The Amstel Gold Race…. Finally….

Well, 2021 initially turned out to be….. 2020 all over again. The year started in the Netherlands with continued curfews and restrictions on receiving visitors alongside continued international travel restrictions. Pretty much he same for so many around the world. So it has proven to be a very quiet year. But, at long last…. finally…. something worth writing about. From a personal perspective at least. A year and a half years late but, at last, the Tour Version of the Amstel Gold Race was held on September 11th, 2021.

And I finished it.

A Surprise

My last post talked about targets for 2021. Well, that all fell apart pretty quickly. Spring gave a burst of optimism as it looked like the Pyrenees trip may go ahead. International travel restrictions put paid to that. Then came a further postponement of the Tour Version of the Amstel Gold Race from April to September. The professionals still had their day but on a closed course, with no spectators allowed.

Against a background of continued restrictions on travel and group activities to counter the spread of COVID, I did not think that the September reschedule looked promising.

One of the consequences of this was that my training for the event was….. lacklustre. Similar events such as the Amsterdam Marathon were being postponed. Why would my event be an exception?

Then an e-mail came in on the 20th August. The Tour Version of the Amstel Gold race would be going ahead on September 11th…..

What? How?

The lower risk of infection due to increased rate of vaccination in the Netherlands combined with the fact that this was an outdoor event meant approval.

Really?

I still could not really believe it. Outdoor event and vaccinations but….. 15,000 cyclists? This was something of surprise and one that I was not ready for.

Different Times

COVID, of course, had a sting in the tail. I was one of a group of four who had registered as a team. All British, two living in Europe and two in the UK. All fully vaccinated. But the two who lived in the UK could not come to the Netherlands without quarantining for a minimum of 5 days. Too much expense in time and money to ride a bike for a day. The were forced to cancel, meaning our team was reduced to two.

The day itself would also different to usual. No loitering at feeding areas and no festivities at the end of the course. No post ride booze up. Just get your completion medal and go. A shame but, in the circumstances, a small sacrifice. Bars would be open so we would not suffer long.

I had more immediate concerns than a post ride beer. By my standards, I was woefully unprepared. Would I be fit enough to complete the course, one that was made up of a lot of short, hard climbs? Normally I would have ridden many times to the one hill nearby in Amerongen and made repeated attempts to at least get the feeling. This time I only managed one ride a week before the big day but….. well, that did not go that well to be quite honest. I had made a trip to Belgium in July and done some hard, cobbled climbing with my riding mate for the Amstel Gold Race but that had been two months previously. The climbing legs had gone somewhere else.

Additionally, I had made a week’s trip to the UK to finally see family after nearly two years. No bike with me there and only a couple of weeks before the big day. But, when international travel gives an opportunity, you need to take it at the moment. Training isn’t always the most important thing in life, COVID and the isolation it imposed makes you realise that.

COVID also had another and less direct influence. I admit that I was nervous about being surrounded a lot of other people for the first time in a long while. It had only been a few months earlier that it had been nearly impossible to go out for a drink with a couple of friends. Suddenly 15,000 people around you is unnerving.

And, of course, MS is still with me. Waiting quietly to pull the rug out from under me when least expected.

Job Done!

Sometimes I think too much. For, in spite so many concerns, I made it! Not very quickly but, still, made it!

It was not easy. The legs were not perfect. I found the crowd difficult. Not because of fear of COVID. Once out on the course that did not really enter my mind, especially as the organizers did a great job of keeping such a huge mob moving. More the challenge of the course and the sheer numbers. Many of the roads on the course were narrow with overlapping courses, though. People overtaking, undertaking, holding you up, that car or motorbike suddenly appearing. Sensory overload in the making.

We had signed up for the 143km version with 2,000 metres of climbing and the first 100km went fine. Then my right leg began to do its thing. Or, more to the point, not do its thing. The foot felt numb, slipping sometimes off of the pedal. This meant rest and I am grateful for the patience of my riding mate. A couple of times, the dead leg combined with overcrowded roads and brought me to a halt. Especially frustrating on some of the hard climbs the Amstel Gold Race is famous for. On Eysersbosweg, I was near the top of the climb when people walking up and a car (!) coming down narrowed my path and I had to stop. On Keutenberg, it was someone stopping in the middle of the course on a steep ascent which forced me wide and brought me to a standstill.

