very dramatic. A press conference was called in both teams’ respective hotels. Marzotto’s lead man, a lean, ugly climber named Ettore Sabbatini, bawled in front of the cameras, insisting his victimhood at the hands of a vast nationalistic conspiracy headed by the French. His sports director, grimly embarrassed, then draped a jacket over him and led him away. Marzotto was a successful stage hunting team; their loss dealt a huge blow to the excitement of the Tour. Claeys-Barco, on the other hand, boasted no winners that year — to Lojze, the whole outfit owed its existence solely to the generosity of Belgian nepotism. Hence their departure felt doubly humiliating. Cheating with nothing to show for it.
“Under these conditions, we won’t ride,” Erik Bosch, their bald, aging team captain said, his tight lips severely chapped. “This is ridiculous to us.”
As the rest of the team buses arrived on the scene, news trickled throughout the paddock slowly and incompletely. Riders and managers alike buried their faces in fresh copies of L’Equipe, their non-Francophone colleagues begging for approximate translations. The list of paraphernalia reported in these pages was grim: vials of the blood booster EPO, boxes of syringes, mobile pharmacies of pill bottles whose contents were yet to be determined. The press made sure to emphasize the surreal body horror of it all, painting the offending teams as amateur traveling hospitals.
According to reports, a secret debate transpired late into the night between the UCI, the governing body of cycling; the ASO, the organizers of the Tour de France; and the two teams, Claeys-Barco and Marzotto, about whether the busted riders would be allowed to continue to race. Marzotto fought to stay but the UCI, in the sacred interest of public relations, denied them the opportunity. Claeys-Barco accepted their fate without protest. Thus, it was over. The remaining teams felt relieved. The threat had passed, the drama had spared them. The Tour went on.
Back in those days, there were twenty-one teams at the Tour de France, each with nine riders. Cycling teams mostly remained organized around specific nationalities, albeit under the banners of team sponsors. So and so rode for an Italian team because he was Italian, or a Belgian team because he was Belgian, and so forth. Of course, there were exceptions. In the interest of globalization and entering new markets, it was becoming a common practice for cycling to take in an occasional stray like Lojze and place him wherever needed. Lojze’s own team, the American outfit Corel, had so far proved the most international. Their leading general classification man, Niels Jensen, was Swedish, and both their big classics man, Lino Andretti, and Federico Marcato, their best sprinter, were Italian. (In Europe, the American riders themselves remained a bit exotic.)
But Lojze, the sole Slovenian in this fiefdom of nationalities, still envied those privileged by cycling’s pervading de facto nationalist cohesion. Comrades across teams linked together by blood. During the rare times he was mentioned by commentators, they grouped him with the peloton’s other random “Eastern Bloc” novelties, the Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, and Kazakhs, oppressed post-socialists, finally set free. Pity about war crimes in Yugoslavia and all that. Lojze had about as much in common with this motley crew as he did with the French, though he did admit a certain fondness for one of the members of the British Petroleum-Pioneer team, a seasoned Polish rouleur by the name of Jarek Bosko. It was Bosko, quiet and reassuring, whose company Lojze sought on that chaotic morning in Pau, but there was no way to find him — his team was parked at the other end of the paddock. Given all the commotion, Lojze decided it was best to stay where he was, by the bus.
Niels had it the worst that day. He was third on the general classification, the list of overall winners of the Tour, which made him instantly and intently suspicious. In the scrum, a throng of journalists surrounded Jensen, making the diminutive, severe man seem doubly both. They shoved their portable recorders and microphones in his face, asking him what he thought of the situation (“It’s not good, but the Tour must go on.”), demanding to know whether he was clean (“I have never tested positive.”), ad nauseum, each inquirer taking turns formulating their own special version of these questions in an attempt to elicit some kind of confession. Lojze found this practice to be very funny, as though anything a journalist could ask him would magically unlock the truth thanks to the right combination of words. That’s right, you got me. I’m cheating. To him, each writer’s hope for truth betrayed an amusing naivety: the belief that truth itself still mattered.
Niels was a stiff interview and getting quotes from him was, for the most part, a formality. Nobody enjoyed it, not even his compatriots in the press corps. Even within the team, the grim-faced, skulking Swede never had much to say. His comrades’ loyalty to him could be described as contractual and not much more. He could win the Tour on paper, so they had to help him win the Tour. Tautological devotion. Still, if you rode for him, you wanted him to like you, and in this respect, Lojze found, you would always be disappointed.
