Thursday, May 31, 2012

Rain Therapy

The rain is hammering down, bouncing back from the puddles on the silvery road surface creating a mist through which my bicycle wheels are forging a path. My glasses misted up a few miles ago and are now perched uselessly on the back of my head, allowing the force of each drop to sting and close my eyes, though the density of the rain means visibility is vastly reduced anyway. Bare knees are battered by the rain, my recently acquired tan turned to purple by the perpetual, stinging impact. The wind has whipped into a gale and, where just a few short minutes ago I was flying along, I am now slaving into a horrendous head wind, water dripping from my nose and chin, white socks greying with every pedal stroke and the sleeves of my waterproof to slapping against my arms. A summer shower in the UK.
Work had made the day a tiring one, stress and worry sapping the will and energy to drive the 120 mile round trip to go racing, especially as I’d be the only rider from my club battling against many others, most working as teams. Resigned, I parked my motorbike safely in the garage and walked into the house, noticing as I did the threatening deep grey cloud fast obscuring the blue which had prevailed not long before. Probably a good decision not to race.
Normally I hate riding in the rain, it’s largely uncomfortable, likely to be sweaty, however breathable your rain jacket, and it always makes you and your bike dirty, meaning hours better spent riding, will instead be wasted cleaning grubby chain and gears. But I needed to ride today for training purposes and my bad day in the office needed flushing from my system, even if I couldn’t be bothered to race. I dragged my kit from my bag, packed and ready to go in the kitchen, and, too lazy to go upstairs, I got changed in the hall, before standing about for a few minutes trying to decide which glasses to wear; yellow lenses for low light, or dark? My wife, perhaps pandering to my delicate mood, suggested it might not rain, but I stuffed a waterproof in my pocket, just in case. 
The moment I set off I could feel the wind getting stronger and see the rain approaching in dark swathes across the flat green fields. I seemed to ride parallel to it for some miles, never getting nearer, before finally it arrived. To start with I was blown along by the wind, but eventually I had to turn and was soaked and slowed instantly. Then it was over. Steam rose from soaked Tarmac as the evening sun emerged, drying the road from silver or black, to grey. As the world dried, the warming mud, Tarmac, road grime and vegetation combined to create a warm, organic, animal smell, recognised by all those who have lived through a British summer. Above, a beautifully dramatic summer sky watched over my journey home. By the time I got there the damage of a bad day was repaired, though I guess I’ll need to do it all again tomorrow.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The First Cut

I remember it well, on the descent of the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons, Alexandre Vinokourov of Team Astana, named after the capital city of his native Kazakhstan, escaped from the rest of the favourites riding the 2010 Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Along with Alexandr Kolobnev from the Russian Katusha team, he powered up the final climb towards the finish. What happened next has been called into question since. Rumour has it that there exists a string of emails insinuating that Vinokourov offered a healthy dollop of cash if this situation arose and Kolobnev allowed Vino to win. Whatever the truth behind this, returning unrepentant from a two year ban imposed for a doping offence, Vinokourov crossed the line victorious, arms aloft to a chorus of whistles and boos from a Belgian crowd in no mood to forgive his previous conviction.
As the post race interviews were being broadcast on Eurosport, I was running a bath in Cambridgeshire, trying to keep one ear on the proceedings in Belgium. It seems dear old Alex had no idea why the fans didn’t like him and could see no reason for contrition. The reason I remember it so well? It was the day I nearly accidentally, but all too willingly joined a special little club, one which many a cyclist struggles to justify and many a non-cyclist mocks. One I am yet to look back from. The day I first shaved my legs.
I had vowed never to join my bare-legged clubmates, but advancing years had seen to it that varicose veins were now snaking over one of my legs. Sometimes I’d suffer a deep ache, which occasionally degenerated into a sharper pain so, a few months after the initial visit to the doctor, a letter arrived summoning me to the local hospital where the vein surgeon told me that he was happy to strip the offending little tubes out. A few weeks later a pre-operative letter told me when and where to go, what to take and provided the perfect excuse to shave my legs. It didn’t take long to decide that both legs, not just the affected one, would get the treatment, so to speak.
But why do cyclists shave their legs? At work fascinated women and appalled men assume it bestows some aerodynamic advantage but, whilst it can’t slow you down, that’s not the reason. I read some time ago that back in the mists of time cyclists, with tired, lactic acid infused legs, realized that massage made the legs work better on the bike the next day and, consequently realized that daily massage is easier, more comfortable and effective when there’s nothing to get in the way: including hair. The sad fact is I’ve only managed one massage in the whole time I’ve been cycling, so why do I, and many other club cyclists do it? Well, it’s easier and less messy to apply sun cream to bare legs, though conversely, no hair means a better, quicker tan, though it’s only the last few days that there’s any chance of that in the UK this year. Many, many cyclists apply warm up oil - embrocation - to their legs before riding or especially racing, this makes and keeps them warm and provides a waterproof film to the skin. I’m prone to massage recovery cream into my sore legs after a hard ride, just to make walking upstairs a bit more bearable. Then there’s vanity. Lots of cycling develops good muscle tone, which is better defined without the haze of curly dark hair obscuring all that hard work. Lastly, bare legs are a badge of honour, they show that you’re a member of the club, someone who spends too much time on their bike and not enough time on household chores or with their family, who in turn are forced to endure interminable hours of cycle racing on the TV. Someone who suffers the joy, pain and privations of riding come rain or shine, and doesn’t care who knows it.
So there I was in the bath, scraping away gingerly, occasionally shouting at my wife for advice. After about half an hour and two Gillette MachII blades, all that remained were two smooth pasty, flabby legs, with a couple of dripping red cuts on each. The operation to remove those pesky veins came and went, but the hair on my legs didn’t return. I was very self conscious in anticipation of the next club ride and was grateful when the temperature dropped and it rained, meaning bib tights were the order of the day rather than shorts. The club time trial was a different matter though. A cool May wind blew over my strangely naked skin and I’m sure people were looking, whispering behind their hands, “Who does he think he is?”
Since then Vinokourov has been forgiven following some dogged, aggressive and combative displays in a number of races. Last year saw what we all thought would be the end of him as, on a terrible day for crashes, Stage 9 of the 2012 Tour de France saw him carried back to the road by his team mates, victim of a horrifying crash which broke his pelvis. But he’s still racing, and after cutting my legs with the scraper that comes with Veet For Men and burning my skin with depilatory mousse and even contemplating waxing, I still shave my legs.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Lotus Racing

