Tuesday, 30 October 2012

fireworks, freeways and farm animals

Day 2 of the vuelta a mexicali dawned early, or rather it dawned whenever it wanted to but unusually i was up to see the dawning happening. The second day also began with some leftover pancakes courtesy of Jose's wife and some nutella courtesy of my friend Marie. Having eaten our unbalanced breakfast we set off to the start of the race. having confirmed the location with the sponsor yesterday and the time with the race organiser we knew we were slated for an 8am start. Assuming the usual Mexican "time change" we arrived allowing plenty of time for warm up/ portapotty activity/ discussion of tactics which we would never actually lay down in the race/ trading action wipes for coffee and other such vital activities. All told we rolled up about 7:50.

Given that nobody does much on time we weren't overly put off by the absence of many other riders. I set out in search of a portapotty and found a set up which, whilst permanent didn't appear to be linked to any form of running water or a front door. Unperturbed i took a throne with a view and got on with the task at hand, and was pretty happy i hadn't traded my action wipes at that point. Having returned to our small group, consisting of some women's racers, our support driver, Jose and some Veterans. i gave the chain a good wiping and began to get a bit fretful as 8:30 came and went without any evidence of a bike race occurring. I pinned my number and selected my semi solid three course menu, opting for an amuse bouche of peanut butter gu before a main of island nectar roctane and a delectable chocolate raspberry course to finish.

My menu planning was rudely interrupted by some shouting, a walkie talkie being held in the air and a mad scramble for the pick up trucks.  What followed was something of an experience, we raced pick up trucks with no less regard to our own safety than we race bikes. except that we were going a lot faster, and using parking lots for shortcuts. On arriving at the start (we seem to have been parked at a point midway through the neutral zone) i donned shoes, sunglasses and helmet with a speed worthy of a tattoo bearing, mankini wearing iron-person. hopping onto the bike i made a dash for the start, and made it in time to hear the briefing beginning, i heaved a sigh of relief, looked down and realized i hadn't put my bottles in the cages. Fortunatley Carlos, our erstwhile mechanic/soigneur/busdriver/cheerleader/ bottle deliverer had my back, and my bottles.

The bunch rolled off at a leisurely 35k/h through the middle of town. sirens blaring and horns honking the police did a great job of forming a little traffic free bubble around us as we rolled through Mexicali's busy center and industrial outskirts inconveniencing Saturday shoppers and entertaining children. Three kilometers outside town the car in front slowed down and i came alongside, a clipboard emerged from the window and i was told to sign on. I strongly suspect this is frowned upon by the blue shirt wearing, beard bearing officials who reign with an iron fist over office parks all around the USA every sunday.

Shortly thereafter we stopped, urinated on someone's garden and received a second briefing. Someone handed out some apples which we ate and a large explosion occurred approximately 5 yards to my right.  Fearing an attack from the Sinaloa cartel, perhaps looking to kidnap me in order to cash in on my twitter celebrity status,  i took the sensible option and remained rooted to the sport emitting a sound which one normally associates with rodents. Apparently, far from coming under fire this was the sponsor of the race (a local fireworks manufacturer) getting in a spot of product placement. Once the bunch had finished laughing at me (and the smoke had cleared) we set off.

i won't regale you with the next 70k of stories. we rode in various winds in various forms of echelon. once i'd found the sweetspot the racing wasn't too hard and being a team of one (and sitting second on team GC is should add) i felt no obligation to do anything other than sit at the back panicking every time dogs, pigs, horses, cattle and small children rushed headlong towards the peloton only to halt at the last possible second and to marvel at the internal organs which one can fry and put in a tortilla and sell by the roadside.

