“I can’t even see the road,” said John, shielding his eyes against the sun as he gazed up the tree-clad slope of the mountain looming up on the other side of the valley. A fort-like stone structure beset with antennae jutted out as its rocky peak. And slope, he remedied internally, was not the right term, either. It looked almost vertical, although there were signs of human settlement visible, roofs of houses peeking out of the dense forest here and there on the lower reaches of the mountain.
“The road is mostly hidden from sight by the trees, but it winds up this forested valley," a deep voice rumbled. "If you look closely, you can see a stretch up there, where the caravan is driving.” Sherlock had stepped next to him and was pointing at a narrow strip of what might have been metal railing with a white spot moving behind it.
John shook his head in a mixture of awe and trepidation. “I can’t believe I agreed to join you in this madness. So tomorrow, we go up there? And because cycling up this one mountain which looks pretty steep and intimidating won’t be enough, we’ll be continuing on to yet another, even higher pass?” He whistled softly through his teeth. “Jesus, Sherlock, two thousand metres difference in altitude. That’s over six thousand feet.”
“Ultimately, it was your idea,” his friend answered. “Or rather, your father’s.”
John drew a breath, nodding. “True, he would have loved to be here now.” He gave the mountain another long glance, before finally turning to Sherlock. “Right, lets put the bikes in the hotel’s garage and try and find some place for dinner.”
When Sherlock opened his mouth for his habitual ‘not hungry’, John raised a finger. “I don’t care if you’re hungry or not or that you already had that croissant on the train, Sherlock. You’re eating tonight, and you’re eating tomorrow morning as well. Remember that one ride in the Cotswolds when you didn’t beforehand? Good. Because I’m not having that again, not when we’re halfway up some bloody major pass in the French Alps.”
Sherlock only rolled his eyes and went to unlock the garage. John grinned to himself. During this one memorable ‘training session’, the only Consulting Detective in the world had neglected to prepare himself properly for the hilly and wind-infested landscape with its frequent short yet steep climbs. He had ended up winded and shaking at the roadside during their ascent to Stow on the Wold, and had needed a bottle of coke and a banana to be able to move again. John liked to bring this episode up as a reminder whenever Sherlock tended to ignore his body’s mundane needs.
The garage was already packed with bicycles, mostly road bikes of the more expensive kind, sleek and stiff and light, with no extras to add weight or wind resistance. They were in fact much like the two Simplon racing bikes Sherlock had somehow persuaded Mycroft to acquire some months ago. John suspected Sherlock had taken on a rather delicate case for his brother in return, because their bikes’ combined worth amounted to that of a small car. Or else Mycroft had still felt a residue of guilt over his involvement in the events leading to his brother’s ‘death’. Back then, Sherlock’s ‘resurrection’ and sudden return only about a month ago, John had begun to realise and appreciate that things had more or less reverted to the normal madness that was life with Sherlock Holmes, a madness he wouldn’t want to miss again for anything in the world. Nine months had been enough.
The cycling had actually helped to overcome the initial shock, anger and bitterness over the betrayal following in the wake of Sherlock’s return. After a period of fights, apologies and tentative re-acquaintance, not only involving John and Sherlock but Lestrade, Mrs Hudson, Mycroft, Molly and even Donovan and Anderson as well, and the boys’ re-habituation of 221B, one of the first major cases the detective had taken on had involved the mysterious deaths of three young, healthy men. All three, according to the coroner’s report, had died of heart failure in their sleep. Sherlock had been intrigued. Once he had found out that all three had been active members of local cycling clubs and competing in amateur races, he had set out to investigate undercover.
This had not only been a reason to acquire the Simplons, but also created a source of much hilarity and as much exasperation for John. It had involved him stumbling upon Sherlock in the process of shaving his legs, the detective’s quest to find a helmet large enough to fit his massive brain and mop of curly hair (and his even more massive ego, John had added in thought), and Sherlock lounging in the flat in tight-fitting cycling gear for days on end.
