Two years ago I rode a bike event called “L’Etape” – a hilly, mountainous stage plagiarised from the Tour de France. In the week leading up to it, my MS had been rumbling away with rising menace, and on the day itself I somewhat disintegrated on the bike, beset by cramps and issues with my eyesight. It occurred to me then that I might not ever ride a similar event again. Maybe this was something that I was going to have to surrender to MS. Certainly I still recall most vividly those sensations of body malfunction, clear mental scars that beg future caution.
As I type the above, I consider again how far I feel as though I have come since that day. For last week I rode “La Maratona”. A similarly challenging parcours, this time in the Dolomites rather than the Alps. The total climbing was going to be more; and the hills were going to be steeper.
I may not have “raced” the course – I paced it more akin to a sociable audax – but I did complete it. My MS did briefly raise its head above the parapet, but it was barely a whimper rather than a battle-cry.
Cyclist 1, MS nil.
Road cycling can be a sport so beautifully pure in its simplicity: get on a bike. Ride it.
But, because one of its pleasures is the experience of landscape, I often lift-up the whole process, just so I can drop it down again into vistas anew. Of late: Wales; the Cairngorms; and, on a few memorable occasions, overseas.
Entering “events”, especially abroad, is another matter again: it feels as though you’re transporting the whole circus of bike, bike bag and equipment – like almost moving house for one brief weekend of riding.
Getting to the Dolomites was this to extreme: our party of 5 converged from our far-flung homes via plane and car – with disassembled equipment, wardrobes of kit (“for every season”), bags of energy gels, bar and pills, suncreams and gloves.
We checked into an apartment. We ate pizza at the nearest restaurant we could find.
We spent hours building our bikes back up again from flat-pack – testing brakes, gears and re-inflating tyres.
Registering for the event entailed an hour long queue amongst hoards of fellow cyclists. It meant copies of passports, doctors certificates and insurance forms.
All this just to ride a bike.
The travel, queuing and stresses were exhausting – MS or not. My friends must have been mystified as I slept over 10 hours both the first 2 days. My MS was pricking away; and I had left home without the catheters I sometimes need.
On the morning of the event our alarms went off at 4am. (yes…. FOUR am!), but, when we got to start, we were far from early – and had to join the massed ranks of queuing bikes as we shivered in the pre-dawn cold. I was underdressed; veterans around us donned winter jackets and beanies.
My limbs and muscles felt a bit washed up and tired.
When the ride did slowly crank into action, my core felt cold, but the roads were too busy to get up any pace or rhythm. The first climb was clogged with cyclists – many tutting at the frustrations of slow progress. At several hairpin bends an approaching wave of clicking sounds washed down the road towards me – cyclist after cyclist clipping out of their cleats as they came to a congested standstill.
By the time I reached the first summit and started to descend I was still grumpy with cold, and the downhill had to be ridden with the hand-brakes on, as swarms of bikes edged and wobbled round the sharp bends. On one tight turn I had to lock my rear wheel amongst the clutter.
The dark skies were threatening rain. God forbid. I was already wearing my every garment and any rain would have pushed me over the edge. With surprising clarity of logic I realised that if it started raining I would need to give up.
Upon completion of the initial circuit, a large number of riders left the road onto the shorter course – and the tarmac freed up. At last I developed a rhythm on my pedals and my body warmed up. Bit by bit, my muscle aches began to loosen up. And the temperature was lifting at last – arm warmers even rolled down on the ascents. The next downhill was an exhilarating pleasure and my grumpiness began to melt away into smiles.
Rather than slaloming between a forest of bikes, I began to look up and soak in the views. The stunning valley-scapes and vertical outcrops of rock. Local residents out to support, rang colossal cow bells as we passed, and I fell into amiable conversation with a young lad from Dublin who was riding at the same pace as me.
Some 50 miles in, I hadn’t needed a food-stop and had the two largest climbs still to go.
I was difficult to gauge how much energy I had initially burned up just staying warm; against how much energy I’d have saved riding at a jogging pace for the first hour or so. I decided to gamble and to hit the penultimate climb without further provisions – little did I know what an absolute beast of an ascent it proved to be.
After the first few kilometres of steepness I grew more and more convinced that it was about to flatten out (it had to?) – but, if anything, it kicked up even more – and I could no longer hide from the fact that I was going to run empty (the dreaded cyclist’s “bonk” when the body’s fuel dramatically runs out). It hit me with about 3km to go – and those last 3,000m were ridden through desperately gritted teeth at barely walking pace. My new friend from Dublin overtook me again, and after a brief chat, kindly handed me an energy gel and joked that he didn’t want me to overtake again before the top.
At the summit’s food stop I drank a litre of coke and sparked up as though I’d be given a shot of adrenalin to the heart.
I hurtled down the last descents, and rode the last long climb (and the final, short one) at, what was for me, race pace.
I effectively time-trialled the last 20km and finished with a sprint alongside a couple of other riders – as we lunged for the line…. (in 1423rd place….)
Upon finishing my body coursed with endorphins and I was buzzing. Over the last miles I had asked my legs, again and again, for more and they’d been able to provide. I had felt strong, and capable.
I was so invigorated I could barely sleep that night with flushes of excitement, caffeine and sugar-highs.
That, I realised, is why they do it. Those crazy cyclists who transport their lives to the Dolomites just to go on a bike ride.
It can make you feel so alive.
After the long, long journey back home my back ached. So did my knees. And shoulders. And muscles and bones.
As I unpacked my bike from its box, I discovered that the rear derailleur (which shifts the back-gears) had snapped off in transit.
They’re not easy, these so-called events. This so-called life.
But if you don’t do such things, your life would just be a straight-line…. I quite like the bumps, and the hills.