The feet went down and I was forced to finish the climb on foot. Maybe two years ago I would have had the strength to stay in the saddle and move around the obstacle.? Perhaps I was too out of practice or was this the impact of MS? Whatever the reasons, I will not pretend. To walk out those climbs really felt like sh*t. The photographs are there to prove it. I look crestfallen, to say the least…..

Focus on the Good

Why linger on two short moments? I had climbed Keutenberg twice the day before on a warm-up ride and in lousy weather, even slipping on a wet manhole cover, so physically I know I can do it. Need to remember that. The other 142 kilometres of the ride that went fine. Not always comfortably, the weakness of my right leg playing its part. Still, no mean feat even if I say so myself!

I will be honest and admit to nearly giving up at one phase. Stepping off the bike and walking really brought home the weakening of my right side. Not in terms of muscular strength but once out of the pedal, foot drop became more noticeable. A good rest and I could carry on but it is sobering.

Good to leave such moments behind and remember a great day on the bike. So much completed and against a positive backdrop. Not mass crowds but people sat outside of their homes, applauding the cyclists who were passing through. Not that long before the area had been hit hard by flooding. Considering the impact of that event and COVID, it was nice to feel welcome. And the odd bit of encouragement does so much to help! To complete the course is such a feeling and those first beers afterwards tasted sublime

This was a nice way to close something out.

The Last Time

And I will be closing something out. A quotation from that great philosopher, Dirty Harry. ‘A man’s got to know his limitations’. I know I can complete long distance cycle rides involving climbs. But with 15,000 other cyclists perhaps the stimuli was too much. A lot to take in and my brain/nervous system does not have the capacity it did. Despite this, I completed this particular challenge.

So I will stop whilst I am ahead.

No more mass events on the bike.

Up to now I have completed four. The first climb of Mont Ventoux for ‘Climb Against MS‘ (Klimmen Tegen MS), Liege-Bastogne-Liege twice and this last one, the Amstel Gold Race. The first was not too bad in that it was a lot of people going in one direction slowly. Liege-Bastogne-Liege was different class, tough and a real learning experience, especially the first attempt in the rain. It’s a good list of completions to have under the belt.

A good time to wrap up. I will keep my personal challenges individual and there will be more than enough to choose from Starting, COVID allowing, with Col du Tourmalet. A little late but still in planning. I feel strong enough for these rides, especially as the pace will be mine to control. So why keep doing these challenges?

The value is for the most part personal, the two fingers up to MS. But also valuable in the fight against my MS. My neurologist has attributed my continued cycling (and fitness) with a significant role in keeping the progression of my MS mild. I know he is right though I don’t know why and cannot claim to have any scientific evidence. I just know.

So the Amstel Gold Race marks a closing of one door. A lot are still open and I intend to keep going through them happy with the memories of some great days on the bike.

Tempting Fate? Setting Cycling Targets for 2021

Well, 2020 is gone and 2021 is underway. A slow start, as expected, COVID-19 is still controlling everything. The idea of going out and being surrounded by other people feels so alien now, as though it was something that never really happened. And COVID-19 just keeps rolling on. New variants and slow vaccination (in the Netherlands, at least), mean that it still feels like the world is stuck. Worse than that, people are dying. So why in hell’s name am I thinking about something as unimportant as my cycling targets for the year?

The (Half) Targets

First things first, what are the targets? Well, pretty easy to decide those. Just take those from 2020 and move them to 2021. Easy enough. So the targets will be the Amstel Gold Race and Col du Tourmalet, both postponed from 2020. Simple.

Well, not so simple of course.

The Amstel Gold Race is scheduled for April. But is that realistic? A mass start event so quickly after the current lockdown in the Netherlands is lifted? I don’t think that will happen. And, even if it does, am I comfortable with it? When was the last time I was in a huge crowd of people?

Col du Tourmalet, I think, has a better better chance. Not certain, of course, but better. It is targeted for July and is not a mass event. The concern is more getting there with the bike. The travel industry has been hit hard and there is, of course, a strong chance that the pandemic itself will still be in the world. Hopefully reduced at least but we will have to see.

Effectively this year has two half targets. In fact, I will only say one half target as I am pretty sure the Amstel Gold Race is not something to count on. Still good to be ready in case it do happen.

