Samurai Cycling

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Cycling is, for the vast majority, a hobby; and a way to breathe-in fresh air.

Of course, it’s also a way from A to B – and not necessarily just geographically (as per my previous post).

But although it can offer reflections on life – see this blog! – it rarely becomes a ‘way of life’ in itself: it is a pastime, not a religion (although I have seen (amusing!) cycling T-shirts proclaiming “I worship at the altar of the handlebars”; and “My only religion is cycling”).

That said, to fully embrace something – to dedicate energy to any pursuit or goal; or to work towards an aspiration or ambition – must encourage some reflections as to the meaning of life: how it can be best enjoyed; and whether or not your current choices are allowing that.  Thoughts expand beyond the activity itself – be it marathon training, or revising for an exam – to encompass what you eat and drink; how you plan and organise your time and commitments; and how and when you interact with others – indeed what others may think about your latest choices.

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You may be familiar with “David Brailsford”. As Performance Director of the Sky Cycling Team, he made his name, and the name of British Cycling, through an attention to detail that surpassed all others. Main keystone events are revered and worked around: his athletes are prepared physically, psychologically and emotionally through tweaks to their training, diets and minds; all leading up to a single moment in time when it would all come to fruition. But, behind the scenes, focus will not have been all about the velodrome arena itself, but will have encompassed everything from the type of polish on the floor to the grain of the floorboards:

Every detail has a purpose, demanding contemplation, appreciation and, then, understanding; and, it is through their study, that such details take on different forms, until even the grains of the floorboards can be described as having a personality and beauty of their own.

In this way, it is interesting, and paradoxical, that the greater the singularity of focus, the greater the need for a wider appreciate of everything else….

which brings me round to the Samurai.

From the moment they woke, they devote(d) themselves to the perfection of whatever it was that they pursued. But, although the Bushido (their code of conduct) stated that loyalty, courage, veracity, compassion, and honour were important above all else, an appreciation and respect of life were also considered imperative, as this added the necessary balance to a warrior’s character. Be it the making of tea, the application of make-up or their sword-craft, the samurai were encouraged to appreciate, understand and absorb the strength and beauty that exists all around – and to be disciplined in their approaches to nature and to life.

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In Julian Barnes “History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters”, there is a tale about heaven. A golfer there enjoys steady and continuous improvement at his game, until the point is reached when he can card a round of 18 shots. The kicker though (I paraphrase) is that he misses the strains of achievement from the real world. There is no (golfing equivalent) of winter miles in the hail; a punctured rear tyre in a heavy downpour; or (another) calorie-miscalculation as leg-power suddenly vaporizes with 30 miles still to go. The ambitions that are most satisfying are the ones that are hardest earned.

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When we lived in Australia a few years ago I dabbled at golf myself. To my embarrassment, upon entering a local match-play tournament, I came head-to-head with one of the most experienced luminaries of the WA Golfing scene.

With only two holes left of our game, solely because of my (very appropriately high!) handicap, I was faced with a short 4-foot putt directly up a steep hill which would win the hole… but also knew that two-putts would draw. Rather embarrassingly, but completely typically, despite having one of the safest shots the game can offer, I left my putt well short – but was satisfied when I sunk my 2nd attempt. But my opponent was genuinely upset at this performance. It took a me a while to understand such an apparently disproportionate reaction: he had happily tolerated my complete failure to adhere to the most inclusive of dress-codes(with hindsight, not something I’m proud of); he had appreciated, rather than depreciated, my use of cheap, second-hand clubs; and had not been offended by the wear and tear shown by my aged golf-balls. But this, I now realise, was seen as being a betrayal of the game he loved: a lack of attention to detail, and to one of the most basic fundamentals of the sport. Worse still, it implied that I could turn up to play against him with such disregard and lack of focus – he took it as a sign of disrespect to his own efforts, preparation and training that I could be so castaway with my own attempts.

He won the last hole, knocked me out of the tournament and went on to qualify for the state-wide final.

