Wheels on Fire: Riding The 2015 Argus

The year did not start well. Having Shingles and suffering a self-imposed quarantine when I was supposed to be training for 3 half marathons, two 10ks, a 100km bike race, seeing all the people in London and prepare for starting a new role was not ideal. I was furious about being ill. I thought I had really been looking after myself, obsessively it would appear, and that’s never any good.

But it was exactly what I needed. A kick up the backside to evaluate what was important – so I gleefully handed out race packs like a belated running Santa, cancelled all my social plans and decided to focus on the cycling and getting my head around a new job.

(Also can we talk about how marvellous it is just to say no? ‘No I can’t come out, because I am sitting in my pants watching Law & Order SVU and eating endless rice cakes. Basically winning’. Saving that for another post)

February saw me hitting Boom Cycle 3-4 times a week to keep up the fitness and also saw the advent of our annual work conference. By the time Feb 26th rolled around I hit Heathrow feeling exhausted and excited. A holiday, a few days catch up with the teams in SA and THE bike race. No biggy.

Now, to be honest, I was under-trained. My fitness levels were good, but I am nervous as all hell. I just hadn’t logged the long miles. But I also knew that the nerves could be a good thing, that additional hit of adrenalin that carries you through and drives you over the tough hills. I know these nerves well. I get them before every running race (even the fun ones), every time I get up on stage to present even though I have been doing it for well over 10 years, and every time I have to have those difficult, but essential conversations. Where there is risk I feel it. Every single time.

There is a school of thought that maintains the body can’t tell the difference between anxiety and excitement on a biological level (you science nerd please feel free to refute this!). Apparently, you release the same chemicals, the same heightened awareness, same surge of energy. It’s how your mind then interprets the feeling that makes it positive or negative. Hit of fear plus rush of endorphins is a pretty powerful cocktail. I have learned that pushing through the fear is essential to making life more open, interesting, full. Without it it’s small and claustrophobic and dull.

But I have also learned I need support to just go ahead and do it. On my own I’m no good. My mind is very frequently not my friend. It’s risk adverse, and lazy and prone to catastrophic thinking. I need people to point out the mad, destructive nonsense I tell myself and remind me its all good. And that if it goes wrong, that’s OK too.

Then this popped up in an article I was reading enroute to Cape Town. Pussy Riot hits the nail on the head. Given this is in relation to being arrested for political activism, and my cycling is hardly revolutionary, but the sentiment is bang on.

IMG_8517 (1)

So its a good job I don’t listen to my head. Because a week after I find myself in South Africa, Mother Nature decides to set fire to the entire Southern Peninsula, and that is no exaggeration. My catastrophic thinking is having a field day. Headlines like, ‘Hellfire Rages in the Cape’ adorn every lamppost in Jo’burg while I’m psyching myself up for my first ever bike race. People are being evacuated, dams are near empty, rock falls are a serious risk given the plant life helps stabilise the mountain side and is now no longer existent. Thankfully the Cape fire volunteers and fire servicemen and women put on the most heroic defence and curbed the blaze in 3 days.

So the race is still on. I am now officially bricking it. However, the Argus distance is cut from 109km to 47km. It’s just not safe to release 35,000 cyclists onto the route that will then cut off all of the southern suburbs in the wake of the most devastating fires in recent memory. Of course I’m gutted, but also ever so slightly relieved, in this scenario I get to test my riding legs on shorter distance. Until I remember it’s with exactly the same amount of people. 35,000 cyclists.

And the panic sets in.

The major difference I have found between cycling and running for me is the logistics. You can’t just chuck your shoes in your bag and head out on the road wherever you are. There’s the BIKE. There’s the helmet, the shoes, the kit you need for the bike for punctures and general maintenance. For this race I rented a bike in CT. Already breaking my cardinal rule of racing – GO WITH WHAT YOU KNOW. And crucially I don’t know this bike. I also don’t know if the bike is even going to show up, as the correspondence I’ve had with the company renting it to me has been patchy. Everyone is more laid back in the Cape. They aren’t all obsessively checking emails every 3 minutes. And swearing about lack of wifi.

Thankfully I get to tell my head to pipe down as the bike does show up and discover it’s ever so slightly too big. I panic again. So much so this time that I draw a complete blank and forget how to get on the damn thing. It takes a good 10minutes for me to get over this sheer terror, but once I do the bike is fine. It’s in hand. I haven’t forgotten how to ride. But how on earth am I going to do this with 35,000 other people?

My head creates these visions on a loop for my viewing pleasure, while trying to sleep: Causing a huge crash because I can’t stop quickly enough, the brakes failing, the wind blowing me off the road and into the sea, the wind blows me into other riders, etc etc and they escalate and get more horrific the less sleep I get. You don’t worry about this stuff when you run. You just stop. You don’t crash. You very rarely get blown off your feet. This whole endeavour begins to feel like a huge mistake that I am wholly unprepared for.

