Sunday, 11 April 2010

Not As Pathetic As I Thought I Was

As anyone who has read this blog over the last couple of years or so, or has more recently dipped into my accounts of cycling in northern France will, know, I have felt that I was a real failure as a touring cyclist.  Despite covering 60-100 Km per day I seemed to be incredibly slow, averaging only 13-14.5 kph compared to the 24 kph that my local cycling club expected people to maintain over 80 Km.  I remember too vividly the days I would set off from my hotel or hostel only to find myself slumping in a bus shelter an hour later feeling exhausted and the number of times I had to get off and push my bicycle up the middle part of hills, much to the derision of the local young people.  I also remember regularly being overtaken by men who were 40-50 years older than me out for local club runs and moving at a pace that I could not hope to match.  One reason why I gave up such cycling holidays (and a lot of bad luck was an additional factor, such as getting lost, finding all the hotels full, being robbed and confusions over ferry times) was that I felt I would never be fit enough to be convincing as a touring cyclist.

Having just read 'French Revolutions' by Tim Moore (2001), I realised that I had done myself a real disservice by not having read it nine years ago when I first bought it (I have a shed full of novels to read, most from charity shops, but with the occasional 'new' book, i.e. bought in the year it was published).  Moore's efforts put my completely into the shade.  In the summer of 2000 he went around the entire route of that year's Tour de France three weeks before the race was run.  His climbs of Alps and Pyrenees was in a completely different league to anything I did and I probably never topped 120-140 Km in a single day and quite often it was nearer 80 Km, whereas he managed over 250 Km on one occasion.  I remember a tourist office official in Amiens telling me explicitly that 96 Km in five hours thirty minutes was nothing to be proud of.  What is striking is how many of the same things we encountered, including dogs leaping out at you suddenly as you rode through villages; wildlife, in my case, two deer, crashing on to the road right in front of you; elderly men overtaking you on bicycles that looked like they had been involved in the First World War; very positive and very dismissive responses from different hoteliers when you turn up in cycling garb; getting lost on ring roads, drawn towards motorways and lost in housing estates; staying in hotels that could be used in an episode of 'Maigret' with no need to adapt anything and above all the physical impact.

What I did not realise at the time was how poorly prepared I was for cycle touring in terms of my health.  I had the creams to rub on sore parts of my body.  I made sure I bought bottled water rather than relying on bidons which often become the home to lots of bugs.  I made sure I had regular meal breaks with a decent amount of carbohydrate (and lugging a huge pack of custard creams - the biscuits containing most energy in a single biscuit around with me, just in case) and between these Orangina breaks to keep me from dehydration and fuel me with more natural sugar. I was ready for the diahorrea common for cyclists and the general 'windiness' coming from having your stomach crunched up over the crossbar for hours on end. I got to bed early and showered every day.  However, and this probably stems from being excluded from the cycle club and not mixing with other more experienced tourers I neglected other aspects of the necessary health regime.  Foolishly too, I pored over maps and read acommodation guides and downloaded guidance on navigating various routes from the CTC (Cyclists' Touring Club) but overlooked any health advice and also failed to pick up a single account of a tourer's journey.  I suppose this was because I was used to setting off on a Sunday for a decent 65-80 Km run without too much difficulty.  I made sure I ate well and was protected from the sun and seemed to assumed that with regular breaks and rest days that a cycling holiday in France would be like a series of Sundays (and now I remember that in itself caused fear as I was worried that I would arrive in a town on a Sunday and find everything closed.  Being in a locked youth hostel in Dunkerque at night with no water in the taps and having to drink from the toilet as the only way to slake my thirst at that time of night because I had finished my last bottle earlier, probably added to that phobia).

What I realise now is that I had totally underestimated the cumulative impact on my body.  Unlike professional cyclists, my muscles were not receiving any massage at night and I had not even done any of the stretching exercises that Chris Boardman's books recommended and that Moore followed pretty religiously.  No wonder my muscles complained the next day. At school I had always been told that I would never be a sportsman and given my slowness compared to other cyclists I never even considered myself in that category even as the most amateur of amateurs.  However, that meant I did not read the advice for sportsmen or engage with the kinds of activities they do to make their efforts less of a challenge.  Even if you are cycling for a day in your local area, you need to think of yourself as doing sport and thus, a sportsperson, however minor.  To ignore that fact can lead you into the kind of difficulties I encountered which reduced my holiday's potential for enjoyment.

The second thing was that I had made wrong assumptions about my medical condition, diabetes.  I knew from reading and experience that a hazard for a diabetic when doing physical exercise is that the insulin they have injected earlier (diabetes is caused by the body losing the ability naturally to produce insulin which is what breaks down the sugars coming into your body so they can become energy) you would get a 'hypo', i.e. not have enough energy to continue.  This happens even to people without diabetes and in cycling is called the 'bonk' which Moore suffered a few times.  Being diabetic I was more familiar with this risk, hence, keeping up both the slow and fast burning carbohydrates coming into my system.  What I did not do though was have things like the fruit, e.g. raisins and bananas, that are going dripfeed carbohydrates along the way.