It was this last aspect of Sherlock’s rekindled love for cycling which John found the most memorable. According to what his friend had told him, Sherlock had cycled while at university, making frequent use of Mycroft’s old road bike.
“It’s the only sensible way of getting around town in Cambridge,” he had claimed, reclining on the sofa in his new cycling outfit. “And my brother never used the bike, not once. Not surprising, of course. It’s ‘leg work’, after all, which he hates and tries to avoid at all costs, the lazy sod.”
John remembered the conversation, but more vividly he recalled the image of his flatmate stretched out on the couch wearing black cycling shorts and a tight blue and black jersey, his long (shaved) legs dangling over the arm of the sofa. The view had done funny things to his stomach, things he didn’t want to contemplate too deeply.
Interestingly, the first time Sherlock had persuaded him to join him for a ride and he had descended from his room in his cycling gear, Sherlock had stared at him raptly for about a minute. John had begun to squirm self-consciously under his unrelenting gaze, fearing he had put on the shorts the wrong way or that he looked utterly ridiculous in the outfit. Suddenly Sherlock had stirred, blushed, and pretended to fiddle with the straps of his helmet. And when John asked him about where they were going to go, he cleared his throat twice before being able to answer.
His friend’s strange behaviour and its possible implications – because John might not have his skill at deduction, but he could read emotions as well or even better, and moreover could put facts together – were yet another thing John tried not to think about too deeply. The two of them were still caught on the bumpy, pot-hole riddled path of rebuilding their friendship after Sherlock’s faked death and sudden, miraculous return had bombed a huge crater right into its middle, and for the time being, this meant work enough. John certainly didn’t want another set of complications on top of that only because he had come to notice that his friend – or whatever Sherlock was to him – looked good (no, strike that: bloody hot) in tight lycra. Still, the realisation that apparently said friend, Mr. ‘I consider myself married to my work’, thought the same about him had felt good indeed.
All in all the case had been solved fairly easily. Apparently doping had occurred in the cycling clubs, due to EPO and other substances being readily available over the internet if one know where to look. While most members seemed clean and were distancing themselves clearly from these practices when confronted with the evidence, John knew that substance abuse was a widespread problem in amateur sports where there were few controlling instances. The three deaths had indeed been due to cardiac arrest caused by an unnaturally high concentration of erythrocytes in the victims’ blood.
“Their blood simply stopped flowing properly while they were asleep, clogging up the coronary vessels and other vital capillaries,” Sherlock explained to Lestrade as he handed the further investigation of the doping network over to the authorities, his work done. “They used their own blood for doping to increase the transport of oxygen, which is why the drug screening didn’t show any results.”
“And all of that for a cheap trophy after a race,” added John, shaking his head. “Still, the coroner should have looked more closely at the haematocrit.”
Sherlock gave him an appreciative, proud glance, one of those John treasured as they indicated that his feeling of respect and friendship was mutual. “Indeed. It was the missing piece I had overlooked. Well, that’s why I keep my doctor around,” he stated, clapping John’s shoulder. “And for making proper tea, of course.”
“And shopping, cleaning, fetching, brushing your ego – not that it needs that … shall I keep going?”
The case was solved, but Sherlock retained the bicycles and the gear, and moreover his intention to use them. John was pleased to note that a distraction had been found for the dangerously black moods, the bouts of utter boredom that before had frequently occurred between cases. Usually, they had involved spells of excessive sulking, nasty experiments and fights about almost everything to do with the maintenance of the flat’s habitability. Worse, they had nurtured John’s constant worry that relief would be sought through illegal substances.
Now, “John, come cycling,” Sherlock would ask instead. John never refused, even when the weather was bad or he had just returned from a long shift at the clinic. Sherlock claimed cycling helped calm and clear his mind, and while that seemed true, John also knew he simply enjoyed cruising his beloved London, the city he had missed and yearned for so passionately during his exile.
