Fallen Star

US football. There’s a scene right at the very start of the movie, The Last Boy Scout, where the running back is rushing, he is about to be tackled, so he pulls out a gun and shoots his would-be tacklers. The point is that the stakes are so high, the guy has blurred the distinction between sport and real-life.

And so it was with the guy I want to talk about today.

When I got into cycling, I was more into doing than watching. I cycled in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Luxembourg, even in Spain. I took my bike with me, wherever I went. But I used to enjoy watching it, too. I watched several Tour of Britain stages, about a half-dozen stages of the world’s leading race, the Tour de France, and visited track cycling events in Belgium.

I was too old, by then, to have idols but one guy stood out above all the others, just for his charisma. You quite naturally wanted him to win.

And win he did! The only time I ever saw him race in the flesh coincided with my very first visit to Le Tour, to see Marco Pantani be crowned the overall race winner, in 1998. Known as Il Pirata, he had already won the Giro (Italy) and here he was, just two months later, winning in Paris too. It was also the first time I went away with Mrs Bump and we stood on the Champs Elysees and cheered. She had no clue about cycling, but was dragged along by the wonderful atmosphere. I had been following the three-week race avidly on TV.

In fact, it was on TV that I watched what I think was Pantani’s greatest win. In 2000, Pantani was forever surrounded in drugs controversy. He had been ejected from one race because of suspicious doping levels (science had not yet caught up with doping), and Pantani generally spent a large amount of time nowhere near his bike. He was considered to be washed-up, eclipsed by the new rising star, Lance Armstrong.

Mont Ventoux is weird. There’s nothing like it. Known just as “the giant”, it is an extinct volcano, down in Provence. It rises, pretty much from sea level, to just shy of 2,000m. Even the professionals, it takes the best part of an hour to climb it, at an average gradient of about 1:8. Very steep, especially considering the distance involved. It’s not the highest mountain, it’s just that it starts so low. It’s a favourite of the Tour. In 2000, ascending Ventoux had come down to a two-horse race, Armstrong versus Pantani. Pantani won, his last big victory. Armstrong, with his eye on the overall title, later said that he had allowed Pantani to win. Only Armstrong knows, but everybody who ever came second could say the same.

Sadly, this was Marco’s last hurrah, and although he raced sporadically until 2003, he never won again. The doping allegations took their toll, he was found guilty of doping by an Italian court – a conviction later quashed, for the simple reason that doping was not yet a crime! The pressure must have been immense, Pantani developed a cocaine habit, and at one point he was admitted to a hospital specialising in the treatment of addictions. In a downward spiral, he was subsequently found dead, from a cocaine overdose in Rimini, on 14 February 2004.

We can look back at Pantani and simply dismiss him as a “doping cheat”, and this was shown years later, in 2013, when the French senate retrospectively tested his samples as part of a larger inquiry into doping. Science, by that time, had caught up. But for me, that doesn’t really matter. All it says is that he was a cheat in an era of cheats. But Marco was the one with the big character, and that will always trump just winning a race. That he came to such a tragic end just adds to his story.

Marco Pantani, 1970-2004

Another Former Hobby

Traditionally, at New Year, I crack open some wine. I used to go over to France a lot and collected a lot of really good wines. I never drank them as quickly as I bought them, so I have several bottles of fine wine just sitting out in the garage.

Now, I’m even less likely to drink – almost every drink is just a really good way of putting sugar in your body. So wine only gets opened a few times per year.

I chose this one because I thought my wife might like it. She’s not a fan of reds, I find whites a little lightweight, so I picked a delicious 2002 rosé from the Chateau Grand Moulin in the Corbières region (Lézignan-Corbières). Over the years, we probably got to know France as well as the UK, but this area was always my favourite. It’s an area we kept going back to and we spent our honeymoon down there.

One of the reasons I like French wine in particular is that it holds so many memories of personal visits, and I picked this one up direct from the producer, in the very building shown in the photo.

The Corbières region is not known as one of the best regions, but this guy has won awards, and this wine was well worth the wait. If you’re ever looking for a good wine…

Fandango’s shdfjlgolggbkvbm (3 June 2020)

For my first time, I’m going to post a single response to two prompts today, both by Fandango. His One Word Challenge (FOWC) prompt is lance, and his Provocative Question prompt, which is:

What is the one thing in life that you are most excited about right now? Why?