Most importantly, it was not until I attended a course in 2008, that I realised a huge blunder that I had been making, in that it is as bad when doing physical exercise not to have enough insulin in your body as then your the sugar is trying to float around in your body as that, sugar, rather than energy your body can use.  Suddenly, this explained a lot of the discomfort I had felt day-to-day.  It is clear now that fearful of a hypo I was not taking enough insulin and so in fact was wasting a lot of the carbohydrate because my body could not process it and was simply urinating it back out again.

Another factor that I neglected to take into consideration when chasitising myself for my pathetic performance on my tours was the weight of the luggage I was carrying.  As I stayed in hostels, bars and hotels I did not have the weight of a tent and like Moore I had only one change of clothes aside from my cycling kit and a minimal number of books to find my way around primarily and keep myself entertained when passing my evenings alone in a hotel in the middle of nowhere (I am absolutely useless at making acquaintances when away from home even when in the UK, let alone when abroad; my language skills are terrible and my social skills even worse).  However, with the waterproofs, the cold weather arms and leggings and particularly the tools and spare inner tubes, etc. which did prove extremely useful, as you will get punctures, I estimate now it added up to something like 20-25 Kg.  To put this in context the 8-year old boy who lives in my house weighs 26.5 Kg, so it was as if I had a child riding around on the back of the bicycle, weighing over a quarter of my body weight of the time.  Of course, this was a big difference to the cycling I had done on Sundays in the UK when I would have a pair of waterproofs, a drink and my camera.  Moore notes how much faster he was able to move when he was able to leave his luggage with his family, and I guess I would have been the same.  Instead I had to carry everything I had with me, on my bicycle up and down whatever inclines I encountered.  If I had had more French I would have given this context to the hoteliers and others who thought my efforts were poor. 

It also explains for me, as it did for Moore, why we could not overtake the elderly men no matter how aged their bicycles were.  It is not only that you have to exert more energy to move that weight, but it is constantly slowing you down so you have to overcome the friction element.  In addition, Moore was riding something a lot racier than my road-mountain hybrid, however light it might be (and great over roads needing resurfacing).  This was outlined in Moore's book when a friend of his, riding something like my bicycle, came to cycle with him in Switzerland.  Of course, a lot of commentators by the road side, even in France, just see 'man on bicycle' and do not appreciate how many variants there actually are.

The need for approval is a strange aspect which impinged on Moore as much as it did no me.  I have not achieved anything great in my life and could never afford to travel to exotic locations, so doing something that marked me out even just a little from the kind of people I mixed with, had an important aspect in my self-esteem.  Giving that I set off on my first cycling trip from the single room above a chipshop on the Mile End Road, with a bathroom that I shared with seven other residents, getting some self-esteem was important.  The fact that I can see the face of the woman in the Amiens tourist office to this day with her sneering comment, is probably not healthy.  However, people touring are looking for recognition of what they have achieved and I am sure the same happens for hikers and mountaineers.  I loved the fact that I felt I was part of a 'club', that cafe owners truly expected me to come back again in the future (especially on the routes frequented by numerous cyclists, there are favoured parts, inland from Dunkerque was one and there was another such area in eastern Normandy), and other cyclists nodding to me or helping out with the map.  I found the camaraderie that I was later not to find in the local cycling club in the UK, and, in fact, more than that, the acceptance that even if I was nowhere near the quality of a Tour de France racer or even a local race racer, I was a cyclist going about his business which deserved respect rather if not acclaim.

Having read Moore's account and his difficulties that, despite, far greater preparation, far better equipment and far more support, were very similar to my own, I am beginning to feel a little better about my efforts.  Of course, these days I am not fit enough to run to the end of my road let alone cycle 20 Km, but perhaps if I had come to Moore's book in, say 2002, I can envisage I would have far more cycling trips to recount here and probably a bit more self-respect.  I have to remember the morning when a whole class of French school children, probably aged 9 or 10, all dressed in matching cycle helmets, were pulled to the side of the road to let me pass up a hill with their teacher pointing out how properly I was attired in my cycle helmet and bright cycling strip (that year bright yellow) so visible to motorists.  Though I struggled up the hill, I dared not get off or slow until I was out of sight.  I should also remember stepping into a pristine bar at the top of a hill that was run by a man who clearly (from the numerous black and white photographs around the wall) had been in the paratroopers and asked for two Oranginas and a single glass.  I never drank from the bottle for some reason.  He knew the steepness of his local hill and seemed please that I had chosen to stop at his bar and sent me off with a real rousing encouragement.  I recommend Moore's book to anyone who has battled on a cycling trip.  It has made me feel that my efforts were not wasted and that I was fighting against the odds, partly due to lack of the right sort of preparation, but even so, not things that other people had not encountered themselves.

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