Why I’m determined to age actively

As I write this, my 74 year old mother is sitting downstairs having a cup of tea. There’s something quite comforting knowing that your mother is in your home; it’s a safe, warm blanket kind of feeling, like the one I had as a child whenever she stroked my back or held my hair from my face when I was sick. It’s not one I have that often, as she lives on the other side of the Atlantic in my Canadian homeland.

My mother is a beautiful woman. Anyone who meets her tells me this. She’s petite, relatively smooth skinned and stylish, her white hair giving her an air of sophistication. Looking at her, one would assume that she’s aged very well, certainly better than many of her contemporaries, whose waists have thickened and ankles have swelled from a more sedentary, sitting down and slowing down kind of life.

But her beauty belies her poor state of physical and mental health and I can’t help thinking that my mother is becoming a shadow of her former spirited self. This is a woman who, in high school, was a track and basketball star. She regales us of stories of her 100m sprint wins and her 3-point shooting. Some of my best memories of my time with my mother are on holidays, exploring the old cities of Quebec and New Orleans and hiking together through the Scottish Highlands.

Now, slipped discs and subsequent back surgery mean she struggles with simple housework, let alone any exercise. Walking even a mile is something she can’t do without pain. But sitting for long periods of time is also uncomfortable, so often she takes herself to bed at 8pm, not to sleep, as that has never come easy to my mother, but to rest. Long days are spent staring out the window or reading romantic novels or watching telly. She admits to me she’s bored, especially at home in winter, when the cold, wind and snow deter her from venturing outside for days on end.

It’s not the physical deterioration that worries me though. It’s the mental deterioration that comes from inactivity and as a side effect of the myriad of pills she takes for her pain. She’s become forgetful, often repeating the same stories day after day, or even on the same day, and things I’ve taught her one day – like how to turn on the shower or open her email – don’t get applied the next day and, so, we teach her again.

She, herself, was concerned about Alzheimer’s but assures me tests have been negative. But, for me, there’s little reassurance about my mother’s declining mental health. It’s heart breaking. It’s the warm, safety blanket slowly unravelling, leaving me exposed to unfamiliar, unwelcome, cold air that cuts sharply into my chest when I breathe it in.

I realise ageing is inevitable and we’ll all experience it differently. But, seeing my mother age has taught me something important. The key to it is to treat it as something you do not as something that happens to you. Keeping myself physically and mentally active, travelling, meeting new people and learning new skills are vital. And cycling… well, cycling is the ideal ageing antidote, helping maintain muscle and keeping our immune systems strong.

Right now, though, I’ll enjoy my mother’s company. We’ll drink tea and eat scones and reminisce. We’ll feel safe and warm and time will stand still temporarily.

How La Course 2017 shone a spotlight on gender disparity

When Orica Scott’s Van Vleuten was powering up the Col D’Izoard in Stage 1 of La Course, I was glued to the television in total awe of the power she and, equally, Boels Dolmans’ Deignan, were demonstrating and the pressure they were exerting on the rest of the peloton. For me, an amateur road cyclist, it was truly inspirational.

Not only was I witnessing athletes operating at the top of their game, but I was also catching a rare glimpse of female cyclists being able to showcase their talent on a truly international stage, against the iconic backdrop of one of the most beautiful and grueling stages on Le Tour de France and with full television coverage.

Upon discovering that Van Vleuten had the third fastest time on Strava up the Col D’Izoard, only after Barguil and Bardet, I was even more impressed; surely this was evidence that women were as capable as men of not just tackling the big category – or even hors catégorie – climbs but out and out attacking them.

And then a family friend quickly extinguished any spark of hope I held that the status of women’s cycling might be elevated post Van Vleuten’s spectacular win. When presented with the Strava evidence, he replied: ‘well, that’s only because she didn’t do the 112 kms beforehand’.

It was his response and then the disappointing spectacle of the second stage that cemented my anger at the blatant gender disparity that still exists across this sport (and, of course, many others).

Diegnan needn’t have been so diplomatic in her soft critique of the organization of La Course; it was obvious to all who were watching.

First of all, the experimental pursuit style format of Stage 2 quenched any potential for excitement, as Van Vleuten’s substantial 43 second lead and Deignan’s decision to wait for her teammate meant that the race was decided in the first 90 seconds.

Second, for those cyclists hoping to gain more exposure, as they might expect from a fully televised event, they will have been bitterly disappointed. It was only a select few – the leader and the chasing group – who attracted the camera’s attention.

Third, the awards ‘ceremony’ looked more like a primary school prize-giving with nobody knowing exactly where to stand or what to do, including the presenters themselves.

Simply put, these professional athletes deserved better on all three fronts –race format, media exposure and recognition of achievement. What La Course managed to do was shine a big spotlight on the inequality that still exists in the world of professional cycling.

… the rest of this post can be found on Cycling Torque.

Some good (and a few not so good!) reasons for falling off your bike

When I first got my bike (affectionately known as Dexter, by the way) I sat in my kitchen, precariously balanced between the wall and the table, and practised clipping in and unclipping over and over until I felt confident enough to tackle the roads.  For the first two months I wondered what I was so worried about; it was all working brilliantly and I felt pretty chuffed.  And, then, out of the blue came my first fall and then my second … you can see where I’m going with this.  Here are my best and most embarrassing reasons for scratching poor Dexter.