My post is valid for FOWC, but it is a cop-out for FPQ. I can’t really think of much that is exciting. I’m sorry. I’m sure the obvious thing is the end of lockdown, but as I posted the other day, I haven’t really felt locked down. I feel my entry into and exit from lockdown has been planned, so exciting is not a word I would use.

I dunno, I tend not to get excited about things these days, because life is pretty same-same. We always used to take our family holidays at this time, before daughter got to secondary school, They were always nice, but the last time I went away anywhere (though fortunately without daughter) was in 2015.

The most excited I ever get these days is with food, and even then it is pretty small-time. I suppose that is because I have to watch what I eat, so tend to eat quite simple stuff. I normally don’t eat ready-meals because I prefer to know exactly what I’m eating, but I did enjoy my shop-bought vegetable tikka masala last night. If I cooked, I’d eat curry every night. But hardly exciting.

Aside from this, I have been thinking about Fandango’s question for fifteen minutes and haven’t come up with anything. So, I guess there’s my answer! If nothing immediately springs to mind, then by definition, it can’t really be exciting, can it?

So today I’ll just post a clip of something I used to find exciting, pre-stroke. I was heavily into my cycling and in fact when I walked away from IT, I became a bicycle mechanic. I would ride hundreds of miles per month, and even though I was way past it myself, I enjoyed watching cycle races. Of the pro cyclists, Marco Pantani was my favourite, and my first trip to see the Tour de France was to see him win on the Champs Élysées in 1998. I visited stages of the Tour maybe another half dozen times, but Pantani declined from that point. He was seemingly permanently embroiled in dope controversies and in fact OD’d, having pretty much walked away from the sport, in 2004. He was, and is, and will always be, my favourite. This clip is Marco’s last hurrah – beating Lance Armstrong on the mighty Mont Ventoux, down in Provence, in 2000.

StrokeSurvivor’s Saturday Flashback

No, it doesn’t quite have the same effect when you lose some of the alliteration, but I suppose it will get by.

But I wanted to post a special flashback today. Not of a post, rather something I used to enjoy. In late November each year, I used to trundle over to Belgium to watch the Six Days track cycling event in Gent (the local Flemish, or Ghent, if you prefer the French name) . That’s Zesdaagse, if you’re in the know! (I know at least one reader will be following me here. Just don’t ask me to say it 🙂).

There used to be tracks all over Europe, and these events were common. Even beyond Europe, there used to be tracks in both Melbourne and Sydney, and there is a cycling event called the Madison, a special form of race, and guess where that was invented? You got it, Madison Square Garden!

I used to love track cycling. It was once very popular up to the middle of last century, but gradually fell out of favour, although a few tracks still survive today. Some new tracks have even sprung up, mainly due to the sport’s exposure in events like the Olympics. Gent is one of the old tracks, and has been staging the 6-day event since 1922. So please enjoy the carnival atmosphere at the Lotto Zesdaagse Vlaanderen in Gent, on this day five years ago.

Maillot Jaune

I wish to pay homage to cycling. At 40, I had a bit of a paunch and decided that I wasn’t getting any younger, so decided not to use the tube, in favour of cycling my two-stops-each-way instead. It took me a few years, but actually that short distance really helped with weight loss. So much that I rapidly dropped clothes sizes.

I reached the point, on a Friday afternoon, when I would miss not riding the bike at weekends. So, I bought a bike to use at home – a road bike, which is constrained to proper roads, but is good for speed and distance. This led to even longer rides still. It was not unusual for me to cover 300km/month – 200 miles? – on my bike. Mostly this was probably no more than a 50km/30mi radius from home, although I also took the bike on the ferry over to France for short breaks, and used to regularly put the bike on the rack when we went on holiday. In that manner, I cycled not just in France but also Luxembourg, Germany, Holland and Belgium. As you might imagine, starting at 40, I was never particularly a brilliant cyclist, but my enthusiasm was there.

