One last trip with a friend
BY PAUL NEMY Special to the Voice
Have you ever wondered, once you’re gone, who and how often those you’ve left behind may come to visit your final place of rest? Or perhaps considered where best your remains should return to this earth?
What if a part of your remains, and your inextinguishable soul, would find its way to one of the most cherished and visited grounds of one of your greatest passions—for a part of you to rest within and share ground sacred to upwards of tens of thousands of like-minded fellow spirits, living souls, and hallowed legends.
And so it was that I boarded WestJet flight 117 with some of Larry tucked into my carry-on.
We’re off to that two-wheeled Mecca, to take in a portion of the famed cycling event the Tour de France.
We never made it together to actually cycle in France, but I was going to make sure that I would dust my dear friend’s remains on the legendary Alpe d'Huez, so that he may forever become a portion of this great race and one of his favourite sports.
The plan was to head to the hills and mountains of the Alps and Pyrenees in the southern portion of France. Starting and finishing up our trip in Spain with some warm Iberian ham, tapas, cool Manzanilla sherry, and a backdrop of Barcelona’s La Sagrada Familia will serve very well.
We’re off together. Pirated tour coverage over the years no more. We shall not further suffer the indignity of bootleg feeds cutting out just as...who?...when? Oh how tired we would be from the tour by just hitting refresh!
In a true friendship one doesn’t leave a companion behind but here I will. Here I will with both a smile and a heavy tug of the heart leave a part of Larry. We made it. He made this one and then more to come. No longer mere observer halfway around the world but dusted onto a most amazing place and forever part of Le Tour.
On certain years, one of largest global sporting events of the year by attendance, the Tour de France, visits the truly legendary Alpe d'Huez. With the race route changing annually, on given years this iconic climb is one stage, part of generally 19 in total.
What doesn’t change is that any year the peloton—the racers as a group— is called to the Alps, there will be upwards of 100,000 crazed fans lined ten deep at the side of the course. Fans of legends with names too difficult to spell, let alone pronounce. Legends from some of the most renowned cycling countries in history. Legends made after waking that day anonymous, after a lifetime of bike racing to crossing this summit first and being recognized globally for the balance of your life as a champion of the Alpe d'Huez.
In a sea of national flags waved and favourite team jerseys adorned, there will be no shortage of fueled and frenzied supporters showing them in every way imaginable to the mountain top finish banner, this stadium clinging to a French mountainside.
Few images compare to riders being swallowed by this sea and then metre after metre, for the final 20 kilometres, these combatants mightily appearing last second as the sea is parted by modern-day saviours mounted on motorbikes with sirens and horns ablaze and camera crews intent on capturing this true epic.
First, we had been called.
It was as if for the longest time we’ve been summoned by the likes of Phil and Paul, the past heroics of famed local Steve Bauer, the dramas, many off the bike, this circus named the Tour de France—itself being a storied 109 years in the making.
We long had been called to make a pilgrimage to this, with my dear, late friend Larry Pelt.
With unmeasurable sadness, Larry was called to some higher event, to climb a greater mountain much too early. I lost a dear friend but we all lost much, much more.
How could we know we were about to take in a wildfire of a Tour de France. Just as France itself was battling record heat, touching 40 C and drought-induced fires, the race over the three weeks was as combative and unpredictable as any over a number of past years. In the enormity of it all, it truly boils down to the one rider, the Maillot jaune, who finishes first on the lowest aggregate time on the last day coming down the Champs-Élysées in Paris.
I travel as a proud Canadian but no more so than on a day seeing Canadian Hugo Houle win in Foix. If wins like this are not emotional enough, the story behind Hugo dedicating the win to his late brother, killed by a drunk driver while jogging, was, well, how do you say in French? “I’m not crying, you’re crying…” For someone who has been following this sport for close to 40 years, you don’t see this every day or let's say every 34 years. Unprecedented for Canadian Michael Woods to join him on the podium with a third. Take a deep breath all, for even though they have come down from the mountain, this is some rarefied air.
And oh yes, who helped them get there but team Directive Sportive, Fenwick’s own Steve Bauer, Canada’s last stage victor in 1988 and no stranger in his days on the saddle powering the peloton adorned in yellow.
