I’ve always been involved in some kind of sporting activity. Being in the military with the facilities available made it easy to be active. In the early days, I was a sprinter, not a great one but a 100 metre man none the less. What a picture I made, shoulders like Alan Wells, Abs like Linford Christie and legs like Marlene Dietrich, that was half the problem; personally I blame the lack of protein available and the food shortages in the early 1950s'.
Damn that rationing!
Marlene Dietrich's legs, you get my point!
My passion for sprinting was due in part to my Dad's influence as a very good 400 metre runner back in the late ‘40s; and with me desperate to emulate him I put a lot of time and effort into training. I have to admit, my choice of sport and associated friends at the time was a bit off the mark, but I wouldn't change it for the world. I was the guy that had my first real fist-fight with Aaron Baker (still best friends after 57 years), the only kid of Jamaican origin in our Junior School when we were both aged 9. I should have learned at that point that his biceps being much bigger than mine meant trouble, but no! Having not learned, I was then the young lad that became good friends with other black guys with similar physical attributes, the same chap that decided to train and compete at the one and two hundred meter sprint with the likes of my mate Baron Davies whose family came from Trinidad and Tobago. Now I am more than aware that I am not the cleverest guy in the world but neither am I a dullard, so my only excuse is that I must have been incredibly slow on the uptake during those early says of my school life as it took me about another ten years to twig that Afro Caribbean guys in the main have a greater muscle mass and less natural body fat than us Caucasians. There was me thinking that I had been unlucky when Aaron beat the shit out of me back in 1963 and similarly when Baron and his younger brother Aiden initially thrashed me at the 100 and 200 metres; but I kept on racing them and despite often coming in third or forth place, I still revelled in being a part of the pantheon of elite fast guys and the attention it drew from the girls which was just fantastic.
Like most good things they have to come to an end, as change, so they say is the only constant in our lives. Unfortunately leaving school and school facilities meant hanging up the spikes as running tracks in the centre of Birmingham were few and far between. Like most young guys in their early to late teens and on into their 20s, I played a lot of football and as a defender excelled in the Great British Footballing Art of the 'raised-two-footed and totally-illegal-slide tackle' made famous by Chelsea's Chopper Harris and his best buddies at Leeds United FC, Norman (Bites year legs) Hunter and King Billy Bremner. With limited skill but a perfect balance of aggression and speed, my game was well suited to the muddy, wet Sunday morning games we all remember so vividly; those winter days where the level of pain experienced from leather football against frozen inner thigh although horrendous, seemed like a fly tickle compared to the agony one felt from receiving your first kick in the nuts, an experience that you prayed would never happen, knowing full well that like everybody else that plays the game, one day you WOULD become one of the initiated. So with an acutely heightened awareness of how important it is to protect ones meat and two, my footballing years rolled on.
As I mentioned earlier, I was not a naturally gifted player but I worked hard and learned new skills resulting with a celebrated move to midfield where my reputation for speed, strength and never-say-die attitude grew. Scoring goals was not something I excelled at and teams that I played for rarely won silverware. However, my success in being captain of a few of the those clubs I represented along with the camaraderie and respect I received from my team mates was like Gold Dust, it was very, very special.
My 30s and 40s saw a reduction in sporting activity due ostensibly to married life, babies and the pressure that trying to earn a decent living brings to all of us. I still got to do a lot of jogging/running, mainly in the early hours before anybody else was awake. However many years of wear and tear to the body meant something had to give, and at the age of 50 I was having serious problems with the old knees and by the time I had hit 56 my right one hurt to such an extent that I could hardly put weight on it. I knew the problem as Doctor Google had been kind enough to present a diagnosis, but the message from my GP still came as a shock when he said that I should cease running and any other impact sports immediately. God, I felt so old and washed up at that point, which was crazy. In retrospect I should have given myself a good hard slap as I was soon to discover that in this particular instance, when one thing comes to a grinding halt another opportunity presents itself, if of course you are prepared to put the time and effort in.