I’d always quite liked professional cycle racing, but as somebody who was now a cyclist myself, I took a greater interest. I took days off from work to watch a few Tours of Britain, and even headed over to France a few times to watch Le Tour – I remember one year I flew the whole family out there for a few days so we could see a stage in the Pyrenees (the last time I flew). I loved track racing – passed all the training levels at my local track, Calshot, although they seemed only to want to train people for competition, which never really interested me – but I also went to meetings over in Flanders in Belgium – hallowed turf, the home of the sport. There was definitely something special about standing watching a race from the middle of a cycle track, with thousands of other peoplea a beer in one hand and a sausage in the other. And the professionals get up such a speed – in the region of 50 mph in some races – that each lap of the track is only 25s or so.

It turns out that stroke is a lot like cycling. When climbing a hill, for example, you’ve given your all, you’re running on empty, but there is no alternative other than to keep going. Stopping isn’t really an option, because you know you’ll never get going again. Even over time, you’ll get faster on a climb but you’ll never stop giving 100%. You develop an attitude to keep going – in a large part, it really is a state of mind rather than anything physical. There is no “can’t”, there is only sweat and effort as you “do”.

To a large extent stroke is similar. It can be, anyway. You can say “can’t”, you can spend all day every day in bed, but really, what is the point in doing that? You might as well just say your goodbyes and trot off. Especially somebody like me – the meds I take would do the job nicely, if I took enough of them. But, of course, I keep going. I climb that hill every day, just because that’s my nature. And I do my charity stuff. I’m not sure how much I’m appreciated by stroke survivors – I know I’d have appreciated speaking to someone like me, but equally I know I’m not typical of survivors – but I know my clients at Age UK appreciate my calls.

Plus, of course, in more specific things. You have to walk a half mile to the end of the road. You try and walk it taking eight breaks instead of twelve, say. You try and make each break last one minute instead of five. And all the while, the lactic acid is building and you calves are screaming for you to stop. When I first started walking (and had recovered enough to even get to the road in the first place) it really was getting from one wooden bench to the next, where I could sit and rest. But, you keep going. And you improve, but like any sportsman, you can’t ever get too satisfied, because there is always further to go.

Webcams

One of the things that came out of my last post, the blaze at Notre Dame, was that I wanted to see the cathedral for myself, so went hunting for webcams in France. In my healthy yeays, I used to go over to France a lot, I speak ok french and found a wonderful site with webcams from many places that I’ve known – https://www.viewsurf.com/. One such place was Les Sables d’Olonne, on the Vendée (west) coast of France.

I’m generally quite realistic about my disability these days I but look at those two guys on the bikes and hope they realise just how lucky they are – a few years ago, that would’ve been me (only maybe in July)!

Steady Joe’s

My mum died in early 2012, and my dad followed suit on Christmas Day of the same year. After mum’s death, I was concerned at how long the process of probate was taking, a mix between my reluctance to deal with it, with a solicitor’s uselessness, and the pace at which external things, over which I had no control, worked. When my dad died, I decided that, rather than renew my contract with my clients, I needed to take time out to get everything sorted.

I finally sold me late parents’ house a year later, in January 2014. It was a large three-bed semi, must have been twice as large as my house, and was full to the brim with “stuff”. Once the house was sold, I had money in the bank and followed my love of cycling (doing it as opposed to watching it, although I liked that too). Since I was able, I decided to try my hand at a change of career, and in summer 2014 was training as a bike mechanic (training which I subsequently passed). Dates tend to fade in our memories, but events…..I remember watching the 2014 World Cup final from my hotel bedroon over near the course in Lincolnshire.

Fixing bikes was far harder than IT. I knew even from the training that I was slower than my 20yo compatriots, but I was thorough and did a good job. Do you remember Lance Armstrong? At the time he was being talked of in terms of the “best cyclist of all time”, and he owned a shop in Austin, Tx called Mellow Johnny’s. I guess it is still going, although I don’t know whether Armstrong is still involved. Anyway, what a good name, I thought. So I tried to think of something similar. Steady Joe’s was the best I came up with. I don’t even know anyone called Joe! but it had a ring to it. In my ears, at any rate.

Unfortunately, repairing bikes was far harder than IT, just establishing myself as a business and getting regular clients. Also, most of the money in bike shops is on the sales side, and it was repairing them that interested me.