Albeit dull, the interviews went off as planned. Before the men exited the bus that morning, Will Nichols, the team manager, gave simple orders: whatever you do, don’t be angry. Nobody likes anger. Just make your statements as simple and brief as possible. Don’t talk about yourselves. If someone asks how you feel, say, disappointed. Do you understand?
So, when someone inevitably snagged Lojze, this is what Lojze did. Right when he thought he’d make it to the start home free, a waving hand flagged him down with a hey, yeah you, heyheyheyheyhey. The culprit: a British reporter, young, fresh-faced and exhilarated by the situation, obviously thinking that by picking out a more obscure cyclist he’d finally get his scoop.
“George Emerson, Cycling Weekly. Do you have a second?”
“How’s your English?”
“Good.” Lojze took this as a slight. Emerson fidgeted under the resulting stare and thus conceded his power.
“Nice. Sorry, I just wanted to make sure. Mind if I record?”
Lojze shrugged, wishing he had a watch to pretend to check. The junior reporter turned on his handheld, pushed it too close to Lojze’s mouth.
“Last night, as you know, two teams were searched by the police and several doping supplies were confiscated. When did you first hear about this? Were you aware of it last night?”
“I learned of this news this morning, like everyone else.” Lojze found it astonishingly easy to lie to journalists because, unlike the cops or his boss, what could they do about it? Frown at him? Emerson scribbled something down, probably notes about the timeline of events.
“You’re one of the climbing domestiques for Niels Jensen who’s now third on GC. What a remarkable comeback for him after the last few years. How do you feel about what’s happened? Have the raids created stress in the team?” Lojze got tangled up in the too-complicated question. He wasn’t sure what his position had to do with the situation. Maybe it was just simple flattery.
“This, of course, is a bad situation,” he finally said in his flat interview voice. “Nobody likes this doping, but if you do not cheat, you do not get caught, hm? For me, today, it is the same as usual. We help Niels in the mountains, try to close the time gaps, but it will be hard because Niels is three minutes back and other teams are strong. Teléfonica is good in these long climbs like Luz Ardiden. I think they will protect Villa-Lobos who is second. The yellow jersey is of course really tough. But Muller, he does not like the cold and the weather is always bad up at the end. We will just try our best.”
He began to move away, but Emerson blocked him.
“Final question because I know it’s time to line up. Is Team Corel clean?”
Lojze gave the man a dry, toothy grimace.
“Well, we are here at the start, hm?”
Under stress, Lojze often dreamed a vivid, recurring dream. Night. The Pohorje hills — the dense, Styrian woods west of Ptuj. Him, atop a bicycle, pedaling at high cadence, the sound of his breath amplified and distorted by dream space. Before him, the road stretched infinitely, its flanks illuminated by an unknown source. As is so often the case in dreams, he found himself being pursued, stalked down. He, carrying a prize unknown. An unrevealed, perhaps sinister secret.
Where was he heading in such a hurry? The gilded capital, Ljubljana? Home? Oh, yes, home. And where is home for you, Lojze? He couldn’t answer. Ptuj? Pradamo? Marin County in Steph and Joey’s apartment? Girona, where they all lived now? There was no place he could pinpoint, no particular destination he had in mind. It mattered little, for he was not running towards somewhere but away from something. Desperately. He began to feel the presence of it, so close as to make the fine hairs pinprick on the back of his neck. A jolt ran through his shoulders, a shiver of fear and adrenaline. Jerk of the wheel. Almost a stumble.
A glance behind alighted him to the source of his fear. Beyond the night, a tenebrous mass loomed in the forest, smothering the stars and the mysterious light flanking the road, a smoke combed by the fronds of trees. It sought to swallow him. Dissolve him. As it grew closer, it left behind a void of soundlessness, evaporated even the noises from the bike, from inside Lojze’s body, muting his struggle, pulse by pulse. So close, this black smoke, and how it sought him, wanted him, his being, his secret. Panicked, he fought his pain, increased his pace, ignored his reaming yet silenced heart, which begged him, too fast, too fast, too fast!
Then the dry, ashy velvet caressing his skin, embracing, enveloping him.
