The Will to Power! Book Review: Its Not About The Bike

Fearghal

I’ve just finished reading “Its Not About The Bike” by Lance Armstrong. The world and its mother has been telling me to read it or assuming I’d already read it ever since I started this cycling thing.

So when I was home, and I saw a copy sitting on the coffee table in a friend’s house, with no bookmark or turned down pages, and luckily Daz had just finished it.

The book charts Lance’s journey from a self proclaimed child prodigy to successful young athlete, cancer sufferer/survivor, to Tour de France winner and all round american hero.

Its not about the bike is written in roughly three sections. It opens with a plain narrative, telling of Lance’s wins and  conquests up until the the day he gets the news that he has testicular and lung cancer and his world of security and success falls away.

Then he talks the reader through his bitter fight with cancer. Holding nothing back. He describes how the news reduced him. He describes the fear he carried throughout the ordeal of the imminent reality that he may not survive. or that he may never cycle again. He describes his feelings as he slips from powerful world champion to anemic patient with a three percent chance of staying alive. He describes this battle in candid detail, and explains his hair loss, the nauseating symptoms and his chemotherapy.

The final section charts his grind back to health, and his fight to regain motivation and purpose. Then he eloquently recounts his heroic Tour De France win which is so inspirational it deserves the rocky theme as a backing track.

What I found particularly interesting was, and its not clear whether this is deliberate or not, each of the three sections was written in a different tone. The  first in the tone of a strong, cocky and arrogant jock with the world at his feet. Then his tone changes to one of candor, humility and vulnerability of a bald cancer patient as he recounts his raw and scarring ordeal. He describes his climb back to health and the grind to the top of professional cycling against all odds in the third section with a mature, philosophical air.

I disliked Lance the jock, and found his writing dry and dull. I would have put the book down three chapters in were it not for the high recommendations of my friends. I wanted to finish the book and then slate its arrogant and dull author. But, then the tone changed and the story became human, once he learns of his fate, and the narrative is stripped down, honest and powerful from there on in. As, the complex experiences other than success and winning call on Armstrong to reach for a thesaurus to accurately describe them.

There’s something to be learned from Lance’s story, amid the popular  “can do”, “never give up” sound bytes there’s two subtle and elegant messages. Even the strongest “winners” are vulnerable. And, all experience is valuable, both the positive and the negative. As yer man Nietzsche said “what ever doesn’t kill us will just make us stronger”. Cancer didn’t kill Armstrong and definitely made him stronger, and it would also seem, wiser and humbler and more appreciative of his life. Life’s much more than standing on a podium, or sitting on a swinging chair in a big office and driving a silly SUV to a good post code every night.

Indeed, Its not about the bike, but being able to appreciate how fortunate you are to be riding it. 

This Post was scheduled before we entered XinJiang Province. Find out why here

Thoughts about travel on a train

Dawn view from Tent

Fearghal

These are thoughts from my diary entry written in the early morning on the train from Shanghai to Lanzhou. If you find them a bit deep and rambling, they are published verbatim without being edited as a blog post, don’t worry normal service will resume soon : ) If you haven’t read this blog for a while find out why I was returning from Dublin here.

I studied French for one year at college. I made the mistake of choosing advanced French, relishing the challenge of biting off more than  I could chew after 7 years in the intellectual doldrums working in the food an wine industry. Unfortunately, it was a bridge too far and despite my extensive culinary and viniferous lexicon I was befuddled by the high demands for appropriate syntax and Grammar, regularly scoring zeros in the weekly verb tests, confounded by past anterior, pluperfect, and future conditional. That summer I was relieved to discover I was dyslexic, rather than retarded, and decided that perhaps languages weren’t my forte, so moved on to academic pastures new. 

That year wasn’t a total waste, aside from the dry mechanics of the language I learned alot about french culture and Philosophy. I also got a kick out of learning new words for familiar feelings and occurrences. The french seem to have specific words for the oddest of things, and with an outsiders perspective learning a new word, illuminates the familiar.

One word that sticks in my mind is dépaysement which I think literally translated means de-countrified- although given the opening paragraph I’ll be forgiven for not being 100% certain- ant franco phonistes reading feel free to correct.

