Bit of an aside from last night when I was doing my regular midnight physical salvage session, and watching the film High Stakes on GCN+ (yup, I actually threw down cash for a year's subscription to watch a bunch of white dudes talk about bikes). Martyn Ashton, who is a very funny, very talented rider who uses a wheelchair after wrecking his back (for the second time), when he talks about physical and mental injuries as an athlete is someone I have a lot of time for.
He said something I've been trying to put into words for a very long time, which applies to dance — also a professional sports career — as much as it does to cycling or climbing, all three I've devoted a lot of my life to at various times. And from the beginning I have struggled with that inevitable double bind of physically fit but not unscathed.
Doing my regular midnight physical salvage session and getting my dose of straight white dudes talking sport last night. The talk moved to the UNBOUND Gravel race and the men’s winner, Ian Boswell. Cut to his Insta with a photo of him, post-race and seductively dusty sweaty in his racing kit, wiping one forearm with a yellow cloth, and that forearm very deliberately poised to show off his wrist wrapped in a trans flag sweatband.
It’s unmistakeable, that flag. And personal reasons aside for the many problems I have with it, sometimes we need a single, recognisable visual which denotes which side a person is stepping up for. But I was still like, yeah, really? Does he know what he’s wearing? ’Cos cyclists, especially road cyclists, are very much those straight white dudes who struggle with the basics.
But nah, he knew exactly what he was doing, spoke with trans athletes and athletes who are parents of trans children, and with his niece who is trans, did the listening, bought 15 of those sweatbands, gave them out on the start line and raised the flag on his wrist high when he crossed the line first.
This was the training ride I’d been putting off since Tuesday. The ride I was afraid of and wanted to cry about.
I’ve been really unsure if I could get through such intense training during Ramadan. Years of road cyclist dudes talking about how FTP tests are the true ruiner of a man (’cos there’s still barely any women representation in major sports coverage) and riding at FTP is always some intense thing.
I’ve trained before during Ramadan. I’ve trained every year and almost every day. I know I can do it. Part of observing Ramadan is I do not ignore my other obligations. At the same time, my other obligations do not mean I can ignore Ramadan. Early on, nine years ago now, when I first started taking the month seriously, giving my attention to my hijabi grandmother, I’d have a date or fig and a glass of water in the afternoon. My obligation then was to the theatre production I was working in, to do my job and not sugar crash mid-rehearsal. It was new to me, fasting through a single day was a big, intense process.
Those early years I didn’t even make the whole month. It took a few years to build up to that. And even now, strictly, I don’t do it proper. Proper is eating before dawn, before the first light on the horizon, stopping at Imsak, a little before Fajr. Today, that’s 03:45. I try to start my fast before sunrise. That’s 06:02 today. Still means 14 hours of fasting, still means that month-long tiredness from eating late and early and sleep compressed in-between. Muslim-ish. Not Muslim. Do what I can Muzz-adjacent or something.
I know from previous years I can train and rehearse and do everything, I’m a little slower and sleepier, have a little less strength and speed, and need to focus on concentrating and everything else. But doing the work? It can be done. This year, I have my new Wahoo KICKR, a subscription to Zwift, and am in the last two weeks of an FTP training programme.
Wild diversion here. WTF is FTP? FTP is functional threshold power and it’s simply the power in Watts you can hold for an hour. Divided by weight you get your Watts per kilo, which is apparently a big deal road cyclists care a lot about. Put your heart rate next to it and that’s a pretty good indicator of your fitness. A specific, endurance-ish fitness. What isn’t included in those numbers is the mental and emotional aspects. Gouging yourself on the limit for a solid hour is pretty fucking upsetting.
I think one of the reasons dudes make such a big deal about FTP is ’cos they’re all about power as numbers, crushing mad guns reps and skipping leg day, and are mentally and emotionally not that tough. Or, not being so salty about it, they simply never learned how to think and talk and live these things. When I was doing laps of Tempelhofer Feld, there’d always be dudes trying to chick me — aand another diversion! WTF is chicking?
Chicking is when dudes feel their dicks shrivel ’cos a chick is laying down more speed or power or whatever than them and they have to try and flex. It comes from a core belief that even the most mediocre dude who’s armchair-ed their whole life is physically superior to a world champion woman athlete. Or even a dedicated amateur. They show up, see any and all women and their singular thought is, “I can beat all of them. I am better than them.” simply by virtue of having a dick.
