When a ‘cyclist’ stops cycling, are they even a cyclist? PT.II

This is the second part of my story.

I told you the first part a few weeks ago.

My story takes place over a solitary day, but also the period of a few months, documenting a journey I started a month ago. I want to capture both a day in the life and the way that a wider situation evolves. As such, it has to span a series of blogs, written over a space of time. They’re written quickly and roughly. It helps me explore my mind. I press ‘publish’ then don’t read them again.

Stick with it.

I step off the scales. I’d looked at that all-important yet oh-so meaningless little number in both relief and disgust. Over half a kilo up on this time last week.

500 grams.

It may simply be differences in hydration or muscle glycogen stores. But it’s enough to spark off waves of anxiety. I step off the scales, mind pounding, caught between two voices.

I remind myself why I’m doing all this. I need to gain weight not just for the here and now – to be happy, to live like a normal person, to return to the bike – but for my future. The way I am now is not sustainable. The last few months had proved that. I can’t live the way I’d spent the last six or seven years. There’s more to life than that. 

But I hate the notion of being ‘heavy’. A few months ago, the number I had just seen on the scale would have worried me – I would have freaked out how light I was. But when I suddenly lost a few kilos at the turn of the year, those new ‘super-light’ numbers I was seeing started to become the norm, and now, watching them coming back up to just a ‘very light’ level freaks me out. That sudden loss of weight around the turn of the year marked the finest tipping of the scales, literally and metaphorically. The flip from sort-of sustainable living at 59-60kg to unsustainable living at 57-58kg saw me robbed of everything on the bike, an increase in depression and anxiety, and a cocktail of other physical creaks and cracks.

However, my mind has become set that 58kg is what i should be. Seeing that scale read heavier screws my mind. I know it’s the right thing, but i’m just so used to the idea of me being light, of Jim being the lightweight. I look at my face in the bathroom mirror. I swear the hollow in my cheeks is filling out. It probably isn’t but the added weight makes me paranoid. It’s different and I find it hard to accept.

From winter to summer. It was supposed to mark a fresh start and resolve. But I just liked the skeleton face looking back at me too much.

My full-length mirror isn’t in the bathroom, and I rarely actually look at myself undressed in it. Instead, I look at my face to see how lean I was. As well as keeping my head shaved in summer for ease and practicality, I also used to enjoy the skeletal look it gave me, the way it accentuated my cheekbones. It did nothing for my continual feeling of coldness however. A month or so ago, feeling that training was at an all-time low, looking to impose some semblance of order and control, I shaved my head of its winter locks. I enjoyed the way it signified a change in outlook, a fresh start. Ironically, it just seemed to mark the start of a further downward spiral.

Now I’m off the bike, the next part of the day – post-breakfast, post-early work session – is always the worst. For the past four to five years, most mornings were more or less filled by the bike. I’ve been totally robbed of that. It’s been over 21 days since I touched my bike. I try not to even look at it as it brings with it such a range of conflicting emotions.I remind myself why I’m not riding. Those that know better have forbidden it. They robbed me of what i love; but is there a sense of relief? Maybe.

After the initial readings of the blood tests I had taken three weeks ago, where I was told by both my GP and specialist dietician Renee McGregor that I had basically no testosterone left in my body and that riding must stop, I actually listened. And it wasn’t just my tesosterone. Iron, cortisol, thyroid-stimulating-hormones, all a bit fucked . I’d ignored warning signs, the advice of others, and the grumbles of protest from my body, for the last handful of years, but something compelled me this time to listen to those that new best. 

Cold Turkey, I got off the bike immediately, and that’s where I was last week. Initially, I wanted to ignore them and prove that I knew better, that I was stronger than they thought. But something made me listen. The bike melted into the background in my flat, no longer a functional thing, more an ornament.

The bike has just become another piece of furniture, unmoved and gathering dust.

The last three few weeks off the bike were like purgatory. I knew I wasn’t to train, but I didn’t know the path forward. However, I have made a tiny bit of progress in the last week. Whilst I was totally in the dark a week ago, when I wrote the last blog, I’ve made some progress since, had some indication of forward progress.

With an NHS appointment for Edocrinology – the examination of bloods – not available until August, I consulted an expert.

I contacted Sports Endocrinologist Nicky Keay, and we went through the results of my bloods in a slightly brutal phone call. It was cruel, but kind, and the harsh affirmation of truths I already suspected but failed to acknowledge. The call gave me a small sense of clarity. I wanted all the facts, I wanted everything laid bare so I knew what I was supposed to be doing to recover, and so I knew whether the grand plans I had for summer, and the money wrapped into them, were go-aheads.

