Baling out

Do you remember stage 9 of the 2013 Tour de France? It was the one where Chris Froome found himself isolated in a powerful lead group of favourites with only Peter Kennaugh left to support him. But the Manxman had crashed just 17 kilometres into the stage.

He had a pretty soft landing into a ditch by the side of the road. He heard the convoy roar past and disappear into the distance. Then silence swept in and he nestled deeper into his grassy bed.

Soon, birdsong filled the air, and the sun felt warm and soft on his face. His only thought was, “This is nice. I’ll just stay here,” as the clamour of the race receded. Only gradually did the realisation seep back into his understanding that he had to continue. Reluctantly, he brushed himself down, got back in the race and went on to play a key role in Froome’s first Tour victory.

When you are a racer, your horizons are mercilessly narrow. You have little time to appreciate what lies all around you; sky, water, rock, fields.

Quite how little Pete had taken in of the world he routinely bisected in the peloton only became clear to me when, in 2019, just months into his premature retirement, he swapped the bike for the commentary booth and joined our Tour coverage on ITV.

It started when he asked a harmless little question.

“You know them round things in the fields?”

There was a prolonged silence after this. All that we could hear was the same monotonous rumble of rubber tyres running over asphalt that had accompanied us around France already for two weeks. And, on my side of the car, pinched in the wound-up window and slapping against the outside of the door jamb, a pair of my pants drying in the early evening sun. But otherwise there was no further development. No one answered the question.

“Them things!” Pete pointed undeterred out of the window at a field we were driving past.

Only at this point did the rest of us turn and look. David Millar lifted the shades from his nose and looked dispassionately at the rows of neatly stacked hay bales speeding by. I briefly took them in, seeing Pete’s profile silhouetted against the blanched straw colour of the landscape behind him. Even Garry Beckett, driving our ITV commentators’ car over hundreds of kilometres for the umpteenth successive day, took his eyes off the road and glanced at the bales that had so piqued Pete’s interest. “You mean those hay bales, Pete?”

“Yeah, them.” The young Manxman, once the hottest property on the British cycling scene, sat forward in his seat, suddenly animated. The atmosphere shifted inside the car. Prior to this sudden intervention, no one had spoken for at least half an hour. “Like, I don’t get them,” he said, with great emphasis.

Now we were all interested. “What do you mean, Pete?” asked David.

“Are they just a Tour de France thing?” Pete asked.

There followed another silence, as we all struggled to formulate a follow-up question. Pete continued to outline his confusion. “I mean, where do they keep them in the winter?”

Pete Kennaugh

Now it was my turn to stare intently at Pete Kennaugh. He turned to look at me, his eyes filled with sudden and genuine mystification. “Every year, they’re always there. All, like, perfectly round and that. I don’t get it.” I could see he meant it.

“They’re hay bales, Pete. They cut the hay from the fields and roll them up into bales.”

After a beat or two, David picked up the thread: “They use the hay to feed their livestock during the winter.”

“So, do the farmers put them there?” Pete asked, a level more urgently than before.

“Well, in a manner of speaking. But they grow the crop first,” I said, carefully.

“Then the bales get made, Pete.” Garry finished the explanation off neatly.

The sound of the autoroute returned to fill the car. For a good kilometre we must have continued in silence. Then Pete spoke again.

“Every year, every fucking year, I’ve raced past them and I’ve never understood them bastards.” Pete shook his head. “Hay bales,” he said to himself.

There was an inaudible count to three in all our heads, and then the car exploded into laughter. Pete looked hurt and confused, then he too started laughing.

That happened over a year ago. And now every time, every time I see a hay bale, I smile.

Originally published in issue 20.4 of Rouleur magazine

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