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It has been a while since I have actively ‘trained’ at cycling – “practise with the objective of enhancing performance”. MS has too frequently nullified events that I have been focussing on, so, instead, I cycle when I can, go fast when circumstance allows, and enjoy the scenery when it does not. One blessing of my diagnosis has been my re-evaluation (or re-reflections) of life which have enhanced both these experiences: MS has simplified my cycling ambitions, and offered a greater clarity (purity?) and perspective of purpose. Sometimes I’m fast; sometimes I’m slow – but I won’t beat myself up about it. However,to those that take the sport more seriously – be it through aero-clothing, indoor-training, or more blood, sweat and tears: chapeau to you, and respect to your efforts.

And as for Samurai Cycling? (I like my friend’s recent ride-title: “Lunch Ride with a pause for martial arts training session in the woods”), but, as perhaps a better example: I recently emailed a cyclist from BSCC who had apparently ‘found’ a new off-road route up one of Bristol’s more iconic climbs. He is a national-level rider, so I was half-expecting a response filled with cassette-gearing and HR zones (he had just set the fastest time ever ridden up that hill)… but he replied: “Watch out for the sequoia trees on the right, they’re just coming into yellow flower”. Samurai Cycling indeed.

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The winding roads

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It’s turned out that I’ve written this blog a bit differently.

I wasn’t sure what the theme should be – “some things I’ve been thinking about” – so I’ve produced something of a list….. but, maybe, now I’ve got it all written down, the ‘thing’ that brings them together has become clear.

The conclusion seems to make sense to me – I think….

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March and April, as is so often the case with my MS, were a bit of a struggle. I emerged; disappeared back under for another week; then gasped once more, and now seem to be afloat at last.

I did a 600km ride – the Bryan Chapman Memorial – from Chepstow to Anglesey (…and back); and sped around the Welsh Velothon Sportive.

The fuzzy blurs of vertigo seems to have gone – and this last few days I’ve been bashing out some speed on the bike for the first time in awhile. And it feels really good to be back with something akin to strength in my legs.

Summer is beckoning – and I’m no longer banging on my cell door demanding to be let out.

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I’ve long ridden bikes. I’ve explored, commuted, travelled and toured. But it was only as recently as 2013 that I entered my first “time trial”. I turned up on my old steel bike, wearing mountain biking shoes, gym shorts and a kagool. I couldn’t really believe what I’d stumbled upon: in, an otherwise completely non descript A-road lay-by, there was a collection of lyra-clad riders warming-up on static rollers. They had bikes that looked like shining carbon spaceships, wore weird pointy helmets and had gnarly body shapes that looked like snakes. I might have been imagining it, but even their faces seemed streamlined and honed. The organiser encouraged me to remove my billowing waterproof before I started, but didn’t like the thought of riding through drizzle, so I parachuted my way round the course as young whippets shot past, tucked into their aero positions.

Several people were friendly, although it was fairly clear that I wasn’t ‘one of them’. I definitely wasn’t one of the cool kids. Some seemed to distance themselves from my dishevelment as if it might be contagious to their sleekness. I imagine that the organiser would probably not have bet on seeing me again. But I turned up again the following week – having fitted road tyres to my bike and dispensed with my jacket. The same friendly faces made small talk with me again, and encouraged me to keep going.

Some of those guys will have been breaking themselves training through winter. Indoor spin classes; leg weights; chain-gangs of head-down cyclists in the rain. I perhaps understand a bit more now about how they saw me when I first turned up: I was fresh from commuting to work on my bike – and only when the sun shone. Keen but green. I was friendly but somehow had a lot to learn. And my bike could have done with a clean.

A few weeks later I tried to join an unofficial club ride during the week. The route was very hilly and I got dropped almost immediately. About an hour later, the group screamed past me as they descended – they were lapping me already and I was probably in their way.

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Early on my recent 600km I found myself riding alongside a guy I’d met several times before (the pool of cyclists that enter these crazy events is probably pretty small). I retain his anonymity – let’s call him “Steve” – but he is quite a personality on the audax circuit. He rides further, faster and more frequently than virtually anyone else. I wondered if he still enjoyed all those miles. This event was definitely a spectacular one – over Snowdonia and through the Beacons – but many are not so and are designed instead to make the miles obtainable, so focus on being flat and steady rather than spectacular. Mile after mile, or, in his case, mile after mile after mile. A pleasure? Hobby? Love? Or an obsession? I know, for sure, that he earns those miles. Often riding solo, he rarely “drafts” behind other riders – more often than not, it’s him pulling others forward.

