I had intended to write about the lead-up to World Champs each week for a month beforehand, but life has got in the way of that plan. I’ve had a pretty eventful fortnight or so now, with Worlds just a week-and-a-half away, I’m afraid I’m going to have to squeeze it all in to a couple of posts and leave all the fun bits out.
The last time I wrote for MarathonMTB a couple of weeks ago I was just finishing up racing Port to Port, NSW’s fantastic MTB stage race. I lined up each day for Port to Port in quite a bit of pain, relieved somewhat by Voltaren, because of an injury I’ve been nursing in my sacroiliac joints for a couple of months. I raced when I normally wouldn’t or shouldn’t have because Port to Port was my last chance to get in a block of training before getting cortisone injections into the joints to relieve the pain. My doctor had ordered me off the bike for at least five days after the injections, so it was my goal to smash myself as much as I could, put up with it, and take the next week as a recovery week. Worlds was coming, after all.
Adventures in cortisone
While not exactly pleasant, the injections went to plan and I experienced the usual side effects of hot flushes and a bit of insomnia for the first 36 hours after having them. Normally side effects go away after about 48 hours but after having the injections on Monday, by Wednesday I was a physical and psychological mess. In a constant, feverish state of panic and confusion, hyperventilating, unable to sleep or even sit still, near panic most of the time. The next day I was so dizzy I couldn’t get out of bed, slurring my speech, confused, nauseous, and unable to see properly. After talking to my Doctor, who was excellent, I went along to the emergency department of a nearby hospital, just to get checked out. There was nothing wrong with me. I just had a bad reaction to the cortisone and had to wait it out. A few days, they said, and I should come good.
It took nearly a week before I managed a short session on the home trainer, and the next day I got back on the bike. Mike and I headed out on one of my favourite easy rides to Brookfield, a semi-rural pocket west of Brisbane. This outing I’d looked forward to all week turned out to be one of the worst rides of my life. Not only was I still dizzy and unable to focus properly, or even ride in a particularly straight line, but the pain in my SI joints flared up about 20 minutes in and got worse and worse. That wasn’t supposed to happen. The cortisone that had caused me such grief should have at least taken care of the pain. I struggled home and cried for the first time since my first attempts to chase this silly injury away began. I’d done everything possible… when were things going to get better?
Well, they did, but slowly – and not entirely. With a bit of patience I found the pain in my joints subsided – but about a week later than expected. By this point it was days before I was to head to Europe and I did my best to make up some ground. With the pain diminished and some fresh legs I managed a solid five days of training before Mike and I packed our things and jumped on the long-haul flights to Europe, landing in Geneva about 27 hours after we’d left Brisbane, then driving up to La Clusaz in the French Alps’ Haute Savoie region, where, the weekend before Worlds, we’ve planned to take part in the Roc Des Alpes UCI World Series marathon race.
We were greeted by weather that I first described as ‘epically shit’, but which, after careful thought and consultation with Mike, I’ve decided to simply describe as ‘standard if you’re Welsh’. Driving, cold rain, temperatures in the low single figures, wind, and fog, and a similar forecast for the next five days.
We went to bed feeling optimistic, even though our host had warned us that this week the weather would indeed be ‘pas beau’. Yesterday, our first day, we woke up to the sound of heavy rain and after sitting around looking out the windows of our tiny chalet for hours we gave in, ate chocolate, and put on all our Brisbane-weight clothing and just went out in it. We managed an hour’s ride on the Roc Marathon trails, which were simply flowing with water, unless they’d turned to boggy mud. Within minutes we were drenched, frozen, coated in mud, and pretty grumpy.
Our perfect (fucking expensive) Euro summer holiday! Our beautiful clean bikes with the new bearings! The warm base layer I’d ditched at the last minute because according to Mike, ‘June in France is always hot’! Then, like a cruel joke, pain leaked back into my left-hand SI joint. This can’t be happening, I thought. But it was. I rode home in a mood that I can accurately describe as ‘epically shit’.
