the why

the why

Why? Four days in soaked, stinking Lycra, sweat pouring in torrents, stinging my eyes with a nasty mix of sun screen and salt, tasting of stale tartiflette as it runs relentlessly down my face, into my mouth, dripping off my chin, wiped away futilely by already soaked cycling gloves.  Why? Because it doesn’t get any better than this.

This is the French Alps and this is the Tour de France.  These grand, spectacular mountains are painted – with a lot of yellow and a fair deployment of red polka dots – but mostly with all things cycling for four intense, gigantic, dramatic days each year.  Like a fierce storm the Tour de France rolls through, up, over, down and out the other side of the alpine cols, sweeping me and my bike along with it. For those four days I’m in the Tour, or as close as I’m ever going to be.

Four days happen fast, an intense whirlwind of vibrant colour, people, vistas distilled into a potent emotional concentrate.  Except on the climbs.  Where it slows.  Pedals rotating slowly not spinning fast. Time falters and extends the opportunity to dissect and process individual moments, snapshots of memory from within the whirlwind and fully answer the: Why?

It’s butterflies basking on the warm road, escaping death by front wheel and disappearing amongst the mesmerising alpine flowers in the meadows that lie sandwiched between hairpins.  Camper vans, lots of camper vans with occupants spilling out dressed, half dressed, half cut, half bored, very bored or very excited.  How did that ancient VW camper get up here? Families camped on precarious precipices. Kids, lots of expectant kids reaching out for a high-five in return for a pain relieving allez-allez or even a precious song.  Some other songs are rude, I think.  Sung raucously in drunken European accents by uber-excited 18-30s, they’re maybe older, maybe younger – it’s a vast array of humanity swarming on the mountain sides.  Being overtaken by an E-bike (lots of them this year) but easily catching a Brompton folding bike set on conquering mountains too.  Distracted on the brutal Ramaz by official posters of past winners.  Where’s Armstrong? (The other drug cheats are all here).  Picture postcard perfect chalets perched on the mountain, promising idyllic alpine living, adorned in Tour decorations, like Christmas but celebrating cycling.  Wet paint on the road, splashing my bike with neon green and pink tattoos, daubed by supporters marking out their support for Bardet, Sagan, Froome – they’re all coming through later.  Mixing the Bicycle Moaning Collective club kit with club kits from all over the world.  Spotting club mates racing on hairpins high above or even better – below.  Appreciating admiring looks at my bike or were they admiring my socks?  Euro-pop-beats that help pick up the pace momentarily until fading out of earshot and fading with it my momentarily lifted pace.  The breath-taking, awe inspiring views from the high mountains – don’t forget to look down.  The cooling air as I climb higher, not too cold but cold enough to help.  Swirling mountain mists, riding through and above the clouds, entering another world.  Moving aside for Gendarmes on their motor bikes, roaring past in aggressive groups of threes.  Moving aside for Tour Team cars racing up behind, with deafening horns.  Get out of the way.  Is that for me?  Or the crowds pressing in from each side at the top of Col du Joux Plane? Narrowing the road – like they do on the television – no more than a meter wide.  I’m in the Tour.

That’s Why.  There’s one more: starting out on an epic climb and not knowing or believing that you can do it: climb that high, that steep, for that long and that hard. But you do.  You make it to the top.  You can, you did.

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pleasure + pain = life

pleasure + pain = life

Down the drive, turn right up the narrow lane, grass growing up the middle, pass under the shadow of Pen Y Fan, follow the lane down a narrow tree covered descent, hard to read in the early morning mottled sunlight.  Left at the junction, behold the Brecon Beacons National Park in all its technicolour beauty. Not bad for a local ride, just on your doorstep. It’s not the South Circular.

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4 early morning escapees follow a canal, through small Welsh villages (their super fast broadband provided by the EU – Wales voted overwhelmingly in favour of leaving the EU).  Who cares about the EU Referendum anymore? A week on, everyone’s moved on. We don’t. We’re racing to No. 94* from the 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs: A Road Cyclist’s Guide to Britain’s Hills. A sort of cycling Bible.

 * LLangynidr, Powys, 397m, 7%, 5.6 km.

How’s this one going to work out? It’s only rated a 7/10. So not monstrous. Even at the foot of a climb you don’t really know.  Some you write off despondently within the first few metres at the base, then ascend smoothly, fluidly, as if by magic (this is rare).

Other times ( more likely), pumped full of expectation, water bottles emptied to reduce weight. Nothing. Your legs won’t come out to play, they seize up and let you down badly. The climb becomes a Hell. All you can do is dig in and drive through the sense of missed opportunity all the way to summit, cross the line that marks the end of the pain and start of the next chapter of the ride.  Tell a non-cyclist that climbing can provide peacefulness and relaxation they won’t understand the pleasure in the pain.