I’m not making shit up here, check out Maxx Dude Dean Smith who sued Scienceworks in Narrm (Melbourne) when he broke his neck running into a wall trying to out-sprint a video of deadliest Blak, Olympics gold medallist Cathy Freeman. In an exhibition for kids. This is a direct quote from the hero: “All these little things made me think I could beat her, I got a bit competitive, thinking ‘I can take on Cathy Freeman’.”
Yeah. Almost every time I’d ride at the old airport there’d be a dude pulling that shit. And I’d bury him. Because I don’t skip leg day and my idea of fun is sucking up suffering. And I’m petty. One very underrated thing dance teaches is how to go hard while smiling like at a picnic.
I took a long break from riding after wrecking my back early-November last year. I struggled to get back into riding because of that noise, dealing with str8wyt dudes and their background low-level aggro to women athletes. Imagine if they knew I was trans. And Muslim (-ish.)
Buying the trainer was and is a very essential part of my rehab and my need to be a lot more diligent in training as I get older, and the constant dance of holding my space around str8wyt dudes (and cis woman who do white supremacy’s work of shitting on trans femmes) which also has gotten tighter as I’ve gotten older. The first thing I did was the week-long Zwift intro, with its ramp test on day 3. Me, not having ridden for months, nor done any aerobic or endurance training, and doing a ramp test. And what’s a ramp test? It’s a way of estimating FTP without crying for an hour. Every minute it gets harder until you crack. I cracked pretty early.
All of that is to explain the training programme I’m doing bases my workload on the number from that ramp test and does this fun thing called progressive overload. Just like the ramp test, things get harder as the weeks go by. Five weeks in and fitness returning — mental and emotional as well as physical — it feels slightly on the easy side, which I’m ok with, ’cos this is all about re-establishing and resetting my training.
Easy-ish until I’m fasting.
I put this session off all week. It was the Tuesday session and I did it on Saturday. I did some light rides earlier in the week, checking to see if it was even possible, and vacillated all over about when to train. Early in the day, when I was still hydrated and had food in my guts, but would possibly crash later? Later, before Iftar, when I’d be hungry, tired, thirsty, but could deal to that immediately after? Evening, when I could drink during and eat after?
Evening was out because by the time I’d digested enough it was well late and I was thinking of hitting bed. Late-afternoon was out except for the easier rides. It had to be morning with no idea if I’d have a wicked crash in the many hours before sunset.
So, here’s me doing one of, if not the hardest ride I’ve done in Ramadan, mid-morning with 8 hours to go till I can eat and drink. It was mentally tough. And slightly tough on my guts which did the no-food churn on themselves. My mouth was well claggy. It was Saturday, and I had a very lazy afternoon.
I’m interested, as an athlete, to see how I cope with this, and whether training this hard is no big deal or ‘seemed like a good idea at the time’ mistake. I know from all the attention fasted training has been getting in recent years that sprints and high intensity intervals are out, but it might be that threshold training is conditionally ok, for me anyway.
I was surprised how solid I still felt around the hour mark, and how ok I felt for the rest of the day. I’m not sure if this is an indication of my fitness or one of those false highs before a bad crash. I absolutely know dehydration can’t be trained for. Learning to ignore or postpone thirst and hunger, yes. Physiologically though, dehydration — like hypo- or hyperthermia or other very not good experiences — can’t be overcome with ‘get used to it’ positive thinking. And one day of training like this is different to two weeks of it and the cumulative stress incurred.
It’s Sunday and raining, and time to do the last session for the week. And looking forward to it. I like Zwift. Yup, it’s full of dudes and all the rest, but for a social, online training environment it’s mad friendly. I pretend Ayesha McGowan is coaching me, and when Zwift is all, “Good girl! You nailed it!” I hear it in her voice and I’m all “🥰 thank you, coach!”
Late-December last year, I got paid in one hit for a bunch of work on a couple of projects, that contemporary dance thing in Europe of getting cash after the work was done. One of those was the solo which got canned a few days before première (thanks poor response in Germland and EU to global pandemic) which we’d been working on since January.
So, I had mad cash and, for possibly the first time in my life, no pressing obligations. Also not mad enough cash that I could do bougie middle-age things like get a mortgage. Cash enough I’ve been working my way down a list that’s a decade old in places of stuff I need to buy. Like new underwear and socks.
