[October 27th 2020: Astar Hotel, Hualien, Registration Center for the Tour of East Taiwan. 2:35pm]
Grey and cold here huh…
Yeah, I think tomorrow will be raining
When did you get here?
Last night, we had to set up the tables for the meeting and the start area stuff.
Ah ok. Do you have my stuff for tomorrow, timing chip and numbers?
Yes, here you go…
Thanks… wait… This number is for the race, not for the challenge. I told you that I want to do the 40-50 age category. I don’t want to race
Well, we decided that you are strong so, we put you in the race…
But I… No, I really don’t want to race. It’s been 4 years since my last race. I’ve only ridden about 3000km all year. And zero real race training!
And so began my return to racing!
I work for the Taiwan Cyclist Federation and am one of the co-organisers for the Taiwan KOM Challenge. My job is to seek out and invite professional cyclists, such as Cadel Evans and Emma Pooley, to come to Taiwan to ride the KOM race. I also am responsible for bringing over foreign cycling media such as Global Cycling Network to the event.
I was a professional cyclist for 8 years, racing in the UCI Asia Tour for several years before becoming an independent professional rider, during which time I raced mountain bikes in Mongolia and Europe, and took part in elite non-UCI road races in Asia. I had an incredible time, turning pro at the very old age of 37. If you look at photos of me on the start line from when I raced in Europe, alongside riders such as Fabian Cancellara, Tom Dumoulin, and Mark Cavendish, you’ll see that I am the one with the biggest smile on my face.
I was like a kid in a candy store.
I’d worked hard to become a pro rider but to end up racing with the greatest riders of that generation was no doubt fortunate. To stand on the start line at the Tour of Qatar and have the greatest rider of all time, Eddy Merckx, wave the start flag from a meter away from me was incredibly special. And right next to me was the great Belgian Classics rider, Tom Boonen.
All very, very surreal… and yet at the same time, it felt completely natural. It hurt, racing with those guys, but I always finished the races.
And then one day it was over. It was my choice. Training at that level is physically, mentally and emotionally draining. I had gone further in my cycling career than I’d ever imagined possible, and to stop was not a difficult decision. After that I’d experienced no desire at all to race again.
[October 27th 2020: Astar Hotel, Hualien. 9:50pm]
OK, let’s see, clothes all on the bed, helmet, yep, what time is it? 9:50pm. Cannot believe I am racing tomorrow. I could just let them go on the first hill, relax, ride in with friends doing the Challenge event. No, no way, I know that once I get on that start line it’ll be ‘race on’! At 48 years old I should be able to let my ego go but, no… OK, gels, yep, bottles, yep, sunglasses… yep. Race numbers, better put those on… Wait, this is madness! I’m in no shape to be racing! I’ve done what, 3000km this year? 1000km last year? Bad knees, bad back, new girlfriend! Ah well. Let’s just go see what happens… Am I nervous?! Slightly sweaty palms! Oh dear…
Taking time off the bike, as I did after I quit pro cycling in 2016 until March 2020, when I started cycling again (for fun), was nothing new to me.
I’d started cycling when I was 15, after stumbling upon a bike race on a Friday evening whilst flicking through the TV channels. The race was the Tour de France. The date was July 22nd, 1987. I remember the date as though it was yesterday because that was the day my love affair with cycling began.
I couldn’t quite make sense of what I was seeing. Skinny men, dressed in tight, bright clothes, all squashed together and hurtling along a road at 60km an hour, water bottles flying out to the thousands of people lining the road who were all cheering and shouting as though at a football match. Names were written on the road in giant white letters: ‘Lemond’, ‘Roche’, ‘Delgado’, ‘Fignon’. Someone would attack, someone else would chase, one and on, and I had no idea what was going on but I instantly knew that I had to try it.
A week later I took my meagre savings from my piggy bank and went to the local bike store and bought a bike. Possibly the heaviest bicycle on the planet. I rode that bike day after day, kilometre after kilometre, for the whole summer, having no idea what I was doing. But the freedom of it all, that sheer thrill of speeding down a descent, racing up an incline, that was it for me. I was hooked. An addict.
I raced from 16 to 18 with quite a lot of success, then one day I just quit. I’d had enough. I was tired of 6 hour rides in the English winter and jealous of my friends who were traveling and seeing the world. The desire was gone.
I stopped at 18 and did not push a pedal again til I was 36. Not a single race, or a single day’s training, nor even a little ride around town, except to go to the store for bread or milk.
[October 28th 2020 / Day 1 / Race Time]
Oh I have not missed this feeling! Don’t like it! Hanging on up hills and fearful of crashing with people riding – ‘Hey watch it!’ – all over the road. Heart rate must be at 250bpm! Why am I doing this again? Oh yeah, they made me do it! Haha. Actually this is kinda fun. Let’s just see about moving up to the front…. Ouch. OK, no, let’s just sit back here. Why do I keep getting stuck bering this tall gangly guy? He can’t sit still. Riding being him is a nightmare. I’ll find another wheel…. Ah there we go, this guy is nice and smooth. Wow this coast line really is beautiful. Raced here what, 4 times? Still takes my breath away. So lucky to be here in Taiw – oh no an attack! Damn! Hurry up old legs!!!!! Phew, made it, got the wheel.