I was crushed when i found out I wasn’t to race, or even ride, all through summer. The memories of the warm summer mornings on the bike, whether it be in training through the deep green woods of the Chilterns where I’d do my longer training rides, or of the early starts in the high Pyrenees and Alps where I raced, filled me with nostalgia – like something loved and lost. I thought back to the days in training and racing where i felt invincible and on form and craved them. But occasionally, those memories of utter fatigue and burnout flittered into my mind. The end of two weeks at Haute Route, totally broken, nursing more injuries and niggles than I could sustain, the training sessions where my body just wanted rest. My mind still battles to work out how it feels without that self-imposed pressure to perform.A

For years I’d sort of known my body was closing down, but I enjoyed the freakish control it gave me. I was running on borrowed time. I had been running on a dangerously low tank, and while I had been surviving reasonably well, riding strong in the events I wanted to go well in, and getting by ok in day-to-day life (save for the day to day shitness that comes with being very light), that fuel tank had finally run out, and I was left stranded.  

The call with Nicky confirmed what I thought – I’d been in severe energy deficit for as long as five or six years. Becoming obsessed with running and riding in my mid-20s as an outlet from a dull job and unhappy life in London, I had picked up stress fractures in my heels, early warnings of low bone density. I’d been training hard, and finding pleasure in not eating quite enough. I liked seeing my body get lean, and I liked challenging myself to see just how little I could eat and still perform to a reasonable level. 

With the stress fractures came a move away from running and focus purely on the bike. I grew to love it more and more – the adventure, the exploration, the sense of getting stronger and faster. And maybe tellingly, I started to crave the satisfying burn and hunger that comes with a big ride. 

From there the pursuit of leanness just spiralled. My desperate need to control weight never really arose from a dysmorphic view of my body. When I first took to riding seriously, I did feel the weight loss would help, and that triggered something that I think had dwelled deep in my mind since witnessing my sister’s terrible time with anorexia as a kid.. But over time, I lost sight of the goal of getting lean to ride faster – I’d got to a featherweight and couldn’t go lower. But then, the satisfaction of control that it gave me became addictive – I presume masking something else that only a shrink can explain. As the years went on, the search for control just lead to more weighing of ingredients, more carefully cutting things out of my diet, more training, harder training. If i did gain weight, it arose a self-disgust at a perceived lack of control rather than the loathing of someone struggling with a primary eating disorder – their perception of themselves as looking fat.

Weigh, control, obsess

Over the years of restriction, my body started shutting down the non-essential systems. My digestive system shut down early – I’ve had slugglish ‘movements’ for years and years. Up next was my mood and the start of my long bought of depression. With this my concentration and rationality plummeted as my serotonin levels dropped. Haemaglobin levels went wobbly next. And on and on, over the course of six or seven years. Bit but by bit, my body rebelled against the underfuelling that my head was forcing upon it. It all happened so slowly that I just accepted it as part of normal life, and the search for control, the enjoyment in denial, continued. 

Then, at the turn of 2019, it seems that the last thing the body preserves energy for – basic movement – began to suffer. The numbers on the bike plummeted and with it my mood. My body was taking charge, and after several years of being abused, decided it was not to be fucked with and started doing what it wanted.

Back to the present.

It’s around 10.00am, and had all been per the status quo, I may be into the second or third hour of one of those at once oh-so easy yet oh-so mentally taxing endurance rides, or warming up on the trainer to perform intervals that have me looking at the back of my eyeballs with exertion, pulling faces at the laptop screen in front of me.  Complete the intervals, and you spend the day feeling like a king. More often than not, I’d fail them, or perform them inadequately, failing to hit the powers required for the relevant duration. Sometimes, I’d have felt the energy just drain from my legs half way through, a sudden moment of tipping into uselessness. Sometimes, I’d just pure and simply grind to a halt. I’d spend the rest of the day hating myself, knowing that it was my own fault. If you don’t fuel the engine, it doesn’t turn.

I throw my energies into heavy weights and heavy metal. I know heavier is stronger and healthier, and while I love to do the labour i struggle to provide the building blocks.

I need to fill that time. I feel worthless and can’t get the day started without some sort of movement, an activity around which I can base my day and justify my vision of myself as a healthy, active being, to myself.  I’d been in the weights room the two days prior, and so I couldn’t go back today.  I’d always been prone to overdoing things, a man that can’t do things by halves. And that’s how I got in this mess. I tell myself why I ended up in this situation, and why I need to chill out. But without some sort of physical burn, I feel anxious; lazy, frustrated and unfulfilled.

