I’m fitter than have been for a long time – recent flu aside – but I find it difficult to not to look back at times when I was fitter and stronger still. A couple of achievements which I have particularly rated within my humble personal palmares have been on my mind recently. Ten years ago I did Paris-Roubaix (the VC Roubaix one in June). At that point it was one of the two hardest rides I’d ever done and I was still new to distance cycling. I was too tired on the day to fully appreciate sweeping around the banking after being shaken to shit over a total of nearly 50km of cobbles but the cobble that was my prize is one of my most treasured and well-earned trophies. Five years ago I participated in the Good Friday Meeting at a bitterly cold Herne Hill Velodrome and though I didn’t finish anywhere notable in the Scratch Race I managed a brief, doomed, solo breakaway for a couple of laps. I remember the split second decision to bolt round on the inside when the rest of the field was watching each other up on the banking. There have been very few occasions when things seemed to click and I took advantage of a moment like that.
I was out riding in Kent with a couple of clubmates a few days back. Struggling a bit up a climb I commented on how I some years back I would have done the same ride on a singlespeed. I remember the pleasure of feeling that strong. Like many who experience depression I have a habit of being backward-looking, a tendency to mourn times past. Anxiety is often characterised by a few of the future. It’s a bugger when you experience both. Riding the same lanes on a regular basis I find engagement in taking in the change and lack of change. The daffodils are out, the snow drops have gone. The teapot is still in the hedge on Skid Hill Road. A Very British Flytipping.
Over the past year or so I’ve thought a great deal about what I want from cycling. I wondered whether I might enter a crit race again but I find that racing does not sit well with me now. I’m happy pitching myself against myself rather than others. As I get older I find that endurance suits me both physically and mentally. I had my first experience of touring last year – it was a quiet revelation. I find that even 2-3 hours out in Kent on a Saturday can feel like being away from the house for much longer than that, such is the effect being geographically distant from sources of stress and anxiety. With touring it was so much more. There were moments of joy, extreme tiredness, sharp emotion, hungry, contentment, pleasure, and more. The sheer headspace to digest the experience was almost a luxury. When I returned to work the following week I was bouncing off the walls for days. Shortly after I did my last track event at Herne Hill – in fact, I think I only stayed in for one complete race, pulling myself out of the others a few laps in. It felt like a whole host of smaller dilemmas that had been at the back of my mind galvanised into a decision.
Never say never, but I don’t think I have the time or sense of commitment to race again. There are too many other things I want to do. During the summer I spend Tuesday evenings thrashing around Peckham BMX track. The coach was encouraging us to race. I admit I was tempted but I came to the conclusion that I wanted to do it for fun, as a different type of riding, as a social thing.
I started doing sportives and audaxes quite soon after I started regular club riding around 2006-7 and they were events I used to challenge myself as I got stronger. Then there was knee surgery after being knocked off by a car when riding to work, after that a shattered collarbone. I’ve begun to understand why people bang on about physical ailments as this get older; they can start to dictate so much. I think I imagined that I was going to get back to my earlier fitness after all this but I’ve been reluctantly and slowly accepting that I’m not going to be able to do quite what I could when I was in my early thirties.
I think I’m actually starting to look forward a bit more or, at the very least, starting to put fewer unrealistic expectations on myself. Tricky when you’ve been doing it most of your life though. Despite illness and stress at work I’ve found this winter easier to get through that many of late. I think it’s a combination of gym visits and being way more social. Stress leaves me physical tired but I’ve managed to keep up the exercise (the comfort of routine) but also the social side of life. Aside from the bike, nothing improves my mood like a few hours with a good friend. There have been many events (small and large) that I’ve looked forward to, and more to come. I think I’ve managed to disrupt the cycle of stress, tiredness, and solitude that can so often become self-perpetuating.
I’ll be doing a ride with the couple of friends at the end of the month, I’m one of the marshals on Tweed Run in May, and off for more cycle touring in June. Before all that I’m looking forward to Letting Ourselves Go at Look Mum No Hands. I’m hoping there might be some other women whose experiences in regards to cycling and ageing might be similar to my own. It’s not all about feeling loss of youth though! I’ve never stopped thinking or saying, “WEEEEEEEEEE!” as I belt downhill so fast my vision blurs from my eyes watering. If there’s anyone out there who wants to offer a guest blog entry on risk-taking…
Featured image by Aodan Higgins.