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!

2019: Closing the Door

2019 is coming to an end and many people will reflect on the past year. I will do the same. Nothing scientific. Just my personal high and lowlights. Very personal.

Highlight: Passo di Gavia

2019 has, physically, been one of my strongest years for a long time. And Passo di Gavia just embodies that. One of the most exhilarating days I have had on a bike. Not because of speed. Climbing is naturally slow and my descent? Frankly, laughable! That’s not the point, though. Constant effort, exertion. Some protest from my legs, pain on the left and emptiness on the right.

But to climb up so high that you can lean you bike on a snow drift? What. A. Feeling!

Breathing that cold, clear air. Looking a long way down and realising that it was only under the power of your own legs that you got there. Sorry if I am little proud. Ventoux, Stelvio and the Mendel Pass were all climbed this year. But Gavia stands out for me.

And a selfish highlight. I kept seeing an Italian tour guide with a group of British cyclists, some of whom I had overtaken (!) on the way up. A lot of waiting around for him although, to be fair, maybe his group had done treble the distance I had. I should not get cocky. We started to greet each other during our frequent encounters. Friendly. He was at the top of Gavia when I arrived and saw saw me get off my bike. Then he saw my pedals….

‘YOU DID THAT ON FLAT PEDALS?’

He was pretty incredulous, told me I was mad. I smiled, perhaps enjoying the moment a little. Anyway, my pedals aren’t really flat. Small pins that give me good grip. I wasn’t going go tell him that, though.

And I think his group were just climbing Gavia. I was much faster than them. Sod it, time to be cocky!

Lowlight: Holes in My Brain

Physical strength is one thing. Mental strength or, to put it better, cognitive abilities are another. These were hit hard in 2019. The side effects of the lesions, what I call the holes in my brain. These were a little more noticeable in the last year. Things that were quite easy are becoming more difficult. Not impossible, but more difficult. It takes more of a mental run up to do something and sometimes I need to be left alone completely. Otherwise I find it difficult to concentrate.

A small example. I am reading a newspaper article and someone asks me something. Cue a train wreck in my mind. A locomotive hurtling in to a solid brick wall. It takes a couple of moments for the mind to get back on track, though it feels like an eternity. After all of that those tracks may be been damaged. Eventually I get my thoughts in order but it can be challenging.

Especially if I need to say something after all of this.

Highlight: People Management

I don’t really mention my work in this blog. There’s enough to talk about and work is something that belongs somewhere else. LinkedIn, for example. I mean, I do like my work but it is possibly not the most exciting thing to read about. Fully loaded FTE cost anyone?

But I will make one exception. 2019 saw me become a people manager after taking over the regional Graduate Programme at Juniper Networks. A small team reporting to me, partially at least. I am their line manager but not their assignment manager so I don’t decide what they do on a daily basis. My role is more focused on their development, skills and career wise, and supervising their rotation within Juniper. I am also the first port of call for issues and am responsible for their general happiness.. Already saying more about work in a blog than I ever thought I would.

So I am now responsible for seven bright young people, two of whom I have recruited. Well, mid-20’s. Not that young, really. It’s exciting. Energising. It led to some compromises in my work, also related to MS. More on that below. But to be honest I never really wanted to be a people manager. A surprise to me just how much I am starting to enjoy it.

Lowlight: Progression

Forgetting what I am talking about. Unable to get the words out of my mouth, When they do come out, they come out in the wrong order. Forgetting what I am doing. Hell, my memory is generally horrendous. Getting overwhelmed by the terrifying experience of going to a busy shop or taking a train during rush hour. Walking around a room with a lot of furniture and tripping over them. It’s all part of life with MS and none of this is particularly new. I have certainly written about them in the past.

In the course of 2019, though, some things have gotten slightly but noticeably worse. The cognitive issues are an element of that alongside that small list of problems above. General clumsiness, slightly more trembling and a slight increase in my limp can also be added. All signs of a small progression in my MS. It is Primary Progressive after all. The plan is to keep that progression as slow as possible.

Highlight: ‘Man’s Got to Know His Limitations’

Strange to start a section on the highlights of the year with a quote from a Clint Eastwood film. Not even a very good one. Unforgiven, that’s a good Clint Eastwood film….. but a quote from that one would not be very positive…. There is a context, though.

