Cycling is full of hyperbole and cliche. Epic, hell, brutal. It’s rarely any of these.
And then you see the images of the first Paris-Roubaix race after World War 1. A ride through hell. This is the origin of Paris-Roubaix’s nickname as the ‘Hell of the North’.
“This wasn’t a race. It was a pilgrimage.”
Henri Pélissier, speaking of his 1919 victory.
Life, I decided, is more important than cycling. Blasphemy. Nay, treason. Hang him from the rafters. Lovers who’ve come to terms with their love for one another and other people.
We’re not exactly on a break, no. We’re just open to seeing other people. And you know what, I’m enjoying it. Lazy lie ins, eating what I like, not dreading the turbo. This is the life.
I don’t race, I ride. Yet I’m training. Many will question the word training. As if an amateur cannot train. Especially one who does not race. You are not an Olympian, you are not a pro, you are not a racer, you are not training.
Yet I am training. Despite being self-coached my amateur training is more advanced than most professionals of days gone by. I have rigid plans and structures. I have training zones and a ‘fueling strategy’ aka a balanced diet. I monitor progress and apply basic sport science, some of it half-baked, some of it not. The trouble being you never really know which is which. I take myself far too seriously and I wear a headband for christ sake, I must be training.
For what I’m training for, I cannot say. There’s no medals to point to. There’s the small number of hill climb races I enter. Or the bravado of leading out the peloton or the fear of being dropped on a club ride. There’s local hills and personal bests. Yet I’m not really training for any of these.
Yeah, I’m niche. Not really something to boast about yet we humans like to feel as if we’re forging our own paths, that we are remarkable in some small way, atypical, one of a few. We follow not crowds, only our own will, for yes I’m smart, in control, not one of them, all those others who look and behave just like me, nay, observe me closely, I’m different, I’m special goddamnit.
Cyclists are no different. As a collective, we’re often accused of being self-entitled or ego-led, self-important, self-aggrandising, and as such hate figures to some. Yet the truth is we’re not special, we’re no different to others based on our choice of transport.
We do have our quirks, obsessions that help define us, routines which bond us. Damn, we are special after all.
Ride, roll, spin.
Gasp. As if to live I must fight for air.
Hunched, knees unnaturally near jaw
Not the poise of one who flies.
So nails can enjoy the view.
Drink suckled from teat
Nothing odd with that.
I used to be a contender. I could have taken that KOM. I was quicker goddammit and now look at me. Pathetic.
Slow with a tailwind, the merest incline induces a series of huffing and puffing and effing and blinding. Strava automatically marks my rides as private as a sign of a respect to my former self. Inner chimp has become inner chump. Yep, I’m most definitely outta shape.
Empty legs, head and heart. The unthinkable has happened. I’ve fallen out of love with cycling. Say what now? Surely not? The urge long lost, denial initially fuelled more riding. Perhaps I’ll just blast through it, I thought, kidding nobody. This lasted for two months before THAT ride.
Tan lines fading. Motivation too. Mornings cooler, darker. Days shortening. Summer fades so quickly into autumn, an annual event that somehow manages to surprise and disappoint us. Ahead, only darkness. Nine months into the year and the dear cyclist begins to think of hibernation.
The paradox of fitness peaking, body stronger than ever yet oh so tired, weary, continually on the limit. Limbs lighter, mind perhaps wiser, most importantly you’re a quicker rider. Yet probably still not satisfied. You can always be quicker.
The Transcontinental Race (TCR) is a bike race across Europe or perhaps more accurately, a voyage into the unknown mental and physical capabilities of oneself.
The rules are simple. Ride unsupported across Europe following your own route via four checkpoints before reaching the finish line. There’s no official cut-off time for this c.2,500 mile (4,000km) race but many riders aim to finish within 14 days to be a part of the finish line celebrations.
Following an ultra-distance cycle race is fascinating (and tiring!). Forget about the theatre of the Tour de France and the other so called ‘Grand Tours’. TCR is the real thing, very real, a vivid drama on a human scale, an adventure both relatable to most cyclists whilst being equally unfathomable.
Who is the creature who returns home exhausted, depleted? Dry salt caking face, heavy black rings lacing eyes, more aches and pains in legs than your average nursing home. This is the cyclist who has ridden too far, too high. Bitten off more than they can chew. The route too big for their legs.
Ding, ding, bike on the road! Ding ding, careful now. Ding ding, excuse me and my two wheeled contraption. Ding ding, look away from your phone and focus on the road you’re crossing. Ding ding ding ding, is this annoying? Ding ding ding ding ding, why are you angry I have alerted you to my presence? Ding! What the hell is bicycle bell etiquette?
I’ve fitted a bell to my commuter bike. My oh my. Who’d have thought such a simple act would be so fraught with existential questions?!