And then there’s the big items. Big for me and pretty much everyone I know. The kind of things which cost up to a couple of thousand and actually cause me cold sweats when I think of doing the spend. ’Cos what if, tomorrow, I’m fully povo again and a couple of hundred is the difference between eating, making rent and all? Except this year I already have work till August and money-wise — ’cos I’m good at living on fuck all — I’m kinda sorta maybe doing ok.
I’d been struggling with training over winter. My back blew out in November, I was feeling well too soft to be doing 90-minute rides in below zero weather, and my base training felt majorly on a plateau. I’d been thinking of buying an indoor trainer for years, very attached to the idea of getting rollers rather than one of those remove the back wheel direct trainers, but somehow over the last few years (thanks bogan mountain bikers on a YouTube channel I watch far too frequently), I went for the latter. Went for multiple times and nah nah nah I’ll come back in the morning, need to sleep on this massive decision, only to find them sold out for more weeks, repeating this until a month ago when there it was in the morning, still available.
It arrived within days and sat there, unboxed for three weeks. Because I needed a 10-speed cassette for it, and decided to get an isolation mat and cadence sensor and new heart rate monitor and … and … absolutely spraying money around. And I knew I’d need a calm few hours to do the setup, get it all working, get a feeling for it. On Monday, I did that.
And joined Zwift.
Total fucking bougie middle-aged cunt on a bike.
Yeah but I’m also a semi- / ex- / occasional- athlete-ish dancer-ish professional who knows very well how much I fall apart if I don’t train and it’s work and an actual work expense and a serious commitment and investment.
For the moment I set up in my kitchen. My balcony has some weird, complex slopes I need to make a trip to the Baumarkt to get some levelling blocks to sort out. I put myself through the intro 5-day training plan, 30 minutes each ride and fuuuuck me I have to face the shame I might have never pushed myself as hard — or maybe as structured and intense within that structure, even though I like suffering. It’s very different having actual numbers on a screen to correlate to feeling, and to have to stay at certain numbers for more seconds or minutes than I’d do when doing laps at Tempelhofer Feld and doing it on feel. Mostly it feels like what I get in 30 minutes on the trainer is about what I’d get from an hour at the airport. And if I did my casual longer warmup and cooldown, 15 minutes either side, it’d maybe be comparable. Still though, I haven’t ridden since November, and very not in endurance and high-intensity shape, and I might be in love with how good a fit an indoor smart trainer is for me. Especially because I can set it up at 9pm and do a session in the dark.
And it occurred to me over breakfast that I needed a trainer if I ever wanted to make those solo endurance works, Preparation, and Hell of the North. And now I have one.
Yeah but the bougie, white, racist, cisgender, heteronormative, ableist, masc-centric, middle-class and all miasma is what cycling soaks in, road cycling especially, and online smart training environments even more so. There’s almost not a day that goes by where there isn’t another story about legislation to ban trans kids or athletes — almost always girls, femmes, and women — from sport, competition, changing rooms, swimming pools, and all. I barely ever see a rider who isn’t white — and yes, this is why riders like Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado and Teniel Campbell and Ayesha McGowan are important but aren’t in themselves or as ‘representation’ enough alone. I’m acutely aware of who I am when I’m in lycra on a bike in that environment. I’m acutely aware also, when I’m in queer and trans spaces, that my decades-long relationship with and love of physicality, training and the discipline that is part of professional dance which I carry into riding, climbing, and everything else, all this has a very uneasy, fraught and painful relationship of its own with and in those spaces. How my trans-ness, femme-ness, queer-ness bangs up against cis AFAB queer spaces has a history of exclusion that has an eerie familiarity with sport.
Shit’s mad over-complicated. I just wanna ride and thrash shit.
It’s been an age since I was last doing laps on Tempelhofer Feld. I haven’t done any training rides since my back went from “lol fuck ya” to “nah really, howdya like not being able to stand?” mid-November. Give it up for floppy joints!
I had to go out to the Bürgeramt in Lichtenrade, way out near my fave stretches of cobble, and kinda wanted to not spend a heap on taxis, and I miss the full-on aggro of Berlin drivers. One day I need to have a convo with myself around the life choices of punching up when up is a LKW.
Anyway, I missed the turn that would have eventually put me on Hermannstr. and I meant to do that put me at the south-west gate of Tempelhofer Feld. Floppy back had been asking for a break and how often do I actually get to walk at the old airport, so I got my hips swinging the length of the southern stretch of pavé and said hi to the crows. Cold permafrost wind coming from Siberia bringing snow.