Over the years that I grew to become what i guess you could call a ‘cyclist’, it had become less about adventure and the elements, and more about loving the punishment and the burn of training. I’d nearly always ride on my own, wanting the solitary freedom to choose routes and terrain that would fulfil the session I wanted to complete. Coffee stops and wheels to share were for wusses. Sometimes, I just liked performing long rides on my own to exacerbate the mental torture. I found those long interval-packed rides of high summer when I was peaking my form a gruesomely fascinating test of my mental resilience as much as physical. I’d arrive home after five or six solo hours drained of everything, unable to think. I’d love and hate every minute. Sometimes it feels like the hate fuelled the love.

I turn to yoga to fill the time. I load up the video I’ve done a few times now, clumsily following the moves on an old matt I’ve had for years – typically on which I’d coax the muscles back into life with a roller and lacrosse ball after big sessions on the bike – and try to switch my head off.

I start the yoga session feeling with a creeping sense in the back of my head that I was turning into a saggy useless sack. It’s now been 21 days of not riding. I don’t look any different, but I feel kind of useless and un-worked if I don’t do something every day. Four sessions at the gym, a few yoga practices, and when I can be arsed, a few walks per week are still enough to replace the burn and sense of achievement from around 14 hours on the bike, and I constantly feel unrewarded, constantly dissatisfied. I have to remind myself why I’m off the bike. To return stronger, healthier, more balanced. And after six months or so of decent training, hormone levels that actually allow my body to work properly – I should be stronger than ever. I’d been performing with what was effectively an anchor on my back wheel for the last few years. Unhinge that iron and I’d go fast.

I feel marginally better by the end of the session. I’d done my best to fully sink into the mental space required for the workout, momentarily taking my mind off the escalating anxiety about food, health, diet, weight, hormones, everything. The anxiety I’ve always been prone to hits me more and more frequently now. Still waiting for a full appointment with Sports Dietician Renee, the results of MORE blood tests, and the further consultation of psychologists and coaches, I felt directionless and constantly in turmoil. I’d sway from anger at what I’d done to myself and sickening lows of self-misery – which paradoxically would lead to dietary restriction – to days of resolve and positivity, embracing a fresh start, feeling free and unburdened of the pressures of bike training, doing my best to eat frequently and intelligently. On those days, I was aware of what I needed to change, and determined to do it. Unfortunately, they don’t come often enough.

The thing that concerns me perhaps most though is the role of the bike in my future life. I can’t help but be nagged by awful feelings that I may never turn a pedal in anger again. If i don’t get myself healthy and riding again, will I ever return to it? I ponder what it was that seduced me so much. It started as adventure, then it became the training, the burn and progression of pushing limits. The relationship between those two ends of the scale became unbalanced. Did I end up becoming a ‘cyclist’ because it gave me another thing to track and measure, to torture myself, or because I loved the air, the mountains, the speed? At the moment I don’t know. I worry that when I get the green light to ride, my relationship will have soured and I won’t be able to face it again.

Marmotte 2018. One of my best, worst, hardest, most memorable days on the bike. I was all set up to race again in 2019. It’s all been cancelled. I want to return in 2020. I need to remind myself why I love doing this.

The battle in my head leaves me restless and struggling to focus. My beginner’s understanding and practice of mindfulness sometimes helped. Sometimes I’d just freak out and have to go outside, walking, listening to music, podcasts, anything to distract me.

It’s still only 10am when I finish the yoga. I’ve still got a lot of time to kill. If I’d been riding this weekend, I’d probably have been out til around 1pm. There’s a big gap in my time, and it feels, in my life.

I turn to my work. I try to be productive but I find concentrating difficult; the side-effect of depression, and the consequence of managing the feelings of malcontent rumbling around my mind. The work is bikes. The majority of my work – covering pro racing or creating content for tool or technical apparel brands – is so far divorced from what I used to do be doing, that I can handle it, and I still love doing it. But some of my smaller gigs, about the experience, emotion and soul behind cycling, can be hard to work on. I was a ‘cyclist’, writing about cycling. So what am I now? Strava has been deleted off my phone. I look at riders out on the road and I feel a mixture of mourning at losing it, but also total total dissociation. It feels like a different life.

I’m desperately hoping that can start evolving my mindset, re-focussing my life soon. Appointments with a psychologist, and Renee McGregor, and the arrival of a prescription of meds for my head, arrive in the next few weeks.




More to come.

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