Updated: Aug 10
I haven’t written anything for ages. Not because I had nothing to say, but because it has seemed to me that during COVID-19, the world was awash with the thoughts of locked up cyclists. I wasn't sure I could add much that was original, except that this morning on my pre-breakfast ride I reminded myself that this blog is part diary anyway and no one is reading it all. So let me share a story.
About 14 years ago when I was obsessed with triathlon, despite the obvious signs that I was rubbish at it, I went away for a week to Malta on a warm-weather training camp. This sounds grander than it was. In reality, my wife met another coach on an athletics training course who lived in Malta and between them, they cooked up a schedule of training three times a day over 6 days. The week culminated somehow in me taking part in the Maltese National Triathlon Championship (nope, me neither). This was a sprint race that started with a sea swim. I was so bad at this that when I turned around the buoy at the halfway point I could see that everyone else had left the water and was running up a jetty to get on their bikes. Try as I might, I couldn’t catch anyone on the bike and it took a huge effort to out sprint a bloke nicknamed ‘Barrel Barry’ to avoid coming last. Let's just say his nickname wasn’t ironic, the man ate more haribos every day than a coach full of kids on a school trip.
Memorable as all of that sounds, what really stuck in my head was that I was bloody exhausted all week. Training three times a day became a right chore. I bet many of us have dreamed of winning the lottery and living like a professional athlete. Lockdown has provided many people with the opportunity to do just that. If they have been furloughed by their company they are literally being paid to stay home. So unless you planned to learn Spanish, bake banana bread or build a replica of the Tower of London from matchsticks, you had the chance to try out the life of a pro for real. If you are one of these lucky people then admit it, it got boring pretty quickly. Endless hours alone both indoors and outdoors once you were able to go out there. No doubt you got better, improved your FTP, dropped a dress size etc etc. But there was no one to race against. No one to beat up a hill on a club ride. No race to the town sign. Just you banging out the miles and topping the monthly Strava challenge league table [Yes I am talking to you. You know who you are 😉]. Really I just jealous though. I didn’t get this opportunity and hats off to those who embraced it fully. I already know I don’t have the willpower live like a crappy amateur, never mind a dedicated pro.
Personally I spent the first 8 weeks of lockdown getting addicted to Zwift, sometimes riding 12 or 13 times in a week. The trouble with training almost exclusively indoors is that if you are not careful you can over-train, as every session is more intense. Some idiot (me) stupidly told club mates I intended to ride Alpe du Zwift every week in lockdown and so Saturday morning became a hot and horrid battle for 8 consecutive weeks with me lowering my time and chasing the sub-hour goal. On week 9 I died a death on that virtual mountain and I needed time off. The following week I spent my Saturday morning lying on a sofa watching GCN videos on YouTube and a documentary called Le Ride about two Americans following the route of Tour de France and I ate my body weight in crisps and marshmallows. A week later I celebrated my 53rd birthday by riding up the Alpe twice in succession. This seemed like a suitable way of denying my age and incidentally rocketed me up the aforementioned Strava challenge. I have not, for the record, completed the Alpe every week in lockdown. Then again as no one seems to know whether lockdown has ended and the government can’t seem to recall when it started, who knows.
But riding indoors is no match for the real thing. I started this year with a big goal in mind. I was training well before lockdown: lord knows how the pros must have felt these past four months, unable to use the training they had done and unable to continue to train the way they wanted to. But I wonder how many of them fell in love with being on the bike again once they got outdoors? Once I could get out for longer than an hour, I set about trying to complete some of those early year goals, one of which was to complete my first Audax distance ride. It took me four attempts and that’s not counting the number of times I bailed out on the day or the night before (sorry Glen). On three of these efforts either my head or my back or my legs gave out and I couldn’t get past 165km. This felt all the worse while seeing good friends completing 200km or even 300km rides while I was skulking around feeling sorry for myself. But it turns out (surprise surprise) that the problem was never my legs, but my head.
Last week I finally did it, riding a 206km loop through Warwickshire and Leicestershire. I set off at 6 am following a route sent to me by a friend, most of which I had never ridden before. I figured it may take me 10 hours in elapsed time and so I broke it down into one-hour blocks, refusing to think further than doing the current block I was in. The combination of good weather, a slower pace, unknown roads and a different mental attitude made the first 6 hours fly by. Well, not exactly fly-by. It was more like one of those Slow-TV videos on YouTube (it’s a thing, look it up). Oddly the closer I got to completing, the more impatient I got for it to end. Not because I thought I couldn’t do it, but because I knew I would. I just wanted to get it done and move on to the next challenge. Towards the end though, I started to get really tired (yes, no shit) but as if by magic, a woman appeared - to borrow a phrase from Mr Ben (this reference only makes sense if you are over 50 and British I am sure). With 30km to go Mrs B appeared having ridden the course in reverse. She was careful not to ride in front of me so as not to spoil my solo ride status but offered words of encouragement whenever it appeared like I was flagging or every 500m, whichever came first. She's the best.
Pedaleur du Charme, non?
Next on the list of goals is to actually do a proper bike packing trip. One where I take my sleeping kit with me, ride through the night and just bivvy in a hedge when I get tired. I need to do this if only to stop my kids laughing at me and repeatedly telling me I will never do it because I hate camping of any sort. I want to do longer, self-supported trips rather than riding from Airbnb to hotel. I want to ride longer distances over different terrain. Make my long rides home even more of a challenge because bigger challenges get bigger rewards.