And then, nothing.
On the slopes of Luz Ardiden, Lojze remembered the dream. Climbing at altitude and wracked with cold, the once-humid July weather in the Pyrenean valley seemed a fond, if distant memory. Despite the steep gradient, he churned away at the pedals, powered by that same primeval adrenaline, his spark lit by relentless pursuit. By whom, he knew not. Group Two, whoever they were.
An engine whirred, behind, next, in front of him. 3" wrote the chalkboard man on the back of a yellow motorbike, one of many spies, scouts, and couriers employed by the Tour de France. Trois minute, trois minute, squealed the fast-passing loudspeaker of another, as though hocking wares. The camera bike annoyed him the most. It loomed close, backed off, loomed close again, the camera shouldered by the cameraman big enough to fire off some kind of missile. But Lojze couldn’t be too mad at him — it was his job to be here at the front of the race.
Just as he did in the dream, Lojze carried something with him, in this case, a known entity — his team leader, Niels Jensen. They’d gone away at the foot of the climb as soon as the day’s breakaway relinquished itself to fate. The pair from Corel were accompanied early on by four others in what the TV commentators called a “worthless, provocative attack.” (This would be quoted smugly in the next morning’s L’Equipe because the tactic paid off.) The attackers caught their rivals completely off guard. No one thought it would last. For many, it didn’t. As the climb wound itself up, the pair’s unwanted companions — most of them domestiques for more important riders — either grew tired or, second guessing the move, dropped of their own accord. Meanwhile, the group behind marked each other out due to the presence of too many important competitors, or so Lojze assumed. He didn’t look back, nor did he make a trip to the team car. The radios, in their early iterations, didn’t work so well up here.
The sun disappeared, the foliage dwindled. The thin air whittled away at the reserves of Lojze’s endurance, each breath more rickety than the last. It made his head dizzy and his eyeballs churn in his skull. On a sign, painted in bright, childish blue, a big number five. Pet. Pet kilometrov. How could there still be pet fucking kilometrov? Beside him, Niels remained fresh as a daisy, that harsh, Scandinavian calm a mask across his face. Lojze wished he could hide pain like that. He could when he was younger. Especially the intense pain he experienced now, a pain sourced from all parts of the body, replenished anew through each exhalation of air, each lob of the heart against the ribcage, each spasm seeping through the apparatus of his legs, which creaked and ached like a tree about to split down the middle.
Every bike racer has his own personal mythology of the body, a book of phrases for measuring and describing his suffering. Lojze Klemenčič named his usual limit the Long Hallway. When he entered the Long Hallway, the periphery of the world turned black and the road focused into a tunnel without end, a non-place, only a passage toward some distant converging point. To enter the Long Hallway meant he could see, visually, his corporeal terminus, the strain on his body so great he no longer perceived the world in a rational way. Even the purposefully obnoxious fans, jeering, running, enveloping the road in their orgiastic pergola, disappeared into mere vague periphery. In the Long Hallway, as in the dream, the only direction was forward. To, never from.
On Luz Ardiden with Niels in his wheel, Lojze knew he was nearing the end of his tunnel. Most men would, at such a moment, relent utterly. But something kept Lojze from doing so. In lieu of his usual self preservation, he felt a destructive, transgressive urge to breach beyond the Long Hallway and into something else. A rare, sacred, dangerous space, he, in secret and deep within himself, called the Holy Place. The very bottom of the well of being. The Holy Place, to him, was intangible: a spatial sensation verging on delirium and suffocation, a mystical closeness to death. In it, the world expanded and mingled inside his perishing body with the cosmos. To enter the Holy Place was to push oneself into fatigue so painful it sublimated pain itself into nothingness. And on that mountain, he wanted nothingness.
He shifted into a harder gear.
There, his breath and the world converged.
He could see everything laid out before him, in every direction, and with such simplicity. The lights of the mountain dimmed like the proscenium of a theater. What do they think of when they suffer? The journalists wonder. They choose to believe it is simple. The cyclists measure their efforts. They plan out their gearing, their attacks, when they’ll take food and water. But this logic assumes that a cyclist’s suffering is different than normal human suffering. That their suffering is rational and has answers. That it is rooted in something other than pain, something innate and metaphysical that separates the athlete from the mortal. Indeed, it is a choice for the journalists to believe this. They have to, for the alternative would be unbelievably cruel.
