One by one they come, along the road to Randa, cresting the hill and pushing on up to the monastery; and then one by one, they burst into tears.
There are European champions here, world champions, Olympic medallists. They know exactly what this means, and why they’re doing it, but one, a veteran of Rio, sits almost silent on a bench over to one side, stirring only to tell herself and anyone who will listen, “I’m gonna quit, I’m gonna quit.” Ok, that’s great, thanks for sharing, but no-one else has the energy even to talk. It’s been a relentless climb, hour upon hour in the heat on a bumpy road, and these women might be supremely fit, strong-willed to a fault, hard-wired to take the pain and come back asking for more, but they’re not built for cycling.
So begins the rower’s year.
Over the course of a season, your average rower is racing – or to put it another way, doing the only thing to which most of the sport-following public will pay any attention – for about the length of time that it would have taken Saddam Hussein, back in the day, to rustle up some WMD. If the only reason that someone like Jess has a job is because people like to watch her race, then that’s not, for the vast majority of the time, the job she actually does. The job she actually does is training.
But there’s only so many ergo runs, and boat outings, and stretches, and weights sessions that you can do in the same place before you go spare, and so the season is pockmarked with a variety of overseas training camps.
In the first few months of last year alone, Jess went out to Portugal, to Majorca, to Italy; and if that sounds like a jolly jaunt or two – well, I don’t usually book holidays that I know will make me cry. Majorca, for one, brings the daunting prospect that is Sa Calobra, a 9km bike ride with a 668m altitude gain; and if it’s chucking it down like it does some years and too many people are slipping over on the marbled tarmac, then they’ll just ratchet up the indoor work and break you that way.
But the spring of 2017 is sunny. It takes the best female rowers that Great Britain can produce and drops them on the road to Randa; it pushes them up a constant incline, with the extra uptick that comes just before the summit, and it throws a headwind into their faces; and after three hours, they stop for lunch and everyone’s just quiet except for the Rio veteran who will remain unnamed to save her blushes, but who’s slumped on the bench now, telling Jess how much more fun she could be having with her life.
But she’s still doing it.
They’re (pretty much) all still doing it.
Because even if your year boils down to 38 minutes and 50 and a half seconds, that time can be worth it when you make the most of the rest of it.