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Thursday, 18 October 2012

On Yer Bike, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Lycra.

This blog, this whole experiment, was never supposed to be all about physical endurance. But I suppose it's natural that a lot of the challenges presenting themselves to me are physical. It's also relatively natural that I should feel the need to apply myself to these physical feats, and to conquer them at all costs. This stems in large part from my sheer bloody-mindedness, but also from an experience I had in 2011, when I was well and truly trounced by a physical challenge. Despite every effort of will and body I did not, could not, make it to the very top of Mount Kilimanjaro. I wanted to. I wanted to so badly that I was basically depressed for a good few months after my failure. I made it to Gilman's Point, 5681m above mean sea level, but just could not go a step further, despite being only 300m short of the peak at Uhuru. I felt 100 years old, weaker than I had ever felt in my whole life, and completely defeated. At one point during the agonising climb upwards, I looked down into the deep, soft volcanic ash and thought seriously about lying down, closing my eyes, and letting it all fade away forever. It took me a long time to even come close to accepting that I had been badly affected by altitude sickness, and that there was nothing I could have done to change things that day. Altitude sickness can hit you no matter how young, strong and fit you are – well, that's my story and I'm sticking to it!

Sad but smiling at Gilman's Point.
But the bare, painful fact remains that I did not make it to the top. I doubt I will ever go back to Kilimanjaro, which means that on the eternal tally of woman vs. mountain, it is Kili: one, Jojo: nil. This does not sit very well with me. There are few things I have undertaken in my life that I have not been able to get through via sheer force of will. I may not do them with style, I may not do them with elegance, but I'll usually do them. So I think that I have, ever since, been trying to even the score in my head. A sprint triathlon is not Kilimanjaro. Throwing myself off a trapeze is not Kilimanjaro. A half marathon is not Kilimanjaro. BUT, if I keep totting things up, perhaps I can start to feel a renewed sense of that old Jojo, the one who always finished what she started.

This is a rather long-winded way of saying that today's blog post is, once again, about a physical challenge.

Ostensibly, the Palace to Palace challenge was this: Cycle 45 miles, from Bucking Palace to Windsor Castle, in aid of The Prince's Trust. Boom. Not that difficult. I have a sexy bike. (It is purple, which naturally means that it is both speedy and elegant.) I also have some lovely cycly-type friends, including my challenge-buddy Julia and her wonderful husband Tom, the manager of a Cycle Surgery. This basically means that I have constant access to energy gels and revolting electrolyte drinks, and my own personal bike mechanic should anything go wrong. BUT, I had cycled nearly 45 miles before. I was only just short of it during my last ride. So I was clearly cheating. This wasn't going to be nearly difficult enough. Right?

Wrong. You see, the thing about signing up to charity cycle rides with people like Julia and Tom is, that if the cycle ride finishes in Windsor, i.e a long long way from the sofa upon which you wish to end, they will invariably insist on cycling back again. Suddenly 45 miles becomes 87. EIGHTY SEVEN MILES. I'm sorry, but that is a long darn way, even for ole' thunder thighs here. Of course, I was magnanimously given the option of getting the coach back from Windsor to Hammersmith, but that bloody-minded bit of me that is still niggling away at the Kilimanjaro wound made me accidentally-on-purpose forget to book a place until it was too late. If Julia was cycling back, so was I.

So, the physical challenge element had just become considerably more, erm, considerable. But wait! There is more.

In addition to cycling this great distance, there was also the issue of the correct outfit. A few years ago I went cycling with Julia and our friend Nuria around London's Regent's Park. I met them outside London Zoo and, I confess, a little shiver of embarrassment passed over my skin when I clocked their outfits. All of us were, at the time, riding fairly bog-standard hybrid commuter bikes, nothing fancy. But they were both wearing cycling shorts. CYCLING SHORTS. Who in their right mind wears cycling shorts? They look ridiculous. They show off every bump and lump. They are inappropriately tight. They are, basically, obscene. I was wearing some loose pedal pushers. The clue is in the name, girls. I was clearly more aptly dressed. I would never, never, never allow myself to be seen in public in a pair of cycling shorts. Those days ended when I stopped going to infant gymnastics classes at the YMCA. OVER.

