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.

MS: Time For A Rest

Sometimes it is necessary to do something that is hard to accept. For me, the follow-on from the issues that I have had is that I should do less. Work less, play less. Time for a rest. It sounds easy enough and the personal benefit is simply enormous. There is some work, though, in accepting it. After all, I have spent the last years pushing through MS, sometimes perhaps pretending that it is not impacting me as much as it is.

Time for that to stop. Time to make real changes, no matter how difficult they are to accept.

Consultation

First thing to say is that I have not suddenly decided to do less on my own and this is the result of a lot of consultation with the medical team at the Rehabilitation Clinic I attend, though I prefer to translate more literally from Dutch and call it a Revalidation Clinic. Otherwise it feels like I am saying that I am in rehab……

It is not just medical opinion, of course. A lot of people close to me also think I have been overdoing it. But medical opinion can be the (friendly) slap around the face that makes you accept reality. Sessions with a physio, occupational therapist and psychologist culminated in a review session led by the coordinating doctor. They had been watching me walk, listening to me talk, analysing my work patterns and reviewing my response to all of the issues that have been faced down the years. And the conclusion was pretty blunt. I am too ill to do so much. I need to do less.

After 7 years with Progressive MS, I knew this day would come. It is still very difficult to accept. I have been trying to carry on regardless, in both work and play. Possibly I have been pretending to accept the progression of my MS. Lying to myself is the emotive way to put it. That is actually quite easy until it progresses in a way that impacts the way I want to live my life.

Acceptance and Reduction

Initially, stubbornness made it difficult for me to accept what I was hearing from those four specialists. I had not accepted from so many people who have said it over the last couple of years so it was never going to be a case of suddenly seeing the light. For work, for example, I said I accepted the day less but why not work 4 days but 9 hours long?

No. That defeats the object. Long days would be exhausting.

It would be 32 hours, either over 4 or 5 days.

Must admit, I got a little upset. It’s a hard thing to hear when you told you should do less.

For all that, though, the arrangements have been easy. My employer has bee 100% supportive of the about the cut of hours. Lots of support and a couple of comments of ‘it’s about time’ as many around me are surprised that I have worked full-time for so long.. After 7 years of support thus response was not a surprise.

The difficult part, though, is actually making the reduction. You see, to me it feels like I am conceding defeat to MS. Letting it win. There have been a couple of comments of ‘I wish I could do that’ when informing people of the reduction in working days. Well meant but it misses the point.

I didn’t choose the reduction.

The impact is not just on my working life either. I need to reduce the amount I cycle, for example, and the amount I walk. Foot drop is impacting both of these actions now. No matter how strong my leg is the nerves don’t always tell it to do what it should. A little scary and something that is forcing change. I have to accept it.

A Change of Lifestyle

Such changes are not easy to accept. In common with the last post it took about 20 drafts before this entry has been ready. To be truthful, the first drafts don’t make for cheerful reading. Because they weren’t. I saw a form that where I am classified as disabled. When it is in black-and-white it hits, so hard. Not something that makes you feel optimistic.

Personally I don’t consider myself disabled. It may be an official classification but how can someone who is disabled complete a 100km ride, as I did yesterday?

Actually, that ride is reflects how I should now live my life and is, perhaps, the route toward optimism. Compared to earlier rides of a similar distance, it was much slower with far more breaks built in. If I felt my leg going I would slow down and stop. Rest. If people overtook without saying hello, something that can really irritate me, don’t try to chase them down but let them go. It doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that I can still ride and enjoy it. Do just as much as could before. Just differently. Initially slower and more careful. Maybe the next bike will be an e-bike? No problem, though I will wait for that decision. And working 4 days does not mean that I make less contribution. In the first discussions with management it was made clear that they want me to continue my role as Graduate Programme Manager. That is such a vote of confidence that the thought of defeat feels wrong.

Do less but do it well. That could be my new motto. Let the optimism flow.

Learning to Rest

Doing less means more time to rest and rest can be many things. It is not always sitting around and not doing much, although there will have to be days like that occasionally. Sometimes rest can be a nice walk with my hiking stick as foot drop seems to happen on 4 to 5 kilometres. There will be room for bike rides, either short and hard tempo or longer and low tempo. Need to get the balance right andI have no choice but to listen to my body. It tends to make itself heard now!

There is a lot to learn. Rest from work is actually quite difficult so far. My first free Fridays have been interrupted by nervous inspections of my phone even though there is ample cover. I don’t need to look at my mail and things go fine without me but….. it is hard to let go. There is also an odd feeling of guilty laziness. I am working on that.

The rest will give me more space in my life, though, and I will learn to embrace that. Books, music, cooking, catching up on old films. Not quite doing nothing but relaxing, recharging. MS means I have less energy than most and I need to use it carefully.

And when I do have energy? Use it! Celebrate it! Just more carefully.

