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.

Cycling Insanity 2020 Part 2: Col du Tourmalet

So. I have not even completed challenge Number 1 on the bike for 2020. But the plans are already afoot for Challenge Number 2. In (hopefully) sunny June the Pyrenees is my destination. The objective will be the Col du Tourmalet. At this stage, the exact route to the summit is to be established but it will be a climb of between 1,300 and 1,450 metres. A climb with a stupendous amount of history. At least in cycling terms…….

A Little Background

Col du Tourmalet is perhaps not the best known mountain to feature in the Tour de France. But it has great pedigree. Indeed, it has featured in the Tour the more than any other mountain (though not always as a summit finish) and by virtue of its close proximity to Spain, has also formed part of the Tour of Spain..

Tourmalet first featured in the Tour in 1910. Since then, other climbs have perhaps become equally , if not more, iconic. Galibier, A[pes d’Huez……. Mont Ventoux….. Still it has been a hugh part of the Tour and remains one the historic brutes that needs to be captured.

Historic Yes But….. Why Do This to Yourself?

I think I can be honest and say that mountains have become an obsession of mine. A very healthy obsession. To cycle up a mountain requires fitness, good condition. So I will need to get fit for the Amstel Gold Race and stay fit another two months for a trip to the Pyrenees. There will be other mountains to climb besides Tourmalet. Col d’Aubisque, Hautacam (which is a beast). Tourmalet will be the main target, though.

When I climb it I will get that feeling.

The one that comes after two hours of work, two hours of effort. The electric thrill that comes when, after all that climbing, the road suddenly seems gentler and then a sign appears that means that the summit has been reached. Every mountain I have climbed has led to the same immense feeling of achievement, even Stelvio where I finished the ride feeling drained, overpowered. So much for the senses to deal with on a road that was jammed with traffic, something of an overdrive.

Despite that, I eventually felt that same thrill that comes after a long climb. I felt it after that first long, hard climb of Mont Ventoux. How does feel to look down and realise that you have achieved something like that with you own power?

Elation.

Tired legs, a weary mind, aching back, yes. But such a fantastic, warm feeling of accomplishment. I love that feeling and will pursue it as long as I am able to.

The Next Few Months

April 18th first. The Amstel Gold Race. 150 kilometres and over 2,000 metres of climbing. A hard warm-up. Actually a challenge in itself, of course! Then a holiday where I will not go near a bike before going back among giants in June.

There is not much to do besides stick to the plan I have made and then stay in good shape ready for June.

The Other Reason

Elation, the thrill of finishing a big climb. All good reasons for such personal challenges. There is another reason as well.

That dark angel at my shoulder, my personal MS. I like to keep it away but it’s always there. Nothing dramatic, no faux angst ridden passage about feeling it’s icy breath on my neck. It’s just there.

And I am no fighter. When it comes hard for me I will probably find it difficult to deal with. Some of the symptoms are already enough and make everyday life difficult.

It’s more a case of whilst I can ride I will ride. This is not some bullshit story about fighting heroically against what I have. It’s about living life to the maximum whilst I can. It means setting myself challenges like this, putting myself through the full physical strain that is needed to achieve them. It’s about still feeling everything, every sinew stretching and every muscle screaming. After the pain comes the thrill, the utter satisfaction of achievement.

This is not about conquering what I have. It is about enjoying life in spite of it. Feeling everything that I can, every sensation while it’s still possible.

And, before I get too spiritual, it’s also about adding another big mountain to the list climbed so far. Some things really are that simple.

Cycling Insanity 2020 Part 1: The Amstel Gold Race

Each year I set myself something to achieve on the bike. It needs to be tough, out of the ordinary, special. A big climb or a long distance ride. 2019 was definitely the year of the mountains so, for 2020, it’s back to the Spring Classics. What is special, for me, is that this Classic is in the Netherlands, my home for just over 20 years now and the place where I got infected by the cycling disease. My first bit of cycling insanity for 2020 will be the Amstel Gold Race. A stiff challenge.

Possibly insane…..

The Characteristics of the Ride

The Amstel Gold Race takes place in mid-April and marks the switch from the Cobbled Classics, such as Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders, to the climbing classics including La Flèche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. The latter races are in the Ardennes region and, for some reason, the Amstel Gold Race is seen as the start of Ardennes week of cycling racing, Odd as Limburg is not actually in the Ardennes.

