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We Begin Our Ascent



About The Book

“ and smart, funny and sad, this is an outstanding sports novel, and Joe Mungo Reed is an author to watch” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review).

Sol and Liz are a couple on the cusp. He’s a professional cyclist in the Tour de France, a workhorse, but not yet a star. She’s a geneticist on the brink of a major discovery, either that or a loss of funding. They’ve just welcomed their first child into the world, and their bright future lies just before them—if only they can reach out and grab it.

But as Liz’s research slows, as Sol starts doping, their dreams grow murkier and the risks graver. Over the whirlwind course of the Tour, they enter the orbit of an extraordinary cast of conmen and aspirants, and the young family is brought ineluctably into the depths of an illegal drug smuggling operation. As Liz and Sol flounder to discern right from wrong, up from down, they are forced to decide: What is it we’re striving for? And what is it worth?

“Joe Mungo Reed’s unforgettable debut novel introduces us to a powerful new literary voice—as riveting as Don DeLillo’s or Toni Morrison’s” (Mary Karr, author of The Liars’ Club). We Begin Our Ascent dances nimbly between tragic and comic, exploring the cost of ambition and the question of what gives our lives meaning. Reed melds the powerful themes of great marital dramas like Revolutionary Road with the humor, character, and heart of a George Saunders collection. Throughout, we’re drawn inside the cycling world and treated to the brilliant literary sports-writing of modern classics like The Art of Fielding or End Zone.


We Begin Our Ascent Chapter 1
We come from our rooms and stand in front of the elevator. We assemble quietly, treading slowly over the thick hotel carpet in our flip-flops. We breathe lightly. We do not talk. We watch the progress of the elevator in the illuminated runes above the door. We do not consider the stairs. Do not walk unnecessarily. This mantra is not merely practical but ideological. Energy is to be expended in only one way. “Sleep and cycle,” our directeur sportif, Rafael, likes to say. “Sleep and cycle.”

We enter the lighted, mirrored cabin when the doors slide back. We take our places, facing forward, a loose formation, which cannot help but bring to mind the grouping we will make on the road. We think about racing of course, finding life in cycling, cycling in life. We are preoccupied with thoughts of the day ahead. The fear is always worse than the thing itself: another mantra, its truth debatable, its usefulness clear.

When the doors of the elevator open, we step out and turn a slow left toward the private dining room of the hotel. We are in a lobby, the floor under our feet tiled now. Other guests notice us. We are grown men in matching sports clothes. Mostly, people know our business. It is the middle of the Tour. Roads are closed, press vans are on the streets, messages of encouragement adorn local shops. Perhaps these guests recognize us as individuals; more likely they know us merely as participants in something larger. The Tour is the real star of these days.

I have done speeches at sporting events, even opened a few bike shops. Whenever I do, whoever introduces me always says that the Tour is the hardest sporting contest in the world. I am just an artifact, proof that it is done by men. I am something which it has happened to, like a bolt fallen from a disintegrating spacecraft and recovered from a cornfield after the event, to prove that all that motion and brutality really existed. I accept this perspective, because this ennobles the activity, dignifies the fact that I am aging and breaking myself in doing it.

We eat our porridge, our omelettes, and our pasta quickly. We are, if nothing else, men of good appetite. I sit next to our team leader, Fabrice: a sort of privilege. He is a neat man. He has good table manners.

“How did you sleep?” he says.

“Normally,” I say.

“Did you dream?” he says.

“No,” I say. “You?”

“Oh yes,” he says, “very richly.”

Fabrice is crazy for Freud and Jung. He analyzes the products of his many hours of sleep. He has built an interest on the routine of his days.

“I dreamed of fathers,” he says.

“Yes?” I say.

“They loomed.”


“The fathers.”

“What does that suggest?”

“In short, that I was anxious.”


“There are, of course, undertones, overtones, histories.”

Fabrice’s specialty is going uphill. He’s a climber. Tours are most often decided in the mountains, where a small number of men are able to kick away from the rest of us. Fabrice is one of these men, or aspires to be. He has little weight to carry. He, more than anyone, is a creature connected to his bicycle. His proportions are three-quarters of those of a normal human being. He has a thin, bony face. His hair is dark, shaved on the sides and back in military style. His chest is large though, and his eyes painfully big. There are hopes for him in this tour, grand enough to be seldom vocalized: a place on the podium, a shot at first place, even.

“Any premonitions?” I ask.