As for John, he also enjoyed the exercise. It didn’t stress his dodgy leg as much as running. From time to time he would even cycle to work when he didn’t fancy taking the Tube or be stuck in traffic in a cab. Mostly, however, he enjoyed Sherlock’s company during their outings, the stories he knew about whatever part of London they passed through, or his comments about fellow cyclists or drivers. The fact that whenever John rode behind the detective he was granted a splendid view of his trim backside in those shorts had nothing to do with his new love for cycling. Nothing at all.
And now they had arrived at a hotel in a small town in the French Alps and were about to cycle up one of the highest alpine mountain passes – not exactly a logical consequence from their occasional ride in the city and surrounding countryside. This particular development had been set in motion by a conversation during a grey, drizzly afternoon about a month ago in mid July. John had returned from work early and, since Sherlock seemed engrossed in an experiment in the kitchen and didn’t even stir when spoken to, had left his flatmate to his own devices and settled in front of the telly to watch a stage of the Tour de France.
Ever since Bradley Wiggins’ win of the Tour the previous year interest in cycling had increased in the population (as evidenced, according to Sherlock, by the ever rising number of idiots on the roads). It also meant that this year’s race was granted extensive TV coverage, especially since this particular Tour marked the 100th repetition of the world’s most famous cycling race.
“They’re all doped anyway,” Sherlock commented gruffly as he flopped into his armchair opposite John, nodding towards the television where a small group of riders was struggling up a steep, winding, brightly painted road through throngs of cheering bystanders. There was a cut to a lone rider in a red and white polka-dot jersey passing underneath a banner that signified the summit of the pass.
“Yeah, thanks for your input,” John returned curtly, not eager to have his enjoyment of the spectacle besmirched by his flatmate’s foul mood.
“Come on, John, we just found out how easy it is even for amateurs to get the necessary medical assistance. You don’t seriously believe they’re riding clean, when there is so much money at stake. Some small stagiaire, maybe, but not those aiming for a decent placement in the classement général. The dopers are always several steps ahead of those developing the tests.”
“I know that. Doctor, remember? A guy I went to uni with specialised in sports medicine. Even back then he’d say there were ingenious methods for enhancing one’s performance that were virtually undetectable. And things have moved a long way from there. Still, even you must admit that this is exciting to watch. Imagine going uphill for ten, twenty miles before descending over that distance. And look at the breathtaking landscape, and the atmosphere with all those cycling-crazy folks lining the road. Look, there’s the devil. That fellow’s beyond crazy, showing up at every stage.”
He shifted in his seat to better look at Sherlock. “You know, my dad loved watching the Tour. It actually was his dream to ride the Col du Galibier one day. He had wanted to do so as a young man but never had the chance due to money being tight and then us kids arriving and all that. But each year he got all dreamy-eyed when the Tour was on, especially in those last years when he was already ill.”
He sighed and looked back at the television, recalling afternoons spent during his childhood following the Tour on their old telly, his father brimming with excitement whenever the riders crossed the high passes in the Alps and the Pyrenees. In particular, he recalled that one memorable Sunday in 1989 when the race was decided by mere seconds during a time trial on the last stage, and which also marked the last time he had watched it together with his dad.
In the present Tour, the pursuivants had by now also reached the summit and were busy pulling on windbreaker jackets for the descent, but John hardly saw it, lost in his memories. The drumming of Sherlock’s fingers on the armrest of his chair brought him back to the present. When John looked at him, he noticed that his flatmate was watching him with a curiously tender expression which was immediately replaced by a faked bored look.
“What?” demanded John.
Sherlock steepled his fingers under his chin in his customary thinking position and didn’t reply. John shook his head and continued watching the race.
“I need your laptop,” Sherlock announced some minutes later.
John snorted. “Your laptop is right there, on the coffee table.”
“I know. The battery is low.”
“So? Charge it, then.”
“Charger’s in my bedroom.”
“And you can’t be arsed to get up, I see. What do you need it for, anyway?”
“You’ll see. Please, John.”
John grinned, eyes still fixed on the telly. The peloton had finally reached the pass. “Didn’t you claim once that you never begged? You know, I often wonder how you managed on your own with no one around to fetch and carry, or to make you eat and sleep from time to time.”