What do they think of when they suffer? They think of all the suffering each man has available to him, which is to say, they think of everything.
First he thinks of candlelight. Starched collared shirt, his hands pressed together in little grimy rhombuses. The walls made of wood and filled with the scent of incense. It was Sunday, another completed week of having sinned by existing. The sermon will remind him of this, and for every subsequent day of his life, he will remind himself of this.
You may be seated.
A reading from the Book of James.
Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.
When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone;
but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.
Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters.
In retrospect, the powers that be didn’t make Lojze schlep it out for long, just four months or so in order to teach him, through struggle, how hard European elite racing really was — to get the kid to really despair about it, putting him in the position where he’d do anything to improve his lot. They threw him right in with the 43 kilometer per hour guys, though on smaller races like the Volta ao Algarve to spare him the embarrassment. The team knew what they had and were keen to exploit it, just as the boy himself was keen to be exploited. We see your hard work, Lojze. Don’t be so down. It’s probably just a tough adjustment. We’ll send you to our outside doctor, run some tests, figure out what’s going on.
That first visit, the voice was very soft and kind. It talked to him as though he were a little boy. Its aging, diminutive owner had sad eyes and gentle hands that, just a moment ago, had felt his pulse, holding his wrist like a cherished thing. You have beautiful numbers, Lojze. But only God is born perfect. Still, there are things we can do to make you feel a little bit better. Not so tired. It is normal to take some vitamins now and then, no? Lots of riders take these vitamins. Would you like that?
The vitamins were yellow and looked like hard candies. It wasn’t difficult for him to take them, though he couldn’t quite convince himself that they were actually vitamins because they came in a brown paper bag. He found ignoring what that implied surprisingly easy after a few hours. I am being good, he said, looking at himself in the bathroom mirror. Looking at the gap between his big front teeth. His peaky nose. His curly, straw-colored hair. I am only doing what I am told. He filled a glass with water. The pill went down. It was easy to do what he was told because it was what he was told. He would never do it otherwise. Or so he tried to convince himself.
Joey introduced him to Big Red chewing gum, which he loved. Sometimes he chewed four sticks at once, the accumulated cinnamon flavor making his eyes water. In California, everyone fought for a house with a view of the hills and once they got one, they never gave it up, not even for their own children. Steph was from Colorado. His granddaddy worked in a mine but his father worked in finance. Do they have cowboys over there? Lojze asked. They were drinking on the balcony of the apartment in Marin County. Which didn’t have a view of the hills.
Steph and Joey looked at him and laughed and laughed. Do they have cowboys? Do they have cowboys? Lojze laughed too because the other two looked like ugly little scrunched up pink moles when they laughed. Neither American knew how to grow a full beard. Now they were all laughing. Lojze tried to convince Steph and Joey that they had cowboys in Slovenia. A long tradition of cowboying. The rodeo was even a popular sport that spread to the rest of Yugoslavia. Hysterical. Then Steph got Tito confused with Mao. And they laughed again, but this time the laughter started to hollow. Do you remember Tito, Klem? Steph pressed, no longer laughing at all. Do you remember communism?
On June 3rd, 1995, at four-thirty in the afternoon, Jan called him at the apartment but he didn’t pick up. He was with the doctor. Not Emilio, the team doctor, Seb. Seb was telling him that he could maybe win a grand tour someday with levels like these, but he had to have discipline. Lojze then remembered Jan. He didn’t like when Seb, a stranger who saw him as numbers on a screen, used Jan-like words. But he perked up at the phrase: You could win a grand tour someday. It made his heart flutter. Maybe that’s why he took the foil packets home with him, feeling special, anointed. He bought some little syringes from CVS. Closed the door to his bedroom with the guilty eagerness of a teenager about to open a naughty magazine. It’s best below the belly button, Seb told him. Like many things.
It is hard for him to describe what a warmth this new friend brought to his body, which had been hitherto cold. Things that were difficult became simple, roads that were long became short, teammates that were distant became close, victories that seemed impossible were now within his grasp. It’s for your health. It’s good for you. They can’t even test for it.
France never failed to be uglier than Lojze expected. He often found himself wishing he had someone to send disappointed postcards to.
