By Tim Otway (Treasurer of YEM UK)
What men once fought over for centuries, I now cross on my bike.
As the door opens, the perfectly mathematical string of lamps light up, each one precisely the same distance apart as the last. The intensity of purpose and forceful sense of direction is disorientating. The lights blind but quickly whiten; any attempt to trace their path disappears into infinity. The fleeting sensation that eyesight is illusory surfaces, like the feeling you might have at sea.
The sea… seagulls swirl overhead and suddenly I realise how close it is. But the old bastion of fortune and favour won’t stop us anymore. Everything is calculated; failure impossible. Looking down at my machine, I realise that it too is a product of time and progress; of trial, error and obsession.
A thumbs up and I’m off again. The first strokes are heavy and cumbersome but quickly the constant hum of the machine’s faultless efficiency is audible once more. Onwards and downwards: down in the drops and down under the surface of the world itself. Strangely it feels rather unceremonious.
I may be the first to cross with hands on handlebars, but I’m by no means the first through the tunnel. Quite the opposite. The midpoint sign flashes by without my noticing and my mind wonders as it does on training rides. Sea is above me now but I can’t really picture it at all. I’m in transit between two old enemies, but the thought isn’t somehow as powerful as it should be. Numb, after all, is what the cyclist aims for; to be unobservant of pain, surroundings or reality. The same could be said for most people, probably: absorbed as they are in their various forms of entertainment as they fly through this same tunnel by train, without giving a second’s thought to the glory of the infrastructure or history of the project. I guess I was never able to appreciate my own achievements, either. Standing on that podium last year, all I could think about was Bradley. That I could have been standing there a year earlier if I’d just been more rebellious…
The end comes quickly enough. The small Sky entourage greets me. Half-hearted claps and forced smiles. The obligatory air-pump for the cameras. The necessary de-brief for the advert about how cool the whole experience was. In truth, I’ve missed a day of training.
I get back into the helicopter, and we rise above it all in a flash. The sponsors are probably already editing the video. It might get a few shares but will quickly be forgotten by the short memory of social media. It’s getting dark now and as I look down all I can see are the various constellations of street lights. I think back to the lights of the tunnel. Blurred, enmeshed; one. Over the intercom, somebody mentions migrants storming the tunnel shortly after our crossing – ‘good timing’, he jokes.
We arrive in Belgium for the one-day classic tomorrow. Another imaginary line crossed without much thought. Bored, I open my phone and the world jumps out. A friend has shared a news story: ‘Migrant talks of desperation to cross’. I pause and contemplate my publicity stunt. How hollow and absurd it now feels in comparison. How could the gloomy tunnel I rode my bike through earlier be so fiercely monitored? I realise that the short crossing – long since made simple by machinery – remains reserved for those deemed worthy enough by a set of criteria far older than I.
I scroll down and look at my good-luck messages from the British fans. I’ve never heard of the towns they come from. It’s funny really: they forget that I’ve never really spent any time in the UK. The directeur-sportif pulls me away from my thoughts: ‘Chris, we’re ditching the new tyres for tomorrow. Every other team is doing the same – they don’t call them classics for nothing.’ Tradition dies hard.