He has peeled a banana. He carefully slices it, laid out on its turned-open skin. “You misunderstand,” he says. “I’m not in the business of premonitions.”

After we have eaten, Rafael rises to speak. He, like Fabrice, is a short man. He wears built-up shoes to increase his height. His role as directeur sportif places him in the team car following behind us riders on the road, threaded into the action by the earpieces we wear. He picks our team, plans tactics, relays information. He jokes that he does everything for us but the pedaling. His is the voice that echoes around my skull, encouraging greater effort, greater power output, greater commitment.

We have done twelve days of the Tour already. We have eleven more days of riding, and two rest days to come. Rafael is acutely conscious of our place in the schedule, in the country, in his plan for things: a knowing beyond knowing, like that of a pianist in the middle of a piece, unreflectively aware of the keys they are touching and will touch next, a perfect form of the music in mind, awaiting realization.

Rafael takes his time to look around the table, to check that all eyes are on him. “I’m not going to tell you how wonderful, how able, how loved by your papas you all are,” he says. “To me, you are each capable of outputting a steady four hundred and fifty watts. I ask you to do that, okay?” His hair is thick, black, and short-cropped. He brushes one hand through it as if seeking to clean his palm. “If you do that, I give you a pat on the head. If you don’t, I think you are a bag of shit and maybe you don’t get a contract next year. All right?”

The bovine slowness of our nodding exemplifies our commitment to conserving energy, maybe also our reluctance to agree. Though he is in his late forties, Rafael is boyish. The perma-tanned skin of his cheeks is smooth. His neck is thin. His hair is still glossy. His dark eyebrows are thick and teased into a monobrow by a causeway of bristles arcing over the bridge of his nose. “Today is a mountain finish,” he says. “Obviously, you are supporting Fabrice. Shield him from the wind, bring him water, give him your bike if he punctures. If it makes you happy, make an inspirational speech about how much you believe in him and slap him on the bottom.” Rafael won eight stages of the Tour when he was a younger man. Once he rode so hard up to a mountaintop finish that medics strapped an oxygen mask to his gasping face as he crossed the line. “I will be more specific in the race briefing,” he tells us. “None of you fuck up. I hate it when you fuck up.”

We pick at the food that remains on our plates, then return to our rooms to rest.

*    *

Before we leave the hotel, I call my wife, Liz. I am married, and even though this has been the case for nearly three years, in the midst of racing, this fact still sometimes hits me with a strangeness. We have a boy now also. He arrived last autumn with the simian face of a new human, lying in his crib, clasping at the air with chubby hands, his palms nearly creaseless.

When I am on tour, Liz takes care of our son. She is a research biologist, a postdoc. She breeds and dissects zebra fish relentlessly, looking at their spinal cells, seeking to fathom the workings of specific genes.

She picks up after the fifth ring. She knows it is me, even on our old home phone without a screen telling her so. That is a feature of our third year of marriage and our first of parenthood: it is inevitably the other of our partnership making contact.

“How are you doing?” she says. I can make out the sounds of our kitchen in the background: our son gurgling in his high chair, a kettle coming to boil, the radio on low. I feel a nostalgia for the routine I left behind just weeks before. Yet I know, also, that it is a pleasure I should resist, like a warm bed on a cold morning. The thought of that kitchen is a comfortable one, and I do not want to diminish the leaden-bellied feeling that I have come to associate with proper preparation for a race.

“I’m good,” I say. “Normal. Fine. Ready.”

Our boy is called Barry. This was Liz’s choice. A tribute to a favorite uncle, who died before I ever met her. She had been keen to name our child before he arrived, and so I ceded her this right and accepted a middle-aged man’s name for our new baby. I cannot yet extend myself to think of him as Barry, however, and have called him B in this first year of his life.

I tell Liz that we will leave for the start line soon. There is not much for either of us to say, beyond acknowledgment of our activities, our consciousness of each other in the world. “We’ve got things to do today,” Liz says. “I’m off to the lab, but perhaps we’ll watch you on TV in the afternoon.”

“Or the group,” I say. “My head bobbing among other identically dressed men.”

“I’m like one of those farmers who can recognize specific sheep,” she says. “Somehow I always manage to pick you out of a crowd.”

*    *

The silence on the bus is heavy. As we drive to the start line we reflect upon our bodies, conducting an inventory of aches, of tiredness, of places of strength. The curtains are partly drawn. We sit mutely, the same few scenes, concerning or hopeful, vying for supremacy in our minds. It is when one is racing that it is easiest to believe in one’s power: when one is enclosed within the peloton, between those other bodies, part of a mass, rolling amorphously along the road like a drop of water down a pane of glass.