Still the sentiment of this piece still holds true if it doesn’t so please, read on. In English it roughly means culture shock. To me it suggests the feeling of having the cultural rug pulled from under you, to be spat into a new milieu, and assaulted with unfamiliar visual, aural, oral and olfactory sensations.

Modern travel is great at delivering a grand dose of dépaysement, with metal tubes either airborne, mounted on rails, or following roads, sucking you up in one part of the world, holding you in a static environment where temperature and light and surfaces are constant, then spitting you out in a different place in no time at all. It can be a place with a different climate, landscape and culture. And the journey, with its sudden jarring from start place to end, with no gradation, does little to prepare for the change. Thus you are, until you adjust your thinking- until you tell your mind and body not to expect the sensations from the place where you came, and that the sensations of where you are now are normal- in a liminal place-less place- shocked from the new and strange, decountrified briefly.

Cycling with its gradual slow pace, and intimate contact with the between bits from start to end place doesn’t deliver such drastic shocks, nor serve up a shocking de-countrified experience. On the contrary, moving at the speed of life in constant contact with the worlds you pass through, the cyclist can often miss big changes, coming as they do in gradation.

So, here i find myself on a high speed train heading to central China from the coast. yesterday i was in Shanghai 2,000km South East, the day before Dublin. It took me ten months to cycle this far on bicycle. Two days by  modern  transport. When I arrived in Lanzhou the first time, I complained about the homogeneity of China of its unchanging, dull landscape. However, travelling by train at 150km an hour, I can see it changing rapidly outside my window. I notice the landscape morphology and its natural form change dramatically.

The tight texture of Shanghai, compact newly built grey apartments and factories, highways and power lines, gave way to dense humid pastoral lands, thickly foliaged with peach trees, and rice paddies. then Night fell. In the morning I woke to steep, sharply walled granite river valleys with clear rushing streams and polished rocks. Then the plains around Xi’an rolled past, open and vast planted with corn an rice. Mountains then loomed, grass covered hills at first, then grass covered towering mountains ,then sandy terraces covering crumbling hillsides, with muddy wide rivers flowing slowly in at their bases.

It strikes me that I haven’t been paying attention, in my career as a cyclist I have not been following due diligence. Its not like I have much else to do, cycle and look around, in my working day. I didn’t notice things spreading out as distances between towns stretched and the country side became less populated. Well, its not that i didn’t notice, more that I wasn’t excited by it, it didn’t make me purr like it did originally or its doing now.

So, how does one travel slowly and still and retain the ability to be de-countrified? In today’s world of on demand and short attention span, is it possible to stay bewitched for long? Is it possible to retain the fascination with the strange and new, or am I culturally programmed to need constant spectical and stimulus to stay amused and interested?

 

This Post was scheduled before we entered XinJiang Province. Find out why here

Living Landscape

Fearghal Cycling to Campspot

Fearghal

I was rifling through my stuff when I was home and I came across my final year dissertation from college. It examined “the landscape phenomenology of cycling in Cork”- which basically meant that I got to have fun cycling around cork taking arty shots with my camera and talking into a dictaphone and thinking about philosophy, not to different from what I’m doing now… great.

I had forgotten about the opening piece, an extract from Bob Geldolf’s book; “Geldolf in Africa”.  In it, Geldolf recounts an experience he had with his Bedouin guide who speaks of how in the desert, or any landscape devoid of regular visual stimulus the other senses play a important role in feeling place.   

“My Father was blind.” Bouj casually dropped into the huge silence of the universe. I considered this. How was this possible? How could he take vast herds of camels and people across the featureless void? “He smelled the wind. He tasted the sand.” Was he joking? Was this some stunt by the Saharan Tourist Board or something? 

“One time he took people 400 kilometres across the desert to a small village in Mauritania where he had never been before” How?

“He asked people the way” Ah, yes the wisdom of the Ancients!

“He asked them which direction the wind blew from. Where the wind passed through on its way so that he could smell it and knew the direction of the sand and dunes and he could feel them. He asked people the position of the stars each night. There is nothing to see here anyway; he did not lose anything by being blind and in his mind he knew where he was. Where he needed to go. He could feel it He was a guide.” 

He tasted the sand? Does sand taste? “Oh, yes. He could taste the minerals and the salt and the different roots or bush. He had asked the old people what he could expect to find on his route and they had told him so he looked for that taste!” 