So back to the question. It is all pretty unimportant. Why bother?

The MS Factor

The last year has perhaps made my mind up. Not the impact of COVID, although that does act as a reminder that life should not be taken for granted. I generally don’t take it for granted, though. MS decided that a few years ago. And my MS has progressed. That is quite scary. It also concentrates the mind. Even though the shadow of COVID-19 is still making itself felt, it will eventually lessen. MS, in the absence of any cure at the current time, won’t. So I will still set myself the targets and get ready for them. That means staying as fit and active as possible, And that can only be positive.

Of course, there is impact from MS. I know that I am not as strong on the bike as a year ago, perhaps . My rides have become more cautious, slightly slower. Still a good pace, but very careful, especially when going through a town.

It is not all negative, though. The purchase of an indoor trainer at the start of lockdown, luckily before they sold out everywhere, has had additional benefits. On a practical note I can train no matter what the weather and actually do some climbing. Perhaps more importantly, it has strengthened my right side. It will never be perfect but I just feel it has helped..

Add to this a general slowing down and increase in rest stops and cycling remains a sport that is keeping me moving, staying in condition. There is just no need to be the fastest anymore. I do like to push my personal limits, though. So I need the targets. And I need the preparation. Even if circumstances mean they may not happen.

The Coming Months

So it’s time to get ready, start a training programme. Begin with a slow start with half an eye on April and the planned Amstel Gold Race but more on July and Col du Tourmalet. Mountains, for me, are still the ultimate personal challenge. I will allow myself to feel pride as I list the names of the climbs I have made on the bike. Gavia, Stelvio, Mendel Pass…….

Mont Ventoux.…..

Especially that last one. The first of these personal challenges and the first of the big climbs. That first time of going through the emotional rollercoaster. From looking up and realising that there were still 1,600 metres to go to getting a third off the way and thinking ‘is this possible?’ to getting near the summit and thinking ‘nearly there!’ but then realising it is still far away.

Then the summit itself. Looking down and seeing the world spread beneath you and seeing just how far you have come and how far you have climbed.

Just electric.

I want that feeling again.

As I keep saying, though, it may not happen. Not this year. Of course that will be a little sad but it’s not the end of the world. Actually, the very act of preparation is a victory. It helps me to keep MS a little at bay and in perspective. Actually, it may help repair the damage that MS causes my brain, according to recent studies. I have to adopt in the light of new issues of course but it is still a real source of joy to keep moving. And it helps.

At the end of it all, there will be a mountain. Eventually.. Hopefully this year. I can wait but will my body let me? Part of the reasons for the challenges is keeping my body in good shape. And, perhaps, my mind.

For me, that’s reason enough for the challenges. Eventually, they will happen. But the benefits of the training are here for me now. That’s reason enough.

Current Situation

Update on Amstel Gold Race. The Tour Version has not been cancelled yet but concerns about the spread of COVID-19 had led to the proposal that the professional race be held on a closed circuit of 18 kilometres. There has been no formal word about the amateur event but it is difficult to see it going ahead in the light of these concerns.

2021: Get that Door Open!

Normally I write a post reflecting on the past year around this time. Reflection on what is good and bad. Did one for 2019, 2018 etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. But I don’t think that I really want to do that for 2020. It was a difficult year. For the world, COVID-19 made it that way. The worst I had from COVID has been through lockdown and generally not doing as much as I would like; others had it much worse and I can’t complain. MS had more impact personally but there has been enough reflection on that. This time I want to look forward. On to 2021.

A Slow Start

But, let’s face it, 2021 is going to start much as 2020 has been. COVID 19 is still very much here and vaccination will take time, although hopefully the rate of infection will be reduced as more get vaccinated. So looking forward perhaps has a realistic start point of March or April 2021. At the earliest.

Looking forward is just not as easy as it usually is. Always a note of caution. Insert ‘hopefully’ before everything written below.

Mountains and Sh*t!

Screw it, though. I am just going to to look forward no matter what the delay.. Of course, for me the act of looking forward involves the bike. And mountains!

It’s not like I stopped cycling in 2020. Luckily the Dutch version of lockdown encourages exercise. Sensibly, solo and no risks that may lead to a visit to an overstretched emergency ward. But the challenges of 2020 did not happen, for obvious reasons. No mass events, very difficult to travel. I have been lucky enough to keep cycling. But I need the challenges. I need that feeling of achievement I get from them.

