Sunday, 25 August 2013

Snakes and the second republic. My head in a bike race

On Friday night I ran over a snake. Barreling down a brick road with whitewash houses on either side, trying not to hit an obstinate pensioner, be distracted by olive skinned and barely dressed young girls or inhale a lungful of purito  smoke. I never saw the silver and red mess until i felt it under my front wheel. I imagine the guy behind me didn't see it until its guts sprayed over his frame. I didn't think much of it at the time. In the course of a short race (for me) i also ran over several bidons, a croissant and quite a lot of fruit.

It didn't occur to me until later that night that, not so long ago i had been that snake. Lying in the road, invisible in a sea of distractions. I'm lucky, nobody ran me over, they stopped and called an ambulance, they saved my life. I'm luckier than the snake. A lot has happened since I last pinned a number onto a skinsuit, I've broken my back and fixed it again. I've lost a friend and made many. I've helped friends change their lives for the better and watched friends change their own lives for the worse. Life goes up and down, you can't change it, you can't choose to make it stop. Your grief, your pain, your sadness and your trials aren't special, everyone goes through the same. It's like bike racing, it always hurts, it hurts everyone and you always want to stop. You never choose to stop, just like in life. But, just like in life sometimes your body makes you.

My body wasn't having any of it on Friday, or Saturday. Friday began well, a morning ride, a croissant, shaved legs, eggs and rice and a drive to the race. Embrocation and coffee, a pretty girl to hold my spare bidon ( and no hope of getting a feed as she squealed and ran away every lap, but i knew that was going to happen) a coffee flavoured gel and a number pinned so as to hold 2 more. A lucky charm on the inside of my base layer, good shifting on the deep wheels and a place on the second row of the grid.

That's where i stopped rolling sixes and started scoring ones: the guy in front of me missing his pedal, coming around him on the gravel, seeing the attacks go off the front, clawing my way off the back, a dropped water bottle, a bunnyhop, a sprint, burning lungs and aching legs. A roundabout, a traffic sign, another bunnyhop and my stomach flat on the top tube, my toes clenched in my shoes and my eyes closed. Eyes open, no more road sign, another bunnyhop and another sprint, more burning. Another roundabout and braking, the smell of burning rubber. A climb, the pretty girl, a wave and another sprint to pay for my cockiness, the same roundabout as the first time but a better line, more smells, a wave of braking, my brakes burning and my bars swinging, toes curling, eyes closed, no crash, another sprint, more burning, a breath, a drink. The the second roundabout, skidding, a sprint, a big gear and a big hill and a nagging pain in my back. Another lap, the ebro delta, thoughts of the civil war, of the second republic, distractions.

 Another hill, more nagging but worse, then a rod, a red hot iron rod just left of my spine. Who put that there? Stop thinking, start sprinting. I can't. There's no won't there's can't. Instinct, little ring, start pedalling again, light gear. No big gear, sprint, get back in. Big gear. Can't, instinct again, small gear. It's all coming together now and it isn't what i wanted. One more sprint and the rod is back, instinct has me unclip before i fall like I've turned to ice and it's over. my whole body is shaking and my blood sugar shoots up. I lie on the ground with my ribs rising and falling and wait for the pain to subside, i grovel back to my car, the pain in my back has been replaced by a worse pain. Being hurt is horrible, giving up is hard to deal with, not being able to continue, i thought that would be easier, it's not.

Packing a bike race is never an enjoyable, it's never the easy option. A race might last 6 hours and the pain might be pretty bad but the feeling that you gave up, that lasts a lot longer. At least the 6 days until you race again, until you get the chance to redeem yourself. Bike racing isn't real life, it isn't existence it's just a game, it's just for fun and for entertainment but sometimes it feels like it's more important than real life. Bike racing is the life you choose, the person who gives up isn't the person who you were born as it's the person you made. The body you created, the fitness you worked for, the legs you sculpted, the mind you made. Sometime's when all these things let you down, it does you some good to get some perspective, it does you good to think about the snake. I'm lucky, i'm not the snake. I raced around the Ebro delta, where Idealism, hope, equality, liberty and love made a desperate last stand against hate, greed and fear. It seemed at first that hope died at the ebro in 1938 but, 40 years later hope blossomed again in Spain. Even when it seemed that the republic couldn't go on, and it had to give up somehow, in the end the right side won out. Even when i felt defeated on Friday it does me good to think about the snake and the second republic and try to be the latter and be happy not to be the former.

Some pictures which make a story

Catalonia is beautiful 

So is riding with my friends 
Yesterday I bonked so hard I cried 
And felt like this
And then I looked at this 

And remembered how lucky I am . Happy Thursday, go and play outside ! 

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Bonks, bikes and bakeries

I've been getting back in the Gym, there I said it. I've confessed that despite my generally slapdash attitude to training and race prep i do sometimes do things which I find less than entertaining in order to try and be faster at bicycles (and in this case to try not to break like a porcelain vase every year). In an effort to mix it up a bit on my recovery days i went for my first swim since i last crutched away from the beach 12 months ago. I think i'll give it another year before i try that again. Swimming is still slow, boring and painful. As is running but at least it offers something to look at and it makes you better at cyclocross.

