At times my cycling life has felt like an extended game of snakes and ladders, with every gain counter balanced by the ever present threat of random loses of fitness that I have no control of. The first three months of this year have seen me making slow progress, fighting mental and physical challenges that have taken much of the joy out of cycling. After the Cape Town Cycle Tour though, I felt I was enjoying being back on the bike and was looking forward to the next landmark in my year, a tour of Mallorca with my local club Warwick Lanterne Rouge.
But three weeks ago I hit another big 'snake' moment as my long term back problems resurfaced. I wish I could say that the problems came as a result of some epic event, but true to my age it happened in inoccuous fashion, bending over to take off my socks. My back went and I ended up on the floor in immense pain unable to move. I've been here before multiple times over the past decade having slipped disks in my lower back and neck. When the disk is damaged or under threat of damage, all the muscles around it go into spasm making any movement difficult. I lay on the floor for about 30 minutes waiting for it to calm down without any change. Somehow through convoluted movements I got myself up on to bed and lay there waiting for Rachel to come home and help me. As this has happened many times before I was already thinking ahead: this would stop me going to Mallorca. This would mean the end of the C2C and L'Etape. You may laugh at the stupidity of a 50 something year old bloke being so dramatic and you wouldn't be wrong. You might also ask if there aren't more important things in life, like my job. Again, you're not wrong. But most likely if you are reading this, cycling is also important to you so you might have a little sympathy.
Three days in bed unable to move. Followed by 5 days moving like I was made of fragile glass. Some physio and acupuncture from the excellent Charlie Ward. Followed by a few more days where I moved around like I was suffering from extreme incontinence. 10 minutes on my smart trainer. 4km on a Boris Bike still sporting the imminent incontinence look every time I stopped. 20km on my winter bike chaperoned by younger son Michael, where we discovered that I can't get out of the seat, can't put pressure on the pedals, can't get off the bike unaided. 30km alone determined to prove I was not a danger to myself. Packing for the airport.
Obviously important life stuff went on in this three week period too, but I was counting down to Mallorca, desperate to be on the plane. In the real world, the chaos of Brexit was (is) turning the UK upside down and at times it is hard not to be consumed by it. In my self centred world I was more concerned about my own meaningful vote of confidence in my ability to ride.
Last Wednesday Rachel and I landed in Palma and got a taxi to the Rapha cafe so I could pick my hire bike, just as I did last year. Rachel picked up hers from round the corner and we made our way, 60km across the island to Port de Pollenca. Despite the fact I was riding at slow speed, there is always something uplifting about being on my bike in the sun. There was even a short section on a perfect, flat, traffic free road where I could push a little. A short ladder had been climbed.
The rest of the club arrived the next day en masse including my lad Michael and we started our tour with the traditional ride out to the lighthouse at Cap Formentor. The hills are not super steep or long, but by the time we reached the lighthouse my back was aching and I needed help to get off. Back down a snake. The ride back was hard and I just wanted it to be over. There wasn't going to be some miraculous return to health and fitness. Time to face facts, I would have to stick to the flat roads inland and forget about the hills.
Of course I should have been delighted just to be there, but human nature makes us greedy (or at least mine does) and I really had hoped I would be more mobile.
On the Friday morninghalf the club riders set off on a coach to take them to Andratx on the far West of the island. The three groups would tackle various routes on the way back between 120km and 160km with lots of climbing. Michael and I were on the bus too, but we headed directly south until we hit the coast then rode into Palma, back to Rapha. My hire bike had developed an irritating creaking sound and I wanted it fixed. Three hours later I was on a different bike after multiple attempts to fix the first one had failed, including riding over a "specialist mechanic" who set about the bottom bracket with a lump hammer and declared it fixed. Michael and I now had a choice of taking our bikes on the train for all or part of the way home. That option was scuppered when we found out bikes were not allowed on the train for another two hours. With no other options we followed exactly the same route across the island as I had done just two days earlier. The difference this time was having no bags and a 19 year old engine to follow..Michael seemed determined to show the old man what he could do, taking long stints on the front averaging over 32kph.
With 95km in his legs and just 10km to go to Pollenca, Michael finally slowed down. In fact the wheels fell off (metaphorically speaking of course). A decent father would have felt sympathy, would have coaxed his son home at whatever pace he could manage. But any cyclist will tell you that in these circumstances there is only one thing to do: drop the hammer. Having enjoyed an armchair ride almost all the way home, I got on the front and pushed hard. Really hard. Not big and not clever I know. And definitely not pain free. But very funny. With 5km to go we turned into a back road with a terrible road surface at exactly the same time as a group of German cyclists. They attempted to pass but this only served as motivation to push harder, averaging 35kph for over 3km before our final turns home. Despite claiming he was cooked, Michael held on to my wheel the whole way providing commentary on the Germans' failing attempts to keep up. We finished the ride with big grins: a proper father and son moment.
I did the sensible thing and stuck to the flat rides again on Saturday and Sunday, enjoying time with clubmates, enjoying the views, the coffee stops, the chats. These were two glorious rides that just made everyone smile. They reminded me of why I love cycling and the club I joined just 18 months ago. And then the Tour was over for the Lanternes as they headed home on Monday morning. Rachel and I still had two more days though and we spent Monday trying out a route I had plotted in advance that would take us up the Col de Sa Batalla. I was feeling confident enough in my back to try a hill effort in the knowledge that if it didn't work out I could stop or soft pedal without it affecting lots of others. In the end I loved it. My back was still sore, but not affecting my ability to push and I took over 2 minutes off my previous best, tantalisingly close to breaking 30 minutes. There's always next time.
On the Wednesday morning we arrived and started our ride across the island I wanted to get it over with and get off the bike. As we took the return trip I didn't want it to end and we took our time to ride some back roads back towards Palma. Mallorca really is a cycling paradise. If you don't like riding here in the sun, then you don't like cycling. Sharing it with friends and family only makes it better. I imagine that every single person on the trip was sad the following day and thinking about ways to get back to Mallorca again this year rather than wait for the next tour.
England is due a mini heat wave this weekend and it's a four day weekend with holidays added either side. An opportunity to get out and ride every day. Back allowing. I have definitely gone back up a big ladder and can only hope the next snake is a long way off.
Numbers for the week:
546km ridden with 4,929m of climbing