A flick back through the entries in this blog shows how important they have been. A statement about how MS does not stop me from doing something physically difficult. It is not about fighting MS, that’s an uneven battle and against a foe that…. is invisible and unpredictable. It is about what I can do in spite of what I have. That feeling……

I need the mountains and all the sh*t that comes with it. Training, pain, doubt. Achievement. Col du Tourmalet is back on the agenda for this year. Looking forward to it.

Broadening the Horizon

As said above, though, the issue in the last year has been actually getting to where the mountains are. Travel has changed with COVID-19. Everywhere is further away. When something is gone you realise how much you miss it and how lucky you are to be able to do it during ‘normal’ times. Many, including me, forgot that getting away is a luxury. COVID-19 is reminder of the fact that it should be special.

It will take awhile for travel to reach it’s previous level. There is also the positive side of this in the reduction of environmental impact. We are all going to be travelling less and that holiday far away will be a little more difficult to arrange. It will also be more special, for me at least. The chance to broaden the horizons. It is a luxury and I have been to spoilt for too long.

The Freedom to Do Something….. Or Not

The horizons closer to home have also been more closed off in the last year. I walked past a closed cafe the other day and suddenly found myself thinking that I felt like a coffee and cake.

Not something that I normally want to do. Nothing mysterious but just something that, when it is there, you think you can do it anytime. Suddenly it’s impossible. Then you notice it. The freedom to do something or not is gone. And I would like the freedom to buy a coffee. Let’s face it, they will need all of our support.

Concerts! Please?

Elbow, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Suede, Thundercat, Thurston Moore. Among others. Postponed. I need a good concert. No hidden deep reasoning here. I just need a concert, simple as that.

People

Concerts mean being around people. The friends you meet and catch up with beforehand, all of the fellow concert-goers crammed in to the venue….. Now, everyone seems so far away.

In normal times I am a primarily a homeworker with a pair of days per week for the office. On those two days I have a lot of contact with others, of course. A lot of social alongside the professional. A quick break by the coffee machine to keep the mind fresh. Life is not only work, I miss meeting friends at a concert or a bar or restaurant or at their homes or just bumping in to them on the street.

And then, in the course of one day in March, all that was gone. Even the visit to a friend’s house become a little fraught, a little nervous, even before restrictions came in about the number of people that you could have as visitors at one time. On-line meetings help but it is not the same.

In the end, everything I am looking forward to needs people. Cycling up a mountain, going to a concert, ordering a coffee from someone. I’ll look forward to seeing people again,

Back to Normal?

Even when the vaccine starts to weave its wonders, how long will it be before things return to a semblance of normality? When everything becomes possible again will everyone be ready to go straight back to ‘normal’ themselves? Although some have ignored COVID or dismissed it with some deranged conspiracy theory, the impact it has had on many is fear. The need to keep distance, wear a mask, stay away from crowds. Normal interaction with others has suddenly been a threat, How long will take for that feeling of threat to go away?

Still, after the complexity of 2020, it feels good to simply look forward! 2021, you may have to take your time but get that door open!

All is Change

I was reading another blog the other day which was about keeping blogs. I was bored, I will say that now as a defence. It was one of those ‘you must do things like this and don’t do this and TARGET READERS and pay attention to your bounce rate’ and a lot of other mouthy instructions. Rather like some blogs I have see about cycling saying how you should wear glasses when riding. Must be over the straps of your helmet, apparently. People were getting very passionate about it. Can’t say I have ever given a sh*t. Like many blogs, probably including mine, it just doesn’t mean much. I am not going to change how I do things. Screw bounce rates, whatever they are.

So, in a spirit of inconsequential defiance, I am going to ignore one of the main instructions from this blog about blogging. Apparently you should never say sorry for not having posted for awhile. Well, screw that, sorry I haven’t posted in a while. I doubt if anyone is on the edge of their seat, fretting about the lack of activity here. But it is nice to keep things going, for me at least..