I’ve been on enough old airfields to know better, especially as I was warned, but, stood in the queue to sign on for the first race of the Lotus Cars Road Race Series, I was bloody freezing, dressed ready to race, shivering like a skinny four-year-old waiting to be dried after a paddle off the English coast. My fingers, poking from the cut off ends of my mitts, were numb, and three layers on my upper body ineffective against the freezing wind, which whipped across the Lotus test track, which sits by the factory in Norfolk. Flat, windy Norfolk.
It’s been a rough time at work recently, there’s lots of change going on and I don’t like change. To go with the gloom at work, there’s plenty of gloom elsewhere, especially on the weather front. The UK is famous for its rain and uninviting weather, but we seem to have got used to dry warm Springs over the last few years. Sadly this year, apart from a couple of warm sunny days in late March and the green haze of expectant buds on the trees, there really doesn’t seem to be any difference between current weather and that of November. Normally to escape gloom, I ride my bike but, having an aversion to riding a machine crusted with road grime or anything less than a pristine chain and gears, I often opt not go out on the road to get wet and cold, but resort to the turbo in the garage. This is OK from a fitness point of view, but hardly enriches the soul, indeed it can lower morale even further; hours spent staring at the blank metal of the firmly shut garage door or watching the puddle of sweat growing steadily on the blank, dusty concrete floor. To pile on more misery, all this riding was beginning to seem just a little pointless as, despite my best intentions, I hadn’t raced for over a month. Then, low and behold, I remembered the Lotus Cars Series.
Having completed the required on line entry two days before, I found myself stood between my car and the one parked next to it getting changed, stripped naked, furtively glancing around, hoping not to be spotted by Mums accompanying their teenage daughters to the track for the Go-Ride youth race, which ran prior to the E1234 Category race I was preparing for. The race was due to start at 7.30 but, so long was the queue to sign on, it was 7.32pm by the time I realized the shivering had disabled my mouth and I was unable to say my name to the women taking money and issuing numbers. Not the best preparation for a race, especially as the only warm up I had time for was a lap of the short circuit, about one kilometer, and some more shivering. The group assembled in the gloaming and received our commissaire’s briefing, none of which I listened to, before being told, “Go.” 
The heart-rate information gathered by my Garmin Edge is my only reminder that this was hard work. I remember the exhilaration of speed and cornering on the limit, being surrounded by people doing the same, whose abilities I knew nothing of, passing or slipping backwards either side of me. In the group, punctuating the whoosh of tyres and the rattle of free hubs, the odd shout lets others know a rider is coming through. All my training over the preceding three weeks had been alone, so it took a few laps to configure my brain to riding in a group and working out where to look. The track is wonderfully smooth and grippy, long straights are connected by a couple of tight hairpins, which slow and rearrange the riders each time. These curves rewarded those dumb, brave or talented enough to brake late, and follow their inside knee, optimistically pointed round the bend.
Once the Go-Race Cat 4 only competition had finished, we were given the whole track to play with, making the straights longer and the wind assisted, high speed efforts more thrilling but consequently more lung busting. Each time round, the group became more strung out as we flew along in excess of 30mph. Every pass someone would try to get away off the front, only to have a long line of rivals clinging on to his rear wheel. At last we’d compress together again, slowing for the final bend, bike leant over, head, knee and eyes pointing where I hoped I would end up, before out of the saddle again, into the wind, breathlessly stamping on the pedals, accelerating up to speed once more.
It was nearly dark when the bell for the final lap clanged at the track side, just the wrong time to realize the exertion of the previous circuit had been slightly too much as I was swamped by the rest of the field, finding myself nearer the back than the front. If I had any ambition to achieve a top ten, I was now very much in the wrong place.
As that final lap unfolded I managed to claim a few places back, slipping by people on the inside of corners where I could, using the track and carrying speed through the bends, rather than using my legs and lungs too much. We rounded the final bend for the last time and I realized I was nowhere near the front, so didn’t even bother with a sprint. I probably finished somewhere in the top 20, but importantly managed second place in the queue to hand my numbers back in, though instead of shivering, I was panting, babbling and smiling as I did so.
Now that was a good night out.