One night the caravan had stopped. My father was asking the men the position of the stars. They knew he would next pick up some sand to taste. But they had played a joke. They had carried some sand from the last place they had camped and silently scattered the old sand around my father’s feet so that he would bend down and pick up the old sand from the other place. When my father tasted it, he paused, stooped again, tasted again. Then he said. “WE have just spent a long time going nowhere gentlemen. Let us continue in the same direction.” Everybody laughed. They could not fool my father. He was a great guide.”

Bouj laughed at the memory, the sound filling the silent, empty, glowing night. The flint-grey eyes stared out at the nothingness that for him was filled to the brim with everything.”

If you liked this you might also find this, or this of interest.

This Post was scheduled before we entered XinJiang Province. Find out why here

Wake up Call

Fearghal

Juiqun-China

It all was going too well. I had arrived in Jiuquan the final city decent sized city before going under the radar in Xinjiang. En-route, rolling nicely over some moderate passes, had the cheeks (on my face) stung by some torrential rain in a thunder storm, and crossed some minor desert. With almost 800km covered it wasn’t a bad six days I was feeling very much back in the groove.

I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, my knee is feeling better than it ever has, cheers Tarja, and I’d put in two 140kmplus days with ease. Knowing that I could push a little without worrying about my knee is a huge weight off my mind.  I was planning to sort some visa stuff and admin over the next few days in my last bit of civilisation then break for Urumqi, 1,200km northwest. I managed to find a nice and more importantly cheap hotel. It was the first one I’ve come across in China with English Channels, and Godfather 1 was on. Brilliant.

2 hours into the epic, a few beers down, I was in a faint doze-like state. Enjoying the creature comforts, of a TV in English and a few kit kats in the belly, when there was an imperative rap on the door. After throwing on some pants I opened it and six stern police person’s barged in shining torches in my face and barking in Chinese.

What the F&*K!

I was told to sit down, and quizzed about every detail on my passport and what I was doing in China. What was my job? What did I think of China? Where was I going? Where had I been?  After about half an hour of sweaty palm wringing, as my interrogator waved his torch in my face while I answered his questions as politely as I could, I wanted to tell them all to get the F%^k out of my room so I could watch the rest of The Godfather, the mood changed. And the interrogation turned into an informal chat.

I was offered a cigarette, and I showed them my bike and proposed route on my map which they got quite enthused about. Eventually, they told me that the six of them were in my room, scaring the s$#t out of me, rifling through my stuff, and shining a torch in my face because I had checked into a non touristic hotel, and I’d have to move, to a more expensive one, in the morning. And off they went, wagging their flashlights behind them.

I was woken at dawn this morning and escorted to my new lodgings, three times the price of my original hotel, 150 yuan(15euro). This is way too expensive to spend more than a night in, so I’m off tomorrow, leaving a trail of unfinished admin, and half finfished visa applications.

Grrrrr, fecking bureaucracy.         

  

Heads or Tails

Si

Simon

China

“We’ve got a headwind, so you must have a  tail wind”

This is a comment we regularly get from cyclists who are coming in the other direction, and in many cases, we hear it when we reckon we’ve been slogging into a headwind too. In most places, wind changes direction throughout the day, and due to topography, not to mention the road changing direction. Wind rarely helps the cyclist, unless it’s coming directly from the rear, or within 45degrees or so. If it comes from either the front or the sides, it slows you down. The only time I’m glad of a headwind is when it’s really hot, and so a cooling gust becomes a welcome break.

Another misunderstood fact about cycling is that cycling in hills is quite a bit slower than cycling on the flat. Many people reckon that you make up the time on the downhills but typically this is not the case. I was thinking about this the other day, getting back to my secondary school maths, which I’m ashamed to say, I quite enjoyed. So lets take a simple problem to show this:

Say we take a 20km stretch of road and we compare the time taken if it’s flat and if it’s hilly. I’m going to round the figures here to make it simple.

First, lets say that on the flat you do 20km/hr, then the section of road will take 1 hour to cycle.

Now lets put in a hill with a 10km uphill and 10km downhill. Then lets say you do 10km/hr on the uphill and 40km/hr on the downhill. That means it will take 1hour for the uphill and 1/4 hour for the downhill, making the total 1 1/4 hours in total.  This is made even worse on on really steep hills, or on bumpy, unpaved roads as it’s more difficult to make up the time on the downhills.