When we park, Tsutomo’s fan is waiting. Tsutomo is Japanese. He is a domestique like me, another man riding in support of Fabrice. He seldom talks and never offers up his dreams for examination.

Shinichi follows Tsutomo around. He wears a battered windbreaker and cycles part of each day’s route himself. He waves a Japanese flag. Tsutomo is entirely uninterested in him.

“Hello, Shinichi,” I say, when I leave the bus. I speak to Shinichi because Tsutomo will not. I wonder if this isn’t a small act of treachery.

“How is Tsutomo?” says Shinichi.

“He is well,” I tell him.

“Not sick?” says Shinichi. “Eating good?” Shinichi is chubby. He has a robust jolliness entirely lacking in his hero. Tsutomo is wiry, slightly distant, handsome, the only asymmetry in his face the slight leftward lilt of his nose, broken in a past race.

“Very fit,” I say.

Shinichi beams. He rubs his hands. He wears replica gloves and, under his windbreaker, the jersey of our cycling team. I wonder what it must cost, what Shinichi must go without, to follow Tsutomo around France each July.

“So,” he says slowly. “Do you think today he will win?”

“Oh,” I say. This is the dirty business of talking to people, of talking to fans. “Tsutomo will do what’s best for the team. Perhaps he will help Fabrice win.”

“Will you win?”

“I will help Tsutomo help Fabrice win.”

That is largely true. We are competing only to get our team leader, Fabrice, across the twenty-one stages of this Tour in as little time as possible. This cumulative time, the criteria on which the winner of the Tour is judged, is all that matters to us. Our own results are not important. We shade him from the wind, pace him, will give him our own bike if he punctures. These measures have just small effects upon his time, yet this is a sport of fine margins—decided by differences of seconds after days and days of riding—and so small advantages, wrung from our fanatical assistance of our strongest rider, offer our team the best chance of victory. We only think of the ever-rising time it takes Fabrice to make his way through this race, how that time compares to his rivals’, how we may act to lessen it.

The mechanics set up a headquarters around the team bus. Our bikes are mounted on stationary trainers to allow us to warm our legs. We are encouraged to drink a mixture of sugar syrup and caffeine. I spin on a trainer next to Fabrice. He is at ease in these mornings. He smells of Tiger Balm and saddle cream. His eyes are shiningly alert.

“A pedestrian steps off the pavement one day,” he says, “and is run down by a cyclist.”

“Right,” I say.

“ ‘You’re lucky,’ says the cyclist to the pedestrian.”

I nod.

“ ‘Why am I lucky?’ says the pedestrian. ‘That really hurt.’ ” Fabrice raises a finger, holds the pause. “ ‘Well,’ says the cyclist, ‘I normally drive a bus.’ ”

I smile.

He laughs himself. “It’s a good one,” he says. “Don’t tell me it’s not a good one.”

The PA system is blaring over by the start line, playing the greatest hits of the Police. Above us, a broadcast helicopter flies around, taking in the city, testing the thin morning sky.

Rafael comes over. The starting paddock is a small village, and Rafael has been walking it like a local notable, greeting journalists, organizers, other directeurs. He takes a moment to watch us. “Raise the tempo,” he says. Fabrice’s expression becomes stern. He shifts his weight to the front of his saddle. The hum of the trainer’s flywheel rises.

I think of Liz saying that she will try to watch us on TV this afternoon. Last year one of the other teams’ riders broke away from the pack and rode ahead of everyone for three hours. He was alone and riding hopelessly into a headwind. The peloton, with all the aerodynamic efficiency of a large group, caught and overtook him easily before the finish. He never really had a chance of winning.

Questioned afterward, he said it was his wife’s birthday. He knew that if he rode off the front she’d get to see him for three hours on her TV screen. Also, his sponsor, a manufacturer of household cleaning products, saw its logo displayed upon his sweat-soaked race kit for most of the day.

*    *

When we start, we start slowly. Spectators cheer and blow air horns and we press down on our pedals and roll gradually up to speed. On the road something loosens inside us, because we are no longer dreading anything.

We are people who understand each other. We talk together. Cyclists from other teams often pull alongside Fabrice to ask him about their dreams. Teeth, I am led to understand, are powerful and recurring metaphors.

