The National Cycle Collection in Llandrindod Wells is housed in the Automobile Palace, a 1909 car showroom converted into offices and a display area for bikes. The eclectic collection contains examples of the earliest two wheeled hobby horses, penny farthings, early “safety bicycles” and classic steel racing bikes before entering the modern era with one of Chris Boardman’s carbon Lotus bikes and Bruce Bursford’s Ultimate record breaking bike. In additon to the bikes on show, there are wall displays and cabinets crammed with cycling history.
Realisation took a while to arrive but it occurred to me one day that I may be disabled. The circumstances of my life crept up on me so insidiously that I didn’t even know what I was. I mean am. Two and a half years ago I was an active woman leading an average life and doing normal stuff like going to work, doing the housework, walking the dogs. My only problem was a slightly vunerable back resulting from two episodes of nerve compression from disc herniation and a subsequent lumber spine surgery. Then one day my spine gave up on me again, and the real nightmare began.
It began with electric pain in my lumber spine , fire down the outside of my right leg, a limp and a walking stick. Two and a half years later the pain has spread to my pelvis, the front of my right leg, further into my right foot and it’s making rapid progress down my left leg. In fact it reached my left foot last night. The episodes of weakness in my right leg have reached the point where I use crutches to walk up the garden, I need a wheelchair to go shopping, grab rails to safely get in and out of the shower and a rail to help me get out of bed. My morphine usage has escalated and I’ve been trialling Gabapentin and Amytriptyline in dosages used for neuropathic pain. TENS doesn’t work for me. Specific exercises do help and I do these exercises with obsessive zeal. I practice activity pacing, I’m highly self aware of my body, I’m careful about what I eat to maintain good health and I’ve lost a lot of weight. I’m doing everything I’m supposed to do to help myself and I continue my bloody minded fight to stay fit.
The severity does vary from day to day, hour to hour and even minute to minute, but the trajectory of my condition has been generally downhill. Then I had an epiphany, “I’ve become a disabled person. How the **** did that happen? I don’t remember having a dramatic accident or waking up in hospital after an illness. My GP and past consultants don’t seem to be the slightest bit concerned. Am I missing something here?” It’s not as if you’re given a booklet entitled “Welcome to Disability” to mark the transition of life from “able bodied” to “disabled”. It was around this time that a new friend, also in chronic pain, directed me to the BBC Ouch! podcast. I felt like a fraud, an outsider, when I first listened to it. I’d already taken some time to come to terms with the wheelchair because I felt such a phoney. I’m not paraplegic. I’m not an amputee. I have terrible pain and my right leg has an annoying habit of going on strike, but does that give me the right to use a wheelchair and to identify myself with the label “disabled”? When a medical condition is slowly progressive, at what point does a person become “disabled”? Can I now use the politically incorrect but reclaimed term “crip”, because I am one?
I was recently listening to a Radio 4 comedy programme about people’s attitudes towards the wheelchair and wheelchair users. The presenter addressed the issue of the correct terminology surrounding disability and told a story in which he asked a wheelchair user what term she uses to describe the “able bodied”. Her reply struck me as being almost unbearably true, she called them the “not yet disabled’. On that disconcerting note, it’s time to finish this blog post.
I know you’re speaking to me, but I can’t hear you. I know the flames are searing my skin, the lightening bolt is twisting my sinews, but you carry on talking as if everything is normal as a knife penetrates to my hip. “How do you look so well?” she asks me, when you’re [supposed] to be in so much pain. “A good sense of humour and factor 50 sunblock”, I facetiously reply.
The Truth. Because I’ve learnt to be a great actress. There should be a chronic pain Oscar for the best fake look of serenity, the most convincing insincere look of interest and most misleadingly deceptive smile. Acting this much is exhausting. I’m so tired.
Why? Because if you know the truth, I’ll have to observe your expression of embarrased horror. Because I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable and avoid me. Because you can’t handle the truth of my suffering. Becaue you’re afraid of what you can’t understand. But most of all, because I don’t want your pity.
Today is a special day. A milestone. Exactly ten years ago today I adopted Murphy from a dog rescue centre. He was about 20 months old, nervous, slightly underweight and infested with fleas and ticks. It was a Saturday and I was looking for a small smooth haired dog, but as soon as I saw large shaggy Murphy (his original name) I knew I’d be taking him home with me.