Now that we’re on the subject of numbers, I may as well give you some of our stats that some readers have asked us to include:

Farthest cycled in a day: 212.km (Northern Desert, Peru)

Shortest cycled in a day: 60km (Near the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia)

Average cycled in a day: 110km (The Andes really slowed us down!)

Highest speed: 73.4km/hr (Peru)

Slowest speed: 4.7km/hr (Climbing in Bolivia)

Average speed: 21km/hr (Again, the Andes really slowed us down!)

Highest altitude on bike: 4500m (Bolivia)

Total distance since Ireland: 12900km

P.S. If anyone has any other questions or subjects you’d like us to include, pease ask in the comments box below, thanks!

The Magic Horn

Forbid the Vehicle to Drive in Wrong Direction

Simon

China

I am currently suffering from road rage! I am not usually easy to wind up and I’m typically pretty chilled, but of late, I cant help myself from shouting and cursing while in the saddle. I have even made up new strings of swear words (which can’t possibly be repeated here), after exhausting my supply in South America.

Why, you might ask? Well, basically it’s due to the terrible Chinese driving and excessive use of their horn (you might even say that the Chinese are very Horny). It reminds me of the Father Ted episode, when Dougal can’t wait to use his “magic sponge” in the “All Priests Over-75s Five-a-Side Football Challenge” and reckons that it can sort out everything, much like the Chinese and their horns. It seems that the horn will cure all sorts of driving ailments, such as….

If you’re overtaking in a tunnel and there’s a car in your way  

beep your horn.

If you’re driving on the wrong side of a motorway

beep your horn.

If there’s a fallen tree in your way

beep your horn.

If you’re passing an Irish cyclist

beep your horn.

While passing the cyclist, it is best to wait until the last possible moment, then beep it for as long, loud and hard as possible, as if you’re about to plough into his backside. That’ll really scare the sh*t out of him! It seems that Al agrees with me about the dodgy Chinese driving, I loved his how-to blog, which from what I can tell, has been incorporated into the Chinese drivers manual:

It is easy to drive Chinese-style; indeed you could even try it out this evening on your way home from work. Here’s how:
1: set out to be as annoying as possible. Bear that in mind at ALL times. Now enjoy some or all of these strategies, either one at a time or simultaneously:
2: meander from lane to lane as your fancy takes you.
3: drive very fast in the slow lane, or very slow in the fast lane.
4: beep your horn at all times, especially when it is completely unnecessary.
5: never use your mirrors.
6: when you have to pull out into traffic, do just that. Pull out into the traffic. Waiting for a gap is for wimps – it is much easier to let the fellow driving at top speed on the highway hoot in panic and swerve wildly out of your way.
7: occasionally drive the wrong way down the carriageway. Get annoyed if people get annoyed at you.
8: when you tire of these games go fetch your flock of sheep and wander with them down the road.
Have fun!

State of Play

Speedofile 12,000km

Fearghal

China-Yong Deng

As regular readers will know we’ve had allot of unforeseen setbacks over the last few weeks. I had to head back to Ireland with two hours notice to attend a funeral, we decided to change our route, then realised that we couldn’t so we went back to the original one, and are now seriously pressed for time with visa’s ticking down.

Si is currently about 1,500km ahead of me in XinJiang province. When I went home I had to apply for a new visa but his kept on ticking so he couldn’t wait around. There’s been a little bit of trouble in that province, specifically its capital Urumqi, though this blog isn’t going to talk about it just in case Magnus Frater happens to be reading, and no that’s not my Norwegian Cousin. Because of this unrest there’s a ban on internet and international phone calls so myself and Si will be incommunicado for six weeks or so, until I get to Kazahkstan. I won’t find out if Si’s made it through safely and gotten his Kazahk and Krygistan visas in the 15 days he’s got left on his Chinese visa until I too, hopefully get to Kazahksatn without a hitch.

So things are getting a bit exciting then!

All going to plan, we’ll catch up with each other in Turkey, where won’t be on a strict visa schedule, before Christmas.

In other news, I’m back on the road 100km north of Lanzhou, after an uneventful easy day through the countryside stopping every 25km to massage and stretch my left leg which I had lots of physio on at home . After a day’s riding I’ll tentatively say that it feels good.