One of the frustrations of such long distance events is the etiquette of riding with others. Some sit silently on your back wheel for mile after mile as you act as their unacknowledged windbreak. There’s no rules being broken, other than those of fairness and honour.  “Steve” was growling to me, but possibly largely to himself, as the group tucked in behind its leaders. It was as though he had earned his place at these events the hard way – the proper way – and he resented all those others getting away with an easy ride. Our speeds, then paths, deviated as he knuckled down into another event. Another one he’d ticked off. Tutting at the pretenders that couldn’t do it on their own accords.

Amongst groups trying to cope tough, there will always be some who are already tougher than others. In his eyes, I doubt some even touch the sides.

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I got a place in the Welsh Velothon through a friend. It’s a ~90 mile route from Cardiff – with the massive attraction of being on closed (e.g. car-free) roads. It’s huge – around 10,000 cyclists wend their way round, at their different speeds, with their different outlooks, and their different attitudes, approaches and ambitions.

I was looking forward to the closed roads – nothing beats sweeping round blind corners knowing that nothing is going to be coming the other way – but my allocated start time was right at the very back of the field. I’d done events like this before, sabotaged by thousands of cyclists in front of me who prevent any momentum, rhythm, or speed.

The buzz at the start was infectious, but, as I started, the congestion of cyclists on the road was marked. The early kilometres on the flat were completely navigable – but as the first inclines appeared, and the roads narrowed, progress got more haphazard. Some riders were stopping to walk, others were zig-zagging with effort. I was overtaking most, but every so often someone would shoot past me on my right, “COMING THROUGH”. A torrential cloud-burst then soaked the field. I rode past several prostrate crash victims – one in a brace; another under an emergency space blanket. Visibility deteriorated as I spent more and more time hugging the right-hand verge – wanting to keep a tempo, but not wanting to crash trying.

I came into contact with another cyclist as we briefly rode abreast; he slipped over and his swerve took me down as well. Nothing serious – but the roads felt chaotic and slippery on my misjudged slick tyres.

Guys in overpriced kit, pushed incredibly expensive bikes up the steeper hills. There’s never much dignity in pushing a bike, especially in cleats; I couldn’t help but wondering what they were doing – all the gear; but no steel. No miles and miles on the road, bikes bought, then kept, in bubble wrap in the garage.

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This has felt like the year’s first week of sun.

I’ve been joining a group of cyclists in Central Bristol that meet up for a quick lunchtime ride during the week.

This week was particularly pleasurable. Short sleeves and shorts – warm weather and us riding in time.

Conversation was in snippets; we took turns in the front; and the ride was quick. The final descent was particularly breathless.

Smiles all round – then back to our respective desks and work.

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It had just past 1am.

It was 19 hours since the start – and I’d been pedalling for 17 of them.

I hadn’t seen anyone else for over an hour.

It was near freezing – and my hands and feet were numb. The stars were quite stunning. The cold, crisp air was certainly clear.

I had stopped to try and connect my charger to my GPS unit which was almost out of power, but my hands were struggling with the fiddling wires.

I was pleased that I had my woollen snood with me. Pleased that I’d packed my warmer gloves.

I was going to stop and sleep in less than 10 kilometres time.

I felt invigorated, excited and incredibly alive. Very tired, but happy.

MS was nowhere near me.

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I don’t know where cycling is going to take me. I can’t even work out where it’s taken me from. But it does give me ‘something’. Maybe not all a good ‘thing’, but certainly a ‘thing’ that is not MS.

With hindsight you can see yourself through other’s eyes. It is harder to do the same in the present.

I hope I can instil in my boys the thoughts that however fast you think you are, there is always someone faster; however slow you think you are, there is always someone slower. It’s good to see both sides of that coin: never be too proud, nor too self-conscious.

Things will be fine

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Yesterday I rode my bike.

I was injury/illness-free for the first time since 19 March – 52 days ago.

All MS patients are different, and have their own variants of the condition, but my experience of these ‘relapses’ runs a pretty consistent pattern. And often, if not always, I go through a period when I feel as though there is no end in sight – and the relapse has become my new ‘normal’.

