Thursday, 29 December 2011

The Constitution

There are a lot of things that go into making a good cyclist, but I strongly believe that first and foremost being a good cyclist comes down to one thing: constitution.

There are those that have it, and those that don’t. There is no real way of properly defining constitution, or indeed testing for it in a lab. Some of the most unlikely souls seem to be possessed of the most rugged constitutions, and there are plenty of dilletantes who think they should have it but who just don’t.

You can't create or replicate constitution any more than you can sprout wings and fly. It is something you either have or don’t, and it is apparent in all walks of life. Lou Reed had constitution, Keith Richards & Margaret Thatcher had constitution. Like them or not, they were people who could live off scant hours of sleep, and still work at an incredible rate, without making themselves ill.

To be a bike rider you have to have constitution simply so you don’t miss races by being sick or injured. These days science fights an ongoing and impressive battle with constitution. Riders only have to show a glimpse of talent at a young age before they can be supported by all sorts of practitioners and specialists who work so hard to make human bodies that keep failing, keep going.

Injuries and sickness are often tagged as bad luck, but being slow to recover, or being sick or injured in the first place, is often natures way of telling the human body that it is beyond its limitations.

However the fact remains, you will always have to have constitution to be a bike rider at the highest level. You will have to not injure easily, not get sick through periods of physical and mental exhaustion, and you will have to keep digging deeper and deeper into reserves that won’t deplete.

I was made up to find then, during some research, the palmares of this man: Benoit Faure´.

Not only was Faure´ 8th in the 1930 Tour de France while riding as a ‘Tourist-Routiere’ he was a professional cyclist for a remarkable twenty years, racing between 1925 to 1945. Conditions for cyclists in that era were unbelievably arduous compared to today’s standards (even without the world being at War for the last 5 years of his career).

How he managed to keep going for twenty years at that time is beyond me. Faure´ wasn’t a real winner, taking only 24 victories in 20 years, the most important of which being the Criterium International in 1941. But he must have had enough to keep slugging away.

All I can say judging from the few photos of him, the remarkable career length, and his 80 years on the planet, is that there was a man with a constitution, a man cut out to be a professional bike rider.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Winter of content.

For a long time I thought the world would end when I stopped bike racing. It didn’t. Fortunately. My slow extraction from the sport may have saved myself the total shock that many riders can face when they finally stop racing.

The fear of it was there though. I think that when you are racing properly, cycling demands so much concentration and focus that you really can’t see beyond it. To quote Bill Shankly, “it’s not life and death, it’s much more than that”. If cycling isn’t living and dying, then what on earth are you doing there?

The trouble seems to be for many people when they quit that they just don’t know what they are doing anywhere. I am sure somewhere there must be a statistic on the divorce rate amongst newly retired cyclists, and there is probably a nice correlation to the numbers of years you spend on the job. It is staggering just how many of the homes that riders spend their time dreaming of returning to, fall to pieces as soon as they are actually living there full time. Unlike joining the mob, you can get out of it while your alive, what you might not be able to do is get out with your life in tact.

I have to admit; it is pretty easy now though, as it’s winter and there is no competition for me to be missing. Only a fool would miss the time of year that as a rider I couldn’t stand.

I haven’t actually faced a winter in quite a while, I’ve run as far as I could from the cold dark days that I used to ride around swearing at when I was a kid in Cornwall. The thing I have noticed though is, the weather really doesn’t mean that much to me anymore.

For over ten years it was my prime concern each morning, the day began there. The assessments of the kit I was going to have to wear, which direction I would be going in, and on the rare occasion, whether or not I would be going to work that day.

These day’s I’ve been just as busy and probably twice as productive. But the weather makes not one iota of difference to my life. I have realised that without going out on your bike, most people’s exposure to the elements is sadly limited.

I’ve been doing a bit of office-based freelance for an experiment. I walk down past my grandfather’s house to the train station each morning. It’s about twenty minutes from my house. It is the main line between my town and the nearest big city- Bristol. The station is packed at 8 am every morning, but I think I’m the only one who gets there on foot. Most people are dropped off like little kids going to school.

I am not really a fan of the cold. Anyone who has stood near me on a start line at a race in below ten degrees can probably attest to that. It really helped me to verbalise what I was going through on those freezing start-lines.

It can admittedly be cold while I wait for the train, but that is it. I know the train is coming. That is as hard as it gets. I’m not 40 miles from home watching the skies darken, with the blood fully retreated from the tips of my fingers, my fuel supplies dwindling, and my only possible mode of transport to get home being a bicycle.

It almost seems like fucking madness now. I used to place myself almost daily at the mercy of the winds, with nothing more than a rain cape as insurance. Now, it is the man made weather of editors, politics, economics and the crappy rail network that I throw myself to the mercy of. I have to admit, that while it is good to only have to look at the weather out of a window, it just isn’t the same.

I do of course still ride a bike as often as I can; it is a shit load of fun when you are doing it because you want to. The only problem being that my body seems to have wilfully forgotten the tens of thousands of kilometres that I have previously pushed it through. It seems almost ridiculous to me that only a few months ago I could actually go and compete in bicycle races. I struggled through 85km this morning, not even a half day.

So while my mind is happy to remember, my body that was to be fair, doing all the hard work, seems to hell bent on forgetting all about it. Fat chance I'll let it though.