I am still getting used to this new life rhythm and realise just how much I have used being active as an act of resistance toward MS, in work and play. Perhaps I had convinced myself a little that all of this activity would keep MS at bay? I worry about the consequences as well.. What will be the impact on wider activities I enjoy? Holidays, eating out, concerts. What does it mean for my career?

But I realise that these changes need to be made and, after many sleepless nights, it is time to look forward. Giving ground to MS is hard to accept but necessary. It is time to look forward to the benefits, even though they can sometimes feel far away.

The next post will be about cycling. Honestly!

MS: Is This Progression?

It’s taken some time to put pen to paper recently. Or finger to keyboard, to be pedantic. There are two issues behind this. One is that Covid has made life a little quieter. The grand targets for this year are gone, hopefully back next year. That means less to talk about. Who needs another blog about Covid and what it is like to interact with everyone remotely? Seen it, done it. The other issue is progression. Of Multiple Sclerosis. Is my MS progressing, or isn’t it?

Progressive MS is meant to progress, after all. Progression here means things get worse, not better.

But this is MS. Nothing is simple. I have leant that!

Symptoms, Symptoms, Symptoms

Forgive me but, for something so important, I can sound a little wearied when talking about symptoms. But, it can’t be helped. When you analyse everything you do for signs of MS it can get like that.

‘Oh, more symptoms. Joy! Which hand is trembling n0w?’

It’s a very fine balance between controlled analysis, paranoia and complete indifference. What to ignore and what not to ignore? What is new and what is same old same old?

It is always new symptoms that focus the attention. Especially unusual ones. And scary. My left hand was under a hot tap and…. the water didn’t feel hot. All that I had was an annoying tingling feeling. Something new. Alongside this came an alarming worsening in walking and – horror of horrors – the right leg started to weaken when cycling.

F*ck everything else. Weakness when cycling? That is bloody terrifying!

Let’s not be too nonchalant, though, this is alarming stuff. Combined with cognitive issues increasing and there are clear signs of progression. Fearful. Worrying enough that my regular MS Nurse and Neurologist were contacted. An MRI resulted followed by a week’s wait for the results.

Which are, after all of this build up…… (cue drum roll)…

Inconclusive.

I won’t get in to detail but the neurologist and radiologist don’t agree about a new lesion that has been found. A second MRI with Contrast Agent introduced suggested to the radiologist that here we had a potentially different type of lesion. So possibly not Primary Progressive but another form. This could be good.

But nothing is certain at this stage.

How do we get certainty? Another MRI. But lesions take time to grow or not to grow. So we need to wait to give it all time to develop. So the next MRI will be a year from now. With that will come certainty. Or perhaps it won’t.

Uncertainty

I have written about twenty versions of this post. Rejected them all as perhaps too downbeat. After all, this development could be positive. A different form of MS that can be treated. Remitting Regressive? The fact that some of the symptoms, such as not feeling hot water, have gone are indicative of this.

But the weakness on the right side continues to show progression. Walking long distances is becoming more difficult, there is numbness after long or fast bike rides and the right hand can really have a mind of it’s own. I will whisk a salad dressing and finish and the hand….. well…. it carries on whisking!

‘No, leave this to me! I like it! I haven’t had this much exercise in years!’.

Nothing is simple, though. The if’s and buts that started my ‘MS Life were back again. The issues I had may also have been caused by illness in the beginning of March with a fever, something that impacts MS. No, I don’t think it was Covid, before anyone asks. I self isolated just case but… nothing is sure.

A Different Time

There may be a year to wait for certainty and this may be a return to a past time. But it isn’t. When this all started, we were totally alone, my partner and I. Now, it’s very different.

I have a rehabilitation clinic to help me. The physio helps me improve my walking learn how to better balance energy so the right leg doesn’t give up on me. The long distance cycling continues! There is occupational therapy, reminding me that is so important to plan the day. Same for everyone but I just have less resource to play with. And there is a psychologist because….. well, it’s not that easy. And a rehabilitation doctor takes all of these strands and gives them a structure. A lot of support.

The difficulty will come in deciding how to go forward. This could be progression. That is what happens with Primary Progressive MS. Or it could be different symptoms. That may only be known a year from now after this next MRI,

And what is different? In the end, what has changed?

No matter what, and this is where this post has been a real struggle to write, I will need to make choices. Working less, exercising less, or doing both differently. The confrontation comes in that MS forces me to make these choices. All the specialists in the world are helping me and I have all the support I could ever need.

But I still need to make choices. And I don’t want to.

Going Forward

I like the posts in this blog to be optimistic. That is not always a reflection of how I really feel, to be honest, but it is important to focus on the positive. Even with all the support I have, from medical specialists and also from those around me, the fact is that change has been forced on me and will continue to be whether I like it or not.

The trick will be forcing myself back in to the habit of making the best of the good days. Enjoying them. Accepting that all days will not be good is part of that. But I think I would rather write about cycling up a mountain.

I’ll just have to wait awhile.

In the end, what has changed with my last MRI? And what will change with the next? We’ll have to see.