Monday, 17 January 2011

It's Harder Than It Looks

Anyone who has ever watched cycling on TV has probably had the same thought as me: "It doesn't look that hard". But if you've ever gone out and tried to DO it, you've no doubt found out rather quickly that it's a lot harder than it looks.

I'm not talking about the easy, social riding that most amateurs are used to doing (although these rides can also be difficult if you are not used to them). I'm talking about race-paced, all-out efforts. Anything from a 2 hour road race going up and down big hills to just over one minute all-out on the track. When watching other people perform these efforts, they look 'easy' and you can picture yourself doing them with similar ease. But lift one leg over the top tube of your bike and try and pound out a similar effort with the same type of result and you will be unpleasantly surprised!

I am reminded of my first foray into track cycling. I had seen it many times on the television and thought it looked relatively simple. I mean – I had sprinted on my road bike many times so figured it couldn't be much harder to do it on the track. Boy was I wrong! Certainly riding around the track at a comfortable pace is easy enough, but as soon as you up it to race pace, the pain and suffering, even for such a short effort, is  immense.

As one of my teammates said to me recently: "If it was easy, everyone would be good at it". I suppose that is what separates the best riders from everyone else – the very best make it look easy. They are able to ride through the pain, hiding their discomfort and the suffering that they are experiencing, and cross the finish line ahead of the rest, often with a smile on their face.

It has been many months since I last rode and raced on the track, but have recently started training for this discipline again. Thinking back to the last time I raced, the memories of the pain and difficulty and the effort required had faded and I was left with a significantly reduced perception of what is required to go fast (and stay fast) on the track. It was a huge shock to the system the first time I got back on the track and put the hammer down in an attempt to go fast. Sure, I was able to go fast... but not for long. I had forgotten how much real effort is required to maintain the high speeds associated with track cycling. 

Nevertheless, after several sessions training on the track, I once again have grown accustomed to the feeling of going hard and fast for a short period of time and once again know the level of pain and suffering needed to succeed. Fortunately there are still several months to go before I have to worry about racing on the track, so have lots of time to hone my skills and refine my efforts.

All I can say is – I have a huge amount of respect to the cyclists who make their efforts seem easy.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Women or Bikes: You Can Only Ride One

Having passion in your life is, without a doubt, a good thing. I think it is important that each and every person have something in their life that they feel strongly about. Something that drives them on and makes them want to be a better person. But when one passion gets in the way of another, serious problems can arise.

It was almost exactly two years ago that my wife walked into the bedroom and declared that she wanted a divorce. At the time I admit to feeling an overwhelming sense of relief, despite knowing the logistical and financial hardships that lay ahead. It wasn't that I didn't care about her, rather it was that my passion (cycling) had become incompatible with her. I even remember the divorce papers listings amongst of the reasons for the breakdown of the marriage 'the fact that I kept my six bikes in the house'! (Which is odd, because I didn't own more than one bike at the time!)

Women and sport have long mixed like oil and water. Rare is the women that not only appreciates sport – but also participates in it. How many men have partners that simply tolerate their love of sport – that 'allow' them to go to the pub once a week to watch the football match? Or give them sufficient guilt-free time to train adequately for their cycling pursuits? 

How many men have to hide the true value of their cycling purchases from their wives for fear of recriminations? On the cycling forums we often talk about the tricks we use to cover our tracks – from the very popular method of having all cycling purchases delivered to our offices instead of homes, to having separate paypal or bank accounts to fund such purchases. At times it seems more complicated than an international money laundering scheme!

Another common complaint I hear from men is not being able to go out for a ride whenever they want to. I have some very good friends who I constantly badger to come ride with me, but they can't because they are always tied down to the responsibilities of their partners or children. It's no real surprise that I have become a significantly better cyclist since I moved out on my own and began to live the bachelor life again.

I know life is a series of compromises – and each person must chose what aspects of their life to value over another. I place a high value on my cycling time – it is the only thing that truly keeps me motivated, interested and passionate. 

Looking back on the period I was married (and actually interested in cycling), I suppose the problems began to arise when I found myself too tired a lot of the time to do anything else. You see – after a 4 or 5 hour bike ride, the last thing I wanted to be doing was to be rushing off to go shopping. Not that I ever wanted to rush off to go shopping, even at the most rested of times! 

And to further complicate matters, now that I am training and racing regularly with the Irish team – I have to find more hours in the day to ride and have to travel for training camps and races for several months out of the year – often being away for weeks at a time. Having time left over to take a holiday with the family would be a rare luxury.

