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“Disgusting” – noun: me
I’m not an athlete. Don’t let the fact that I have embarked on a month long, multi-thousand kilometre cycling trip around a foreign country fool you into thinking that I am. Oh no my friend. That’s part of why this journey is insane. Until a few months ago, I hadn’t really ridden a bike since I was 10. But hey, I was told it was as easy as…..well, you know.
The first reason I’m not an athlete is because I lack follow through. I love generating ideas, but I often get bogged down in the minutia of seeing them through to completion. I love the idea of being an Olympian, but I lose interest after the sixth day in a row of 5 am swim practice. Also, I’ve never been competitive enough to really get into playing team sports. I always want everyone to win so no one gets their feelings hurt. That’s the kind of killer instinct everyone wants on the rugby pitch! Furthermore, if I’m honest, when left to my own devices; a hammock, a cool chardonnay and a good book will always win out over a breath stealing jog.
But I’ve always wanted to be an athlete. I’ve always wanted to be one of those dedicated people that just zips out to do their regular 10 km run in a -20 degree blizzard. I’ve always wanted to find the idea of rising early on a Saturday morning to go workout more enjoyable than staying cocooned under my perfectly weighted duvet for an extra few hours. I’ve always wanted to look back after accomplishing some physical feat and know that I was successful in the endeavour as a direct result of my own horsepower. And so here I am, trying to follow through on my big idea and perhaps become an athlete of some measure along the way. I’ll try not to get ahead of myself. One pedal at a time!
The truth of the matter; cycling is not sexy. Don’t let those firm, 0% body fat, Tour De France, alien specimens fool you. Underneath all that lycra they are a chafed bunch of uncomfortable, smelly, calloused crazy people with a penchant for self-punishment. Now that I’m on a quest to pass for an athlete myself, I’ve had to learn a lot. Let’s start with the only thing I can focus on right now; my arse.
I feel that my bike seat and I have become one. It is literally the junk stuck in my trunk. I have been wearing padded bike shorts, or chamois (‘sham-eeze’), for the better part of 3 weeks now. It’s like wearing an adult diaper all day without indulging in the pleasure of spontaneous relief when ‘ere the spirit moves me. Chamois are both a godsend and the work of the devil. Without them I fear I would die. I have never been more intimate with or committed to a piece of padding in my entire life, (except maybe to my first bra when I was 13). The last standing bastion between myself and the hard lessons that an unforgiving bike seat have to teach me, are my chamois. If the world health organization weren’t picketing the idea, I would have them framed when I get home.
The only thing that can come between me and my chamois’ is a healthy dose of anti-chafing cream. Every morning you lather that nether-region saving balm where the sun don’t shine and you wait. Wait for the odd sensation that follows. It tingles and cools and feels as wrong as it does refreshing. I’m grateful to its creator – Mr. Bum Balm, thank you, you’ve literally saved my ass.
The other day as I approached kilometre 88, I couldn’t get comfortable. No amount of shifting in the saddle would relieve the pressure on my sits bones. The padding in my well-loved shorts had worn out. I made the executive decision to hop a fence into a fairly treed field, behind a hedged stone wall, to change shorts and reapply the butt salve of the Gods. I hadn’t seen a car in quite some time so I figured I was safe. Rookie mistake. Half way through my ‘changing of the guard’, a farmer turned his tractor into the gate with a fresh load of manure. It was too late, I was committed. Suffice it to say, it was a ‘shitty’ scene for both of us!
Each morning when I start out on the beast, I perform a little ritual I now fondly call ‘the litany of the body parts’. Just a check-in to see how much and where it hurts and to reassure each appendage that it will get to rest again in about 7 more hours. And cycling hurts things you wouldn’t expect it to hurt. For example, I haven’t had feeling in my pinky finger on my right hand for 2 weeks. My neck and upper back are usually on fire, and I often lose feeling in my feet by about hour 3. Oh and my armpits are chafed. Explain that one to me!? Plus I’m equally proud and ashamed of my new skill wherein I can blow my nose off the side of my bike, without a Kleenex and not get it on my sweaty cheeks anymore. Quite an accomplishment to add to my CV.