Not just a forever resident of Fonthill, Larry Pelt symbolized a family and the families of Fonthill. Sometimes in life we have to look back before we move forward. What mother, wife or son prepares for this. Look back and then forward with tremendous pride. Past hope brings new hope. At times we may believe that in death there may be more significance than life.
Larry was subtly an enormous person.
Who hasn’t been in Fonthill’s oldest grocery store over the past 30 years and has not gone down an aisle to see Larry stocking, shuffling, running, smiling, advising (I wouldn’t care if I couldn’t find the corn starch, I’d just get the latest Formula One news).
You’d hope it was during some of the many good time events, but in an emergency we all know it is the men and women like Larry and the Pelham firefighters who show up in times of need. As ominous as it is knowing the prime purpose of a firehall, how reassuring it is to the town to know the family of faces that call it home. That’s another of Larry’s families I’m very proud to know and admire.
Apart from a common interest in motorsport, what had brought Larry and me together was the bicycle. The bicycle that offers solo escape and freedom of solitude as well as the companionship of many sharing the reward of gain and pain.
I don’t remember when I was first taught how to ride a bicycle. The picture I envision can’t be far from the hundreds of home movies one sees. The kid riding down and beyond the end of the street.
What I am sure about is the feeling of freedom it must have brought. Freedom in many ways. A chance to see the other side of the mountain. (Perhaps unknowingly a mountain in the French Alps.) A freedom like many in the world that might come at a price. Maybe some Bactine and then a hug.
Today over 60 years later my bicycle takes me to a place and places of freedom that I know of no other in my life. Moments that only seem to come when I adventure by bicycle. A freedom brought on by tackling, and conquering in my own way, on and off-bike challenges.
I am passenger.
I am engine.
A freedom to chose my own burden and pleasure. I am finding in life the more I bang myself around, the more I know about this character. I call upon the cyclist in ways I normally wouldn't. I end each day with a special memory, unmarked tracks of a story in my life that I’m proud and so happy to share.
My ride is not of the 21 days, the kilometers, the up and down, the days and nights. It’s a story of stories of places, people and time, now and forever more, on the other side of the mountain.
May my bike continue to slowly and safely deliver me to happiness. Today I write of no start and no end but of the beautiful ride of life.
For cycling being such a great pleasure in my life, I’m endlessly looking back at some great friends, as undoubtedly Larry did as well. My thoughts of Larry’s most recent adopted family on the roads of Niagara, Amici per la Vita, and one of Fonthill’s family all-rounders, Brian Z.
I’ve been indoctrinated into this cycling epicentre, along with a few more stages.
As in this journey, some things in life are better shared so I’ve not only taken a dusting of my dear friend’s remains, but more so a huge part of his spirit and soul with me. We had some grand discussions as we darted across some pretty amazing French countryside. More than once on a roundabout I desperately requested a quick droit? Gauche? I also prayed more than once that the next village’s church would be Our Lady of Blessed Michelin Maps. Here I shall kneel and pray that between the stick shifting and “La Vie en Rose” blaring over the radio, our map doesn’t go flying out the window.
We need help finding our way to the next stage but possibly more importantly, a tres bien patisserie we’ve been tipped about. Our morning charge is rarely spearheaded without baguette and coffee in hands.
What I enjoyed most, as I always had, was that Larry was a great companion and never once questioned my rather rambling musings en Français.
Certain fans have staked claim on their favourite part of this Alpe d'Huez climb, and now Larry has staked his. Dusted into a navel of rocks at what will always be the famed Flame Rough. The “One Kilometre to Go” banner that signals all who cross beneath that they have now nearly conquered the challenge. Few will win but many will have humbled it.
And now there is a part of Larry of Fonthill. Past flesh and blood...of road rash.
I might not be back but hundreds of thousands of new and old will. I know that I and many of these families of Larry will join me next time. Next time a fleet of whirling helicopters ascend this mountain to broadcast to millions this spectacle that is the Alpe d'Huez. We’ll look down to those who have come to celebrate on this monumental mountain. We will look up to the spirit and soul of our dearest partner and friend, knowing he’s amongst those cherished at any wake I would chose to attend. A tip of le bidon and of the helmet.
Ride in peace, Mon ami velo.