So I write this, not so much for others to read – but so that I can re-read it in the future and, hopefully, take optimism and strength from it.

So, to my future me: things will be fine. Toughen up, pal.

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I re-visit the following October…

…and I read the words above, but struggle to feel their power.

I’m now on Day 38 of my latest malaise and need to work out a way of ‘believing’ when I most need to.

Right now I feel like a blue badge holder… not much of a professional, father, husband or friend. Let alone an alpine cyclist, laughing with friends as we ‘race’ up little climbs and breathe in the fresh air of new views. These joys feel so removed, so distant from where I now am… I have to learn the techniques of keeping faith. These bi-annual bouts continue to get me down… too much so to be sustainable.

I return to other, older, posts Ive written. Bounce-backability. And Bruno.

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Bruno

When I was just a boy I had to spend some time in Whittington Hospital just before Christmas.  To the excitement of the children’s ward, Frank Bruno arrived in full Santa’s attire to distribute presents and send our spirits soaring. A free-standing, inflatable Bruno punch-bag was put up for the great man to demonstrate – and then for the children to emulate.  The huge smiling face of Bruno himself adorned the target as child after child took a hit and watched him enthusiastically bounce back upright – again and again. Again and again he’d be hit – but his smile refused to fade. This huge, great big, teethy grin would pop back up for the next child to knock back down.

Pop / bounce / grin / pop / bounce / grin.

I wonder if behind that smile there were tears and pain that we’d never see.

Pop. Then up again. Still smiling.

I look you in the eyes, MS. Still smiling, ready – if need be – to be hit again.

The cogs of an insurance claim

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443 days ago a motorist accelerated up the wrong side of a road in Central Bristol. They hit me head-on as I was commuting to work on my bike.

My bike was hit so hard that only its rear cassette, crank-arms and pedals would be salvageable.

My only items of clothing that were not written-off were my socks – even these had their blood stains – and my right shoe.

By all accounts, the driver was shocked, and apologetic.

The police did their enquiries, solicitors got involved and the chain of paperwork started.

The costs of replacing the bike were relatively easy to quantify – but how to put a value on all the other injuries, stresses, flashbacks and scarring? …let alone the extent to which my (pre-existing) MS was exacerbated – with the implications both for my short-term health, and long-term prognosis.

At last, it now seems that a settlement has been agreed, but it is difficult to say whether the amount is “fair”. When you add up my direct losses (equipment damage etc) (which I priced very conservatively using discount websites) the value of compensation for my injuries and stress can be deduced as being ~£5,000. (I somewhat regret ‘pricing’ my equipment losses so modestly given that many of the replacements I ended up buying were more expensive than my claim included.) Apparently, a cheque will be arriving within 6-8 weeks.

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Last week a friend of mine was hit as a car pulled out directly infront of her in Bristol – a classic “SMIDSY” [Sorry, mate, I didn’t see you]. A broken helmet and an ambulance call-out.

Less than 2 months ago, another friend and Bristol South rider, was knocked-off in very similar circumstances and is currently still recovering from her broken collar bone.

On Friday morning, as I commuted to work up a very steep, single-file pathway round the back of some hill-side terraced housing – a mountain-biker descended towards me, horrendously out of control; he saw me late and must have skidded 5 metres in his efforts to avoid me. I veered off (into some nettles!) as he shot narrowly past, bouncing into the verge. I was admittedly quite impressed by his riding skills… but that was insanely irresponsible.

Accidents happen.

Drivers do some stupid things; so do cyclists. I’d probably say that a higher proportion of cyclists do more reckless things more frequently – but it was a collision with a car that left me unconscious with 40-odd stitches needed to my face. When cars hit people the stakes suddenly get that much higher:

please go carefully all.

 

Brevet Cymru 400km

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Last weekend I cycled the Brevet Cymru 400km.

That’s a long time riding a bike.

So much road rolled under my wheels that early preoccupations at the start of the ride later reappeared as dream-like deja-vues. In the very depths of the night, the line between consciousness and sleep seemed to blur, as I wondered whether my thoughts were merely echoing whispers I’d somehow heard before.

