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.
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.