So there I was, at 8am on Sunday October 14th, 2012, rocking the padded cycling shorts. And what is more, I was going commando.  Here, word for word, is Julia's text to me from the evening before the ride:

NO underwear – seriously – it can cause rashes, and lumps forming on your bottom. I am serious. And it will get wet from sweat. All bad.

Well, far be it from me to court the emergence of lumps on my bottom...

So there I was, commando, in a pair of shorts that made me look, and feel, like I was wearing a shiny black nappy. I was even wearing those lethal clippy shoes that attach you bodily to your pedals. Oh how the mighty are fallen. And what is more, I was freezing, FREEZING. Because I hadn't really accounted for the fact that whilst your upper body generally warms up when cycling enormous distances, your legs don't. It was a cold (though mercifully dry) day, and within half a mile of Buckingham Palace my legs could accurately be compared to frozen pork chops.
A picture of my legs, doing an excellent impression of some frozen pork chops.
The first small stretch of the ride took us through roads full of traffic lights and traffic. We wound our way to Richmond Park, and then through it. Instead of sweeping views and picturesque stags, we saw mist, fog, and then some more mist. I don't want to know what the temperature actually was, but I would say somewhere in the region of ruddy freaking cold. We paused at a rest station within the park and wedged our hands up our tops or down our pants. I won't say who did what, because it would be inelegant of me to tell you that the usually ladylike Julia publicly shoved her hands down her shorts in order to defrost them. After all, she reminded me, the crotch is one of the warmest areas of the body... Tom spent the first half of the journey, and all of Richmond Park, cycling with both hands in his pockets. Show off.

For a little while after we left Richmond Park, my memory is somewhat blank. We settled into a fairly steady pace, didn't have to stop too often for traffic, and mostly managed to keep more or less together. We were all cold, but the atmosphere was jolly. We powered up hills, glad of our light steeds as we passed intrepid cyclists on Boris Bikes. Tip of the helmet to anyone who made it all the way to Windsor on one of those. 

The ubiquitous London 'Boris Bike', ridden by the man himself. 
I was concentrating mostly on avoiding large bumps in the road, and getting my shoes out of the pedal clips well in advance of any potential stops. I was having a bit of trouble on that front and really didn't want to fail and fall over. Apparently it happens to all novices to the clippy shoe, but I was trying very hard for it not to happen to me.

Then, at some stage, I became aware of where I was. It was a gradual realisation, and one that tied a little elastic band around my heart. I kept hoping we were going to turn off and go a different way, but we spent over an hour haunting lanes and highways crawling with old, bitter-sweet memories. I'd never looked at the route, you see? I wasn't prepared to be passing within seconds of the childhood home of the person who bought me my first grown-up bicycle, and whose heart I broke a few years ago. I wasn't prepared to ride down pathways we had ridden, to pass by shops we had shopped at, pubs we had pubbed at and parks we had pic-nicked at. I wasn't primed for the rush of memories, so happy at the time, so tinged with sadness and sorrow now. I never meant to hurt you, I wanted to say. It just wasn't right. I'm sorry. I hope you're happy. I cycled on with my thoughts, trying to tell myself that this was cathartic, whilst knowing that it wasn't, not really. 

Eventually, I started reciting poems in my head, a sure-fire way of emptying my mind of woes and worries. I cycled e.e.cummings, Thom Gunn and William Blake round in my mind, until their beautiful and masterful words took the place of everything else. I looked up at last and found I had left those haunted lanes behind. We were cycling down a beautiful leafy avenue somewhere near Chobham, and I was back on unfamiliar territory. Then a stunning vintage Rolls Royce sailed past and distracted me so thoroughly that I went the wrong way. 

Four wheels good, two wheels baaaaaaaad.
By the time Tom caught up with me I had descended a rather long hill and was just starting to wonder why I was the only bike on the road. Back up the hill we went. I apologised profusely to Tom, but suspect that the little burn suited him well, given that his usual average speed and distance far exceeded the pace of the ride. The little elastic band around my heart was gone, and I was back to the job at hand, and pedaling hard for the finish line.