1.   Completely underestimating the irrationality of drivers

At the bottom of my road there’s a T-junction. The stop sign facing me is a clear indication that oncoming traffic has the right of way. Like any other day before, I slowed down and prepared to unclip. As I looked to my right, I spotted an oncoming car, which, upon seeing me, came to a halt almost in front of me. Well, that was enough to send me into a spin. My head refused to engage my feet and I did a slow motion fall onto my left side. As I lay there, uninjured apart from a bruised ego, I caught glimpse of 4 suited men with huge grins … I’m sure I made their day!

2.   Turning to look behind

It’s not often that I have to do this, as my husband is either on my wheel or, if on a hill, way ahead of me. But feeling rather strong one day, I got out of my seat and pumped past him up a wee incline. At the top I thought I’d look back to see just how far behind I left him and, as I looked over my left shoulder, I steered myself into the nettles on the verge and then into a stone wall. I was stranded in a rather awkward and, needless to say, prickly position until my husband pulled me back up. I know I made his day!

3.   Reaching for your water bottle with your wrong hand

Being a relatively new rider, I stick to the same routines. I always unclip my left foot and I always drink with my right hand. Not sticking to these routines would upset my natural equilibrium.  The other day, hubby, riding on my left, asked me to pass him my bottle as he had finished his own.  My mind was telling me, ‘no, don’t do it’ but my heart was telling me, ‘don’t be stupid’.  It turned out my mind was right!

4.   Being clipped from behind by your partner

As Wifey Domestique, I’m supposed to alert my hubby to any dangers in the road, mostly manholes and potholes and sometimes the odd lady pheasant or lazy sheep.  But when I’m in the groove and cruising along at a good pace, I’m rather reluctant to take a hand from my handlebars and point to the potential obstruction (due to point 3 above).  Well, this didn’t work out so well on our last ride, when I slowed to negotiate a big pothole and my husband ran into the back of me.  I’m not sure who was most displeased that day!

5.  Looking at lambs

Okay, this one hasn’t actually caused a fall yet, but it has caused me to ride off the road, forcing some drastic maneuvering in order to recover. What can I say; how can anyone not love a lamb?

I’d love to hear about your best falls, notwithstanding those that have caused injury! Feel free to share them here.

No, no, it’s not that kind of site!

You’ll find no naughty maid tales – or tails (!) – here.  I’m a cyclist and Wifey Domestique is my alias.  If you’re new to cycling and if you too cycle with your husband then I’m sure you’re smiling knowingly and air high-fiving me right now for such a fitting name.  You may have even grunted these words to yourself between gasps for air as you pull your husband along behind you on a busy A-road. Or worse, your husband, like mine, has referred to you as this to all his friends over pints of beer, laughs and lewd comments at your expense.  So for some of you this alias requires no further explanation, but for others, let me start from the beginning …

The last year has been a difficult one. Our middle son has been in and out of adolescent psychiatric units and has finally been given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.  Over the course of the year, our whole lives have been turned upside down and consumed by our son’s condition. We became stressed, angry and generally unfit – both mentally and physically.  We decided that we needed to do something for ourselves, and my husband, who used to be an avid cyclist in his teens, knew just the antidote – road bikes!

I was more than a little dubious at first; I had only ever ridden a bike with a bell and a basket. And, I couldn’t ever imagine squeezing my wobbly bits into lycra with a built in nappy. I used to scoff at the ridiculousness of such gear as pelotons of middle-aged men in mankinis rode through our quiet village.  But I knew we needed an escape and the allure of the beautiful countryside of the Cumbria/North Yorkshire border proved too strong. So rather reluctantly, at least at the beginning, I became a cyclist. That was March, 2016.  A year on and Strava tells me I’ve clocked up 1,167 miles and have climbed 48,058 feet.  What’s more, I love it!

The only slight downside is the fear, and this is where I get to my alias, just bear with me a little bit longer.  I’ve managed to conquer the terrifying feeling of hurtling at high speed down hills; this is now rather exhilarating. And I’ve somehow pushed aside the recurring image of me flying over my handlebars and breaking my teeth (always a worry of mine, even when I’m walking down stairs). But one fear still lingers, fuelled no doubt by hideous stories, most recently told by a cycling friend who was thrown off his bike into oncoming traffic when his front wheel hit the back of his cycling buddy’s (he’s fine by the way – only a bit of road burn). It’s the fear of cycling at the back.

It’s not just that I lack the concentration to focus single-mindedly on my husband’s back wheel, noticing any slight adjustment in speed and adjusting my own accordingly (I’m too busy looking at sheep). It’s also the traffic. Queues of cars sit behind breathing down our necks, ready to pounce at the slightest opportunity. And then there’s the huge cattle lorries, passing a little too close and creating a wind tunnel which rocks my frame and forces me to close my eyes and pray that I’m going to stay upright. Basically, cycling at the back is for the brave; it’s not for me. Not yet anyway.

And so I have earned the title wifey domestique because I’m the one at the front doing all the work. I am to my husband what Geraint Thomas is to Chris Froome (well, almost … give or take about 30 mph). While my husband sits in my slip-stream, pedaling once for every 20 of my leg turns and enjoying the view (of my backside at least), I’m pushing through the wind, head-down, legs and heart pumping, desperately searching for the upcoming B-road onto which I can turn for a bit of respite.

Like me, I imagine there are many more wifey domestiques out there slowly building their confidence so that one day they too can sit back and enjoy the view. Until then, I hope you’ll follow me on my journey from bell and basket to base layers and balaclavas (if you haven’t cycled in the pitch black yet you’re in for a treat).

This blog is for the uninitiated female cyclist. It’s for those who still possess a bit of fear but who want to embrace cycling wholeheartedly and benefit mentally and physically. No topic is off limits, not nasty falls nor naff headgear, not even niggling nether regions!