Riding largely solo, sights and sounds that I wanted to share had been coming too thick and fast to later coherently relay – the whole experience began to seem like an anchorless and discombobulated drift of time, that I could scarcely believe to have started only 24 hours earlier. And, like always on a ride of that length, my thoughts crept into new realisations and perspectives; and questions of why I was doing what I was doing – under the night skies; and for whom.

Distinct memories now seem like little pin-pricks in an otherwise swelling, ebbing and flowing mass of non-discernible progress through field and glen; valley and climb.

A red kite hovered above me, several more observed my passing-by; and a large heron glided alongside without so much of a twitch of its wings. A collie ran alongside the small group I had joined, playfully pacing our pelaton for almost 10 miles and waiting for us periodically when he sprinted ahead.

A massive tractor slammed on its horn as I wheeled round a tight right angled bend straight into its bull-dozing path.

Other riders overtook me – with little quips of conversation – and, from time-to-time, I sat with other cyclists as their speed fell into step with mine.

I stopped for coffees; energy drinks; bananas; and beans – breaks which punctuated all those roads-upon-roads in between. At these break-stops, I sometimes saw myself through others’ eyes: small groups of friends looking at this solo rider wondering if they should risk inviting him in to their well-balanced units of pedal and chat. I didn’t know whether I should brazenly tag-along or keep an introverted distance.

And, of course, I have MS.

I thought (very much) about my wife. And my children. About how, until 5-6 days earlier, I had still been struggling to break-out of the malaise from my latest MS relapse. About how staying up too late was making me anxious as to the repercussions the next day; and about how little imbalances of temperature, tiredness or stress seems to flare up the buzz of pins and needles in my hands and feet.

I had just come out of the back of it, and here I was, looking at the sea on the West Wales Coast, about to start cycling another 100 miles, through the night, to get back home.

I felt healthy. But the folly of it is there for all to see. I had no (or virtually no) MS symptoms, but as the sun set and the temperature suddenly dropped, the event felt more and more like something irresponsible for me to be doing. Soon after, of course, I found myself lost, with that feeling of dawning realisation all seasoned cyclists must recognise. I had to go through the process: having to admit it to myself; quell the disappointment; and then get on with putting it right. I accidently added 17km to the route on that “leg” and it chipped badly away at my resolve.

The night, however, was a pretty perfect one. A huge long descent on the beautifully smooth A40 was puffed up by a light tailwind. The temperature almost dropped beyond zero and, as a result, the air was crisply clear and the stars were all out to shine. It was in these early hours of the morning though that the ride became hardest: probably just a well-trained body-clock beginning to cry for sleep; but also one of the side-effects of such a long descent were that the chills had really set in – my energies dropped through the floor and things started to swim and swirl. I was grateful when a much cheerier rider pulled me in and allowed me to rather doggedly draft him home – tiptoeing past some wheel spinning joy-riders fresh from their night out in Abergavenny town.

I had ridden the whole ride with the one-legged lopsidedness that I have now adopted. New cycling shoes; new foot-beds; heavy strapping; and anti-inflammatories all internet-researched weapons against the issues I’ve been having with my left foot. Joint were swollen – but not unduly – but my left foot still curled in its curiously apologetic way when I got home.

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Conclusions

As the last few miles went by I reflected on how lucky I felt. How lucky – and how deeply happy – I was to be alive. To have MS and to be out on my bike – and how grateful I was. I acknowledged more than ever before though that I shouldn’t risk blowing such a good hand. I will continue riding my bike – but these crazy rides through the night are not worth the risk anymore. Pins and needles were back in my hands and left arm – and these through-the-nighters cannot be considered to be worth it given my other loves and responsibilities.

I also reflected how, again, I’d been nuzzled along by the kindness of strangers: the (nameless?!) cyclist who shepherded me home, chatting to keep me awake whilst he dropped his own speed to meet mine; a fellow called “Ben” who patiently helped me tease a shard of glass out of my tyre having found me rather covered in oil, dispiritingly failing to get the job done myself.

“Net Net” I had to confess, in my audaxing days I’d certainly been helped more by strangers than I had helped them – and I figure that the same could probably also be said of my life. If my final conclusion is that I should always give more than I take that’s perhaps an honourable point to come to an end. If I can live up to it – of course.