Niels in his wheel. That cutting, patronizing stare. Like a character from Cankar.* A loyal servant gets his work done the way his master orders him: if he tells him to go into the field, he does not go into the forest. In other words, he submits himself to the grupetto and does not finish 12th in this year’s Paris-Nice after his leader crashes out. This was what Niels’ brutish gaze was all about. And why Joey wasn’t up here suffering in Lojze’s place.
How his heartbeat knocked on the door of his ribs. Breaking and entering. Someone played La Marseillaise via car horn. It was a rather poor rendition. Everyone was screaming, but there were no words. Cheering, in sum total, is the same as the sound made by the ocean. Or rain. Or a hand cupped to the ear.
They really should make better looking ski chalets.
I’m 49 today, he told Zebulon Hutchins, Corel’s big old Iowa rouleur, after coming out of the hotel bathroom. He wasn’t joking about his age. 49. I’m fucking glowing, man.
Do you have the toaster with you?
It wasn’t really a toaster. It was a centrifuge. You put your test tubes in it and it gave you a number. It was your number and you were its.
Niels has it now.
49 is too high, Klem. Drink some salt water or something.
No fucking way. It’s Paris-Nice. I’m climbing like this. Seb said it was alright.
Hutchins only shrugged, said in that Midwestern drawl, It’s your funeral, kid.
Which led to: The news of two dead cyclists, both Dutch. They’d bought synthetic blood from a pharmacy. Perflourocarbons — wasn’t that the stuff they put in Teflon? They laughed about it on the bus. Just as they laughed about the guy from the Italian conti team who had to go to the hospital after injecting himself with pig’s blood. It was all very funny. It had nothing to do with them because they were successful. They were successful because they worked harder and smarter than everyone else.
Which led to: Jan on the sofa. You remind me a lot of myself when I was younger, going to the ends of the earth to chase down what you want. Be careful of that.
Which led to: A reading from the Book of Isaiah: He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Which led to: The first time he made love to a woman. She was a friend of a friend who felt sorry for him.
Which led to: The 1995 Vuelta a España. A hotel. A blood bag taped to a wall. Lying on a sofa staring up at the ceiling. Now he understood how that girl must have felt. Marijana.
You are so good, Lojze, you are being so good for me. I know this is a big needle, no? It is easier if you relax for me. Yes, like this. Deep breath.
The pooling of his pupils. A kind of expiration, not a sigh. Maybe a shiver. Hard to define. He didn’t look at his arm, but winced in anticipation of himself mingling with himself, two parts reunited after a few weeks apart, passing in the veins like neighbors. Midva sva. We-two are. Midva sva Lojze Klemenčič.
The body is not supposed to leave the body and return to the body. Yet here he re-entered himself with the frigid caress of a ghost. At which he gasped.
It’s fucking cold, Milo.
Shh, shh, shh. Just relax. It will warm up soon.
He remembers the ceiling. One of those speckled drop ceilings with buzzing fluorescent lights. What an ugly ceiling for such a sincere, metaphysical event, the merging of the past and the present, the body and the body, the self and the self. Midva sva.
But then again, how could Emilio understand this?
He was only a doctor.
That weepy lout Prešeren, pulled from the depths of school: Otrpnili so udje mi in sklepi / in okamnelo je srce preživo. My sinews have surrendered their control / my once lively heart has turned to stone.**
In the Holy Place, Lojze hadn’t the strength to open his mouth to speak to Niels. No sound could be squeezed from his chest. His snotty nose still picked up the pungent salt of his own sweat, the same sweat that plastered his hair to the side of his head. He couldn’t read the numbers on the signs or the chalkboard anymore. He’d been guessing for a long time. Drool collected and frothed in his mouth, dribbled down his chin. Soon, from biting the inside of his cheek, he tasted blood. Even in his highest cadence, the pedals fought him. And he fought back, weaving across the road, trying to regain some energy in these horizontal movements, a sidewinder in the desert of suffering. He did not know how much time, how much distance, passed this way, for Lojze Klemenčič was lost deep within himself, in his own world, his own time. How thin it was, the horizon separating a living man from a dead one.
The lonely pair rounded the next switchback, where, in his half-delusional state, Lojze expected —no, believed in — the absolution of the finish line. He could practically feel the warm hands of his soigneur, could visualize the two of them, him and Niels, riding side by side into the swarm of the camera crews. But when he turned the corner, only the continued, unfeeling sweep of the mountain greeted him.