Frankly, though, writing posts has been a little difficult. Feels a little trivial, perhaps? It is so obviously a tumultuous time for so many, thanks to the Corona Pandemic. Changes are forced. I am lucky in that I work mostly from home in any case. It’s no issue to do that more. I miss seeing colleagues and friends but it is not a hard cross to bear. The fact that family and friends are in a different country does hit home, especially when some are working in the medical profession. Older parents as well. Worry increases, that’s normal.

From the point of view of the blog, though, it was difficult to know what to write about. All those annual challenges that are so important to me? Suddenly they are impossible. What is there there to write about when all is change?

Carrying On

There is no point in feeling sorry for myself around this all, though. Worried? Yes, of course, no problem. That’s normal. But, for me at least, there is a big difference between worrying and feeling sorry for yourself. Worry can be for others as well yourself. Feeling sorry for yourself? That’s selfish.

And I do worry. But, because of MS, I am actually pretty seasoned at Social Distancing already. Shopping when it is quiet is just….. normal. Not going out all the time? Fine. And, I must admit, on-line shops are a new wonder, at least for me. Only interesting, small ones, though. A nice wine shop in Amsterdam. Jeff Bezos doesn’t need my money yet.

And do I miss trains? No, not really. I miss seeing other people at the end of the journey but the journey itself? I am doing fine without it.

It’s all a non-issue for me. How could I dare feel sorry for myself? I am just carrying on as usual albeit a lot more carefully.

Why?

Because to carry on normally would be far too flippant. Too many people are impacted. The virus itself is terrifyingly inconsistent. It can be mild or deadly. I am in a risk group, according to some authorities at least. This is because the Corona Virus often, though not always, leads to fever. This will hit someone with MS hard. So I need to be cautious, as everyone should. At the same time, I need to keep my exercise going, that can’t change. It is too good for my MS, not to mention my general resistance. It’s important to keep cycling going and I am lucky I can do so. I always think I am lucky, in spite of MS. It’s just time for some small changes.

Change of Targets

In many countries, you cannot leave the house unless for essential reasons. Luckily (again, I am lucky), in the Netherlands, this is not the case and we are allowed outside to exercise. For me, that is where the bike comes in. Things cannot be the same, though. I hardly go out at weekends now, purely as it is too busy. I prefer to ride early in the morning during the week, using my flexibility to work later in the evening from home. It’s a natural reflex for me. Not everyone has my flexibility so I will leave the roads to them during the weekend, everyone has to get outside. As long as they wear a helmet and keep their distance and don’t go out in a group, all fine.

Note I have seen all three on my one long weekend ride. Why I decided, no more.

I mentioned above that my challenges have to change. Of course, the Amstel Gold Race has been cancelled and the Pyrenees trip now as well, including the second target of Col du Tourmalet. It will just have to wait another year. I like to have targets, though. Next year’s are easy. Another Classic, perhaps the Amstel Gold Race, and Col du Tourmalet. Sorted. Nothing important in the great scheme of things. Still, I like to have a challenge for myself.. And, in circumstances, this needs a bit of imagination, which is fun.

So far I have come up with one target. When restrictions are a little less I have found a nice route relatively nearby that will compose of 1,000 metres of climbing. In Holland. Not bad. I do like climbing. Add around 130km of riding and this becomes fun, something I need to build toward. There is always an element of risk in new routes so I will wait until restrictions are lifted a little and the medical service is less stretched before taking the challenge. The last thing hospitals need right now is a d*ckhead in lycra who didn’t know the route well and crashed. I can still take long rides of around 100km but on well ridden paths using the odd day off so I can go during the week when it is relatively quiet.

Keeping fit is very important when dealing with MS and I will try to keep the riding going with the new target as a motivation. I just have to keep my distance, that’s all.

Comfort

In the end, this is all trivial. Of course it is. When times are exceptional, frustrating and confusing, there is comfort in the trivial. Like updating this blog or riding the bike. Unimportant but they matter to me. Fussing through my cookbooks also matters. I am not cooking for friends at the moment but I will look forward to when I can. A good time to experiment on my long suffering partner.

Without the trivial I could worry myself to a standstill. That would be wrong, an offence to those who have been more impacted, whose lives are at a standstill whether through illness or economic issues. It is all change at the moment. There may be more change coming for me and it may not be pleasant. It is impossible to know the future. So I will just keep enjoying the present. Something that I have learnt in the last eight years.

Including something as trivial as this blog.