Tsutomo and I fall back to the support vehicle to collect water bottles for the other riders. Most often, this is what our assistance entails.

We roll through alpine foothills. We are on a highway cleared by gendarmes who now stand to the side of the road watching the crowds.

Our team surrounds Fabrice as we ride. We try to keep him near the front of the pack of riders, ready to chase down any competitors who might sprint off ahead.

Rafael shouts all sorts of technical details through our earpieces: speed, wind direction, projected wattages. He says, “I’m happy. Let’s not fuck this up.”

*    *

Cycling is about moving through air. There are technicalities—distinctions like “turbulent” and “laminar flow,” for instance—but really it is that simple. To push alone through the air is so much harder than moving along in the slipstream of another rider. The peloton—the group composed of the majority of riders, moving close together, sharing turns at the front—is much more efficient than any solitary cyclist. Victory in a tour is about staying with the peloton first of all, and then breaking from it to gain time when other factors, such as steep gradients, crosswinds, conflicts, or confusions, temporarily diminish its capability. The role of myself and Tsutomo is to keep Fabrice ensconced safely within the group for most of the race, to leave him enough energy to push ahead when the rest of us falter.

I still remember explaining all of this to Liz for the first time: the pleasure she took in it, and the satisfaction I took in turn in her engagement. She has a biologist’s interest in adaptive strategy, in hidden motives and cooperation. We were in a coffee shop. She listened intently, leaning forward, fiddling with a sugar packet which eventually tore, spilling brown grains of sugar onto the wooden tabletop. “It’s kinship selection,” she said.

“Sorry?” I said.

“An evolutionary concept. You’re like a honeybee, giving up a chance to breed for the queen.”


“The best strategy for your own reproductive success is to assist another who shares your genes,” she said. “Speaking figuratively.”


“ ‘Genes’ in this case being your team, your sponsors.”

“A maker of chicken nuggets,” I said.

“Exactly,” she said, laughing.

It was flattering to be considered in this way, to have my dedication regarded as something worthy of inquiry. Until I met Liz, I thought of charm as a proactive quality, something one deployed upon others. And yet she is charming in the opposite way, finding interest in the lives of those she meets, drawing out their stories.

Presently, she has turned her earnestness to B. She doesn’t just observe his actions as I do but considers them in the context of his development. She hides a toy and speculates on whether he knows it hidden or considers it destroyed. She builds a narrative of his growth, threads events into a rich story, which, to my discomfort, currently advances forward without me.

*    *

Lunches are canvas bags thrust out into the road by team helpers. We catch them as we move past, hook them temporarily over our shoulders, pick out energy gels and rice cakes.

There is an alpine river thundering along beside the highway, a railway on the other side. We roll past the outskirts of a town, past its supermarkets, lumber yards, and warehouses.

We leave the straightness of the highway. We begin to climb more steeply up a thinner, winding road toward some ski towns. Here the crowd is deeper. The spectators are attracted by the gradient: the chance to see us slow, suffer, begin to exhibit our differing capabilities. They have waited, written messages onto the road in whitewash. As the slope steepens, the peloton is less effective. Air resistance becomes a smaller portion of what holds us back. Riders start to tire, dropping gears, grimacing.

Fabrice is concentrating. Discussions of dreams ceased long ago. Tsutomo and I ride ahead of him, pushing hard, seeking to keep up with two teams, one sponsored by a northern European banking group, the other by a French manufacturer of farm machinery, who are raising the pace. People break from the lines of spectators at the roadside and run beside us. They bellow, wave their hands wildly. A fat man wearing lederhosen and a cowboy hat jogs at a speed one would not expect his build to allow, shouting into Fabrice’s ear.

Pedals creak on their spindles. Some riders stand, some sit and spin, their bodies rocking in the saddle. Fingers dig into handlebar tape. “You’re into the red zone, Tsutomo,” says Rafael over the radio. The red zone means that Tsutomo’s pulse is high, that he is exerting himself in a way that cannot be maintained. There is so much data taken from us that it must be returned simplified into a color-coded system. From the car, Rafael has access to our pulse rates, our speed, and the power we push through our pedals. Tsutomo slows and drops behind me and Fabrice in order to recover. I look back and realize that we have broken from the majority of riders. They are strung out behind us, down the switchbacks of the mountain, their progress assessable by flashes of their brightly colored kits and the activity in the crowd as they pass.