The man who owned this small independent shelter, quite literally in the garden of his home, was concerned I wouldn’t be able to cope with Murphy. He was very strong (still is), hardly trained and had spent most of his young life roaming free across a housing estate and fending for himself, but I was willing to take on the challenge and I’ve never regretted that decision.
Murphy was a troubled dog ten years ago, and I had to learn how to help him. He was petrified of fireworks to the extent that I had to literally hug him until they stopped. I remember the first time he saw me taking the belt off my jeans to put them in the washing machine, he immediately cowered down in terror as if bracing himself for a violent beating. The same thing happened the first time I took him for a walk in the country and picked up a stick to throw, he cowered and wimpered, then ran away. Other incidents at home would send him into a disturbing flashback where he would dart for cover under a table and his wide eyes filled with blank fear as if he couldn’t see or hear me. It’s hard to believe now because everyone who knows him encounters a confident, happy, mischievous but above all loving dog.
I gave Murphy all the patience, care and love I could when he needed me, even though I wasn’t an ideal dog owner and had a lot to learn. I took him to dog (and owner) training classes, paid the bills when he tried to eat my car and collected him from the police station when he ran away. Gradually, he settled down, put his terrible past behind him and when I became a chronic pain patient he rewarded me by becoming my emotional assistance dog. Dogs, like humans, respond to love. He’s a treasure, as is my other younger rescue dog and today they’ve celebrated with a lunch of fat juicy cooked sausages.
Happy anniversary Murphy.
It’s July 2010 and nearly 200 riders are moving at speed along a French Alpine road under a burning sun. Their speed is even more surprising considering they’ve already ridden from Morzine, over the Col de la Colombière (catégorie 1), Col des Aravis (catégorie 2) and Col des Saisies (catégorie 1) and are about to ride over the mighty Col de la Madeleine (hors catégorie) and down to the finish town of Saint Jean de Maurienne, a total distance of 204km. The Col de la Madeleine is the longest climb on this year’s Tour de France. A twelve man breakaway including the veteran Jens Voigt and Jerome Pineau (King of the Mountains) has more than 6 minutes lead over the main peloton as it hits the lower slopes of the Madeleine. The bunch containing the main contenders has reached the climb and after only a few kilometres Vinokourov of Astana launches one of his signature solo attacks.
The breakaway is starting to crumble, but now Astana are on the front of the peloton driving up the pace. Armstrong, the comeback man, is out of contention following his misfortune on the stage to Avoriaz. Cadels Evans in the Maillot Jaune, riding with a fractured elbow, cracks and falls behind. Now Tirralongo of Astana takes the front and pulls his team leader Contador with his rival Andy Schleck away from the others. Has Vino fallen back? Schleck attacks and only Contador can answer, they duel for a while before slowing, watching each other like track sprinters, giving the climber Sammi Sanchez an opportunity to ride up to them. Then Schleck and Contador resume their attacks with inhuman surges of speed on this hostile gradient. Sanchez is dropped again, but his orange jersey remains in view. The two rivals are closing the gap on the remnants of the breakaway, collecting and riding behind Jens Voigt for a while, fighting on the front with his familiar expression of gritted teeth.
Anthony Charteau crosses the summit first, sprinting across the line with the remnants of the breakaway trailing behind him. The Jens express approaches the summit. Contador attacks, Schleck is still locked onto his wheel but the exhausted Voight is dropped, his job done. The rivals work together again, the crowds are yelling, waving flags, running alongside, jumping out. Schleck edges ahead as they cross the line and begin the descent to the finish town. Next is Sammi Sanchez, reaching the summit alone…….
It’s September 2011 and a fine day with little or no breeze. I begin my 25km ascent of the Col de la Madeleine from a lay-by just above La Coulée where my husband is going to wait for me. The climbing begins in earnest. I’ve referred to hairpins many times in my cycling posts because they are a significant part of driving or cycling in the Alps, so repitition is difficult to avoid. I suppose I could save time with a formula.
The Col de la Madeleine = the hairpins of the Col du Petit St Bernard from Pre Saint + the Col de la Colombière from Scionzier + the last few kilometres of the Col de Joux Plane.
