Waiting in the rain for the M41 bus last Tuesday, one of my favourite libraries behind me, Amerika-Gedenkbibliothek. Co-designed by Fritz Bornemann, who also did Deutsche Oper, Museumszentrum Berlin-Dahlem, the Berlin-Wedding Rathaus extension, and other bits of Berlin architecture I have a thing for.
Finishing the year and starting the year doing the work.
2018, I wore a heart rate monitor for all my training, riding, climbing, yoga, whatever. It felt a bit much. 2019, I stuck to riding only. All of which I keep notes of in a training diary in my calendar, ’cos I’m like that. So, 121 rides last year, and 150+ ‘yoga’ (core, strength, stretching, body work type, as well as actual yoga). Less riding than 2018, fewer long rides, virtually no climbing, and other year without doing a ballet or any kind of dance class in a studio, in front of a mirror.
Interesting stuff: The month of May, with almost no going into the red, and plenty of green and blue zones, that was Ramadan. The hole with nothing in it, June and July, that was me having my face peeled off in Spain. The first big ride, in October, was the Women’s 100, and the second was riding the Berliner Mauerweg on Tag der Deutschen Einheit. In retrospect, I can already see in my gappy training that chronic fatigue from a year of over-intensity and stress (surgery was only a part of it) was getting to me, November and half of December is that burnout.
Bike is currently in need of complete rebuild and new components, most of my cycling gear is similarly needing to be retired, but whatever. I keep riding. Every ride has had something in it for me, and it’s been so, so good for my mental and emotional health, as well as keeping my physicality ticking over. And it’s winter, a broken, very much not cold and snowless winter, barely ever below zero, but even that, riding in the cold, wet, dark grot makes me smile.
Sonnenallee taking lightning hits again on Friday. Makes me yearn for being in the mountains, enshelled, cold and wet around, sleeping in a tent, every day about one foot in front of the other.
It’s been a while since a proper hectic spring thunderstorm has passed by, and a while since I’ve had a view to enjoy it from. On the balcony watching Sonnenallee take lightning hits, the rain so heavy like monsoon season in Guangzhou.
Glamour to me isn’t wearing fancy clothes or all the make up or perfect hair. To me it’s is the process of putting your heart and soul into something to be the very best version of you that you are physically and mentally able to be. It’s not always about the result it’s often about the perseverance and dogged determination that to me is glamour. So guys this is what my glamour looks like!
Speaking of bikes and starting the year with a wet, cold, and very windy ride, I’ve been using a Polar heart rate monitor while I ride (and climb, dance, yoga, whatever mostly) on and off for the last 2 1/2 years, to give me an idea of what my subjective feel of training compares to what’s actually going on in my body. It also somehow helps motivate me to do the training, week after week.
Last year I decided cycling is my new dancing, so, two things: First, 2018 is the first year in more than 20 years I didn’t do a single dance class, which I feel rather good about. And second, training on a bike is dancing for me, so in fact I did a lot of dancing last year. There’s some gaps in my year, March in Narrm, Australia, April without a bike, weeks here and there where I didn’t train or didn’t use the monitor, and at some point dropping using it for yoga and core. Altogether, I did a lot more training last year than I have in recent years, and cycling is the reason. From doing it to bulk up my endurance for dancing, to doing it because hooning through a wet winter forest is one of life’s deep pleasures, to doing it because it was the only thing that sorted my knee out (and 2017’s riding is entirely why I can do squats and pliés without my patella feeling like it’s being gutted), to doing it because I love it and love the suffering and honestly would ride for hours a day if I could arrange it.
And seeing it change my body. After all those years of ballet and dance, and yoga and climbing, all of which I saw change me depending on how intense I was in each of them, cycling is the first new discipline I’ve got serious about since I was a student. So, here’s 2018, and all the training I did with a heart rate monitor strapped under my boobs.
Yes, I got hit by that rain. No, I did not leave the big ring, even when the 24km/h head wind gusted to 60+ — and even though my big ring is a cyclocross compact 46, I’m claiming Rule #90: Never Get Out of the Big Ring, and Rule #67: Do your time in the wind. Yes, crosswinds of the same intensity are rather scary, especially when the rain is horizontal; and dry 7°C seemed relatively warm compared to wet, so, Rule #9: If you are out riding in bad weather, it means you are a badass. Period. Also, Rule #5: Harden The Fuck Up. I wasn’t intending for a foul weather ride, mainly because the Berlin grot is a bike killer, but I am a rider who loves the work.
A year ago, during one of the very short periods of proper cold weather in Berlin, I was out doing my laps in it and thinking. I do a lot of thinking when I’m riding. Quite a bit is of looping through a rhythm as I breathe in and out to the circling of my legs, feet locked into pedals. It’s usually a 4/4, but cuts to a 2/4 when things get dire. Sometimes I go for a 5/4 so I don’t get too obsessive about it all. Another part is saying, “Please stop. Please stop. This feels awful.” That’s one of the voices in my head, probably mine, yapping. In turn, my thighs go through waves of wanting to vomit, like peristalsis moving from gut to legs; my lower back finds various positions to complain in, as do arms, shoulders, toes, hands. My saddle is up in my business, stabbing me in my junk. All skin on the windward side is inexorably being chilled to numbness, along with much of the leeward side of my arse.
My nose is keeping up a consistent drip, a rivulet of watery snot coating my upper lip. Eyes get in on the game too, and my mouth is pulled into what would be described as a “horrible rictus”. I try and remember to make it a smiley one. Apparently that makes suffering easier. “Oh God, I’m going to die. I can’t bear anymore.” goes me, as I keep going, round and round, soaking up aches and enduring the road hammering up into me, heaving cold air in and out of lungs.