In the light of the progression of my MS I needed to learn my limitations. I found it difficult. It meant admitting that I am ill and that this illness means I cannot do as much as I would like. Professionally and personally. Limits needed to come in. My cognitive issues mean a lot of tasks are more work for me even though I have less resources to do them. I need use my resources carefully.

So I had to admit my issues and limitations. All manner of people are willing to help but they have to be told, they cannot guess. And I have to tell them, admit that I cannot do as much as I would like. That’s not easy and it took a couple of appointments with my Revalidation Doctor (still not sure what the good English is, in Dutch the title is Revalidatiearts) and a lot of advice from those around me to finally be honest and make that admission. Difficult because there is a feeling that the battle is being lost. Which it isn’t. Just a small tactical withdrawal to regroup and come back.

Highlight: Keep Rolling

Let’s close on a high. Again, physically 2019 has been brilliant. Cycling is behind that. I know it. It’s been the driving force behind keeping my MS under control. This year was possibly one of the strongest in the saddle yet. 10,000 kilometres and, within that, 5 big climbs. After every ride my mind is fresh, clear. Better able to cope with the issues I have mentioned above. The ideal day for me is an early ride, then take on whatever the day has, work or play, and then a short sleep in the afternoon. Not possible every day, of course, but as often as possible.

Of course, I still can’t quite figure out how I can be ill and yet still fairly strong on the bike. But, sometimes, it’s better to just accept the good things. And, anyway, I know I am not the only one.

Closing Out

In reflection 2019 has been a difficult year where I had to make compromises with my MS. That’s the main drive of the lowlights. But then I look at the highlights. My biggest fear of MS is that my world will get smaller and, to an extent, it has. That’s inevitable. I can’t do everything without consideration.

The highlights, though, reflect that I am learning. Making some compromises has kept my world growing, enriching me with new experiences. I just need to plan carefully. That’s a small price to pay to keep doing so many things, staying active. It helps me marshal my resources and use them wisely. Closing out, 2019 has been a year of lessons. Looking forward, 2020 will be the year that I benefit from what I have learnt, That’s my plan in any case.

From 2018 to 2019

It’s been quiet here recently. A short break. Travelling and staying a little clear of Social Media, save for the odd photos on Facebook and Instagram and the occasional look to see how friends are doing. Nothing intrusive and not something meriting one of these rather self-indulgent and grandiose messages of ‘I AM TAKING A BREAK FROM SOCIAL MEDIA’ as though the world actually cares.

So restarting with the New Year. A good prompt to restart with a look back and look forward. Highly personal, of course. But what else can it be?

2018: Vietnam
Certainly one of the reasons for relative silence here was a visit to Vietnam. Also the high of 2018 and something that, in all honesty, will be difficult to put in to words. How can I express the complete assault on the senses that was out first night in Hanoi? Surrounded by people, all of whom seemed to be on mopeds whilst trying to get our bearings in a city that did not so much take you in with a warm embrace but slapped you a couple of times around the face and told you to wake up.

We woke up quickly and to an enriching land. There followed three weeks of….. experiences. Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed corpse (just back from annual trip to Russia for restorative care), Ha Long Bay making you feel minuscule, Hoi An by night illuminated by multicoloured lanterns….. Not to mention the food that helped me put on three kilos of weight.

Toward the end the heat did finally impact me, normal for someone with MS, but not so much as to ruin the trip which had been a concern. Good planning meant that the avalanche of the senses was not such that I was literally swept away.

Three weeks of memories but what stands out is the human experience. Shocking poverty contrasted with surprising wealth. To step inside a hut in a village near the Chinese border and be overpowered by the suffocating smoke from a fire over which a single pot of food was cooking and over which corncobs were being smoked and realise that, what was suffocating you, was the source of warmth and food without which people could not live. If you do not feel uncomfortable you are not human. In Hanoi we had seen statues of Lenin, showrooms selling Bugattis and Rolls-Royces and beggars on the street. Contrasts that will stay in the memory.

2018: That Other Thing
As this blog makes clear, MS is a part of my life. But, for 2018, it was not a bad thing.

Yes, you read that right.

How can that be anything but bad?

