Also see Tomboy to Tourmalet – part 1
Skip forward to marriage and three children, you then have “recreational” cycling dominated by a certain desperation to find family activities we can all just, well, do. There’s a great deal of cajolement that needs to happen cycling with kids, or the use of one of those trailer attachments to drag unwilling or incapable children behind a quietly blaspheming parent; but sometimes it’s easier to take the strain rather than the whinging. We had Halfords’ cheapest hybrids then. When our youngest was a baby, being number three, he was largely ignored but spent most of his time more than happily entertained in his ‘bumbo’, a brilliant foam seat that allowed him hours in a comfortable upright seated position, where he would suck his thumb prodigiously and view the endless shenanigans of his two older siblings with fascination. Cycling trips would see him in the same scenario, but this time strapped comprehensively to the back of my bike. Charlie was a sturdy baby and I should have realised it was never a good idea to push the bike with him on the extreme rear, tempting the laws of physics. During an abortive off-road expedition where we lost our way and diverted up a steep hill through heavy undergrowth, chubby cheeks vibrating in sync with bumpy terrain, he very suddenly disappeared from view as the bike scissored and tipped up. Too shocked to cry we found him with a bugs life view of the field still sucking his thumb à la Maggie from The Simpsons. Third children learn resilience early.
Once each child became old enough to ride their own bike, we still ventured out together, but rides were limited by their extreme reluctance to cycle up any hill greater than a wheelchair ramp so we were limited to riverside dawdles to Winchester and the like, not really anything that resembled exercise.
There came a time though when exercise was the order of the day, and I don’t mean the games of what’s slightly pejoratively termed “Ladies’ tennis” that I’d started playing when the kids were small (they afforded a great deal of enjoyment if not a showcase of fabulous skill or aerobic ability). It’s then I started running consistently. After my mother died, it allowed me solitude, a chance to howl out of the way of children, and inadvertently, to be soothed by the glorious nature of the South Downs. This culminated in my first 10k race in aid of Allegra’s ambition and a memorably beautiful Clarenden half marathon that will always remain in my mind glowing with that sepia sunshine of happy memory like childhood days on the beach. I finished wanting to keep running on and on. The training had been a wonderful exploration of the Hampshire landscape, a constant reel of internal photographs, a study of cloud formations and meditation on the natural world of which I’m woefully ignorant. All enhanced by my entertaining spaniel friend who’s joy in the outdoors was infectious and who’s sadness in being denied this pleasure would be palpable… what better training partner could I have?
Then came a knee injury started by a fondness of skiing moguls and finished by an attempt to impress my daughter trying to do a pistol squat…(don’t ask). Not my best decision.
Cycling seemed a good alternative and mountain bikes were duly purchased, but the jolting over country terrain and wide handlebars seemed to exacerbate knee and neck respectively, and it led to a year of exercise inertia, excess anti-inflammatories, poor sleep, and flab-dom; disappointingly, a weekly game of doubles doesn’t leave you with buns of steel and a six pack.
Then out pops an innocuous little email from two friends organising a “cycling tour” across the Pyrenees. I imagined sun drenched days in and out of the saddle, lingering over a cafe grand crème, pain au chocolat, and arriving at the end of each day slightly worn but ready for a carafe or two of local vin rouge… Instead, I soon learned it was more like a Marathon Des Sables on bikes up mountains (with a bit less sand and sun). Egged on by friends, our attachment to the Bespolka’s cause, and a large helping of midlife crisis, we found ourselves signed up…