Also, as an aside, I must have inordinately large holes in my face. I have eaten, on average, 5.9 bugs a day. I have had 6 bugs up my nose, wings and all. 3.9 in my ears and a further 4.3 in my eye, including one bee that got trapped between my eye and my sunglasses. I know, I know – free protein.
The first half hour of each day is spent warming up, getting all body parts to agree that we’re going to do this ridiculous activity again for another full work day. After that, when the machine is warmed up and the cylinders are all firing properly, it feels like I could cycle forever. I think, “Why didn’t I get up even earlier to start this!? It’s so easy and fun! I feel great! I could go on all day!” This euphoric fallacy goes on for about 2 hours. During this time I’ve had every great thought I’m going to have for the day. By hour 3, I hate everything. By hour 4, I hate everything more. By hour 5, I didn’t know it was possible, but I hate everything twice as much as I hated it at hour 3. By hour 6, I fall into a meditative pace. It’s just me and the road and the bike. I’m out of thoughts, everything hurts but I’ve embraced the pain and feel like I’m using it as fuel. My breath becomes monotonous white noise and it lulls me into a Zen like trance. I imagine this is what it feels like to be the kind of athlete that pushes themselves through the proverbial wall. If that’s true, if that’s what this feeling is, then I’m proud of myself. Maybe I’m turning into an athlete after all. By hour 8, I snap out of the trance and I hate everything again.
I’ve grown close to my bike, to the “Red Divil”. Like a ship, she’s definitely a girl. She’s happy to be back on familiar territory. I can feel her chomp at the bit to get started on some stretches of well-remembered highway and I feel her balk when she knows she’s approaching an incline she conquered 41 years ago and has no desire to summit again. SHE is an athlete. And she forgives her rider for her amateur shortcomings. She’s not in a race. She understands it’s about the journey, not the destination. She’s been fondled by strangers a lot over the past few weeks, and although she pretends to blush, I know she likes it. She’s been offered ice cream by shopkeepers, she’s been inflated by a 300 year old bearded woman and she’s been ridden by a monk. But more on that later.
She has a picture of my dad from his time in this country taped to her handlebars, and she wears him with pride. She’s a sentimentalist and she’s taking her job very seriously. Not a flat tire to be seen thus far, (knock on wood). Like most of us over a certain age, she makes some strange noises when exerting herself. She creaks a bit when you do this, and rattles a bit when you do that, but she’s in fine form nonetheless. When the newsagent in Listowel lifted her up and commented on her weight, she didn’t take it personally. She’s not vain. What she lacks in fresh paint, she makes up for in personality and gusto. When those new bikes, that seem to be made of air and dreams, pass her on the roadway, she just chuckles at their youthful exuberance. She’s a 1973 Peugeot. Hand crafted in steel. She’s French and runs on wine, cheese and attitude. She has nothing to prove and she’s teaching me a lot. I’m proud of her and she of me. We’re growing up. Together.
I didn’t know entirely what I was looking for on this journey. I knew it would be hard. I wanted it to be hard. And on that front, it hasn’t disappointed. So far it has been wonderful, horrific, torturous and perfect in every way imaginable. I am exhausted in every way possible. And I love it. Sometimes the only way to shut your brain up is to put it on a bike for 8 hours. Day after day. Send it up a mountain or two. Push it through some rain storms. Remind it that physical pain is temporary and that you’re stronger than you think. Force it to follow through. My body is tired and aching, but my brain is my bigger enemy. And I won’t let it deny me the satisfaction of accomplishing this feat. I am stronger than I give myself credit for. I can push myself, because I have proven that I won’t break. I am proud of every callous, bruise and disgusting scent I emanate, because I earned it, pedaling my way back to myself. Maybe that’s what athletics is all about; it’s really just a metaphor for life. And perhaps the greater lesson is that when life gets tough, we just need to hop a fence and apply another coat of anti-chafing cream.
More to come….