Windsor Castle loomed in to view, and then loomed quickly out of view again, much to my dismay. It turned out that the ride actually ended at Windsor racecourse, which is not nearly so spectacular. Perhaps Her Majesty wasn't up to the sight of all the Lycra, and who can blame her?

Queen Elizabeth, wearing my kind of cycling attire.
Down at the racecourse we accepted our medals and goody bags, took a few snaps, and devoured an indeterminate number of complimentary sandwiches. 
Julia, Jojo, Dalia. Notice how I endeavour to make sure my helmet is off in every photo...
Eventually, Julia and I narrowed our eyes at each other. Tom hadn't broken a sweat. The sun was shining. Neither of our bicycles had broken. We'd made good time to Windsor. All of this was pointing in one direction. The stiff shoulders and pork chop legs weren't going to be accepted as viable excuses. We were definitely cycling back.

No helmet here...

Ninja helmet removal strikes again.
So, well, we did. We cycled to the castle, so that I could get my much coveted snap and demonstrate that I hadn't just ridden aimlessly around London all day. We had a hot coffee and a brownie from a small independent café, and then we pointed our bicycles in the direction of home.

Hello Windsor! Hello Lycra! (Note helmet hanging discreetly from left handlebar.)

Going back through Shepperton, we passed a house I'd lived in, back in the day. I waved gaily at the ivy creeping over its walls and windows, and wondered if this experience might, perhaps, prove cathartic after all. Somewhere in that vicinity Tom stopped to check the map and I had a heart-in-mouth moment. Pulling gently into a sloping driveway I tried again and again to release my left shoe from the pedal. I jerked and twisted as I got closer and closer to Julia and Tom's bikes. I clocked the raggedy gravel and, with a sudden dreadful realisation, hollered “SH*T, I'M STUCK!!” I caught a glimpse of the alarmed whites of Julia's eyes in the semi-second before I started falling sideways. Then, both feet came free at once, and I touched the ground not a moment too soon. Disaster averted. They'll get me one day, those pesky pedals, but not today. Not today.

We rode on, past trees and rivers. Under bridges and down bus lanes. Two or so hours after we set off from Windsor, we arrived in Hammersmith, where the Palace to Palace coach service would have dropped us had we taken that option. I was knackered, but glad at heart that I was still on my bike, pushing myself, climbing that mountain in my head.

Going back through Richmond Park. Dammit  Snapped with the helmet on. Goofy Photo Fail.
The final few miles were difficult. We were hungry and cold, and the traffic was heavy and unforgiving. Every turn felt so close to home, and yet so far. Somewhere near St Mary's Hospital on the Edgware Road (where I was birthing partner to my wonderful friend Lisha) we stopped to consume the last of our energy bars and sugary gels. We soldiered on, despite sore seat bones and stiff shoulders. The heels of my hands were bruised and tender, and my face was thick with polluted grime. But I was happy. I was gonna make it home with a smile on my face.

The final tally was 140 kilometres, or 87 miles, door-to-door. Here's the proof:

But the tally was also:

Lycra: 1, Lumps on the Bottom: nil. BOOM.

Ten down, twenty to go...


  1. I love this post! BTW You look awesome on Lycra!

  2. PS: I hate the "prove you're not a robot" ...

  3. It's very important not to be a robot, gringa!!

  4. Another feat completed! You've made us all proud yet again. This is hands down my favourite post of yours (even more than the birthing partner post). This is fantastic writing, funny and insightful, but with enough emotion to make it genuinely you. I laughed out loud reading it (waking one of my sleeping sons!) and admit to shaedding a tear. You've made me at the very least want to ride around my little garden square on a Boris bike. I can't cycle to save my life, can't take the burn in my thighs. So hats off to you for completing 87 freaking miles!!! We have something in common - when I was running several miles a few times a week, after about mile 7, I relied on poetry to keep me moving. My body would be essentially numb, but the poems kept my mind going. And there'd often be an ee cummings one in there. Keep up the great challenges and fantastic writing! Only 20 more...

  5. Once again I feel the urge to shout to the world: "That's my girl! Look at me, I am her mum!!!!!"

  6. Oomphalos and Maria Helena: I love you ladies, thank you for your love and encouragement, always!