Now that we’ve made our goal and recovered (more or less) physically from the ride, it’s time to reflect on lessons learned and problems encountered. In the spirit of Sam’s “six things” posts (for example, here), herewith I give you three awesome things I learned while on the ride, and three things that troubled me – and are motivating my next bike-related labour.
Three Things I Now Know, Thanks to L2P24
1. My body is freaking amazing!
I’m going to say this loudly, and proudly: my body is brilliant, wonderful, strong, amazing. I’m a 38-year-old woman, and until I was in my mid-twenties I was overweight, not especially active, and definitely not as fit as I could have been. My whole young life I carried with me the same body-image problems many, many young women experience as a result of multiple, colliding factors and influences, from peer and parental pressure to photos circulating in the media. I constantly felt inadequate, I hated looking at my body in the mirror, and I wore baggy clothes to hide my body (NB: that never works). When I was 27 I lost a fair bit of weight, shifting my body from overweight to “normal” (aka, a size 10), and I’ve kept it off all these years; the secret hasn’t been dieting, but swimming, cycling, lifting weights, and making sensible food choices (which, by the way, includes rather a lot of cheese, and brownies. YUM). As I’ve become more fit, I haven’t lost much more weight, but I have become more lean, and I’ve become ever more confident in my body. I want to stress that this confidence has never emerged from becoming “thin”; for me, body confidence came from growing strong.
Now, after L2P24, I can say in all honesty I have never felt better in my skin: together, my brain and my body worked to keep me feeling good, feeling powerful, and feeling safe for an entire, solid, day and night of physical exertion. My back didn’t ache. My heart rate was low and consistent. My power levels rarely dropped. I felt like I could have kept going, maybe even could have pushed a bit harder. That is an incredible achievement; it proves, to me, that I am, indeed, an endurance athlete – something that, ten years ago, I could never have imagined saying about myself, or seeing in the mirror.
This week of all weeks I want to share this fitness-given strength and confidence publicly, because on the weekend we had a terrible reminder of how poorly we as a culture understand that strength and power are core aspects of women’s beauty. Yesterday, Tracy blogged about the negative media reaction to Marion Bartoli’s Wimbledon win; Marion is a phenomenal athlete, a really open and lovely presence in interviews, and by all accounts a woman with a very strong and healthy sense of self. She does not deserve to be mocked as fat, or as not a “looker”; rather, she deserves to be celebrated as a role model not just for athletic girls, but for ALL girls and women who feel “quirky”, who think they look odd or wrong, or who think they might be, maybe, could be be strong and fit, except they don’t look thin and sleek, don’t look “the part”. As a middle aged woman who weighs 70kg and just rode 281 miles on her road bike in one go, I’m here to tell all of you: you are strong, you are beautiful, and the stronger you get, the more beautiful you will become. That’s guaranteed.
2. Riding at night is glorious – and perfectly safe if you’re smart about it.
Four and a half hours of our ride was in the middle night dark; to light our way, we had powerful torches on our handlebars, blinking red safety lights on our seat posts, and some of us wore helmet lights. As we left Calais for the final 2/3 of the ride, I noticed immediately how quiet and peaceful the roads and the little towns along the way were; my group was five riders strong, and we moved swiftly through the night, single file, on perfect pavement, enjoying the cool breeze, the stars, and the shadows of trees and in the distance. I found the night ride meditative; it reminded me of my teenage years growing up in Edmonton, Alberta, and driving myself home from friends’ houses at night, through the quiet city to the northern suburb where we lived. I used to sing to myself, or compose poems in my head (or out loud!). I’d take the time to think, to wonder, to let my mind gently wander. To dream! Riding through northern France in the middle of the night brought all that back to me.
As a feminist and a scholar of urban performance, I know very well how easy it is for women not to be empowered in this way in the dark: city streets can be dangerous places at night, especially for women, in groups or alone. Walter Benjamin wrote the original “flâneur’s” guide to Paris in his Arcades Project, but feminist cultural geographers like Doreen Massey have explored the limits of Benjamin’s image of wandering for women. (In Benjamin’s place and time, for example, a single woman out walking on her own would not be revered as an urban pioneer, but could be denigrated as a prostitute.) I generally don’t fear walking at night, though I don’t go out of my way to do it in neighbourhoods I don’t know; I’m a tough chick, but I’m not invincible, and I do live in a patriarchy. As a cyclist, though, in a group of experienced riders, I felt protected as well as empowered to gaze around me and to be free. I also felt far less gendered than I do when I’m out walking – and not just because of the gender-neutral rider’s kit. Being on the bike demands a physically powerful posture: I felt a bit like I was ready for anything, crazy or calming.
3. Sometimes, it pays to come last.
OK, so we didn’t actually come last. We did take longer than I was hoping, though, to get to the finish line. Looking back, I know we could have made the 24 hour “cut”: we had a problem with our equipment as we got off the ferry, which slowed us down right when we needed the most momentum, and then one of our group punctured, slowing us down further. For a while, Jarret and I pushed hard to make up for lost time, but then the rushing seemed pointless, and unnecessarily tiring: this was not a race. It was an endurance test – a test of strengths, physical and mental. The mileage itself presented the physical test; managing our spirits, and shifting our expectations, along with the passing miles presented the mental challenge.