Yesterday was a big day, the plan was to hit the gym in the morning, grunt a lot, wear a sleeveless top and generally do gym things for 90 mins. After a hearty breakfast (which, if i'm adhering to the gym stereotype should be composed of 17 egg whites and 5 skinless boneless chicken breasts, right?) and some archive action I was going to jump in on the Wednesday night ride. I got off to a good start and by 9am i had grunted and sweated my way around the weight room, completed my bench presses in the squat rack (joking, i'm not THAT guy) and enjoyed a refreshing communal shower with the retired men who occupy the gym when normal people are at work.

Having satiated myself on pastry i made a trip to the archive,a ll the while holding my trousers up with one hand as i had somehow forgotten to pack a belt that morning havign left in my gym kit and carried my archive gear in my bag. Procrastination on yahoo weather revealed what i suspected, a storm was coming. At first i considered sticking around and not riding but my productivity was low anyway so i hopped on the metro, headed home and hopped on the bike at 2. I wanted to keep up the strength focus of the day so i hit a few 20 min climbs in the big ring. All was going swimmingly until i noticed that my pockets, and stomach were yawningly empty. I'd been noshing carbs at an above average rate, finding myself outside a farm i managed to turn some change into a nectarine and 2 figs which sustained me for about 30 minutes.

 I knew i was a long way from home, i'd like to blame hypoglycaemia for my refusal to stop but in reality i'm just a stubborn git. I pushed on and soon found myself on a 15k climb with entirely empty legs and a yawning stomach. wobbling around like Bambi on ice i caught myself on the verge of tears when i realized there were 10k to go, each kilometer hurt more and, as always happens when i bonk like this i got emotional and angry. At the top i gorged myself on all 7 of the ripe blackberries i could find. it's hard to descirbe just how weak, empty and useless you feel when you really bottom out. There's simply nothing left and the enormity of the ride home is unfathomable. You have to focus on the next pedal stroke, the next meter and just keep doing that. It's not just your legs, all the happiness seems to drain out of your soul. There's no point stopping to play your harmonica or to look for lizards you're just going to cry when you can't find any. In a lot of ways being bonked take syou back to being a baby, you're more or less totally helpless, all you can do is crawl or cry! so i crawled.

I wasn't hypo, i carry dex for that i was just HUNGRY, incredibly, horribly empty. I grovelled into the town at the top of the climb and found, to m inestimable delight, a bakery, it was as if the sun shone from that bakery, as if Jesus, Muhammad and Vishnu had set up shop in a small Catalan Forn de Pa. Unfortunatley all three of the bastards were on holiday for a month and they'd shut up shop, at that moment I took a decisive step towards agnosticism. More muttered swearwords and desperate use of the "aero tuck" at 15 kph to avoid pedalling along with some bambi on ice like wobbling up the last climb and i staggered into my house.

Yesterday this was the highway to hell 

There was barely time to prop up the bike before i found myself in the kitchen with a jar of nutella in one hand and a bag of crisps in the other. Both went down before i began to eat Jamon Serrano OFF THE BONE. A brief break for a shower and some insulin and i returned to the fray, laying waste to the rest of the milk and cereal in my house. I walked down the street to the bakery to reussply and promptly hit a pretty special level of hypoglycameia (40 / 2.2) . Staggering into the bakery I asked for my bread, the lady took one look at me guzzling my emergency haribo and began adding emergency baked goods to my bag. Having regained my motor control i offered to pay and was politely refused. "i saw you coming up the hill on your bike ride, you looked very hungry". I don't know how someone can give the outward impression of hunger (maybe its by weighing 150lbs and having long hair and a beard?)  but apparenlty i was THAT starving that I did so.
coca dolc - the catalan way to say no to hypos
Anyway, Catalonia remains beautiful, its people remain wonderful and its food delicious. Today i rode to the orxateria and stocked up, we had a good chat about the ban on glass in the local fiesta and all agreed the drunk foreigners were to blame. I was about to object when, at 11am a German girl with a litre of lager walked in, belched loudly and left.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

bike people are nice people

I've been back on my bike, and back in my beloved Catalonia a while now. I've taken the chance to head out with a few local groups, sunburn my lower arms and legs, sweat a lot, search out the best orxata and get lost in places where I haven't been lost before, and then get hypo and get lost in places i’m intimately familiar with. 

proper hypos mean proper snacks,the nutella filled hippo was the lifesaver here 

Last weekend was my first weekend here for Months, I got home to a calendar which was shocking for two reasons, it was still on the May page and it had pictures of nearly nude med students (I’ll buy anything for charity).  After spending some time at Dad's house celebrating my little sister's graduation (there's nothing like being surrounded by three freshly minted doctors all of whom are feeding you booze/ cake to bolster my hopes for the future of the medical profession's understanding of type 1 diabetes) and running with my beloved dog Widgeon I eventually received my bike, insulin and strips (only three days after I arrived, thanks BA) and boarded a low cost flight to el Prat.

