March and April, as is so often the case with my MS, were a bit of a struggle. I briefly emerged, disappeared back under again…. then, at last, now, seem to be properly afloat again.
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.
Back to health, I’ve just done a 600km ride – the Bryan Chapman Memorial – from Chepstow to Anglesey; and sped around the Welsh Velothon Sportive. Summer is beckoning – and I’m no longer banging on my cell door demanding to be let out.
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 in a different direction: I was lost; they were lapping me; and I was probably in their way.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.