Not actually in the Ardennes but very similar in terms of hilly terrain.. The course, which is yet to be fully finalised but which will start in Maastricht and finish in Valkenburg, uses those hills to the maximum. Several climbs, mostly short calve wrenchingly steep. Keutenberg, Cauberg, Eyserbosweg. Not long but with sections that can reach an eye-watering 20%.

Of course, I have faced a much higher percentage in The Alto Adige. Something like 40% on one of my rides, according to Strava.

I did get off and walk though…..

Getting Involved

The Amstel Gold Race has not always been such a hellish tour of the Dutch Highlands. The first, in 1966, started in Breda after planned starts in Amsterdam and Rotterdam were aborted and was 3o2 flat kilometres. The crosswind heaven that I have gotten used to, something very fun on light carbon wheels. Only in 2001 did it move to Maastricht and take on a hillier character. See the Wikipedia entry for more history.

Despite that history I’ve got to admit that it never really appealed to me that much. I watched the professional race on TV. The public version always looked enormously busy and usually in terrible weather. Who would want to do that? No, thanks. No, Liege-Bastogne-Liege twice was enough, No more Classics, not for me.

Then a friend said it may be fun and would I do it. The gun was at my head, I pulled the trigger. ‘Yeah, great idea!’. Four us entered the lottery to take part, the tour version being limited to 15,000 (!) participants. And we got lucky!

Lucky……

My Reasons

As written above I thought that, after Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2018, I would never do another Classic. Too busy, I don’t like descending, lots to organise, range of excuses. But I changed my mind, I wanted something fresh for 2020 and the Amstel Gold Race will be a new experience. It’s also something that many friends have undertaken and enjoyed and is a big thing for the Dutch. When I mention to friends that I am taking part the response usually ‘oh, wow’, even among those who are not cycling fans. It is big in the Netherlands.

And that’s an important part of the reason why. I have lived in the Netherlands for over 20 years now. Most of my adult life. It’s in Holland that I came, at the late age of 38, to the hobby of cycling. It’s now more than a hobby. It’s something that I am sure has helped me keep my MS at least a little in check. Despite my carefully irreverent attitude the sport of cycling is something which has given me so much and improved not only my fitness but also my mental condition in the face of something that can be a little terrifying sometimes. Cycling has kept me strong, improved so many things for me, I am sure of that.

Having stumbled in to this a little, a Dutch Classic as one of my challenges for next year seems so right. Paying a little respect to the country that is my home through a mad bike ride. Not quite perfect symmetry in the logic but…… what the hell!

The Coming Months

Of course I will need to get myself in condition before April. Plenty of time, perhaps, but I need to use it correctly. The base will be good as I still cycle regularly through the winter and in most weather albeit at a lower tempo and over shorter distances. I will start to build on that base after a little fun over the Christmas Period.

After Christmas the diet will become a little more sensible. No beer, serious cut in chocolate (God, it’s good……), less ‘junk’ food.. Not painful but sensible. Boring as well. ‘I’ll have a Gin and Tonic but without the Gin please.’ I feel sorry for everyone around me.

The training will also kick in. The rides will start to increase in tempo in February and will follow the pattern first tried out for Mont Ventoux in 2016. Two high-tempo rides of around two hours during the week and a lower tempo, longer ride in the weekend. The target for the latter will be 150km in one ride by the end of March. Not much climbing is possible around here but I will build endurance at least.

Something I am learning about is the value of activities besides cycling to cycling. Physio for my back, loosening massages before the big rides, workouts to improve my upper body strength and balance. A lot to consider but necessary to really make April 18th a memorable day in the saddle.

Looking Forward

That’s the most important target, though. Get out and enjoy it. There will always be a fear of busy roads and descending but Stelvio, whilst not my best ride, helped me learn that I can deal with such circumstance. I may fall, as in LBL2018. It’s possible I could wake up and have one of my bad days when the brick wall of tiredness makes most things difficult, let alone riding a bike for 150 kilometres, There are so many ‘mays’ in life. I may also have an absolutely fantastic day. That’s what I’ll be preparing for. And that’s what I am looking forward to.

At least, I think I am looking forward to it…..