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45-year-old Wellington writer David Coventry hadn’t really seriously written before. He had one book in his desk drawer – his ‘learning to write’ exercise from his Uni days – so writing a novel was probably not on the cards. But then an email arrived that set the wheels spinning: The Invisible Mile is the result.
Coventry was a researcher at the Film Archive. He received a request for footage on Harry Watson* and like you and I, he was scratching his head. Sorry, who? A quick Wiki trace revealed something that caught his imagination. Watson was a Kiwi rider who competed in the first English-speaking Tour de France team in 1928 – which also included legendary Aussie cyclists Hubert Opperman, Percy Osborne and Ernie Bainbridge. The French press called him “The Priest”. Back in the ‘20’s bikes were crude machines; no lights, brakes “like glass”.
Recently, Coventry was on the radio, talking of his fascination with the link between religion and sport, and that’s one theme that peeks through in the book, almost inevitably. Kiwis can’t help their religious fanaticism to particular codes. While he chose not to get caught up in the technical, he could certainly call family, for many tales of endurance (his sister is currently solo-cycling across the USA) and pain, for literary embellishments. And he loves sport. Still, at writing, Coventry felt he knew very little of the Tour, as did most Kiwis in the 1920’s -there was no ESPN to call on back then. But as he researched, the fragments were becoming more and more compelling: sport, religion, memory.
So The Invisible Mile became a re-imagining of that gruelling 1928 race. The men raced on 5476 kilometres of rough roads – that was one and a half times the length of today’s race. The story is told through the eyes of an imaginary fifth rider, allowing Coventry the freedom to write in the style of a memoir, as reportage of a fictitious experience. Of course, without any remaining documentation, many details will be impossible to correlate. But it’s the atmosphere and ‘soul’ of the experience which is the point that he is drawing out. Literal and metaphorical are inextricably plaited together.
A common theme of the novel is the battle with fatigue that mentally and physically taxes each rider to their most extreme limits. That fatigue was not imagined. About two months near the end of his completed manuscript, Coventry himself contracted chronic fatigue syndrome, or ME. Even reading was out of the question. It was all he could do to snatch 10 minutes of lucidity to eke out a few lines.
That protracted experience found its way onto the page. There’s definitely some dazed moments of blind endurance and there are parallels between the endless exhaustion of rider and writer. The rider’s extreme physical stress is clearly elucidated as, fuelled by cocaine and opium, Coventry’s hero endures the appalling pain of non-stop pedaling. His only relief is in his relationship with a female supporter he picks up en route. The rider’s fight against the elements and other teams become the quest. And with a former WWI pilot-brother and a deceased sister, the personal journey of the rider through the battlefields of post-war France is a true, and universal, mission in understanding.The journey to defeat individual demons becomes the race.
Coventry’s work is as compelling as a good documentary, with enough cinematics to really put you in the saddle. His own mind games provide some layers and do well to provide the inner challenges of the long arduous toil those pioneers must have faced. It’s often a grim read, a dry outer body experience, but extremely satisfying.