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.

Challenge Number Three: Cold and Wet

The last of my personal challenges for this year was completed on Saturday 7th September with the climb of the Mendel Pass. A good climb, for me. Not massively fast and actually, despite my initial plans, completed on a day that was cold and wet. Unspectacular.

The Dull Bit: Stats

The climb was completed over 1h and 11 minutes at an average speed of 12.5 kilometres per hour. No the fastest ever but, in view of the conditions, I am quite happy with it. The Italian practice of numbering hairpins made it relatively easy to track how the climb was going. It gives a good feeling that, no matter how slow, progress is being made.

Unfortunately that same system acted as a reminder of how slow I am when it comes to descent. It felt like an age and seeing the slow reverse count did not help. Persistent rain made the surface greasy, something I was perhaps too aware of. It may have been quicker to have got off and walked but, no matter, The descent was completed.

The Feelings

I was not going to do this climb if it was cold and wet but there I was. Cold is an overstatement, perhaps, but an average of 8 degrees centigrade is not that warm although, on the climb, it made things comfortable. I got to the top in summer gear, the over optimistic suntan lotion (!) running un my eyes and a couple of long-distance cyclists in full winter gear looking at me with distinct ‘what the f*ck is he on?’ looks on their faces.

Stopping for pics of various signs you notice how cold it is. Out came the arm-warmers and, at last, I could finally wear my souvenir Stelvio gilet. – gilet being a flash word for body-warmer. It had Stelvio written on it! Stelvio! This guy does mountains!

He went down that one bloody slowly as well but anyway…..

A nagging feeling was that, unlike the earlier challenges this year, this was not really that hard. There were no real ‘why the f*ck am I doing this?’ moments. Just a desire to get it done, concentrating on the road. This was perhaps a little more…. mechanical than the previous climbs of the year, not just the big ones but the warm-ups in France. It was a case of get on the bike, get up the mountain and get back down again.

I had thought that a coffee at the top of the climb would be would be good. The town itself had been busy when we visited earlier in the week via cable-car. Buzzing little scene of tourists. Maybe some apple strudel?

That had been a warm midday though. Now it was quite early on a wet day. Besides the bemused long-distance cyclists it felt…. empty. Anyway, I wasn’t hungry. Down I went.

Closing the Last Challenge

It’s unfair to compare this challenge to the first two of the year, though. Ventoux and Stelvio have yielded great stories from the Grand Tours. No-on really knows the Mendel Pass. I did not before we booked our holiday, to be honest. But a good climb nearby felt right.

The Mendel Pass has actually been in the Giro d’Italia a few times. Most recently as a descent earlier this year, and as a climb in 2016. And before that. I found that out after my ride. Google and Youtube, Bloody hell, those pros are fast….

But no great stories. Never the end of a stage.

Never mind that, this is about my ride. And, by my standards, I was cruising. Not in the sense I was fast and no way should this sound casual. More the rhythm was right. Constantly looking around, using the space on the hairpins to drop to heavier gear and kick a little faster. Reaching for the bidon and drinking consistently – as nearly every person I ride with tells me to do.

The fact that it was so consistent is personal win. On this ride, my right hand still had a ‘f*ck you, I’m not doing that!’ moment. MS having it’s little tantrum. So…. it came off the handlebars. It did the work with the bidon but that was when there was no other traffic around. The left hand was keeping things steady. Work to the strengths.

All in all, an unspectacular, consistent climb.

And it should also not be underestimated. A thousand metres of climbing in miserable weather is something. A thousand metres down in the same weather.

Seriously, a year ago would that have happened?

The first two challenges of the ride were beasts. Compared to those this was an unspectacular ride, .Cold and wet but no big issue. That, actually, feels like something to build on. Reassuringly unspectacular. Happy with that.

This will not be the last word on the challenges this year… give it a little time to sink in though before the full summary comes!

Challenge Number Three: Time to Ride

So, in Italy. It has taken a couple of days to get my bearings but… well…. no problem. Plenty of time to relax, enjoy the scenery and get my legs use to gradients and climbing, All over again. Training is at an end, time to ride. Time for the Mendel Pass.