With about 50k to go we were taking to the echelon with gusto, exploiting our vulnerability to force the 16 wheel lorries onto the shoulder as they tried not to pancake the lycra clad masses swarming towards them. The bunch was lined out to the left and feeding was on the right, leading to some fairly audacious dives across the road to get much needed hydration. Of particular note were the "stage race legend" points i gained by landing a bottle in the cooler in the back of the calimax car at 40 k/h (i saw it re emerge later and the sad look on the face of the rider who received a surprisingly light bottle was priceless). A young Mexican rider also managed to score a bottle off the floor, that was impressive (about 1 min into the video).

with 35 k to go we turned into a headwind and, quelle surprise, all hell broke loose. I was partially responsible for this flurry of attacks. essentially a pattern emerged whereby i would attack and be joined by two calimax riders who wouldn't work with me and one valle congelado rider would drag the gap back for no particular reason. Following this someone would attack, i would try to get across and the bunch would come with me. Once i did manage to turn a gap, joined by one member of the small valle congelado team and a solo rider. Having nothing to lose and everything to gain (neither had finished the previous stage so they were out of the GC) they made the logical decision to commit everything. Sadly their commitment wasn't to working in the break but rather to commit everything in their power to doing as little as possible.

After 20k of such shenanigans a break rolled without me and along with two calimax riders i was able to get free of the bunch. Unwilling to drag them up to the bunch i commenced swinging across the road and soon found myself all alone on a long desert highway. The break dangled at 10 seconds, riding harder as i closed the gap and refusing to let me ever quite make the junction. In my little bubble on the autopista i was in a world of suffering i hadn't experienced for a long time. surrounded by motorbikes, officials cars, our team cars and the occasional livestock bearing lorry passing by i felt like a goldfish in a bowl with everyone looking on.

The team car pulled alongside, giving me time checks and somewhat optimistic distances to the finish. I settled into my rhythm and cursed the gopro, thinking about that aerodynamic impact i could gain without it. I also cursed just about everything else i could think about to curse. With 1k to go there was a group heading my way from the bunch and the car informed me that unless i gave it everything i would be caught. I threw both my bottles and buried myself until i saw the chequered flag through my vision which was crowded with stars and black dots from the exertion. i crossed the line, someone grabbed my bike and i fell in a ditch, by a motorway in a suburb of an industrial town in Mexico completely spent. i spent the best part of 10 minutes there before Carlos thought i was recovered enough to sit in the back of a pick up truck and drink a coke.

We made our way back to town as i hacked up a cubic foot of tar which i had swallowed. My serenity was briefly interrupted by the loud intrusion of the pinball lights and sirens which had been accompanying me down the freeway an hour earlier, only now they were pulling us over for having too many people in the back of a pickup. Fortunately a few sentences of lisping castillian and a brief delaying trip to the petrol station on false pretences gave the federale the impression that this gringo was not a profitable prospect and we went home free.

that afternoon i showered, ate, fell asleep on the floor because i was too tired to make it to bed. I awoke starving, gorged on sopes. met some wonderful people, discussed the global financial crisis, the best tortillas, drug cartels and the superiority of Mexican soft drinks to those north of the border. at 9:30, having ascended the stairs with more difficulty than the mountain pass we climbed the day before, i slept better than i have done in a long time.

I was exhausted, spent, hungry, thirsty and everything hurt. It's been months since i felt sick from exercise and went so hard i couldn't see.And  I have never been happier, I have missed bike racing more than i can say, and being back in the mix feels great.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Tacos, trophies and Tecate

It's been a while since i engaged in some good old fashioned international bicycle adventuring. This weekend was a much needed return to such shennaingans in Mexicali Baja California. Whilst i'll spare you the details of the blow by blow i will furnish you with the reader's digest for your perusing pleasure.

