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

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)!