I must admit that in the last year I have noticed a decline in my fitness. I know that since I have been in Milan I have not been able to ride as much as I did when I was in London. I knew that I would be a bit slower in cycle races, but I have come to realise I am just not the cyclist I used to be.
How unfit and slow I am was confirmed last weekend when I took part in a cyclosportive. It was a 100km race which included around 1600m of climbing. I finished dead last, in a time of 6 hours 10 mins. That's barely 10 miles an hour (including short stoppages for various reasons)! The rider who came second last at this race finished more than an hour ahead of me. Practically all the riders who did the longer route - 140km finished before me.
When I finished I was tired, fed up and ready to stop. I had found te hills hard work, and at one point I had had to climb off my bike for a breather.
I guess my current living situation has not helped. Back in London before coming to Italy many people, myself included, thought it would be great to live in Italy and do lots of quality cycle training and racing. I had taken part in cyclosportives on trips to Italy, enjoyed the nice weather, the friendly atmosphere and I'd even given decent performances on the bike. I had therefore thought that a season here would be great for my cycling and my performance would improve.
I am now in Milan, and have ben here for a little over a year. Living the cycling dream? Not really!
Firstly, Milan is in a plain. Any quality cycling to be done involves travelling about 30 miles out of the city to find a training loop that includes any semblance of a hill. Not having a car, I am reliant on trains so in the morning it can be quite stressful making sure I get on such and such a train to Como or Erba, knowing that if I miss one train I have to wait an hour for the next one. Once I get on the train it is a one-hour journey. Monza is a little easier to get to, but it still involves a train journey and therefore an hour's lead time from home before I begin a training ride. And of course I also need an hour to 90minutes to get home once I finish my ride.
Then to compound matters is the weather. Because I know that I will have to sit on a train for around 90minutes after a bike ride, I get uptight about being caught in the rain during a ride. For about haf the year rainfall here is frequent, relentless and torrential. With no facilities for changing into dry clothes and the prospect of sitting cold and drenched on a train means that a standard training ride becomes a logistical operation if I wish to tempt my fate at all!
This is all in stark contrast to the days in London where I could just pick up my bike, set off from the house and start my training ride right from my doorstep. Even being caught in the rain is not so bad when on roads local to where you live and you can just ride home and get into a hot bath as soon as you stop riding.
I have always commuted to work by bicycle, and that has been a kind of bread-and-butter training during the week. When I was in London my commute would be 10 miles (16km) each way with a steep hill to ride up and a fast training stretch through Hyde Park. Sometimes I could even do sprint reps at lunchtime around St James's Park. So by the time the weekend came I would have done around 80miles of cycling without even thinking about it. In Milan my commute to work is 3 miles each way on a folding bike through the flat city streets and canal path. There's no chance of doing any training reps as I cycle in my work clothes and there are no showers at the offices where I work. Also, there is no secure area to leave bikes, so riding to work on my road (racing bike) is out of the question. [I have already had one racing bike stolen from me in Milan. I would rather not lose another!!]
Basically I cannot rely on commuting miles to help my cycle training.
Group training rides in Milan start at around 6pm, so no chance of joining those groups since I often leave work around 7pm. In any case I wouldn't be able to keep up!
In a nutshell I can't get in any decent training miles on the road before the weekend, so I rely on my rollers. And given the frequent rainfall we get in Milan it is not often that I even manage to ride on both days of the weekend.
There is no nearby velodrome like what I had at Herne Hill, and don't even think about off-road trails, unless you are happy to ride up and down a short slope at Monte Stella (the only hill in Milan) at least 40 times to get in a decent off-road training ride!
I'm sure that there are parts of Italy where life is good on a bike. But I don't think Milan is the place to be. It is not surpring that I am nowhere near as fit as I used to be back in London.
When I get out to ride local routes I find that by the time I have added in stoppage time to consult maps and find my way, eat, go to the toilet, take on and off clothes etc. I end up averaging 10 miles (16km) an hour. That's hardly breakneck pace. I understand that constantly stopping will impact on my pace, but I like to think that in a competitive situation I will be quicker because I will be in a group and I won't be stopping.
However, my p1ss poor result from Sunday shows that there is a big problem with my cycling. I am just far too slow, and I don't know what to do stop the decline. When I think about what I have ridden in the past - La Marmotte three times, the Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders, stage cyclosportives, multi-day cycle touring in the mountains and a number of Italian Gran Fondo events, I find it hard to believe that these were done by me. It must have been someone else!! I feel like a completely different person! Where previously I didn't think twice about riding 70 miles (110km), nowadays the idea of riding more than 80km feels like such challenge.
Parts of me think that it may be my age. I am over 40, so probably not as sprightly as I used to be. But then again, I know of many people my age and even older who can still knock spots off 30 year-olds with their performances! Maybe there's something wrong with me - anaemia or the onset of chronic fatigue. Or maybe doing this activity is just not in my genes. Who knows?
The worst thing is that I am on a slippery slope and don't know how to stop the rot. I joined a cycling club and was looking forward to taking part in races with my team mates, but now I am very reluctant to ride with them. Firstly, most of the rides take place at 9am outside of Milan so it is a stress to get an early train just to get to these places in time. And then when I get there I become anxious about holding everyone up with my snail pace.
Frankly, I'd rather keep my embarrassingly slow performances to myself away from the full glare of everyone else, and ride on my own. Of course this is not going to help my cause as my legs will only know this 10mph (16kph) pace and nothing else. But I really don't know what to do in order to improve my performance, especially now that I have a mental block on getting out and riding competitively. Maybe it's time to retire from this competitive cycling lark.....
If anyone has any ideas I'd be very interested to hear them. Answers on a postcard (as they used to say in the 1980s!)