My friend Bernard is happy. Naturally, given the zero sum nature of contentment in all its forms, this makes me uneasy. As a friend, Bernard is at his most valuable when he’s miserable.
By providing a contrast to my own glass-half-empty outlook, his air of gloom makes me feel a bit better about everything. To be blunt, my friendship with Bernard means I can always honestly describe myself as ‘relatively happy’.
He is happy because he’s enjoying a blast of end-of-season form. To be honest it’s not so much end-of-season as out-of-season, but I don’t think he minds too much. Like a man in an all-you-can-eat buffet at a haggis restaurant, he takes what he can, where he can, and ignores the niggling imperfection of the situation.
I can take some credit. I’m losing fitness as fast as I can. My racing season finished a month ago. And as regular readers will know, I like to take a break from training at this point.
I manfully ignore all the messages that implore me to keep going, sent by people whose love of cycling is such that they feel no one who stops will ever be able to face starting again, and quit.
I like it. I think it’s fantastic to get a grip on the flabby horror that I spend most of the year trying to stave off. I need to get back to training for next season sometime around February. So I’ve only got four months or so to make sure I hit rock bottom. And that I bounce when I get there. And then, hopefully, ripple a little.
As I get worse, Bernard gets better, because he uses me as his yardstick. On hills where I once dropped him easily, I now drop him only quite easily. Bernard is a man whose triumphs have always been small. He can spot the difference between ‘easily’ and ‘quite easily’ a mile off. Though three quarters of a mile would probably be enough now.
It’s clearly unrealistic to reckon I can get to zero instantly. But it’s a case of aggregating my marginal losses. Intermediate targets are important. Right now I’m trying to get to the point where I need the little ring on my ride to the paper shop.
I have to be careful not to test this too often, though, in case I start to get fitter again. As in all sport these days, there is a role for modern technology – I download my newspaper to my iPad.
With luck, and perhaps a bit of illness, I can hit a trough of fitness early in the New Year. I had some lab tests done last January just to see how badly I’d degenerated (honestly, I did). I’m hoping to see some real deterioration in my numbers this time round. As I said back then, I may be in the gutter, but I’m looking at the drain.
Road to ruin
But I still have the approach of an honest athlete. I’ve so far resisted the temptations of unethical practices. Chocolate? Biscuits? A bottle of cheap red with my chips? I won’t.
I’d love to, but I can’t. I worry that once I’d seen the effects of a kilo of lasagne every night on my numbers, I couldn’t manage without. The temptation would always be to try more. As Tom Simpson once said, if it takes ten to kill a man, I’ll take nine.
It’s not just that. There have been riders down the years who lost control of their magic elixirs. I don’t want Bernie to come round for a ride one day and find me dead on the sitting room floor surrounded by syringes of Dairy Milk. He’d be devastated. He’d realise that everything he has gained was down to substance abuse.
How To… manage a doping scandal
Doping scandals in cycling go through a number of clear phases:
1) I didn’t do it.
2) No, really, I didn’t. Your machine must be calibrated wrong. What? A witness? Don’t make me laugh. You shouldn’t listen to that guy. He’s a compulsive liar. He takes drugs, for Chrissakes! And it’s weird, he’s like the only guy who ever did that. None of the rest of us would even know where you get drugs. No, sir.
3) All right, look, I can explain. There was this Spanish steak… why are you laughing? Oh. In that case this phantom twin thing probably doesn’t work either? Give me a moment here.
4) Well. I might have done it a little bit. But Lance/the team doctor/the sponsors/the media/Jesus made me do it. They were mean to me. And everyone else did way, way more drugs than I did. Yes I know I said no one else took drugs either, but what can I say? I lied. I’m a doper, and I already told you that you can’t trust a doper. But the guys who run the sport, well, really they should have stopped me. I mean, they knew what was going on. After all, it was going on in their day too. Nudge, nudge.
5) OK, I took massive quantities of drugs, because I damn well wanted to. It was entirely my own decision. But now I feel so wretched. I’ve let everyone down. I was weak. I’m sorry. I beg you to forgive me. I’m telling the truth this time.
6) Please buy my book.
Acts of Cycling Stupidity
I was sitting in a radio studio a couple of weeks ago, ready to discuss the implications of Lance Armstrong turning out not to have been made from kittens after all.
In my ear I could hear the programme output, when the producer interrupted. ‘Hi, Michael, can you hear me? Yes, we’ve lost our guest for the Andrew Mitchell resigning as chief whip story. That’s about cycling too, sort of, so would you like to give it a go?’
‘It’s not really a cycling story,’ I said, ‘it’s more of a “being an arse” story.’
‘Unless you want to introduce me as a former professional arse who now writes for Arse Weekly magazine, I don’t think it’s really going to work.’