Until my dad, a seasoned veteran of the race and elite cyclist, decides he’s going to give up his elite start time, seeing as the shortened distance won’t count towards his seeding. He’ll cycle with me instead. It will be fun. He says. I think he could see just how panicked I was. ‘Just stick to the left, don’t look behind you and raise your hand high if you need to pull over’ he says when explaining cycle race etiquette. ‘Hold your line, and if someone clips your back wheel just keep going, he’ll fall but you probably won’t’. This talk of wheel clipping is terrifying when you’re in your holding pen with little more than elbow room with other cyclists, all looking like they ride professionally, with jerseys from Dubai and Hong Kong and Italy. And me with my flat pedals, no clips and ashen face, a big ZERO on my race number where is shows completed tours.

We shuffle our bikes forward and hug the left, they start counting down the minutes to start and I find myself feeling a mixture of gratitude that I have made it this far, and fear that I may vomit on the French woman in front of me, ruining her 13th tour. According to the bib. But I am here, in Cape Town, riding the (mini) Argus with my Dad. Something that has been on my bucket list for years. Something I thought would probably stay firmly inked on a list and not manifest itself like this. Me, terrified on a bike that’s too big, surrounded by cyclists and my Dad, having a laugh at my expense, but also there just like he was when he took off the training wheels some 30 years ago.

Of course it we have a total blast. I manage to get on the damn thing for a start. I don’t crash into anyone, no one crashes into me. I hit the hills, test the gears and find myself over taking people. There is some power in the legs after all. We hit the downhills and I slowly relax and take my fingers off the brakes. It really is pretty close to flying. I find some speed on the flats. The wind does not blow me off, in fact it blows me home once we turn around and head back for the finish line. And just like that it’s over.

We finish in 2 hours and 12 minutes, and I feel pretty confident we could have done it in just over 2 if I’d relaxed on the down hills more. I have no idea how that tallies, but gives me a rough idea that I could probably do a sub 4:30 Argus with loads more training and a bike that I am comfortable with. So that’s the next goal (nowhere near my Dad’s best of 2:58… but there’s still time).

I have been well and truly bitten by the biking bug, and with Spring just around the corner back in London, I really have no excuse to get back on the bike there too. Out of my comfort zone. Where all the good stuff happens.

Silly Season Shenanigans

IMG_0192

Christmas is here and we’re all winding down, clearing out desks, or at home cleaning the house and doing a few last minute bits and bobs in preparation for the Day Of Good Eating. I have avoided mass panic so far and am trying to keep it that way. I am Zen. It’s just a day after all. The presents are bought and there is food in the fridge. Done.

I have a complex relationship with Christmas. I like the build up to it, the catch up with friends, the small gifts bought and cards written. I love the decorations and the trees and the fact that generally we all take stock and acknowledge each other, we get a break and we get a chance to recharge.

Growing up in South Africa Christmas also meant the big summer holidays so it was a month of festivities rather than a week. And it varied greatly depending on which part of the family we were spending it with. The huge extended Mills Clan in the Cape or our smaller immediate family in Jo’burg with a host of family friends. As a small child, Christmas in the Cape meant throwing ourselves head first into the sea, followed by the lake, followed by tea, followed by more sea and then dinner with endless cousins to hide in dunes, run up mountains, throw off canoes. We had competitions to see whose feet got the toughest walking down the gravel paths to the sea. Who could leave their flip-flops behind first and run across the stones without yelping. Who could swim across the lake the fastest. Christmas was very simple then. We turned up. There were presents/ the food arrived. We ate it and then went for a swim.

As we hurtled into our teen years, the attraction of the canoes in the lake or sea-shell hunting was replaced by late night beach excursions, smuggling illicit booze, talking about music, meeting boys (that had no connection to the family) and plotting ways to get into town. The traditions and rituals of our childhood were no longer exciting, nativity plays and carol singing holding little sway for a B&H smoking, eye-liner touting city girl who just wanted to go dancing late at night, with new people. Preferably who were DJs and had their own cars. Christmas was about avoiding family at all costs.

Christmas has also always been a season of firsts and milestones. The first time I got drunk was on Christmas night when I was 12. I was trying to impress my older second cousin with my sophistication, all dressed up in early 90s mono-chrome and being allowed ‘a small glass of wine’ which I topped up. Frequently. Like a grown up and out of the eye line of my parents. It was the first time I got busted smoking too. Having managed to skive a fag off the very same older cousin, I had forgotten to lock the bathroom door when my grandmother barged in. Thankfully slightly squiffy herself, she promised not to tell if I quit right there and then. I promptly vomited as soon as she closed the door. Turns out Baileys, wine and sheer terror don’t mix.