this is the only known way to make running fun

my dad really lives here

Unlike their counterparts at BA the folks at easyjet managed to send my bicycle on the same plane as me and did so without bending the derallieur hanger. I managed a build and spin (and ice cream stop) on Wednesday and a couple of days of what I would like to call training but realistically I’ll call “the desperate search for my legs” on Thursday and Friday before heading out with the local club on Saturday. We met at 6:30 for what I was told would be a “long ride”. Turned out these guys weren’t messing about. With 3x20 on Thursday and Friday I was ready for an endurance paced cruise. This was anything but, they took the flat sections with typical Iberian insoucicance and, come the slightest incline they went absoloutley mental. Having suffered something of a “Schlek moment” I found myself on the back foot and covered in grease as I chased back on after extracting my chain from the nether regions of my frame BEHIND the overpriced piece of metal which is supposed to stop what had just happened. Sure as eggs are eggs, broken vertebrae are painful and I was hurting pretty badly chasing the local chippers uphill. Luckily whilst my legs and back may have forgotten how to climb, my cojones have not deserted me and I showed them how to go down a mountain without breaking in the apex of every turn.

After 100km of such fun I found myself at a cafĂ©, with a load of sweaty blokes I’d never met before drinking coke and sharing sandwiches, salt shakers and blatant lies about what had occurred over the previous 3 hours. At this point it occurred to me that the longest ride I’d done post injury was 100km and I had just done 100km, and now I had to ride home. We set off at a brisk pace fuelled by cured pork and caffeine and I’m not ashamed to admit that I had to look at the bracelet on my left wrist a few times as we approached the summit of several climbs. Once my new friends noticed this the pristine mountain air around Vic was rapidly polluted with shouts of “venga James, harden de fuck eerp”. As the miles counted down our group whittled down in size, at 40 degrees ( I still don’t do farenheit) and 160k I wasn’t surprised when a few people monted the train to Barcelona. Drastically undertrained, underfuelled and lacking in electrolytes it would’ve been the sensible option for me to do the same. But I’m not that way inclined. 30km later I found myself gasping for water whilst pushing a triathlete  towards the back of a paceline moving at 40kph down the autopista. Climbing the final hill on the way home the wheels came off and I drifted back through the amassed globeros, as I did so I received no less than 3 different water bottles and 2 caramelos. Sufficiently refueled I managed to muscle my way into the rotation and draw out the last of my hubris just long enough to put on the hurt on the way home.

The group split up 5km from my house and it took a large orxata and a medium sized (goat’s milk) froyo to get me up the hill and into my shower where I proceeded to whimper and groan for 30 mins while I attempted to remove the taste of sweat and suncream from my facial hair.

The point of this is not to regale you all with a tale of how unfit I am but rather to prove a point. Cycling brings us together in a way few other things do. I found that out again today climbing Monsteny when I came across an ambulance and a racing buddy, his friend was in the ambulance and, joined only by our love for the sport and one mutual acquaintance a group of us gathered to make the necessary phone calls etc before we set off and inflicted horrendous amounts of suffering on each other and then bought each other croissants.

 If this needed reinforcing any further I got a lesson in community when my crank FELL OFF on a ride and I found myself awaiting the opening of Dr bike in Mataro. Now in August in Catalonia “open at 9” means, we arrive at 9 and get a coffee next door. So come 9 not only did the mechanics arrive, they also bought me coffee, fixed my bike, gave me a crank bolt and refused payment.

Where else and why else would you find yourself sharing beverage containers with strangers, placing your hands on the sweaty lower back of someone you’d met hours before, splitting a bocadillo with someone 40 years older than you and, most dangerous of all accepting sweets from a stranger? There’s something about a shared love for shaved legs, lycra and carbon which brings people together in a way that other things can’t.

Sure I have met cyclists who I don’t care for (notably the bloke who told me I shouldn’t come on his ride because I had diabetes) some of them I try to be polite to, others of them I dispatch on climbs and very few of them I drop, wait for, drop again and repeat until they take the train home (notably the bloke who told me I shouldn’t come on his ride because I had diabetes). For the most part though, I find a shared love for bikes can overcome a lot of differences.

In the past 12 months I’ve shared a bed in Saigon with a bloke I met on the Wednesday ride, slept on the floor of someone who’d father organizes bike races, had a man who shared nothing more than a racing license and a lack of basic common sense regarding the weather similar to my own undress me in a freezing gymnasium in the Pyrenees, drunk beer in Spandex with a Belgian pensioner who once did the race across America, showered in someone else’s camper van, drunk dozens of free coffees and benefitted from more charity pastry than anyone else I know. None of that would have happened if I didn’t race bikes. So whilst I haven’t won bugger all this season It’s still  been a great year, I’ve got even more friends and I’ve had even better experiences.

These are my friends, we ride bikes

I often wonder why so many things which are on the extremes of the “luck” range tend to happen to me. I think if you put out a lot of happy, you get it back so when bad stuff happens, the key is to keep smiling, even if you break your back, because your friends might bring you speculoos in hospital.