The first Brit to win the Tour de France wasn’t Bradley Wiggins. It was Nicole Cooke. She also won the gold medal in the road race at the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008. She and I were in contact about her feisty and hugely enjoyable autobiography The Breakaway. After I had written about it on the ESPN website she and I agreed to meet. She asked if I could take her birding.
That brought us to Hickling Broad in Norfolk as the short afternoon hurried towards night. It’s a special spot, this, as far from civilisation as you can get in lowland Britain. And here the raptors share a roost in the glorious big-skied marshes. It’s a good place to take a neophyte: no soul can escape unstirred.
The harriers came cruising in one after another after another – I think only marsh harriers, but since most were in silhouette I can’t be sure. Observe the glide, I said, the energy-efficient form of flight. As you freewheel down a hill, so a hawk glides.
A big skein of geese passed overhead, honking hard, pinkfeet for my money though again, it was just a series of dark shapes. They flew in echelon, each following bird getting an easier ride because the bird ahead is taking away the resistance of the air.
And that’s the basis of road-racing on a bike. You have to take your turn at the front if you want the breakaway to succeed: hide behind the others and you’ll all be caught by the pack. But of course, it gets a bit more complicated than that: and there above us the geese were taking turns to lead the flight home to their watery roost for the night.
Nicole has spent most of her life trying to be first: trying not to be last. Fighting in races: fighting, often enough, for the right to race. Here is the growing darkness was something else. But time to move. I cooked up a curry and Nicole supplied a bottle of Welsh champagne.
Good day. Damn good day.