So I was riding like that, pretty typical, and it was one of the truly cold days of January, there’s been a light dusting of fine, very dry snow, which ran along the ground beside me in the tailwind. The sun was low and doing that sublime winter thing where the air is iridescent, like it could almost be the arctic. This was around Tempelhofer Feld, the old airport in central Berlin, now a vast parkland. It was empty. I’d seen a couple of runners, and that was it. A 6.6km loop in almost 3 square kilometres in the middle of a city, empty. And I thought, “I should write about cold weather training and suffering and endurance.” Then it warmed up and we didn’t have much of a winter until this last week.
Winter in Berlin is broken compared to when I first arrived, almost a decade ago.
Below -5° extra layers offer diminishing comfort, especially if there’s wind raking the numbers even lower. Air feels like cold liquid. Effort doesn’t generate heat that makes it to the surface or extremities. During 90 minutes of riding, once the initial warm-up buffers against the cold, it’s a slow leeching of heat, sense, motors skills, thinking. My legs feel naked, my cheeks raw. The airport field empties somewhere around -5° also. A handful of runners, some uncomfortable commuters grinding towards heat death, if it’s sunny, one or two huddled out of the wind, sucking in what little warmth can be felt. The sun hangs low and weak above the horizon, far away. The air soaks up all its heat, passes none on.
I can feel my body locking into position, I try and shift more, get on the drops, get a little more aerodynamic, more forward and back on the saddle, occasionally stand up to shake some fatigue from my legs. All the while, nose goes drip, drip, drip. It’s a race between hypothermia and getting the laps in. Pretty bloody stupid.
Today, -6° and 25km/h wind flowing Finland and the Baltic, I tried to think into words the experience of getting through a session of this. Already I forget what it’s like. I remember arriving home, fingers and thoughts slushy and slow, getting into the shower to recover, after-care, kind of like a BDSM session, the very not pleasant ache of blood returning to the surface, and how cold, like cuts of meat from a butcher’s coldstore, my thighs and arse were.
There’s a training measurement called Functional Threshold Power, which you find by hammering as utterly hard as you can for a full hour. There’s a shorter, 20 minute version which gives a more-or-less similar number, but somehow doesn’t conjure the grotesque horror of laying yourself out for 60 minutes. Even backing off for 10 seconds is enough for some recovery, and it becomes not so much a physical limit, as a mental one of meeting “Please stop!” with “Just one more.” for each pedal stroke and each breath, each inhale and exhale, and doing that for each minute and all those seconds. And that’s not to diminish the physical wretchedness, gasping like a walrus, feeling blood draining through legs, everything going jelly. I’ve never done the FTP test, mainly because it terrifies me, mentally I’m not sure I could remain so utterly consistent for a full hour. I might like suffering, but I only play in the shallows.
Back to the cold, then. Probably also playing. Like the heat, you can’t really train for cold. You can understand how one’s body and person responds to and behaves in decreasing temperature, build a familiarity, but actually train for it like training for hill climbing or cobblestone riding or riding muddy off-cambers? It’s like the death zone in mountaineering, over around 8000 metres where there’s insufficient oxygen to keep you alive. Once you’re in there, you’re dying, it’s just physiology and the day that determines how quick. Too hot or too cold, same thing, your body is shutting down.
I want to veer off into pleasure here. Thinking about where I scrape out grains of pleasure and ecstasy in my life. This suffering is pleasure. During and after. Each pedal stroke, one after the other, I find a way with enduring, persevering with discomfort. It becomes only me, my breathing, the cold and wet. I become untouchable. When I was a dance student, and in the years immediately after, I was trained in the ceaseless analysis of self dancing, like picking a scab. Climbing was an escape from this. I never asked questions too close to the ones dance worries incessantly: Why do I do this? How do I do this? Perhaps now I’m stronger in myself resisting questions like these. Not all acts must be subject to dissection and justification — but having maybe a certitude or confidence in doing these things without converting to language why or how — or even considering these questions relevant, I can think about what happens when I subject myself to discomfort.
Finding language then, for things I don’t contemplate or consider in words. Finding a language of pleasure, of which ecstasy is part of the terrain, when as a life lived, there is little in the way of conventional pleasure.
 I started thinking about writing cold weather training a year ago, February 2nd, 2017. A year later, February 25th and 26th, just before I went to Australia, when winter turned on some proper brutal weeks, I wrote most of this. I’d planned to write more, edit it a bit, something, things which didn’t happen. Now it’s July 21st, the middle of one of the hottest and driest summers in Europe on record, Berlin has been having weeks on and off of 30°+ days, I find it strange to think of and remember that particular day in February in this heat. I’ve been training a lot since the start of May, it’s become, or becoming something of an artwork (like my blog is a life project), one of the solo endurance performances I’ve been thinking around. I wanted to write about those, so it makes sense to start with this, if for no other reason than keeping my notes in order.
I’ve landed this one so many times. From sun and warmth and Naarm to grey and cold and Berlin — You talking about the taxi drivers, Frances? I’m talking about the … never mind.
My glorious Fulcrum Racing 5 CX wheels needed the front wheel’s cones tightened. Break out cone spanners and all the usual mess for a hub-gutting. But, no! All I need is a 2.5mm hex key to spin the pre-load ring tighter. Could probably be done without even removing the wheel. Out-farking-standing.