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Expectation for the climb is greater when it’s in the Top 100. Even greater when Stevie tells us it’s a 25 minute climb if you want to be able to talk about it afterwards.  His grin widens further when he tells us  he’s tapering for the Etape du Tour but that shouldn’t stop us from climbing like our rear tyres are on fire. He’ll see us at the top.

Climbing, mostly alone for 24 minutes, surrounded by spectacular views, in that moment it’s possible to escape.  A weekend of enjoyable remoteness from London. I  Guess this is what the rest of the country feels all of the time. Yes alone. I started out with Dom, holding his wheel, letting him do the work – he won’t admit it:  he’s a heinous wheel sucker, (and I won’t admit – to him at least – that he’s the better cyclist).  Sucking until he’s confident of springing ahead and cruising to a clear victory. Not that we’re racing.

This time I go slow enough that he’s forced to take the initiative and put  his nose in front. Cat & mouse. I knew he was gunning for those 24 minutes. Then my first mistake, I glanced down at the climb profile – the dot that was me was at the bottom and the top was at the top a long way away. I flinched. Dom pounced. The elastic broke.

As the fields and hedgerows spread out below into a picture of rural perfection I thought about a life in somewhere like this. There’s something about riding your bike that makes you consider your life situation. Life on a clear bright summer morning, on a bike:  idyllic. Then the dark clouds role in: what about work prospects, my kids’ schooling and their future opportunities? As they run through the woods, jump over streams, climb trees they’d say none of that was important but they’re only 7 and 4 respectively.  

It’s my risk adverseness, pragmatism, shaped by my own (office based) life experiences directing their destinies, making decisions on their behalf.  They might dream of being organic Welsh hill eco-farmers. Why not? I hope I’m not limiting their futures already.  It’s dangerous to project a future for their futures based on my past experiences.  They’re not going to be relevant even in 5 year’s time.

Higher up the scenery is becoming ever more spectacular. The morning light providing crystal clear views, soaring (all be it slowly) above Tolkien country. The Shire below us. An inspiring panorama for Middle Earth and an inspiring back cloth for my objective of catching Dom. He’s a hairpin bend away, passing above me in the opposite direction, I’m sure he’s smirked down at me.  Legs spinning quicker, feet light on the pedals but quicker, angry pedal stomping wasn’t going to do it. I closed the gap, I was surprised as Dom was.

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Then the second mistake. I settled for just holding his wheel. I should’ve span past, gone on. Instead I relaxed, easily satisfied, controlled my racing breathing, fiddled with my sun glasses. He was gone again. Gone for good**. Remember: we’re not racing.

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2 middle aged men racing up a mountain. Stupid hey? Maybe but when we reached the top, the race won (by Dom) there’s fist pumps, mutual pats on the back and hugged selfies. Like boxers embracing after there’d finished battering each other. Good stupid.

 ** I whipped him on the descent. Tipping above 70kmh.

mixed up

mixed up

Chalk and cheese. Oil and water. Some things just don’t mix. Other things look terrible together on paper, ever tried strawberries with black pepper? Interestingly good. Or Weetabix with honey? (I always butter first to smooth the application of the honey and I find set honey best but squeezey-runny honey works well if you are in a pre-ride rush). Then there are other things that should work together that simply don’t. Denim jacket with denim jeans – double-denim – despite what your Dad might tell you.

Add cycling and yoga to that list. They should exist in symbiotic bliss. Just not in our household. To be honest, It’s a mix of time and space that are the real culprits. Cycling & yoga demand both. Time, that’s obvious – you can’t be looking after the kids, doing chores when you’re on your bike. Space – bikes in the yoga room don’t go down well either. 

Team Sky practice yoga, most professional sports teams do now. Apparently it was pioneered by the British 8 at the Sydney Olympics. At regattas they were a source of amusement as they downward dogged. Then they won Olympic gold and no one laughed anymore. Yoga was no longer just for Sting or middle aged women. It’s officially performance enhancing. So with that promise I floated the idea of a family-cycling-yoga weekend in Brecon, lit the fuse and stood back. No explosion. We were on.

Stevie & Emma have escaped. They sold up in London and bought Danyfan, a grand Edwardian villa at the foot of Pen-y-Fan, an imposing mountain in the Brecon Beacons. We headed there. The cyclists with heads full of slow grinding ascents and screamingly fast descents, the yogi’s seeking peacefulness and relaxation. Danyfan and the Brecon’s can provide both (and almost as importantly enough beds for 3 families).

The weekend. It worked. Of course I knew it would all along. The cyclists clocked up their miles in spectacular scenery and even a little early morning sunshine. The yogi’s got their peace and quiet, sun salutations in the shadow of Pen-y-fan. Pimms* fuelled talk of a future Danyfan family-yoga-cycling festival livened up the Saturday evening BBQ (which included BBQ’d chicken marinated in peanut butter – that works too), ambition and grand planning were interrupted only when a child need saving from a potential toasted marshmallow related injury.

* Pimms, a fruit cup or liqueur mixed with lemonade, mint, cucumber, oranges and strawberries. Who would’ve thought that would mix so well together?