Now – I know it can be done. In fact, many of the members of my squad somehow manage to go to work, train, raise families and probably even get away with purchasing whatever bike bits they want and need. They have found that delicate balance between their home lives and their cycling aspirations. They obviously have very caring and understanding partners. I just wasn't that lucky.

Even in more recent times I have tried to find this balance between sex and cycle, between my passion and love. When I entered the dating world again, starting with something of a fresh slate –  I went out of my way to try and find a woman who would not only appreciate and understand my love of cycling, but also participate in it with me. 

I joined a popular online dating service and boldly proclaimed my love for the two-wheeled machine going as far as to say that "if you own a bike and actually use it, that would be a huge bonus". I recall receiving many replies from potential partners, all who seemed to own a mountain bike that they used to carry them to the pub on Sundays. Not exactly what I had in mind! Even the occasional women who owned a road bike and was determined to show me that they rode it was soon left far behind, complaining that the speed was too fast and the hills too steep. And this was only after the first five miles (and at a pace that to me, was barely above walking!).

Although I had limited success in this endeavour, I eventually managed to meet a lovely woman who actually owned not one, but several bikes. For the briefest of moments I thought I might have found my true happiness. Not only could she (more or less) keep up the pace, but insisted we tackle the steepest hills in the area. She even came to see me race (although when she tried to drag me off to the pub afterwards, despite me being barely able to walk and stay awake, I had a feeling that things were going to go pear-shaped at some point). Sadly, when the weather turned cold, I seemed to find myself on the roads all alone again. It seems she was a fair-weather cyclist. I quickly lost interest.

Or was it something else? Was it the guilt I felt when I was spending time with her instead of training? Perhaps I was uncomfortable with the added temptation – being led to overeat and drink alcohol – which would slowly derailing my long-term goals? Was I looking ahead to the future and thinking about how I was going to explain that I wouldn't be able to take a holiday with her – possibly for the next two years? That my life wasn't really my own to share for the time-being? I don't know the real answer.

Oddly enough, my ex-wife and I are still friends (in fact, we are still married as we just never got around to getting divorced). It took us splitting up for her to come to see me race (and was pleasantly surprised when she did). She claims she always supported my cycling dreams and pursuits. And while I know she thinks she did, deep down inside I know she was jealous of the time I dedicated to cycling... instead of to her. Sport can be a fickle mistress.

My very first introduction to disability cycling was by a married couple – both of whom are medal-winning Paralympic cyclists. From the outside, looking in, they have the ideal life. They live together, love together and train together. I do not know what other challenges they face, but on the surface it seems to me like a match made in heaven! 

What I know is this: that somewhere out there is the perfect woman for me. One that can give me the time and space I need to achieve my goals. Failing that, I'll probably give up on cycling before I give up on women!

(I'm off now for the next week at my first training camp of the year but will have an update when I get back.)

Saturday, 1 January 2011

2010 Year in Review

Racing in Kent in September 2010
As is traditional for many people at this time of year, I'm going to do a quick Year in Review for 2010. This is largely for myself to look back at 365 days from today so I have something to compare with, but it will also give you an insight into the ups and downs I have faced in my first year racing at the international level.

And so... to start at the beginning. January 2010 started off full of promise. At that stage I had only spoken with the coaches of the Ireland squad – and they had agreed to have me over to Ireland in early February to do some testing and see if I was good enough to get a trial with the team. I spent all of November and December training as hard as I could, trying to mould myself into the best possible condition for my try out.

But as bid farewell to 2009, the New Year got off to the worst possible start. Just a few days into January, I managed to severely overdo it on a training ride. I found myself with chills and fever, and most worrying of all – peeing blood. A quick trip to the doctor confirmed that I was suffering from severe dehydration. Turns out that even though it might be freezing outdoors, you still lose a lot of fluid on a long ride and if you don't take care to replace those fluids – well... you end up quite sick.

To make matters worse, in the following days while at home recouperating, I somehow managed to pull a muscle in my back – probably from something s innocuous as reaching for the TV remote while splayed out on the sofa. For the next month I suffered with severe back spasms, barely able to move at times – the pain was so severe. I was constantly medicated to try and dull the pain. I tried everything to try and speed my recovery along – from doing absolutely nothing to sports massage. It just needed to run its course.