I am nauseous. We have to summit this hill, descend, and then summit another before the day’s finish. There are forty kilometers to go. I try to give myself to my pace, convince myself of its inevitability. The bankers and the agricultural machinists have lost riders too. Our group is now forty or so riders strong. I think of my feet making circles. I try to imagine these circles as being independent of me, mechanical and necessary.

Two kilometers from the top of the climb, Tsutomo passes me and settles in front. He seems to have energy back but his pacing is erratic. He surges and slows a little. I see his forearms quiver with the effort.

“Very good, boys,” says Rafael into our earpieces. “Let’s keep this.”

I stand on my pedals and glance back at the other riders, at the road falling away behind us. To my rear, Fabrice just holds his head down. He offers no hint of his condition. We crest the peak in the same group of forty. We begin to descend. As we start to freewheel, we do the zips of our cycling jerseys right up. The road dips away and we crouch into our bicycles. Having been unable to separate from each other, riders now work together, stringing out into a line. The wind rushing past chills us. Our sweat-soaked kits quickly become clammy. The air tears through the insubstantial lycra to our skin. There are few fans on this side of the mountain. The action is too fast to really appreciate. The only sounds are the wind and the buzz of our wheels against asphalt. If things are going right in a race, there is little pure fear. Instead, the experience is vivid, consuming. Fear is not quite fear if it does not have time to settle, but an energy, a strange quality of attention. My real anxiety comes to me in the evening, when I reflect upon past descents and anticipate new ones.

On the lower slopes of the mountain we enter a village. Shouts and clicks of gears echo off the walls of houses. Out of the village, the road levels. The riders bunch together into a group, two riders wide and twenty deep. We take turns to ride on the front, pushing into a crosswind. The detente which has prevailed during the descent will soon be broken. We anticipate the last climb: the thing that will decide the stage, determine the day’s beneficiaries and victims.

Through our earpieces, Rafael reads out our pace, the distance to the finish line. Tsutomo and I need not make it to the finish with this group, many of whom are team leaders, favorites to win the Tour. We must simply pace Fabrice for as long as we can bear, then we may slow and grind toward the end with the stragglers.

In the flat of the bottom of the valley, hay is being harvested. The air is filled with the rich, peppery smell of cut grass stalks. People stand on the edge of ditches, between the fields and the road, calmer than the crowds on the hillside. They hold up signs or simply applaud.

Gradually, the road tilts into a climb. As a group, we keep pushing, though we know the pace to be unsustainable for all but a handful of us. At times like this I feel it is hardly worth breathing. Something is escaping from me and all my sucking in of air will not return it. My vision closes to encompass just the space in front. Now that we are back on an upslope the crowds are all around us, a blur of replica kits and banners and sunburnt skin. “Concentrate,” says Rafael in my earpiece. “Ten kilometers left.” Tsutomo is behind me and I can feel him faltering. I hear the click of Fabrice’s gear shifter. Fabrice moves past Tsutomo and settles at my rear wheel. We ride a few moments longer and when I look back I see Tsutomo off the back of the group, suddenly just a man cycling up a steep hill alone.

As we go on, other riders begin to drop. Soon there are few more than thirty of us. Someone in the crowd sprays us with water. Spectators are forever proffering water. One may pour it over one’s head, but it should not be drunk. It has been decided that the crowd could contain any number of psychopaths with any variety of designs on our insides. The water could be poisoned, unsanitary, tainted with substances that would interest the dope testers. “You are accountable,” Rafael likes to say, menacingly, “for what goes into your bodies.”

One of the members of the banking team stands on his pedals and attempts to stamp away from the group. The rest of us are alert, however. The group lurches, and draws itself around him.

The life has gone out of my legs. The pace is a machinery greater than any one of us. I feel I am being dragged into it, like a Victorian unfortunate caught in a factory apparatus.

Heroes, here, are made in ten-second increments. I tell myself, Ten seconds more, and then when those ten seconds have elapsed, I tell myself the same thing again. If you can put off your collapse long enough, there is no reason you can’t take everything. However, in the moment, it all feels as rigged as a game at the fair. These increments just get longer.

Then I just drop. Fabrice gives me a nod as I seem to slide backward down the hill. I wait for that slower pace to calm me. I wait for my legs to return. They do not. No pace is slow enough. I pedal in hollow, aching strokes toward the line.

*    *

The finish plays out over the radio. Rafael’s exhortations go from encouraging to disappointed and then to slightly threatening, the tone ever detectable through the static. One of the leaders kicks ahead in the final few kilometers, and Fabrice can do nothing to stay with the man. He loses time.