With no internet and nothing much else to do, we sat around in our little chalet fighting jetlag by looking at the tourist maps our hosts had left for us, most of which centred on what a great region the Alps is for cycling. The mythical grands cols of the Tour! The epic mountain bike descents! The rewarding mountain-top views! By late afternoon we gave in and completed a fabulous tour of three epic cols – in the car. I stuffed myself with both chocolate and cheese at each and every meal yesterday, drank two glasses of wine at dinner and went to bed. Tomorrow would be better!
So today we woke up to the sound of heavy rain but, prepared this time, ate Nutella, put on all our Brisbane-weight clothing, and went out for a road ride.
We did four decent climbs in an hour-and-a-half then called it a day before hypothermia set in. I don’t mind the cold, and in Brisbane I don’t even really mind the wet that much, but cold and wet together?! It was seven degrees but the wind chill made it worse, and we were drenched to the bone. I’ll quite happily ride all day in 35-degree heat and 85% humidity for five months of the year, but it baffles me that a large proportion of the world’s cycling population trains in conditions like these for just as long. Two days of cold rain is plenty for me. Euros, I am in awe of you. And yes. I am soft.
Every country in the world does something exceptionally well. France, for example, does the best shower gel, combining delicious perfumes of coconut, peach, and vanilla into intoxicating body washes. In Japan you have excellent queueing. Italy has gelato and everything in Switzerland runs on time. Australia does weather really, really well. Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on this.
Of course, a couple of hours after finishing our hypothermic hill session, the sun actually came out for several hours. That doesn’t change the fact that there’s more rain on the way and the trails are going to be epically muddy when we race on Saturday – or what the French euphemistically call ‘gras’ – greasy. Normally this would be fine but the Roc Marathon is also normally completed in about 6 hours by the winning female and in these conditions that time could be longer. Jeezus! How long will the 80-kilometre race take me? Is it wise, a week before World Champs to spend 7 hours on a bike in freezing rain, or if the weather clears up, just swearing violently at la boue (that’s French for mud)?
Then there’s the issue of the pain in my lower back, which simply refuses to get better. I’m planning a break off the bike for some rehab when I get home, but my body’s got to last another fortnight. The worst thing about this stupid injury has been the sheer mysteriousness of it, which has in turn stirred up my obsessive side as I chase and chase the one special thing I can do that will make it better. I’ve had days when I’ve been pain-free, especially in the week after I recovered from the cortisone injections, but I’ve had phantom recurrences at weird times, too. Sometimes I get away with an incredibly hard training ride with nothing more than a twinge, at others, like yesterday, an hour-long spin stirs up all kinds of strife. Life with this thing has turned into a never-ending merry-go-round of triggering, stretching, foam rolling, tablet-popping, icing, heating, massaging, acupuncturing, and strengthening. On and on and round and round.
I’ve chatted to a few locals and to a few of my English friends about the weather. The problem isn’t that it’s weather, per se. Weather is set of temporary events. Most people here in the mountains see this as part of a changing and permanent pattern. The snow didn’t arrive until late December last year, I’m told, three months too late. The glacier is shrinking, the old people remember when it came all the way down to here. Summers aren’t hot anymore, but they’re wet like this, and it’s never truly cold in winter either… so on. People are talking about climate change. Weather, a series of passing events, shouldn’t really worry me. Just as pain wouldn’t worry me if I had some kind of forecast to tell me that there will be an end to it. I am overwhelmed with the thought is that my aching joints are a permanent change and something I’ll have to manage for the rest of my cycling life – the new normal. Cycling – the most truly joyful thing I know, is now a constant negotiation with discomfort: when I ride, after I ride, with temporary easings and mysterious flare-ups. Hours of management and hundreds if not thousands of dollars of treatment… A part of me just wants Worlds to be over so I can collapse in a heap. I do hope that someday soon I can enjoy riding again without pain (or fear of pain), but my challenge now is just to move on… or at least keep moving. Lots and lots of people live with pain. I have had an excellent run and still consider myself ridiculously lucky. I’m working on accepting the new physical climate I live in, epically shit weather and all.