Stage one saw us leave san diego at the ungodly hour of 4;45 IN THE MORNING, i had heard tell of such a time from triathletic types but until now i had never seen it other than on my way back from an endurance disco dancing marathon. Having loaded the rental Suburban (thanks State Farm insurance and the lady who failed to notice my parked car and smashed my oil tank) Luke and i set of to Calexico where we met our friend Jose and crossed the "line" into mexicali (see a naming trend emerging here?) immedeatley on arriving we turned off the road to a brand new autopista, so very new in fact that bob el constructor and his big yellow digger were still having at it. bicycle adventurers as we are we didn't let this put us off and kitted up for the start,w hich we were reliably informed was a scant 15 minutes away. Having rushed to the line we noted the absence of other riders, or indeed a line. Soon thereafter it became clear that A) we wouldn't be starting on time B) the dude with the paint can was undersupplied to paint the enitre word "META" and C) there wasn't a toilet anywhere at the race.  A brief visit to a local petrol station, 2 glass bottles of coke, much explaining of how to spell my name and several assurances that yes, i was diabeitc and no, i wasn't going to die and we were off. Then we rode in circles for an hour, given that Calimax had about 70% of the field in their shopping trolley themed Jerseys, and that i represented 1/76th of the field, and given that we were racing a crit. it may not shock you to learn that for much of the race i rode around in front of a large group of bike riders, and despite my best efforts we remained close. sadly some of the bike riders decided to take off and very few of those remaining were willing to co-operate in my attempts to reunite our band of bicycling brothers. Lucas and his 3 calimax compadres stayed away with Lucas taking the sprint.  i finished safley in the pack having inhaled a cubic foot of sand.

After the race we repaired to a local bakery, and the house above it where the Calimax team furnished us with bread, jam, sandwiches pasta and pizza. Post lunch entertainment was provided by my blood glucometer and a "highest non diabetic blood glucose" competition. Oddly the correlation between the results of that competition and the afternoon road race was surprisingly accurate,and inverse. It turns out that at 40 degrees centigrade (100 of your american degrees), pizza is not an ideal meal two hours before the race.

The second stage saw us scaling the mighty rumorosa, this was a bit of a target for me as i haven't been gifted with a Cavendish like sprint, but my twiggy physique lends itself to scaling such storied passes. After two hours awaiting the arrival of our police escort and seeking shade at the race start which seemed to be the car park of a petrol station and two more mexican colas ( I might have overdone the levimir a bit) we headed off on a neutral roll out. Classic Latino biek racing, big holes, blaring sirens and waving kids. After 10k we stopped, 100 men dressed like power rangers urinated on somebody's garden and the race began.

Approximately 15 seconds later i found myself enjoying the delicious taste of my own blood in my mouth as we left the peloton to share the wind amongst themselves and bravely struck out on a two up breakaway attempt. There were three people present but one of them was quite intent on not making himself part of any breakaway and instead experimented with the finer points of sucking wheel. Having not taken one pull for 3kilometers he then began to urge us to pick up the pace lest he get caught. Somehow when this occurred he was still taken by surprise and left to return to the bunch, i think he would have been happy there, more wheels to suck. After a few kilometers of breakaway antics i noticed the bumps in the road becoming more pronounced and the speed becoming more difficult. The bike wasn't exactly handling that well either. sure enough the very same glass bottled soda which fueled the breakaway was now coming back to bite me. my right arm went up, i put the deraillieur in the 11, swung a leg over, hoiked out my wheel and held it high and waited, and watched the bunch roll by, and the caravan roll by. And then our car arrived, accompanied by the judge's moto. We changed the wheel and i told our driver in no uncertain terms that i would be accepting hydration in the form of sticky bottles until my return to my previous position in the race. The judge had other ideas and wouldn't even let me draft behind our car.

And so, the next 40 minutes were spent dribbling on my top tube at 40+ km/h as i inched closer to the carvan. With the help of an unsolicited armsling from a man in the back of a pick up truck, the encouragement of every school child in Baja California and the comforting sound of a telephoto lens capturing the joy that is a solo time trial i returned to the comfort of the bunch. Once there it became clear that my rear wheel posessed mesmerizing qualities. And that my breakaway companions were no longer broken, nor away. However a select group had gone clear and all the teams were represented. Rather than conserving my forces like a good bike racer i took off in hot pursuit, although momentarily distracted by a fantastic looking taco joint and some kind of military roadblock which we passed through I was fortunate enough to receive a coke hand up from one of the judges (4 so far if you're counting) and to be able to drop everyone on the climb. Resulting in a placing which, depending on who you ask was either 5th or 8th on the stage.