As I approach the line later, Rafael addresses me through my earpiece. “One more kilometer,” he says, “you lazy piece of shit.”

I just keep pedaling. Everybody is passing me. Who knows how many have passed me. Soon, perhaps, a clown on a tiny bicycle will come squeaking up the hill.

Tsutomo, even, is gaining on me. We need just to cross the line, however. Fabrice is the racer; we are his assistants. The fans don’t concede or even seem to know this. They are still hollering, urging us on, trying to hook into some submerged sense of pride. The last kilometer is cordoned off. They lean forward and beat high notes on the bars of the metal barricades. They seek some residue of spectacle, some desire, some fight in our eyes. They don’t get it.

*    *

The leading riders, those who haven’t been packed off to massages, podiums, or interviews, roll back down the course warming down, spinning their legs idly. That’s how we recover from cycling: more cycling. I keep my head down and continue to pedal. I pedal and I live in my little increments, endure these blocks of time, and eventually I am across the line.

At the finish, we fight through crowds and trail back to the bus. We reassemble easily because there are no commitments for our riders, no prizes to collect. Fabrice does a couple of interviews. He is curt, visibly disappointed. In previous days he has been doing well, staying with the major contenders in the race, building what Rafael calls a foundation. Today the television people get none of the sunniness, the sly pleasure and jokes that they have become inclined to expect from him.

People push food into my hands: protein bars, rice cakes, recovery shakes. Our bus is parked on the backstreets of the alpine town. Here the barriers and cordons which separate us from the crowds are largely absent. We are protected by the banality of our routines. We take off cycling clothes. We flannel our faces. Mechanics spin the cranks of our bicycles, spraying oil and adjusting bolts. We wait for the bus to move. An elderly couple watch us from a balcony coolly, the man smoking, the woman holding a small, yapping dog as if it were a child.

I eat a protein bar. The next day begins the moment we finish the last, we are told. So much of our success is built not on what happens on the race course, but on what happens before we start. “There is no fuel,” Rafael says, “like the thought that you have done something in preparation that the other guy has not.” He has never needed to sell any of us on this notion. We came into this team having marked ourselves out from so many other aspirants. We each knew what separated us from all those riders who fell away into amateurism. In our early careers, we all outpaced our competitors with the confidence that we had woken earlier than they had, that we had tuned our bikes more comprehensively, that we had trained whatever the weather, that we had been out riding on Christmas morning. Rafael’s dictum has two aspects: positive and negative. We seek to do what other racers do not, and we do not neglect to copy gains our competitors make.

As I walk to the steps of the bus, I see Shinichi. He moves around the tour with some efficiency. Presence at both the start and finish is impressive. He sits on the pavement of the small street, his own bicycle resting beside him. He still wears his team kit and nods at me as I go over.

“A bad race,” he says, shaking his head.

“I suppose,” I say, “a little disappointing.”

“Tsutomo was very tired,” he says.

“We’re all very tired,” I say.

“Yes,” he says, “everyone is very tired. Very tired is no excuse.”

I shrug in reply.

On the bus, we pass around a little bottle with an eyedropper lid. Two drops on your tongue: that is the formula. It’s a tiny dose of testosterone, enough to aid one’s recovery, so small as to be undetectable by the drug testers. It is very important to feel that there is something within oneself doing good, fighting the insurgency that one’s muscles and joints mount in the evening. “The ancient Greeks used to use testosterone,” Rafael said to me once. “They used to eat ram’s testicles before a race.” He was overjoyed by this tidbit, wherever he had heard it. There is clearly some great justification in finding the roots of an action, any action, in antiquity. Perhaps I could have told him that the ancient Greeks used to own slaves and bugger children; maybe that would have been the smart reply. However, on tour we have no need for smart replies. I took Rafael’s comment on board, and now when I use the dropper I think about the lineage of the act.

We pass the bottle covertly. Though it is our own team bus, there is a need to contain these activities. A couple of the new riders on the team are, as I was until nine months ago, yet to be ushered into the program. Though they might have made certain assumptions in light of their teammates’ abilities, there is no need to offer them such evidence without good reason. The bus driver, for all we know, thinks us the most principled athletes to have walked the earth. Rafael has even taken care to keep our team doctor in the dark. Marc is only recently graduated from medical school. He has taken a pay cut to do what he says is a unique and fascinating job. He is a lanky, awkward guy in a perpetual quandary, it seems, about how to hold his body. He is balding in way that is painful to witness. His role is confined to the treatment of grazes and saddle rash. More illicit activities are performed by other members of the team staff and by doctors hired from outside the team. The era in which teams doped and were found out en masse has passed. Rafael has taken care to hire a doctor who can be shut out: “a useful buffer of ignorance.”