But it’s important to keep a sense of perspective. The Mendel Pass cannot be compared to the likes of Ventoux or Stelvio. We took a ride up by Cable Car and the road looked, well, good. Some mock-Hells-Angels on top going full gun with motor bikes that were too clean but nothing crazy. On the way back down a good view of the road itself, albeit too brief to take a picture. Wide, good surface and…. hairpin heaven. Perfect. After a couple of warm-up rides, feel nicely ready.

Taking it In

As for those warm-ups? Short rides in terms of distance, maximum 20 kilometres. But shortness of distance was more than made up for by the steepness of the gradients. High averages with sustained bursts of up to 20%. Long and straight as well.

Just one hairpin?

Please?

It was as though whoever was responsible for designing the roads out from Eppan thought….. ‘this will really f*ck up the cyclists’…. I could understand the tourists on E-Bikes, if you’re not in condition these roads could mess you up.

Sidenote: E-bikes going a 50 km/h in Holland is one thing. E-bikes here? Nice to see people out on bikes who otherwise wouldn’t be. At sensible speeds.

During these rides, it’s good to stop and take a look, See what’s around you.

It takes your breath away.

A rolling sea of vineyards with mountains looming over them, broken only by seemingly lonely villages of houses that seem to lay low beneath the spire of a single church, standing tall. It feels like it should be Switzerland. Or Austria. Not Italy.

Even the drivers give plenty of room when they pass a cyclist. A white van even stopped to allow me time to cross a rough patch of ground carefully. And the driver smiled and waved.

What?

This is Italy where the relationship between motorists and cyclists is not meant to be optimal. Seems fine here.

Looking Around

This area does not quite match a stereotype of Italy in many ways. This is a holiday, not a training camp, and a large chunk of time is spent looking around, hearing the the voices around us. And a large proportion of those are German, not only through tourism. With the exception of the the town of Bolzano, most villages in the South Tyrol area count German as the primary language. After all, this was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire until the end of the First World War.

Despite an at times fractious history, including forced Italianisation under Mussolini, considerable relocation of German speakers to the Third Reich and an aggressive campaign by the South Tyrolean Liberation Committee, there is little sign of friction now. At least to the casual observer. Small signs, though. Overhearing locals complaining about someone they knew and referring to them as ‘Italian’. A small hint at friction?

But nothing over that we can see, admittedly through the somewhat tinted view of a tourists sun-glasses. The history is there to see. It is possible to witter on about the charming, Hansel and Gretelesque feel of the surroundings but it’s the small things are what are noticeable for me. Behind a church in the town of Kaltern is a memorial. To our fallen, from the 1914-18 war, In German. Austro-Hungarian Army. The pain of history.

Training’s End

Back to the big ride.

The couple of short, hard climbs are done. And a good amount of walking as well, stretching the ligaments. That’s the excuse, although it is not much exercise when walking to a Gasthof for a nice meal and a bit of wine. Which, by the way, is very nice here. But, like all of the challenges, the training comes to an end and has done so for the Mendel Pass. Certainly not the hardest training, it’s a holiday after all.

So, the plan is to ride the Mendel Pass either on the coming Saturday (7th September) or the following Monday (9th September). Subject to the weather. Not to keep mentioning it but,,,, this is a holiday.

I don’t want to get wet….

The climb is not in the same class as Ventoux or Stelvio but it’s still a consistent 15 kilometres of ascent. The ‘steep hits’ may not be as bad as I thought but there are a couple of nasty gradients and it is still 15 kilometres of going up. Then when I descend, I will need to do one of those short, nasty climbs to get home.

This is a climb, medium distance but consistent. It will not be easy. And I will respect it. It may not be insane. Just a little crazy.

Climbing

It is hard to explain to anyone who doesn’t like cycling. Actually it’s hard to explain to many who do like cycling. In fact, it is plain hard to explain! How can someone who lives in a flat country and who has a right leg that can be slightly questionable like climbing so much?

How?


So, I live somewhere flat. Me and the guy who just came second in the Tour de France, a fair amount of which involves going up things.

Though, to be fair, he comes from Limburg, which is hilly…..

Anyway, he was born in the saddle whilst I started at the age of thirty-eight. Or was it thirty-nine…..? In a flat country. How was it possible to find out that climbing was something I enjoyed because, well, when would I do it?