Why did I bring a compact crank to a flat bike race? Oh yeah, cos I wasn’t gonna race. How many in this group now? 12 riders. 8 doing work. 4 sat at the back. Think I’ll go sit at the back too…. No too boring here, and dangerous – ‘Don’t be so lazy! Go do some work!’ – Just joking boys. Racing cyclists really are much too serious when they’re racing. Wonder what these other guys are thinking about? 14km to go to the finish. There must be about 20 riders up ahead, took off early. Glad I didn’t go with them, this pace with these guys is fine… Wait, is that an attack?
I’m definitely not attacking now… Oh wait… there, this is it! – ‘Hey let’s go!’ – Ok so now you’re looking at me, well? Got the nod! That’s a yes. So go go go! OK we have a gap, 50m… push push push!… 100m now. We got this! Wow this is exciting and this guy with me is super strong, impressive. Ok I’ll do some work, may as well push on til the finish line… Whoooooohooooooo! Just like the old days!
As well as working for the Taiwan Cyclist Federation and organising bike races, I am also a cycling coach. Most of my clients live abroad and many of them are middle aged people who are returning to cycling after taking time off to build a business and a family. Much like me, they may not have ridden much but their love of the bike was still there, hibernating somewhere in their souls.
Cycling, she’s a lover who will always take you back no matter what you’ve done or how long you’ve been away. But, trust me, she will make you pay. As you get back in the saddle at 5, 10 or 20kg overweight, with a diminished aerobic capacity and wasted muscles, she will punish you. She will make you sweat and make you cry as you push that bike over the hills and into the wind, trying to reclaim the glory of your former cycling self. Every kilogram lost will cost you. Every kilometre per hour faster you get you will suffer for.
[Please insert ‘he’ for ‘she’ above, as you wish!]
So why do older men and women return into cycling, as I did? Well, it’s simple: to be a kid again. Very few things in the world compare to the feeling that a bicycle can provide us. And bike racing? Well that’s another thing altogether.
Racing cyclists are a breed apart. What we do makes no sense. Why would you want to punish yourself in training to the point of having to stop to vomit up your breakfast? Why would you want to push yourself to the point where you are fearing for your life? Sound too dramatic? It’s not, and if you are a racer and you’ve never had that near-death feeling then you’re not racing right.
So, why? Why do it?
To test your limits.
To prove you are stronger than your opponent.
And, the main reason:
To feel alive like you’ve never felt before.
[October 29th 2020 / Day 2 / Race Time]
60km gone more or less, now turn right and the hill. Legs hurting, this old arthritic knee doesn’t like this cold… nor the fact that it’s in a race… come on legs, get me over this with the main group, don’t feel like doing 90km on the flats to Hualien along the coast road in this wind. Fierce it is today… OK half way up, feel ok, but when the heck is it gonna end? The line up there, surely that’s the summit, ok keep going, let’s see, round this corner and down… No… Up! Ah seriously what am I doing here, quite amusing but at the same time, bad knee, sore back now, curse the 4th and 5th vertebrae!
OK climb…. Done… tunnel now, but damn these guys do not wanna slow down. OK out the tunnel, now what a 8km descent? But it’s real wet here, raining now, yeah haven’t missed the 80km/hr descents really… watch that corner, phew, just made it. Yeah I’m realising it’s not the speeds that are the problem, it’s that I just don’t really like riding with 70 other people at this speed down a wet mountain anymore!
OK we are on the flats and from kid-peloton with this little gear it is not easy…. ugh!… to get up to speed. This wind now is insane, 60km/hr? So strong I can tase the ocean waves on my lips. And rain so hard now I can hardly open my eyes. Oh and great… here come the crazy attacks, even with 80km to go. I… you know what, I’m gonna drop off this group and what for the next and just ride easy. My knee doesn’t need this, I don’t need it. Maybe I’m – no I’m definitely not fit enough to last til the end without killing myself for a top 20 finish.Yeah let’s wait up…
So I did just that, I went slow for 5km and then another group caught up to me and I jumped on with them, intending fully to sit at the back and have an easyish ride in…. But… well, one guy attacked off the front for 35km to go, and, as I felt ok, I went with him. Another guy soon jumped to us and the three of us worked really well til the finish. I decided to ride back the 15 or 20km or so to the race hotel and sat outside 7-11 reflecting on the weekend and this return to racing.
My back hurt. My knees, now both of them, really hurt and would keep hurting for the next seven days. I was tired. And yet I felt great. I’d become a warrior again, even just for two days. I have no great desire though to return to real training and racing. I don’t have anything to prove anymore. I’m satisfied with a nice gentle 4 hour ride on the weekend, at a speed that allows me to still be able to talk to my friends.
But, well, you never know.
As they say, you can take the man out of the race but you can’t take the race out of the man…