The bus moves into the center of town. The vehicle swims in the glass front of an office block.

When I turn on my phone, I have a text message from my wife. “We watched the finish,” it says. “We saw you. Good. Black socks and white shoes though?”

At first Liz’s friends called me “The Cyclist.” “What kind of adult,” she reported one of them saying, “worries about how fast he can ride his bike?” Liz found this funny, and it was, though perhaps a little close to my own anxieties. She has always been an advocate of my career among her friends, however. She has learned to talk about the tactics, communicate the nuances of the sport. “You’re missing out,” she tells friends who watch football or tennis or nothing at all. I am grateful for the advocacy, though also aware that, among her friends, it has caused me to be solely defined by my profession. I have read that when Minoans first encountered mounted horsemen, they came up with the myth of centaurs to explain what they had seen. To Liz’s friends, I think, I am at least half bicycle.

I sit next to Fabrice. He huddles against the window, the corner of his forehead resting on the glass. He watches the town stutter past us. “No one is getting a wing today,” he says.

“No,” I say. Wings are an invention of Rafael’s. Performances in which members of our team do their jobs beyond all possible reproach are awarded little stickers of wings. We attach them to our bicycle frames, like kills marked on fighter planes. There is debate about the symbolism. Some on the team suggest that a wing means we ascend like birds; others argue that it is to do with our sponsor, a manufacturer of poultry products. We covet them, anyway. Rafael, more than anyone, knows what we should be doing. A reward from him is never given without good reason. No one, so far, on this tour, has acquired a wing. We are all eager to be the first to do so. Fabrice has four for the season, Tsutomo two. I, so far, have none.

Fabrice closes his eyes. He lets his head roll against the window with the movement of the coach. He is not sleeping. “Tomorrow,” he says. “Tomorrow will be as smooth as cream.”

About The Author

Photo © Jo Hanley

Joe Mungo Reed was born in London and raised in Gloucestershire, England. He has a degree in philosophy and politics from the University of Edinburgh, an MFA in creative writing from Syracuse University, and a PhD in creative writing from the University of Manchester. He is the author of the novel, We Begin Our Ascent, and his short stories have appeared in VQR, the London Evening Standard, and Corriere della Sera. He is currently living in Edinburgh, UK.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (May 14, 2019)
  • Length: 256 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501169229

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Raves and Reviews

“Joe Mungo Reed has the sort of triple-barreled name that often comes attached to a certain kind of disheveled country music star…But scratch all that. Reed is young and English and…based on the aloof, punishing control he displays in his small, tight bud of a first novel, We Begin Our Ascent, he doesn't appear to have a disheveled bone in his body…It's one of the indices of Reed's talent that you hotly flip this book's pages even when there's not a lot going on, when it's just another hilly day on the tour…This novel derives its power from its limited focus and direct language. There are no adipose, word-glutted sentences. Reed is mostly content to give us strong silk thread, absent pearls…This novel’s darkness, like heart disease, sneaks up on you…Like a racer, Reed carefully husbands his resources in this ruthless little sports novel. He enlists our mind in Sol's project as an athlete. He sees the madness in it as well.”
—Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“A dazzling debut by an exciting and essential new talent: fast, harrowing, compelling, masterfully structured, genuinely moving. Reed is a true stylist and has, like James Salter before him, a gift for making a physical world that is very naturally imbued with rich metaphorical meaning. This novel is a heartening reminder of what happens when a keen intelligence is applied to a rarefied subject.”
—George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo

“Joe Mungo Reed’s unforgettable debut novel, We Begin Our Ascent, introduces us to a powerful new literary voice—as riveting as DeLillo’s or Morrison’s. On the surface, this is a book about doping in the Tour de France, but it’s really about marriage and masculinity, competition and loyalty, and a sense of aspiration that blooms a person open and simultaneously shuts him tight as a clamshell. I read it cover to cover in a gulp.”
Mary Karr, author of The Art of Memoir and The Liars’ Club

“A quick and enjoyable read, perfect for a summer weekend before the Tour. Reed’s pacing is expert, slowly drawing you in and then driving you ever faster to the crux of the story and its quick, quiet denouement. And Reed’s powers of perception and turns of phrase provide small delights throughout … Its main draw…is Reed’s voice, which even in this debut novel is already strong and will continue to rise to the top. ... Reed also demonstrates piercing clarity about the sport’s larger truths … [his] most potent observations mine the sport for broader meditations.”

