In the summer of 1987, as a 10-year-old, I would spend the early days of the school holidays waiting for 6pm when Channel 4 showed the day’s highlights of the Tour de France. On the TV Phil Liggett was doing what it seems he has been doing forever, and for an hour I sat mesmerised at the impossible hardship of what these demigods were putting themselves through. If someone told me that it was like watching an opera I would have headed to Covent Garden in seconds.
Until the bell for dinner went (literally as well as figuratively), I spent every evening after the highlights on my Raleigh 10-speed racing bike pretending to be my greatest racing hero, Stephen Roche, and thinking that one day I too might ride the Tour. That summer he won the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France and the World Championship, a feat matched only by the unmatchable Eddie Merckx. The clip of Roche hunting down Delgado on La Plagne still makes me shiver.
Last week I shook Roche by the hand. Even though I had a week to prepare for it, I still managed to splutter out some inanities before getting down to the business of talking about his career.
It was the knees that did for Roche and within a few years he had retired, but next summer, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his ‘summer of grace’, he will be cycling the London to Paris race. That evening, as I got on my bike after work, I remembered what it was to lean over the handle bars and feel the wind rush over the cap that I wore back to front, just like Roche. The only difference being that I was now on a single speed bike with a baby seat strapped to the back.
My bike punctured outside Tony Blair’s house. By the time I had fumed, fiddled and changed into the scraps of my running gear that I happened to have with me, it was already dark. Hyde Park was not officially closed until midnight, but you could see why visitors were deterred. Stopping for a moment I could hear footsteps 100 metres away, but no one making them. The city had vanished behind the trees and the cloud was low enough to keep out the noise of the flight path.
Mike Tyson had been here at 4am in January 2000, when he arrived to fight the rightly forgotten Julius Francis. (Francis hit the canvas five times in two rounds). Whether it was a publicity stunt or due to jet-lag, he and his entourage scaled the barrier and went for a jog, only to be formally cautioned.
Tyson was another one I had dreamt of emulating. In February 1989 I spent a week boarding at my school and three of us snuck past the house-master long after midnight to listen to Frank Bruno go toe to toe with the most brutal boxer I have ever seen. Surrounded by muddy shoes and the specter of detection ever-present we shut our eyes and followed every second, occasionally mimicking a particularly vicious combination in the shadows, and spent the following day wandering around in a bleary daze from lack of sleep and the knowledge that we had been party to something special.
It was not until lunchtime yesterday that I saw the connection between these two long-ago events. I had been asked who my heroes were. My immediate answer was Emil Zatopek and Abebe Bikila, since we were talking about running, but after too long a pause I realised that my heroes now, as an adult, are those like George Mallory, who having lived through horrors I find impossible to really understand, like the First World War, are still able to summon a dream, in his case Everest, and let nothing ruin it. It seemed as clear an indication of the indestructibility of the human spirit as I could imagine.
Mrs H and I take the boy to the Midlands this weekend and along with his football and the pots and pans to bang on, will be a copy of Wade Davis’s incredible Into the Silence about Mallory and his generation of romantic explorers. With every step the boy takes I imagine what adventures we will have together in the future. But since he was born I have dreamt that one day we too will head for the Himalayas to see what Mallory saw, and every morning we are one day closer.