The truth is it’s actually related to my condition – just had to get it in there! I was a beginner to cycling  but had the idea to do something for charity. Ideally related to MS. Not long diagnosed after all. Raise money and awareness as I was starting to figure out that it was not going to end my life. But I I had been nervous about doing anything in a large group. Perhaps my slight twitchiness would cause problems?

That had been partially alleviated with the purchase of a new bike. A Cannondale Synapse, the stability of which had proven to be a major confidence booster. Of course, there were plenty of issues, There still are and there always will be. But this was a confidence booster. I had the feeling I could do something.

What, though?

I stumbled across a Dutch event, Klimmen Tegen MS or Climb Against MS. A sponsored ride to climb Mont Ventoux. And raise funds for MS research. I had long had something about Mont Ventoux, from the first time I saw it during a short holiday in Provence. Looming on the horizon, watching over the land with a quiet menace in the setting Sun. It was stuck in my mind. A later holiday and we drove to the top. A midweek late in the season so there were a few cyclists around, toiling to the top. I didn’t ride at all then but it was so intriguing to see so many toiling their way to the top. I remember thinking that it must be quite a feeling……

So I went home and bought a bike on impulse and the rest is history.

Not long afterwards came the diagnosis. Irony.

A combination of events that meant it was a no-brainer than the climb of Ventoux would be the sponsored challenge. I wrote a lot about the preparation and the day itself a couple of years ago. What lingered, though, after all of that preparation and the day itself was just how it felt to climb. The legs felt it, so much. That was special. Sometimes I was so slow my Garmin assumed I had stopped. But I was still feeling it. The right leg was not as strong but still pushing the pedals hard.

Feeling where there wasn’t as much as there should have been, sometimes.

I’ll say it again. It felt good. Instead of nothing, there was tightness. Pain. Sometimes to the extent that I did not think I could make it.

But I did.

I have climbed Ventoux since via a second route, starting in Malaucene, and have a hankering to complete the third route, via Sault, which is easier. But via Gorges de Venasque, an extra bit of climbing surrounded by awe-inspiring beauty. I may even descend this time. Descending is hard work, especially when the roads are lined with trees. So much for my scrambled filters to take in quickly. Either that or wear my brakes out. But that gets better with practice.

Real climbing normally means special trip. Provence, Majorca and The Ardennes in Belgium have been destinations so far, the latter for Liege-Bastogne-Liege for the last two years and my first real sample of climbing in 2016. The main memory of that is accidentally pulling wheelie because the gradients were so steep. And being very slow. But a good learning experience.

(Funnily, just re-read that post – all of the issues are there – descending was a nightmare then, I suppose it’s getting better now).

My last blast of climbing was on holiday in Normandy. Like the Ardennes with lots of short, steep climbs although it must be said the roads were better quality and far quieter. And the occasional driver gave cyclists a lot of room and polite respect. After a slightly demoralising fall on Liege it was good to feel the strain again. One kilmoetre at an average of 9%, maxing out to 17% around a small chapel in the town of Mortain brought the confidence back. And that great feeling when you feel the grind on your legs suddenly soften as the road gently flattens it’s incline. The feeling of achievement.

And the strange, sadistic enjoyment that I get from that feeling of pain in my legs. Especially that slightly useless right leg that has the habit of occasionally crumpling under me whilst I am walking. To feel something. That is so worth it.

It has taken me to Col de Haussiere (that first in Belgium), Mont Ventoux, Cap Fermendor (my favourite), Coll de Femenia, Notre Dames des Abeilles (the most difficult, Category One in midday heat, meant to be a warm up for Ventoux but ended up being memorably difficulty in its own right)…. lots of names that mean nothing to most. But to me, each is an achievement, a small moment to defy gravity and briefly put two fingers up at that condition.

The target is to keep adding to that list, perhaps but not necessarily more well know names (although Ventoux is pretty well-known). Perhaps the name is not the point. It’s the feeling when the top is reached and your legs are wonderfully sore but then you look down behind you and you think to yourself….

I did that!

Then you realise you have to go back down….. Like I said, something to work on…..