So, in autumn 2015, I had a long hard think and decided to go back to IT. I was, after all, pretty good. But I wanted to =work closer to home, I didn’t want to spend three hours per day on the train any more. It was slow and took a while, but the UK’s Ordnance Survey (the “official” UK map-maker) is based in Southampton, twenty miles away from me, and I secured an interview with them.

Unfortunately, the day the interview was scheduled, I’d been in hospital three weeks following the stroke. I never even found out that an interview had been scheduled until I went through my emails after I left hospital, in the middle of March 2016. Timing, eh?

It’s funny, because at one of my clients in London, one of the boss-ladies shocked me in a meeting once by saying, “if you see a gap in their CV, it means they’ve been in prison!” and it kind-of haunts me now that that’s exactly how my cv looks! As a consolation, I do have a City & Guilds certificate from the Bike Mechanic course, plus of course I have DBS (criminal record) certificates from the charity work I’ve done since the stroke.Honest!

Cycling

I wanted to use this post to pay homage to cycling. Before my stroke I was a keen amateur cyclist. I never even tried to do anything professionally because I was already nearly 40 when I got into it.

I was overweight and worked in London which meant long hours. It was difficult to see how I could fit exercise into my life. I started off riding a Boris Bike instead of taking the tube. The journey from my station (Waterloo) to my clients was only a couple of miles, but I did this for several years, really skinnied out, and got bitten by the bug. I didn’t use Boris Bikes for long before I started leaving my own bike in London. My own bike had only cost £100 ten years earlier, and had mostly gathered dust in my garage, but it handled far better than a Boris Bike. I used to ride from Monday to Friday, and on Fridays I would park the bike up and not see it again until Monday. This was way before I did any cycling whatever at home, but I began to miss my weekday rides and saved up for a bike to speed around the New Forest.

I shelled out for the first bike, and of course, with that came the lycra and the gadgets. i got one of those GPS bike computers, which meant I could spend hours looking at maps on my laptop, then upload my route to this device. It also recorded my position, speed etc. too. That was probably a bit anal, given that my ability was so limited, but whilst I could never “feel” improvements from ride-to-ride, I could certainly see them by looking at one ride, compared to, say, that same ride the year before. Over this period of time I also progressed from rides of a few miles, to rides of tens and even hundreds of miles.

Plus, as kind-of knock-ons from my cycling, I used to go to watch professional races, and when the money from my parents’ estate allowed me to take a career break, I even trained to be a bike mechanic.

But yeah, I think one of the best times I had was when I got the ferry over to France, and then cycled along the French coast, touring along the way, to one of the other ferry ports to come home. Alone, just me and the bike. All told, I cycled in lots of western Europe – France, of course, but also Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, Luxembourg and even down in Spain. And in terms of watching, I visited several Tour de France stages, ranging from Brittany to the Pyrenees, and watching the climax on the Champs Elysees in between, and was a regular attendee of the Gent Six Days event (track cycling) over in Flanders. I really felt like I was going home, to watch that one, even learned some Flemish!

With the stroke, I’m no longer able to ride (yet) and don’t have the same level of interest in the professionals – it’s not as good when you can’t do it yourself. But actually, stroke life has several parallels with cycling life. In cycling, if you’re climbing a hill, you push yourself to keep going, until you reach the top, you can have a rest at the summit. You feel the lactic acid building up, and your muscles leave you in agony. But you have to keep going – you can stop, of course, but then the hill has defeated you – plus when you get some energy back, you just have to climb the rest of the hill then. So you try and discipline yourself to keep going. Stroke is much the same – you walk (doesn’t need to be a hill any more 😊), and you get tired and the lactic acid builds up in your legs. But you have to keep going, for all those same reasons. You grit your teeth and push yourself forward. You can stop in a moment – fifty more paces, then, if you can manage it, maybe fifty paces more? The secret is to make yourself run on empty, just like with cycling. And you’re that much slower and more laboured, but you get to places in the end. And whilst I don’t capture metrics to the same degree nowadays, I know I can walk a route and, over time, I get quicker – just looking at my wristwatch tells me as much. I mean, I suppose it must be the same with any sport that someone takes seriously – you build an attitude that says you will do something, despite your body (at least initially) tells you that it’s not possible. But you push yourself; you keep going.

That’s stroke.