But that still doesn’t really do it justice because it has its own unique character. The road feels authentically rural, narrow and quiet, used more by locals than tourists. The houses and villages look genuinely lived in for most of the year, unlike the pristine recently built wooden holiday homes of the wealthy. The woodland of the steep lower slopes feels wilder, the moorland of the summit feels more vast, exposed and windswept. Or perhaps I’m romanticising the experience but that doesn’t change the fact that the first few kilometres are covered by a series of hairpins (around 8 – 10%) through a forest and the sides of the road fall away vertically. It’s hot again, around 25 – 28 degrees celsius and even with the tree shade my first bottle is down to a third full after only 6 kilometres.
The trees start to thin and small meadows begin to appear falling steeply away from the side of the road. There are green metal barriers but some sections are missing and the gaps have been optimistically filled with thin green nylon string. I pause for a moment to take a photo thinking the road has flattened out but when I try to set off again I realise the road is still going uphill and fight to get momentum. The illusion occurs because I’ve been climbing so steeply for so long, turning this section of road into a faux flat.
Another kilometre or two and the road really does flatten out allowing me to approach a left hand bend on a bridge at freewheeling speed. The air is cooled by a fast stream to my right. I pass through a series of tiny faded villages: La Thuile, Celliers and Celliers Dessus, then leave the lush meadow behind, the cow bells fade into the distance and I climb a long road through rough moorland. There’s about 8km to go, the gradient is back up to 8% and more. I hardly have half a bottle of water left so I’ve had to start rationing my intake to a meagre sip every well spaced bend of the road. It’s tough going and I’m reminded of David Millar’s ordeal on this mountain in 2010. He was suffering from injuries sustained in the crash marred early stages of that year’s Tour de France and struggled alone over every climb of stage 9, desperately fighting to arrive in the finsh town before the time cut off. I imagined what he must have felt like when he reached this stretch of tarmac I was now dragging myself up. He was the last rider to finish the stage that day. He could have climbed off, but had the strength of character to finish and start again the next day.
I feel so isolated and alone up here that I’m actually relieved when I hear a car driving up behind me. It moves out to overtake me, allowing me plenty of space. It’s a Saxobank team car and somehow my pace quickens. I have around 4km to go to the summit and I see another cyclist ahead of me, the first one so far today, but he disappears around a bend and I look in vain to see where the road comes out high above me. I put my head down and concentrate on the next few metres in front of me and keep going that way to the top.
The best way to describe the summit of the Col de la Madeleine is “bleak”. There’s a large gravel car park to my left with a few cars including the Saxobank team car and a white Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder. I roll on and as I approach the sign some British cyclists sitting outside the bar opposite cheer me on. I place my bike against the sign and limp across the road to take a photo. One of the Brits offers to take a photo with me in it and asks the usual question about how I’ve managed to hurt myself during the ride. I thank him and briefly make conversation asking which other climbs he and his friends have ridden when we’re interrupted by the arrival of a trio of Austrian motorcycle tourists on BMW GS1200s. Since the “Long Way Round” there’s been a proliferation of BMW GS bikes with full matching luggage and full matching BMW Motorrad riding suits and helmets with the flip up chins. No wonder the German economy is the strongest in Europe.
One of them becomes impatient because he wants his friend to take his picture and I’m not moving quickly enough for him, so he pulls his bike up beside the sign so close to me the transverse engine nearly burns my leg. I complete the task of pulling up my arm warmers and make ready to move. He moves forward a couple of metres and it’s clear he’s being rude in German and laughing lewdly because his pillion partner seems to be chiding him. My holiday reading has been “Slaying the Badger” by Richard Moore and I’ve read enough of it to be thinking “Bernard Hinault wouldn’t tolerate this crap. Le Blaireau would have yanked this idiot’s helmet off and punched his lights out”. I mean, all this guy has done is twist his wrist, whereas I’ve cycled up this hors catégorie climb under my own power.
I escape the Teutonic invasion and roll over to the car park for a quick photo of the Saxobank car. The driver is outside having just finished a mobile conversation and feeling the need to be polite I try to ask in my extremely poor and broken French if he minds me taking a photo. He doesn’t mind but attemps to converse with me in French, he seems to remember passing me on the climb, and says “chapeau”. My first chapeau. Whoever he is, he’s made my day. As we part I say “au revoir” and he replies “bon courage”. I think I may have earned it.
Col de la Madeleine (2000m)
24.85km (15.44 miles) with 1700m (5576ft) of ascent with 157m (515ft) descent
My riding time from the car to the summit was 2 hrs 8 min 33 secs. This climb has been used in the Tour de France 23 times from 1969 to 2010. Professional racing cyclists complete this climb in around 1 hour 10 minutes.