That’d be me, Francesca d’Ath, and my toes, yesterday while biking to rehearsals.
Pandemic and very delayed sensible government response allowing, I’m performing at Sophiensaele next week. A double bill of two solos, the other with Claudia Tomasi, and both started with Isabelle Schad way back in January.
I don’t know if we’ll even get to perform next week, carrying on like we will, and it feels dead weird to be art-ing while shit goes exponential in Neukölln, Berlin, Germany, Europe … In case we don’t or if we do, here’s me looking well tasty.
And for everyone who saw that poster around Berlin-Mitte, yes, that is me, yes that person is trans femme and serving deep trans femme energy, and yes, even a glance at a poster of me will turn your children trans.
Friday got me to the “It looks like a bike, dunnit?” stage, which was me lying to myself. Saturday was the real work of cutting brake and gear cables, and the horrorshow of setting up cantilever brakes. Sunday was “It’s gotta be rideable by 3pm, ’cos you gotta haul arse up to Wedding and see Dasniya perform.”
Sunday. Many videos of Calvin Jones of Park Tool later, a rideable bike.
So many ways to measure and fit a chain. So many ways to set up and index front and rear derailleurs. So many ways to wrap bar tape. So, so, so many videos on YouTube. Only one Calvin Jones.
And of course, not finished. Riding to Wedding and back rattled everything into place. The gears, they went *ching* like Kelis’ Milkshake. The brakes can throw me over the bars with one finger. Still a little skippy and noisy and squeaky though.
And the new riding position is a bit of work. I bought a fizik – or rather, fi’zi:k – Vento Argo R5 saddle ’cos the cutaway down the middle on my old one was nice but not in the right place, and this one is wider (for my weirdly spacious sitbones) and shorter, and very much does not stab me anywhere from butthole to pubic bone. I also bought fizik seat post and bar stem, ’cos I’ve loved using their bar tape the last couple of years. My new position is about the same length on the bar tops but slightly lower on the hoods and drops. This bike has always been a size or two too big for me, and getting low without getting stretched out or loosing the cyclocross agility I need has been a messy process, compounded by the shit cable routing for the front brake.
And today, with a very big box of discarded packaging, another box of old and destroyed bike parts, I decided to sort my drawers of bike shit. So much shit. So many old parts. I now have two drawers of very fucking highly organised and actually usable parts, two sets of serviced and ready to thrash wheels (one for cobbles and one for cyclocross), one sexy refurbished bike and pretty close to getting back out on some training rides.
It’s seen better days. Like the day before I bought it, for example. Original parts are now frame, forks, and handlebars. The latter I considered replacing as well this time but I like their fit and buying highly specialised fit stuff online without measuring and trying is a high risk activity for me.
So. First set of Fulcrum wheels rebuilt by me and bearings replaced in the shop ’cos I have not yet cried my way to spending 300€+ on a bearing press. Second set of Fulcrum wheels also rebuilt and laughing my way through flushing one set of grotty bearings and regreasing them ’cos I can’t afford another trip to the shop right now. Very tasty Challenge Chicane cyclocross tires on the former, with tan sidewalls (Which is high fashion. Allegedly.) and the Strada Bianca ones on the latter. Dead fucking sharp.
Old parts stripped from bike and in a box. New parts I’ve been collecting for months in another. Bike frame cleaned, much WD40 huffed, vague ennui slash sadness at the crappiness of the BB30 bottom bracket, which I considered replacing with an adaptor and a threaded one, which would mean a whole new set of cranks, which realistically isn’t a bad idea but fucking hell we’re very in “You spent new bike money on your old bike. Again!” territory right now, so, no, creaky fucking BB fucking 30 it is.
I did buy a chain whip and cassette remover ’cos I wanted to be able to swap the cassette between aforementioned dope as fuck wheels (“You could just swap the tires, Chica?” “I could just not? Dickhead!”) and woo! tools! My baba was very in the room yesterday. Not sure if he’s proud or confused about me, but he was very professionally interested in wtf I was doing.
Yesterday, then. Bike stripped and me all, “Fukken really? This again? Oh god why?” And today so far, past the grotty cleaning stage and starting the funtimes rebuilding stage, pretending the subsequent running and setting cables stage is no big deal and will not take me an upsetting amount of time.
My fingers and hands are serving high femme mechanic realness.