He had spoken lightly, and therefore was not prepared for Sherlock’s grave and low: “Not well.”
Looking up to meet the detective’s eyes, he was stricken by his serious expression. John held his gaze, knowing that much more was being communicated here between the lines. He, too, had not managed well without the lazy madman in the chair opposite him, and despite Sherlock’s faults and exasperating habits, he was glad to have him back.
“Just don’t change the bloody password again,” he muttered as he stooped to retrieve the computer from the floor next to his chair and handed it to his friend.
An excited exclamation from the commentators caused his attention to revert back to the TV. One of the riders chasing the lone escapee in the polka-dotted King of the Mountains jersey had missed a turn during the descent, taking an involuntary shortcut down a short rocky slope onto the stretch of road below, to there narrowly escaping being overrun by one of the accompanying motorcycles. Luckily, he had not sustained any major injuries apart from scratches. His bike, however, was severely damaged, and his team’s car with the spares some distance behind.
“Should have ridden a mountain bike,” commented Sherlock dryly over the sound of his typing and the swishing of the pad as he scrolled, without ever looking up from the screen.
John shook his head. “He was damn lucky. Going downhill that fast, he could have broken his neck on those rocks. Hell, they’re a lot faster than even the cars. Imagine going down one of those roads with 40, 50 miles an hour on just two narrow wheels. Crazy.”
“Indeed. Dangerous, too. You’ll love it.”
“Gosh, look at that rear wheel. It’s completely bent out of shape,” said John, watching with a mixture of fascination and horror as the rider’s bike was exchanged and he sped off again. The cameras showed a close up of the trashed remains of the broken machine. Then John recalled Sherlock’s exact words.
“What do you mean, ‘I’ll love it’?”
“You were using the wrong tense. You, Mr. Grammar-fanatic, were using future where it should have been conditional.”
“I wasn’t. Grammar was correct. Second week of August, four days and three nights in Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne in the French Alps.”
He gave the enter-key a sharp tap as if to underline his words, before looking at John with that particular expression he always wore when he thought he had been even more brilliant than usual. To John, this also meant crazier and ultimately more dangerous than usual. He loved it.
“What did you say?”
“I just booked our holiday. According to their website, the hotel is situated right at the foot of the Col du Télégraphe and is thus the ideal starting point for an ascent of the Galibier. We’ll be taking the Eurostar to Paris and then travel on via Lyon and Chambery. Transporting the bikes on the trains isn’t a problem as long as we disassemble them and put them into bike-bags. They are so lightweight we can carry them easily with the rest of our —“
“Whoa, Sherlock, wait,” John interrupted him, raising his hands. “You mean to tell me you just booked a trip to France out of the blue to cycle up one of the highest passes of the Alps? Just like that?”
“Yes. I thought I just said that. Do try to keep up, John.”
John shook his head in disbelief. He still hadn’t managed to once more get used to the feeling of being constantly overwhelmed by his consulting detective’s sudden whims.
“I can’t just go to France in August. I have a job, remember? And even if I got leave, we couldn’t just attempt the Galibier without any training. Proper training, I mean, not just the occasional ride. Hell, Sherlock, the thing is over two thousand metres high. We live at what altitude? Fifty? How many times do you have to cycle up to Golder’s Green to feel even halfway prepared? And what about your work? What if a case comes up around that time?”
That last question seemed to cause Sherlock to reconsider his plans briefly. His expression turned thoughtful, but then he shrugged. “I’m sure Lestrade and his retinue can manage without me for once. They, too, need a holiday from time to time, don’t they?” he replied nonchalantly.
John narrowed his eyes. “You mean to tell me you’d rather go and tackle the mountain with me than work on what might turn out to be a brilliant case?”