Yes, knee cartilage problems brought my running days to a juddering halt at the age of 56, and yes I had to have bloody painful surgery, and I still desperately yearned for some kind of physical exercise. So it was, at that point 9 years ago in 2011, that I discovered my passion of all passions, Road Cycling. My surgeon, a cyclist himself advised me to get involved. I became possessed, throwing myself into all manner of events such as time trials, 100 mile sportives and short track races but lack of experience shone through like a very large and powerful torch. I often got lost, more than often fell off and bonked more regularly than anybody else in history has bonked, but none of that mattered. Living and training in the Yorkshire Dales, the cycling land of gods, a place where there is no such thing as downhill was and continues to be an absolute joy. Regardless of technique, I became faster and faster, fitter and fitter, dropping weight like never before. In 12 months, I went from occasional runner to the guy that could climb Buttertubs and Kidstone Pass in The Yorkshire Dales without falling off or having to stop, what a result!
Forming friendships and regularly riding out with a different set of buddies and being able to keep up with guys younger than me was incredible. My STRAVA times as I approached the milestone that was 60 of age, were still good; it was harder, yes and recovery took longer but I was still there, still in the race, still averaging 19 mph, still able to beat Buttertubs Cotes Du Grinton and Park Rash and still able to get into my 34 inch waist jeans.
I am proud to say that at 66 I can still get into those 34 inch waist jeans but that is the only thing that has stayed the same. Accepting the fact that "Time waits for no man", and that the body is definitely slowing down is a difficult one to come to terms with, but heart rate computers and heart rate monitors never lie, it’s easy to keep track of distance and time and much to my dismay I’ve gotten much slower over the past two years or so, but there is still a huge upside.
When I manage to push emotions firmly under my minds bedroom carpet and think about it logically, I know that cycling up and down undulating hills interspersed with two or three 20% climbs over 30 miles at an average of 15 miles an hour at the age of 66 a couple of days a week still means I’m in better physical shape than many other people, but it has still been hard to take from a psychological perspective. Only 8 years ago I used to do the same distance and amount of climbing at an average of 19 mph, so that is a bummer, but I’m physically active, still lifting weights and still cycling despite the pain in my knees, but I can’t do everything I could. The speed, the weight of the dumbbells I can lift, the cadence of my pedalling and the time to recovery is nowhere near what it was, but every third day I succeed in getting out and thrashing the backside off those big hills. I accept that there is a day, and it is not too far around the corner when I know that cocking the leg over the crossbar and placing my backside on that blade of leather that they laughingly call a saddle will become impossible. Until then I will keep going.
Perspective and context
I will leave you with this true story. . . . . About 6 years ago, a couple of weeks before my 60th birthday, I was mending a puncture by the side of a narrow lane just outside of Leyburn in the Dales. It was a freezing day and I was having major trouble with severely numb fingers attempting to get the new inner tube placed. Just as I was about to give up as I was sure I was on the verge of frostbite, a fellow cyclist rode up and offered his help. The guy had to have been in his early seventies and was expensively but tastefully dressed and rode a superb looking Specialized Venge bike which were and continue to be through various iterations very, very expensive lumps of carbon. To cut a long story short, we chatted and he, with warm fingers helped me sort the problem. As he toiled, we talked of most things cycling and in particular riding on decent roads in much warmer climes. "I yearn to do Alpe D'uez in the not too distant, but I think it will be too much for me at my age." I said. Finishing the job whilst simultaneously looking up at me with near contempt in his eyes, he snapped, "Too old, too bloody old? I did the Alpe last year, and from the difficult side, so don't give me that bloody nonsense about being to old!" I tried to think of a response to the castigation but before I could he started again as he got on his bike to ride off. "Tell me, do you really, really want to do the Alpe?" "Yes" I responded, "I definitely want to do that specific Col." He hesitated and then fixing me with one of those hard stares asked, "What is more important to you right now, just getting up the Alpe or getting up the Alpe at a good speed? "Just getting up the Alpe and telling friends and family I have done it is good enough for me." I replied. "One final question," he asked. "Can you ride a bike further that 13 kms around these Dales Hills." "Yes" I said, "Of course" I said feeling a tad embarrassed at his assumption I was a crap rider. Then as he started to ride off he looked back over his shoulder and raising his voice, instructed. "Well stop bloody whinging, don't think it, get training and just bloody do it!"
More about the Alpe d'huez soon!