I woke up this morning knowing just one thing: Today would not be like yesterday.
Oh, and also that my mobile phone appeared to be ringing for the first time in days. Perhaps even weeks. Such was the fever with which I was stricken, time had become an irrelevance.
It took several moments to process what was going on. The malady was strong, and my brain weak. When your mind is occupied solely with race-strategy and parcours-scouting, the immune-system shuts down as spectacularly as Simon Yates in the third week of a Giro.
Eventually, I peeled my head from the sweaty, threadbare pillow to which it had become fused over the course of another malarial, cauchemar-punctuated night.
I reached for the phone with the cautious, tentative movements of an arthritic absinthe-drunk trying to light a match in the dark.
‘Who the f – ‘
Abruptly, as if spooked by the impending profanity, the infernal device ceased its whinnying.
‘Good riddance,’ I mumbled, and lay back to accept the welcoming embrace of slumber.
My eyes slammed open. They had been closed only for a matter of minutes, I was certain.
But who would be so determined to speak to me that they would call twice in such a short space of time?
My mother? If she was still alive, she had exhibited no desire to hear my voice for a number of years. My father, the salty old devil? No, not he, I chuckled internally. Too deep in his soused writings on Descartes sat in his mahogany chair on the veranda to bother checking on my unwell-being.
That left, well, not a soul. In this world, I was alone but for my dissertations on the worthlessness of FTP and the rags in which I was clothed.
There was no longer any choice except to answer. So I answered.
‘Who is this?’
A gravelly, possibly European voice was at the other end of the line.
‘Hello. Am I speaking to, er’ – pauses, audible sound of paper being shuffled – ‘Harry Eyre Du Peloton? Self-professed Lord Of Cycling? Self-styled Omni-talented Master Of Budgeting and Supreme Baron Of Creative In-Race Tacticology? Blogger at InfallibleGodOfTheWheel.net?’
‘It is I.’
‘Okay. Well, er, this is Johaan van der Krapschaaft*. Do you know who I am and who I represent?’
*Editor’s aside: Occasionally, pseudonyms and fake names will be used. This is a work of fiction, but it’s entirely possible some people may not like the [completely imaginary] roles in which they’ve been cast.
My heart, shrunken and black as it was, skipped a beat. (Or it may have simply been indigestion. Doner kebabs gonna doner kebab.)
For I knew precisely who this man was: Grand Vizier of Lotto Soudal, the finest cycling team in the known universe, or at least this side of Alpha Centauri.
‘Good. I rang you yesterday morning, but you didn’t answer.’ What could he mean? Surely I had not slept for an entire day since failing to receive the previous call. Hélas, it mattered not. I remained silent.
‘Anyway,’ continued VDK, ‘I have business to discuss.’ My heart rate accelerated once again. What a relief it was to feel some life flowing through ventricles and atria I had previously written off as dead. ‘Where are you now?’
It occurred to me that I had no idea. At a guess, somewhere between Phnom Penh and Islamabad, possibly in a hostel for delinquents or the converted attic of a kindly missionary.
‘I’m… not sure.’
Seconds passed. I was certain he would end the call. But he did not.
‘Can you find out? And then travel to Belgium. I have read your revolutionary blog post, “How To Turn a Classics Team Into A Grand Tour Behemoth In Five Easy Steps.”
‘We at Lotto Soudal would like you to become our new directeur sportif. Is that something you would consider?’
The last few days have been a blur.
I never found out where I had been when VDK called me. But I do know that what followed was hours spent on cattle-carts, followed by nights spent huddled in the bowels of rusty chicken-boats. New companions made, then quickly forgotten. Schemes devised and schemes revised.
At one point, I found myself lying prone in the bed of a pickup truck driven by a dairy farmer on the outskirts of, I deduced later, Sarajevo. At another, chatting warmly with a bemused local gendarme from the back of his patrol-car while being escorted to the limits of a provincial French town. Merci monsieur, oui je promis not to return any time soon.
Finally, after stowing, hitching, walking and boating my way through what seemed like most of Asia and Europa, here I was: Belgium, the land of opportunity. Ready to take up a position for which I had waited my entire life.
It was a chance I would not waste.
Disclaimer: The ‘Manager’ series is a work of fiction. Real names and teams are used, but this should not be taken as a suggestion that any of the people mentioned are anything like, or share any similarities with, how they are portrayed here. This is not meant to be taken seriously. So don’t.