When we reached our second last rest stop, I realized that we could absolutely make the 24 hour cut if we began to ride just a bit faster. Jarret was less convinced: he wanted to ensure we arrived in Paris feeling good, not feeling utterly smashed, and he was a bit more tired than I was already. I had a decision to make: stick with his slow-but-steady plan, or drop him and make for the finish myself.
I decided that the latter was a pretty dumb idea. We were in the ride together: we had trained together, planned together, and we would ride to the finish together.
Then, just as I was making that call, along came a fellow rider called Andy who was on his own, and struggling with a bad knee. He asked to borrow my sunscreen, and then he asked if he could tag along with us, as he’d been lonely through the night and needed a boost to keep going. I remembered the lessons I took from riding in the Alps two weeks ago with Jo McRae, and the case was closed: we would ride alongside Andy.
In the end, not pushing the last 60 miles was hard for me – it was a fitting, and welcome, mental challenge. Don’t get me wrong: I’ll be ready, right out of the gate on our next race, to up my game. But this was not a race, remember. This was about teamwork, mutual support, and celebrating a collective, extraordinary, achievement. In that respect, we absolutely won the day.
Three troublesome things worth working on
1. This wasn’t a race, right? Nope. Scope, our charity sponsor, and Action Challenge, their ride organizers, told us this over and over. So why did it seem so much like a race at every rest stop? Why were we constantly hurried along by the Scope and Action Challenge gang? Why were they so quick to push us, and so insistent on marking pace and measuring time?
My guess is that their hearts weren’t really in the claim that this was no race, however much they wanted (or felt pressure) to pretend a facade of egalitarianism: they knew, given the make-up of the group (about 215 men and 15 women, give or take), that the majority of participants were well-kitted-out guys fuelled by peer pressure and testosterone and keen to get the very best time possible to Paris. Jarret and I found this atmosphere of “sort of but not really a race” very difficult to stomach; when you’re working hard to be in the best physical and mental place possible over the course of a very long period of exertion, the last thing you need is to have to parse mixed signals, and you really, really don’t need to feel in any way inadequate. I understand that Scope and Action Challenge were likely trying to find a way to support everyone’s goals – including those of the racing dudes – but I would have appreciated much more if they’d made a serious, sustained effort to reinforce how much this was not about speed, but about skill, patience, and endurance. The latter three we need much more of on the hills and highways of London.
Which brings me to item #2 on this list.
2. Lycra really chafes – figuratively and literally. I will spare you the details of my blistered rear end, except to say that the traffic lights (dozens!) we encountered on the route through suburban Paris were especially punishing, as I clipped in and out of my shoes and moved myself on and off my saddle. But lycra is more than just the stuff of which bike shorts and jerseys are made: it’s code, in big cities like London, for the bike riders who boss the roads. They are the men and women (mostly men; we need to be honest here!) who race up the bike lanes, cut off cars, push ahead of other cyclists and road users, flying off the curb as soon as the light turns green. They are the riders who grandstand at every red, and ignore most stop signs. They are the riders who ride to intimidate – and intimidate they do.
The vast majority of the riders on L2P24 were sensible and knew how to ride safely; some, however, were ill equipped to navigate the busy London and Paris roads, either because they did not understand proper road protocol or because they wilfully flaunted it, and they presented hazards for motorists as well as for us, their fellow cyclists. In a week when a woman riding a “Boris” bike in London’s east end (along my regular commute route, no less) was killed by a truck, this journey was a reminder to me of how hard we all need to work to ensure that we are riding properly, and safely, at all times. For some, that might mean taking some safe riding lessons at a local bike shop. For others, it might mean learning the zen lesson Jarret taught me when he reminded me to slow down, for heaven’s sake, because we were not riding a race. For me, post-L2P, it’s going to mean learning to change my own punctured tires in the next few weeks, so I can be more self-sufficient on the road. Safety first – really people.
3. “Sports nutrition” needs a rethink. Don’t get me wrong – there are some excellent sport nutritionists out there, and a good nutrition coach is hard to beat if you’d like to become more fit and physically efficient. But when I hit a rest stop on a 24-hour, 271-mile ride, and “sports nutrition” equates to energy gels and energy drinks, rather than to wholemeal carbohydrates and replenishing proteins, I worry. Scope and its caterer put plenty of fruit out for us at a number of our rest stops, and we did eventually see some porridge, but for the most part their notion of “refuelling” involved white breads, white pasta, sugared sweets, bars and gels.
Not good enough! If I’d had my way, the rest stops would have featured even more fruit, plenty of veg, sweet potatoes and brown rice rather than white rice and pasta, a wider range of thirst-quenching drinks, and far fewer sugary junk items. The food was fine, to a point but it certainly wasn’t excellent; sadly, however, it was still far better than what I normally see at amateur races in the UK. When will race and ride organizers wake up to healthy fitness eating? It doesn’t have to be expensive; it just has to be more thoughtful, more logical, and just plain better for you. I learned this, too, from Jo in the Alps: eating the best, healthiest food possible is better than carb-loading or gel-sucking any day: it won’t jolt your body, won’t make your stomach sick, and will keep you in a balanced place throughout your ride. Eating good food is about trusting your body, after all: that body, powerful and amazing, knows what to do with healthy, nutritious stuff. No junk required.
And on that note, it’s time for me to end this series of guest posts. Thanks to all of you for reading! I’ve enjoyed sharing my experience in the lead-up to this mad, illuminating journey, and I hope to see you over at my blog, The Activist Classroom, sometime soon.