The entire time I was suffering with the back spasms, I was unable to ride my bike. This was the most frustrating thing of all – watching the date of my trail with the team approaching and not being able to properly prepare for it. With just 2 weeks to go until I was due to travel to Ireland – and still not having started training again – I had to tell them I wouldn't be able to make it.

But no sooner had I sent the email bowing out of the trial, the pain in my back seemed to vanish as quickly and mysteriously as it had arrived a month earlier! Within days I was back on my bike (at last) and making up for lost time. I thought to myself that even though I wasn't at my best, there was no way I was going to miss out on the opportunity to go and try out for the team. If I didn't go then, it could be another year before I had the chance again.

Therefore, in February I travelled over to Ireland to get my testing done. In the end it was quite simple. Just some power testing in the lab to see what kind of wattage I could put out and a few road rides with the rest of the squad to see how I looked on the bike. When it was all over – I had earned myself a chance to go and do some racing with the team. Perseverance pays off!

Team Sprint competition in Wales

Fast forward to May and I got my first invitation to go and train with the squad. We spent a week in Newport, Wales training mostly at the velodrome there. At the end of the week, we all competed in the Disability Grand Prix of Wales – the only Disability track cycling event in the UK. I walked away with a  Gold in the Kilo, a Silver in the Pursuit and a Bronze in the Team Sprint event. I was on my way!

Next up was a chance to show my skills on the road. In June we jetted off to Segovia, Spain to compete in the UCI Road World Cup race there. This would be a baptism of fire for me – competing against the best road and time trial riders in the world. Up until this point I had only ever raced against a limited number of disabled riders in the UK – and mostly on flat, closed road circuits. While there are some good UK riders, the level of competition drops off very quickly. In Spain.... everyone was good.

Start of race in Spain. I'm hidden away at the back (middle). 
The road race was the hardest thing I had ever experienced on a bike. The course was long and hilly, and all the riders were good. VERY good. I was completely out of my element. I managed to lose the main group of riders on the first lap and spent the rest of the race riding by myself – all the while into a headwind – just getting more and more tired. Finally, on the last lap with just a few miles to go, another group of riders caught up to me, eventually passing me at the finish line. Still.... I had finished my first international race!

The next day went a lot better. In the time trial I managed to finish in 9th place, despite not having my normal TT bike. I could have finished much higher if I had ridden the course a little smarter and pushed a little harder. Nevertheless, it showed where my strengths lie and had earned me a spot to go to the World Championships.

UK races have a mixed field across all disabilities
In the domestic UK racing scene, I was quietly racking up second places in the Disability Circuit Race Series. By the end of the series, I had earned enough points to be crowned National Champion. That was one of my big highlights for the year. I hope to repeat in 2011 – but with an expanded international race schedule, I may not be around for enough of the races to get the points I need.

August brought about the team's trip to Canada to compete in the World Championships. I have already covered that event in another entry, so will just say that although it was one of the best experiences of my life, it was also one of the worst. I failed to achieve my goal of a top-10 finish in the TT, and missed the automatic qualification time for funding by a mere 30 seconds. At the time, with no funding in place for 2011, I thought that would be the end of my career racing with the team.

Start line in Canada. I'm not smelling his armpit!
September brought my last race for the team – anther road race and TT, this time held in Kent. Not nearly as many competitors as the Worlds, but still a few big names to compete with. I rode a very poor road race and although I was one of the strongest riders there, my poor tactics meant I finished down on the field. But again, redeemed myself with a second place in the TT.

In Canada I picked up an injury – an abscess in my perineum. It meant that once again I was forced off the bike – this time also for a month. I spent week after week doing test after test and seeing doctor after doctor trying to get the issue resolved. To this day it is still ongoing and no clear diagnosis has been made, but it has healed enough that I have been able to resume my training.

Limerick Training Camp in Ireland
Finally, in October I was invited to travel to Ireland to participate in a London 2012 preparation camp. Athletes from all Paralympic sports were invited – with an eye on preparing those most likely to be in London for what lies ahead. It was at that time that I found out that I will have another chance to obtain my funding for the next 2 years based on how well I do at the Track World Championships this March in Italy. So I am training my little bottom off as it will will go a long way to determining if I make it all the way to London or not.

So, all in all it was a good year. Full of ups and downs, but gave me a good taste of what it takes to compete at the top level and the amount of work that I will have to out in over the next 2 years if I want to be more than just a participant in the London Games.

And to anyone that managed to get this far – I wish you all a healthy, happy and successful 2011!