Of course it’s not good and this is not about the become some bullsh*t, life-affirming story about how it has enriched my life because it hasn’t. Rather, what has been good in the last year, after five years, is a form of acceptance. Things are not what they should be, that’s true. It can be so disconcerting to feel that tight hug and to hear myself stutter or loose track of what I am talking about halfway through. It’s something that I have covered many times in the blog to the extent of having it’s own section. But acceptance here does not mean submitting passively.

What it does means is realising that you have limitations and living within them. Not overdoing it. But still doing something. It is still difficult to grasp. The unpredictability of being in great shape one day and physically empty another. But, well, knowing it is something that you cannot control means that you embrace the good days. And when it is a bad day? Accept it, albeit in a perfectly acceptable spirit of annoyance.

Note: 2018 was a very good year in terms of symptoms/issues. There can be many reasons for that, lifestyle or pure luck. But I accept the good as well! Revel in it!

2018: Cycling Obsession
For the second year running, Liege-Bastogne-Liege was completed despite some setbacks. This was the sole challenge I set myself on the bike for 2018 and received a lot of attention in the blog. That the action raised a lot of money for MS Research made the ride really special. Grateful to the friends who rode with me and all those who sponsored me.

I also set myself two private challenges. To be honest, private in case I could not complete them. But I did!

First was to break 200km in a single ride. I did that, slowly, in August. On the fifth anniversary of my initial diagnosis.

The other was to break 10,000km in a year. Pure distance, nothing special with mountains or similar. Just stay in condition and maintain the distances. This target was reached on 13th December with a medium distance ride slowed by a cold wind coming from the East. Nothing spectacular, just a celebration of a year of solid consistency, learning how to pace myself and ride my own tempo, staying in condition with an eye to some further targets for 2019. More on those another time, but safe to say 2019 will be the year of the mountains. Next year no distance targets, though, just more effective training for what is coming.

2019: Concern
I must confess to entering 2019 with some concerns about something that will impact me but upon which I can not exert any control. Seems like a common theme in my life but… this one…. it’s difficult to grasp. And I will be upfront about it.

Brexit. There. I said it.

There are so many words written about this. Most of them uneducated and with absolutely no attempt to understand the feelings of the other side. Indeed, I cannot help but think that the use of ‘sides’ in the above sentence reflects how polarised the discussion has become. Rather than adding to this I will just say how it can affect me and why that is a concern.

I could perhaps be seen as the embodiment of the European dream. Born in Britain, living the last twenty years in Holland due to a relationship started during a university exchange period in France. Now, it seems that the guarantees that I built my life around will not be there for much longer. We are taking steps to ensure that I can continue to live in Holland and, let’s be clear, I will not be thrown out of Holland on midnight of the 29th March 2019 or reduced to a life of penury, that is an insult to the real poverty we saw in Vietnam.

Yet I am concerned. What worries me (and 5 million other people, British and European) is just what the impact of three years of slogans and immature political statements will have upon my life, my ability to work. And there is the feeling that these issues are simply not taken seriously enough by any of the political agents involved. They would rather wrap themselves in slogans. Children who do not know what they want.

2019: Carrying on the Cycling Obsession
Let’s get away from that and back on to a positive obsession. I recognise that my power is less and I can have issues that result from MS. But the need for targets and to keep challenging myself keeps me going, adds positive energy to that acceptance of (some) of the circumstances that have impacted me. I will set three targets for next year. The first two are clear, the third I am thinking about. They will be fun and I will approach them with maturity and a clarity.

Almost as maturely as my last ride of 2018 where I overtook two cyclists who had overtaken me without saying hello which really annoys me. That’s maturity. Equalled a personal best as well!

Sometimes I am spitefully normal as well.

2019: Delight
I have started reading a book. ‘Delight’ by JB Priestley. I read a short chapter every morning before starting the day. Short reflections on just why something brings the author delight. A short section on a Gin and Tonic and packet of crisps is especially rich in the context of the war and the shortages it brings.

In closing this entry, I hope to carry on the blog is this spirit. Not every entry will be about what is wonderful, it is too honest for that. That honesty, though, shone through in one man’s short entry on why a Gin and Tonic and packet of crisps made him happy. It is an honesty that I found inspirational, to use an over utilised word.