Bicycle, bicycle - I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride my bike ...
I've got a naughty little secret ... I exercise!
Why's it naughty? Well, because 'exercise' has always been rather a dirty word to me, a word to make me spit and choke and have a conniption. I've always been lazy, ridiculously so; a nice relax on the couch has always been my default evening setting, and the only reason I'm not overweight is because I'm too lazy to get off my backside and go to the kitchen to get myself some snacks.
I've tried a few forms of exercise, but none of them have stuck with me. To be honest, if they couldn't make me feel the same kind of contentment that the couch did then they didn't stand a chance.
- Running made me sick - as it does everyone, I think - and I could not abide it. I'm quite a good runner, being tall and thin, but I hate everything about running: the redness in the face, the constant fear of heart attack, the pain in every muscle, the urge to run in front of a bus to end it all immediately. No, not for me.
- I've spent a few evenings playing on the Wii, and actually that is rather enjoyable; but I have a terrible memory, and never remember to use the damned thing. So Wii-ing is still on the list.
- Tap dancing - I've tried that, and I'm not too bad at it, though I can never coordinate my arms with my feet. But my teacher is my mum and she hasn't given classes for quite a few years - when she starts again then tap dancing will be back on the list.
- Squash. There's not much to say about it. I really enjoy it, and it's a lot of fun, and I can't hurt anyone. But I'm not very good at it, so can never find anyone to play with.
Though even the ones that I kind of enjoyed have never really grabbed me, and made me feel excited about the next session.
But I've picked my sport now, and it's cycling. I never imagined that I would be taking up a new interest as I approach my mid-thirties, but I'm glad that it was suggested to me. Let me take you back about six months:
My little brother had been training for just five months, and he courageously completed the famous LeJog (Land's End to John O'Groats) cycle, around 900 miles, in just nine days. He did it with one other person, a more seasoned cyclist who had been biking for years. He did it wearing a pair of trainers, with mere toe-clips on his pedals, when more knowledgeable amateur cyclists told him that he should have been getting himself some proper cycling shoes and pedals. He did it when he hadn't really trained enough, when he didn't know what to expect in terms of pain and despair. He did it, by Zeus, he did it!
And then he said to me 'why don't you have a go?'
And after I'd finished laughing heartily, I saw that he was straight-faced, and I gulped some dry air and broke out into a sweat.
Now I will bring you back to the present:
My longest cycle so far, in one session, is 60 miles. My attitude to cycling is that it is the best form of exercise ever invented and I think I might continue to do it until I no longer have the strength to lift my leg over the crossbar and pull myself into the saddle. I bought a bike a few months ago, a proper road bike that was expensive and very pretty. It's got some green detailing on it, which is really why I chose it, because green is my favourite colour - but let's not dwell on that, because it's a bit girly and I'm supposed to be 'manning-up' as I enter this new era of extreme physical activity.
Perhaps you'd be interested to know why I've become an endurance cyclist, and not just someone who went for a few bike rides and then gave up on it in favour of the couch?
After my first ride, of twenty gruelling miles that gave me stomach ache, I thought that I might indulge my brother's wish to see me 'give it a go' for a little while, and that I might just do a few cycles, at the end of which he might agree with me that cycling is probably not my thing, and that I should just go back to relaxing. However, things did not go according to plan. I was too good, damn it. I've been cursed with these long legs, and these strong muscles, and unfortunately, I was able to get up quite a good pace and although I could barely keep up with my brother, I was not disgracing myself.
What to do?? I have to tell you, I was in a bit of a panic, because if I began to improve in speed and stamina I was going to have a real problem, and I might end up actually seriously enjoying myself. Well, I might as well tell you that this is exactly what happened - cycling began to have a positive effect on me, it was awful. I started to feel strong, I started to lose my flabby mummy tummy, I started to have more energy, I started to feel chemical reactions going on in my body that were making me healthy. And this was all from cycling just once a week.
And so here we are: I am now an endurance cyclist, and I love it. I now cannot imagine not wanting to go out on my bike.
See this photo, just above? This is why cycling is incredible. I live in a little bubble of a town, right in the middle of several areas of outstanding natural beauty. I only have to cycle for two miles in any direction and I can see views like this - and even better ones. It's like The Shire around here, and I always expect to get to the top of the hill and see Hobbiton stretching out below me. (And if I happening to be listening to soundtracks on my iPod then it's very likely that I will actually see it.)
Cycling is not just about the bike, and the pain, and the recovery, and the sense of pride and achievement, you see. It's also about being alive, being vital, feeling the nerve endings all over your body, right to the very tips of the fingers, being glad to be alive, stopping for a Haribo and a glug of water and realising that I am grinning all over my face, taking in the view, filling my mind with appreciation for the universe and trying to connect with as much of it as possible. If I had such inclinations I might describe the whole experience as spiritual - but I don't, so I might just say that it's bloody brilliant.
Sometimes, when we're staring grinningly at a fantastic view at 9am on a Sunday morning, me and my brother might glance at each other, and our grins will stretch even wider, and one of us will say something to the effect of 'aren't you glad you're not one of those people who are still in bed?' Bacon butties are all very well on a Sunday morning, but they don't compare to a bacon butty that's been earned after a thirty mile trek around the hills and wee valleys of Lancashire, Cumbria and Yorkshire (I live in Lancashire, and have cycled into both of the other two counties in the last few months).
But, it's not all spiritual awakenings and sight-seeing. No, no. There's some serious business going on, and has been from the very start of all of this. I began cycling for a reason, as I said, and that reason was a personal challenge, and that personal challenge has remained the same since before I even bought the new bike. My brother's first challenge is for me to do The Way of the Roses, there and back again, with him. We will cycle a total of 340 miles, and we hope to do that in under 48 hours. Now, my brother thinks we can do it. I believe him. Whether I am a fool to believe him, I don't know. Time will tell, of course. But the route is usually cycled in 3-5 days, one way. My partner has cycled the route, there and back, in three days, and according to him, that was tough, and he is much fitter than I have ever been. Am I concerned? Well, at this point, no, I'm not, because it all seems very distant and attainable. But let's take into consideration that I have thus far only cycled 60 miles in one day - that's 110 miles short of the miles I need to get through in one day. Now, I don't know anything about personal challenges, but I'm hoping that they have a lot to do with mental attitude, and I'm hoping that I'm very good at keeping a positive one. At the moment, I think of the pain involved as something abstract, and something that I will just get through, somehow. But when it actually comes to experiencing pain I have usually had this thought, thus far: 'I HATE cycling, and when I get home, I'm selling my bike!' This sort of sentiment usually passes before I even reach home - but will it grow stronger as I do longer distances, or will it fade to nothing at all as my stamina and endurance increases? Only another hub in a few months time will tell you that...
All I know is this - I've cycled up some difficult hills, but there are harder hills to come.
Oh, no, I also know this - the strain of getting up the difficult hill is more than made up for by the rollercoaster descent down the other side: wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!