“Exceptional … Reed's first novel lives squarely within Don DeLillo's sphere of influence … but Reed relies more heavily on plot than DeLillo, and the effect is remarkably successful: Alongside the ideas and the jokes, there is real suspense and human drama. … Fast and smart, funny and sad, this is an outstanding sports novel, and Reed is an author to watch.”
Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review

“Absorbing … Reed’s writing has a hypnotic cadence. It hums along. … Reed has a real grasp of professional cycling … But this novel stands out in the story of Sol and his wife, Liz, how they each strive to maintain their individuality and relevance in marriage. … An engrossing novel.”
AM New York

“Joe Mungo Reed propels readers through the fascinating competitive sports world of the Tour de France … with a humorous, philosophical lens. The narrative is richly poetic and smartly suspenseful, with themes of sacrifice, loyalty, and morality.”
Christian Science Monitor¸ “10 Best Books of June”

“This novel will hook you…and haunt you. Embroidered with a sly humor—and insider details about the cycling world—the novel explores the sacrifices we’re willing to make for our dreams, climbing steadily toward its stunning climax.”
AFAR Magazine, “10 Must-Read Books for Summer”

“As meditative as it is thrilling”
Vanity Fair, “This Season’s Ultimate Fiction List”

“Riveting … a beautifully written story of the consequences of the choices we make.”
Good Housekeeping, "The 25 Best New Books for Summer 2018"

“From page one, Joe Mungo Reed will make you a cycling convert with his ability to convey the often quiet beauty, struggle, and competition of the sport. While the stages of the Tour keep the wheels of the plot spinning, it is the portrait of two ambitious people trying to work through the shades of grey in the choices they make in the pursuit of their dreams and the unfolding of their marriage that will keep you turning the pages.”
The Daily Beast, “The Best Summer Beach Reads of 2018”

We Begin Our Ascent is a brilliant debut novel, as affecting as it is smart. It gives us the particular life of competitive biking in all its fascinating complexity, delving into the visceral thrills of the race and the painful vagaries of the body in equal measure. Joe Mungo Reed writes dazzling sentences that veer from philosophy to absurd humor to childlike wonder. His mesmerizing and inventive engagement with his subject brings to mind another great sports novel, Don DeLillo’s End Zone.”
Dana Spiotta, author of Innocents and Others

“Strong, lean, compact … With its taut, unsentimental prose, Reed’s novel is both an exciting depiction of the prestigious bike race and an intimate portrait of a couple coming to terms with the cost of pursuing difficult goals and determining whether they’re worth the price.”
Publishers Weekly

“A fascinating, darkly funny look at doping in professional cycling. … As the team’s problems go from bad to worse to disastrous, Reed’s wryly profound narrator uncovers insights into groupthink, dependency, and the dangers of mixing personal and professional lives.”

We Begin Our Ascent is a book for anyone who has ever wanted something a little bit too much. Joe Mungo Reed’s complicated characters have moved a step beyond the right thing, and they linger at the precipice. This is a story for our time.”
—Kyle Minor, author of Praying Drunk

We Begin Our Ascent is a non-stop, heart-racing ride and a sneaky-smart tour of 21st-century labor relations. If you've ever worked hard enough to vomit just for a shiny sticker, this is the book for you.”
Malcolm Harris, author of Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials

“With cool, unerring prose, Joe Mungo Reed provides a richly detailed—and, at times, comically absurdist—exploration of the Tour de France that also functions as an extended metaphor for other long-term endeavors requiring stamina, ritual, and erasure of individuality for the greater good: marriage, parenting, work, life itself. Even if you don’t know pelotons from pedals, We Begin Our Ascent makes its athletic microcosm vivid and exciting, and Reed is equally adept at dissecting the conflicts of the cyclist’s taxed yet enlarged heart.”
Teddy Wayne, author of Loner

“I enjoyed this book so much! Reed gets deeply into the nature of work, its meaning, its frustrations, its rituals and intricacies. Reed’s descriptions of racing are fabulous. … Every cyclist who likes to read should pick this book up for sure, but it has a lot to offer for anyone interested in work, family, competition, and ambition, and for anyone who wants an absorbing, thought-provoking, exciting read.”
Of Books and Bicycles

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