At the top of the climb, I was greeted by a small crowd, some surprised looking judges who hadn't seen me since my flat and a homeless guy who was moved enough by my appearance to give ME some candy and a blanket (as well as a gentle ribbing about the inferiority of the Europeans). Jose was waiting at the top having climbed into the car and had kindly left me what i can safely say was the best egg sandwich ever made. after drinking a coffee and watching the remnants of the bunch come in in the dark 8 sweaty men piled into a 5 seater pick up to drive to various parts of Baja California and a hungry diabetic in someone else's sweater munched on dried mango with chilli and tested the blood sugar of everyone in the car. At Jose's house we ate beef and rice, drank coconut water and cursed glass shards. And then, at 10pm we slept like babies. but not before we set our alarms for 5;30 in the morning so that we could hurry up and wait for the next adventure. But that's a story for tomorrow.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

fast, fun and good for you.

I am tempted to write a really vindictive blog post, I want to set a few things straight with all the stuff which has occured in the last few weeks. Chiefly the appeals for sympathy. i'm sorry but these guys didn't HAVE to cheat, they chose to. and before you feel sorry for them feel sorry for the guys who never got a chance because they never crossed a line. I don't want to say any more about it because enough has already been said and there's still a lot more to be said.

You'll have noticed there are a few little maxims at the top of my blog. Admittedly one is HTFU, i'm a big fan of the old HTFU, thus the huge bag of HTFU bands in my (not quite so huge) kitchen (which you can buy in order to support diabetes education in resource poor settings). But underneath that there are some other ones which I've been trying to stick to recently. The riding fast is coming along, not quite there yet but it's getting there. The having fun is something I try to make part of every day. The latter two have been the source of some fun, some busyness and lots and lots of thinking time. I've been busy recently, really busy but i have some exciting news as a product of the busyness.

In partnership with the bigbluetest and the diabetes hands foundation i have received a grant to work with native American people in Arizona.  We'll be spreading the message of exercise, healthy eating and bicycle riding. not only can it improve your blood glucose control, weight management and bodyfat percentage it can also make you happier. Taking a pilot project of a few participants and getting them into shape to complete el tour de Tucson in 2013. I get the privilege of introducing people to the thing that makes me happiest in all the world. Nothing gives me more energy than seeing people discovering the feeling of speed, freedom and movement that i get from riding a bike. When we're little kids we all love riding bikes, then we grow up and we get serious about things. We stop going out for bike rides just because it's fun to balance on something that is inherently unstable. Many of us stop moving at all,  we lose touch with our bodies and we lose touch with how much fun we can have with them. Those of us who keep moving feel the need to quantify it, to call it training not playing. To give it a purpose with races and events and to deny the childlike pleasure that it can bring.

As i spoke about on cyclismas riding bikes is great, it remains great despite the fact that some people are willing to cheat to do it a little faster. I love riding bikes and i won't cease doing so just because some people can't work out that we ride bikes primarily because it's fun. There is a lot of seriousness in the world. And we don't need to take bike riding from the world of fun to the world of serious. Bike riding is good for you and taking what's good for you and making it about hiding vials of illegal drugs in the back of your fridge isn't going to make it any more fun or any better for you.

What is serious is health and if we can take something fun and we can make it benefit our health then we're going to have more success at both. Making being healthy fun and making having fun healthy is the key to keeping well in the long term. I'm hoping i can help share the fun that cycling brings to me each and every day and spread the positive benefits it brings to my bloodsugar control.

Thanks to Gopro we'll be sharing all the positive benefits, the fun rides, the adventures and the journey. they've been kind enough to give us some cameras to document the project so that we can share it and introduce everyone to the joy and positive health benefits that come from bike riding. So watch out for more video content on youtube.

We'll be announcing more about this project soon. But i hope it might provide something of a respite to all the drugs and drudgery which are dominating your cycling worlds right now. I suggest before you get dragged into ANOTHER subpoenaed testimony of another rider whining and claiming they were forced into doping, and you get down on the sport. go out on a bike ride, you'll feel better.