He’d counted wrong.
Fuck, he wanted to scream if he could. Fuck you. He couldn’t believe it, how much of that road was still left, snaking up to the summit, dotted with people deriving joy from his misery. As though the world had played a cruel joke on him. And Niels was still there, wasn’t he, not struggling at all. Laughing, probably. Of course he was. What did you believe, Lojze? What arrogance.
Now trembling with cold, Lojze stood up for one last pull out of the saddle, trying to kickstart some third deployment of his engine. A farcical, vain act. He sat down mere seconds later. And that was it. He couldn’t believe it. The mountain had crushed him like an insect. Even at the core of him, from which he’d mined the sum total of his human effort, there was not enough. He had no choice but to accept relinquishment, to let the taut elastic of his body go slack.
He withdrew from the Holy Place and returned to the world.
Lojze knew Niels was going up the road without him. He didn’t bother watching the Swede get smaller and smaller. Insult to injury. Rather, he tried to wrap his foggy mind around whatever it was that still separated the two of them, put them in different classes of inhuman. His eyes passed over the streaks of the asphalt beneath his tires, black spots tearing quivering holes into the ground, a side effect of total fatigue. This is my dream, he kept thinking. The black force stalking him, simple unconsciousness.
He crawled through the fog which now blanketed the road, obscuring the flamme rouge, which, in such a state and in such weather, Lojze neither looked for nor saw. Even the camera bike abandoned him, more interested in the antics of the pursuing group. He spent his last solitary kilometer dwelling on having been to the Holy Place, marveling at how nothing remained within him, nothing at all. Barely a soul. Now, even memory failed him.
Minutes passed before he had the strength to look up. But when he did, the faces of strangers resumed from behind the barriers, and the thick mist was suddenly pockmarked by the blotchy flashes of cameras. Lojze’s personal silence found itself shattered by loudspeakers, whose out-of-tune wail no longer resembled human speech. Then, almost insultingly, the white line on the ground. The mountain’s tension flattened out and ceased fighting against him, and on the flat, his bones turned to jelly.
He was there and it was over.
Slowing down made the movements of his body uncontrollable and sloppy, and he thought, urgently, Zdaj padam. He didn’t say this — no one would understand him — yet, in the moment, these were the only words he knew. Zdaj padam. Končal sem.*** His balance gave way. He let out a feeble sound and collapsed, one foot still clipped into his pedal, dragging the bike down with him. A race official rushed to catch him right before he hit the ground. There, supported by the asphalt, Lojze buried his face in his hands, his lungs burning in search of air.
He tried to reassemble himself, tried to make sense of his spinning, distorted surroundings until, in utter surrender, he squeezed his eyes shut and banished to darkness the slurry of the world. His soigneur ran over with a jacket, draped it over Lojze’s shoulders, cradling him in his arms. He shouted away the press who circled the finish like vultures, snapping loud, flashy pictures of the man on the ground who saw and heard nothing, still repeating deep into himself, zdaj padam, zdaj padam.
Even though Niels Jensen won the stage, the journos, always suckers for a good pietà, chose these images of Lojze for the front page photo spread in L’Équipe the following morning. The flowery caption scrawled beneath read:
The Ultimate Sacrifice: Lojze Klemenčič of Slovenia gives his all for Team Corel leader Niels Jensen, winner of the seventeenth stage, and now second on the general classification.
In a Tour de France rocked by scandal, glimpses remain of our beautiful, heroic sport.
*Ivan Cankar (1876–1918) was a famous Slovenian writer and playwright, often considered a key figure in the development of Slovene literary modernism. The line quoted here is from his famous play Hlapci, about the secular/clerical divide at the heart of Slovenian politics.
**France Prešeren (1800–1849) remains Slovenia’s most enduring poet. Writing during the Romantic era, his poem “A Toast” is the text of the Slovenian national anthem. This line comes from “O Fate, O Hostile Fate, You’ll No More Find” as translated by Uroš Mozetič in the edition “Selected Poems / France Prešeren” Ljubljana: Mladinska knjiga, 2020.
Cankar and Prešeren are among the most common writers studied in Slovenian schools, which is why they are used here.
***Now, I’m falling. I’m finished.