My first kiss was at Christmas, playing pool in a hotel with friends and a few local kids. My friend refused to speak to me for the rest of the holiday, kissing boys who didn’t really know was bad form (apparently). All these rules that no-one tells you about until you’re already in hot water. I did not learn this lesson and spent most Christmas holidays from then on kissing inappropriate boys. As most teen girls should.

Moving into adulthood, my first Christmas abroad without my family coincided with a long term relationship break up. A very last minute, cold, west and grey Christmas where a friend very kindly bundled me and my visiting sister off to their family outside of London. Followed quickly by a trip up to Scotland where I sobbed at my aunts’s kitchen table for 3 days, fuelled by Malboroughs, tea and an endless supply of biscuits.

The past few years have been fairly incident free. I’ve written cards signed ‘The Conquests’ and survived the insanity of the season by dressing the dog up as a reindeer. The complex relationship continues, I love the get togethers and the family time, but I find the competitive gifting, and garish over consumption leaves me as queasy. The binge and purge cycle of Christmas followed by the almost mandatory January detox seems so self inflicted and pointless. We’re encouraged to (over) eat, (over) drink, and be (very) merry and within 6 days sent the opposite message that the ‘excess holiday weight’ is hideous and needs to be shifted immediately. We’re bombarded with solutions to help us to clear out, detox, lose weight, quit drink, set goals, and start a New Year as a New You. Because the Old You Is Just Not Good Enough. And it’s so entrenched in our psyche we seem to just blindly walk into it. Its exhausting.

That’s not to say I disagree with over indulging, or that I think goal setting is naff. I love a goal. I also love cheese, on everything pretty much all year round. I have made peace with the fact I’ll put on a few pounds between November and December. But I resent the January onslaught from every corporate company on this planet making us all feel inferior for buying into the over indulgence they sold us just a week prior. Its a trap. And I am opting out.

So this New Year I am proposing not making any major changes at all. Looking back on this year, although its been tough in parts, we’ve managed just fine. We moved house. We saved some money. We travelled. I don’t need a brand new me just yet. I think we’re doing just fine, thank you very much. It is a season of firsts after all.

And I refuse to cut out carbs or cheese.

Happy Holidays all!

1497697_10152118988625309_2116229660_nIMG_0263

Hello & Goodbye

DPC_3618

A week ago today I was booking flights, manically comparing car rental prices and juggling whatsapp, email and facebook to organise the logistics of attending our beloved Granny’s funeral in Johannesburg. Her passing was not unexpected, but as with any loss, it was a huge shock. Surrounding yourself with endless admin is actually a welcome distraction.

When my Grandpa died 3 years ago, her husband of over 60 years, we thought she may be close behind, they were each other’s everything, they came as a pair. But in fact we had another few years to enjoy her company, and although the last time I saw her she was beginning to get a little confused, she could still reel off the names of all of her great-great nieces and nephews at an alarming rate.

For her tribute at the funeral, we all remembered how much our Gran loved children and luckily for her (and for us) our Granny Hazel was blessed with thirteen grandchildren (and six great-grandkids), a fantastic motley crew of sorts. We’re split over 3 continents (Africa, Europe and SE Asia) and there’s twenty years between the eldest  to the youngest so we are all at very different stages in our lives – becoming  parents, building careers, organising weddings or planning university, high school exams or world travel. But we all shared memories of a very happy childhood populated by Gran’s knitted jumpers, lots of hiking and boggle.

I remember one of the first signs of summer was Granny unveiling the annual ‘Betty’s Bay’ haircut that meant business. The silver perm was replaced with a very short almost pixie like cut. No fussing, short and sweet and ready for swimming, hiking and summer. She taught me to stop being self-conscious, to be daring and brave and just jump in feet first. That life would scuff you up, that was the point.  And insisting that it wasn’t a proper hike unless you come back a bit bloodied and bruised.

Going back to Johannesburg last week, being surrounded by family, some of whom we haven’t seen for years was like going back in time. Spring had arrived with the full force of summer, 30 degree heat and spectacular high veld sunsets amplified by the dust left behind from winter. Catching up with cousins, swapping stories, remembering forgotten jokes and going through my Gran’s endless photo albums that documented almost every year of each of our lives, my life in London felt very far away.