“Don’t get too excited about my apparent bout of selflessness, John. You know I enjoy cycling. There are few things that calm my mind as effectively as riding up a hill. Perhaps it’s the extra oxygen delivered to the brain. Anyway, you made me swear I won’t revert to using any of the alternatives under threat of you moving out for good. Therefore, cycling is what I have left. And shooting the walls, but Mrs. Hudson doesn’t like that and makes us pay for the damage. Those hillocks around here serve for a brief respite, but imagine what a twenty mile ascent could do. Pure bliss. Moreover, for some time now you’ve been nagging me to take some time out. And you, doctor, need a break as well with all those extra shifts you’ve been doing lately, in addition to helping me with my cases.”
His lips narrowed, a subtle sign of discomfort or doubt. “Or do you really not want to come? Why? Because of me making decisions for you again?”
As John watched him, he was stricken by the open vulnerability displayed on his friend’s features. Even he, around whom Sherlock tended to be less guarded with his emotions, was only allowed brief glances of the detective’s feelings. More often now than before his ‘death’, but still only on special occasion Sherlock let John in. The most memorable occurrence had been Sherlock’s account of his doings during his exile. He had tried to keep his narration matter-of-factly, but John had seen all too clearly the desperation, grief, fear and loneliness that had haunted Sherlock throughout their separation. John had been able to relate only too well. Being allowed to witness some of Sherlock’s pain had nourished his ability to forgive him, and indeed be thankful for what he had risked and suffered to protect him and their friends. Now, there was a hint of that fear of rejection discernable in Sherlock’s otherwise so guarded features.
To reassure him, John shook his head and laughed. “Of course I want to come, you idiot. Not just to make dad’s big dream come true, but also to see if I can do it at my age.”
He gave Sherlock a sly smile. “You know, it wouldn’t hurt if from time to time you admitted that you simply enjoy my company.”
Sherlock snorted contemptuously, he eyes however betraying his true feelings as they were glinting with mirth. “I just need you with me as a windbreak, and to carry an extra waterbottle.”
“Hah, you can lug your own water up there,” returned John. “And as for windbreak, well, I can do that. If you think you can keep up to actually make use of it.”
In truth, he knew Sherlock could very well keep up with him. As in so many other aspects of their shared lives, they made a good team. Sherlock was faster and more enduring on the flats, and indeed more often than not served as a windbreak for John with his taller stature. With his long legs and slender but strong frame he would have made an excellent time triallist, being able to uphold a high speed over long distances with an exact, almost mechanical rhythm. John loved riding behind him on the flats, getting pulled along by his speed and enjoying the view.
Things were different in hilly terrain. Particularly when there was a change of up- and downhill passages which required short sprints and a constant change of gears and cadence, John with his greater bodily strength and flexibility was at an advantage. Here it was him who pulled Sherlock along, and there were frequent instances when he would reach a summit before his friend and wait there until Sherlock struggled up panting, his cheeks flushed and sweat dripping from his chin.
“We’ll see, Dr Watson, we’ll see,” he now said. “I’ll have our bikes checked and prepared for the mountains next week. Would you like a third chain ring for the chainset?” he asked with a mischievous grin.
“Actually, yes, I would,” replied John, not rising to the bait. “Don’t know whether I’ll need it, but some of those rides in the Cotswolds were a pain in the arse without it, literally. I’ll rather be safe than sorry. I bet you’ll refuse it for the sake of aesthetics or whatever. Well, suit yourself. And when you end up having to cycle everything over a gradient of 10 or so percent standing, I’ll be riding next to you sitting comfortably and cheering you on”
“If you have breath left for cheering,” muttered Sherlock. He glowered at John, and simultaneously, they started to laugh.
Meanwhile on the television, the lone polka-dotted rider was sprinting towards a red triangle suspended over the road which indicated the last kilometre of the stage. His pursuers had shortened their distance to him and were giving desperate chase.
“They won’t catch him,” commented Sherlock, sobering up a little.
“Unlikely,” agreed John. “Well, the French will be delighted that one of theirs wins yet another stage. And if we manage to conquer the pass, I’ll buy you one of those dotted jerseys.”
Sherlock chuckled. “And I’ll get you one with a red number on the back.”
“Really? Most competitive rider? Cool.”