My accent softens, my casual South African slang creeps back in, (I’m taking a right at the robots, ya?) and I’m repeating words for impact (are you sure sure?) but it’s like pulling on a long lost favourite pair of jeans. Comfortable, easy. It feels like home, because it is. From the way the water from the taps smells like fresh earth, and not loaded with lime and chemicals to the weaver nests hanging in the tree branches to the smell of cobra polish on the wooden floors. Its driving a little too fast down wide roads with the Coca-Cola sign blinking behind you from Ponte.

image_4image_6image_1

Its the landscape of my childhood. I can drive past the places where I learned to swim, ride a bike, skinned my knees, fell out of trees. Its the backdrop to my teen years, although all of the old clubs have moved or been turned into expensive housing complexes, the high schools are still there. The hole in the wall we could climb through, the shops that would sell us sweets and single B&H cigarettes and the pool halls that wouldn’t ask us for ID. University steps, lilac jacaranda trees in full bloom warning of impending exams (if the city had turned purple and you hadn’t started studying, that was cue that you had left it too late)

photo credit http://www.thejacarandas.co.za/

Ultimately though its the people. The family and friends and shared decades of experiences with the same cultural references and probably the same name. Having been away for coming up on twelve years, I can note the contrast between what has changed, but that often isn’t as astonishing as what has stayed the same. And this week, where we said goodbye to our very beloved Gran, it was amazing to see how much we’re still so connected, even as the new generations spring up and the age gaps between us all widen – it seems to bring us all closer together.

image_8

Wonder Women

1934328_21265075308_5509_n
Cuba 2008 Havanna

I spent last week in New York on a work trip, and while the schedule was packed pretty much from the minute we landed at JFK, we did manage to find a few moments here and there to take in Manhattan. I am a huge fan of the Big Apple.  I am a city girl at heart and New York is by far and away the Big Momma of all mega-urban-metropolises. It’s the backdrop to almost all of my favourite films, it boasts skyscrapers that light up the sky by the hundred, coffee to die for, and food to make any gastronomical critic weep. Other than eating our way through Soho, the highlight for me was catching up with a good friend who has recently moved state-side.

Walking up the High Line on a Thursday evening in mid summer having a good old fashioned gossip I was reminded how lucky I am to have friends scattered all around this world, that arriving in a new city more often than not I can pick up the phone and meet someone. Or at least get a few recommendations from mates who know the globe pretty well. Londoners are well travelled folk and I’m very lucky to count so many of them as friends. And equally that being oceans apart means very little to the relationships I have made and the ones that I have back home in South Africa.

Back in my teens it was near impossible to go without making contact with your mates at least every hour or so. This in the days before social media and mobile phones (imagine) we saw each other in class, while writing letters to the ones that were in the other class, swapping letters at lunch, repeating the process a few times over. We then go home and spend hours hogging the landline until one of our parents picked up the extension and threatened grounding or lack of lifts at the weekend.  One day off school and the fragile alliances could change. A year was like a lifetime. And in a time when your parents didn’t understand you and your siblings were just hopeless, your friends are your family, your therapists, health advisers (all with dodgy consequences) your partners in crime. Which means they were INTENSE. Fights were life threatening, and epic. Political manoeuvring legendary;   why do you think teen movies  are so popular?  All of the drama, less the expensive adult stars, historically accurate costumes or pyrotechnics.

20140722-235906-86346805.jpg
Me, Sandi and Danni aged 16/ 17

 

New friends were made at university due to shared interests as opposed to post code proximity. A few school friends remain, the ones who genuinely rather like to hang around you, rather than needing a brain to help out in double maths, or being the one who knows how to roll a fag or the best way to escape school during free periods. These friends argue with you about de-constructed post modern feminist theory. And music. And help you out with part time work, tutoring, waitressing, internships.

 

Me, Danni and Sandi aged 21/22

 

Post university I left all my friends and family and followed my heart to London. Here new friends are people I meet through work, when at 23 your Tuesday night could be just a raucous as the Saturday night. I meet people out clubbing, through friends of house mates. Friendships in my twenties are defined by booze, banter and boys, while trying to carve out a career – working hard playing harder. Travelling around the world and generally behaving badly. Its a riot and I’m thankful everyday that a huge chunk of it was before the days of Facebook.

 

 

But in this decade, friends start to find their own paths that don’t necessarily join up with yours. Some get married and move outside of the M25 (and are never seen again). Others  leave London altogether  to head back to places like Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Bali, Canada, USA, Dubai and a huge chunk return back to South Africa (in a space of two years about 8 friends relocated). And here I am very grateful for Facebook.

But there are a few that have remained, who travel with you from one transition to the next with or without access to wifi.  I don’t need to see these friends every day, every week or even every year. These are the types of friends that no matter how much time has passed I can pick up a conversation where it left off as if nothing has changed. Except now we’re talking around toddlers, or at train stations, on skype or via social media. Our friendships have survived the trenches of high school, university, marriages, children and all this while thousands of miles away. Thankfully, no heart shaped origami letters in sight.

And if the last ten have been anything to go by, I can’t to see what the next 10 years brings