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Month: June 2012

Bicycle Love

At Bridgehead in Westboro – I biked here from home, and the round trip will be about 14 kms. After a long time without much regular biking, I am getting back into commuting everywhere on my bike. Learning how Tyler Hamilton rode for weeks with broken bones (his shoulder or his collarbone, depending on the race) has made me realize that I can do FAR more than I realize. I do long to be in shape again like I was before my son was born – at that time I was working out at the gym and biking between 50 and 140 kms per week, including commuting, mountain biking and touring. And I could ski for hours in the Gatineaus in winter.

Even though I have never been thin, and have struggled with my weight off and on, I didn’t really have a serious weight problem until I developed asthma a few years ago. Apparently it is the kind of asthma that medical residents (at the clinic where I am a patient) have a very hard time diagnosing. I must have seen about 4 of them over the course of a year, and even though I complained of wheezing and exhaustion, they all insisted I did not have asthma. To be fair, I did have severe sinusitis, which probably tricked them into thinking that was the problem. Finally, on my fifth try, I got a really experienced doctor who, after listening very carefully to my lungs, said I had asthma – or “reactive airway disease.”

Whatever! The Advair worked like a charm and in a few days the exhaustion lifted and I had energy again. Unfortunately, I was a good 40 pounds heavier than I had been six months before. At the weight loss clinic that I eventually attended, the doctor pronounced my sudden weight gain “unusual,” but nobody really knows why it happened, other than maybe a new medication I started, or the asthma. Or maybe all the Thai Express, but the question is why I wanted all those Thai Express curries in the first place (I later learned that each individual serving has 1000 calories – horrors). And nobody knows what caused the asthma either.

So anyway, I lost 20 pounds, but stupidly (or not), I took a really high-stress job with sometimes odd hours. It was exciting and I learned a lot, including how stress causes weight gain, since I am now almost back to where I started, give or take a few pounds.

This is where Tyler Hamilton comes in. Surely the task of losing the weight again and getting back into really good shape (like I used to be) will not be as daunting as his crazy journeys with broken bones, and teeth that wore down from clenching against all the pain.

Tyler crashing
Tyler crashing during the 2002 Giro d’Italia, where he broke his shoulder.

Unfortunately, what might be as daunting as Tyler’s journeys is contending with the self-consciousness and revulsion that I feel because I am fat. I have tried to like myself as I am, but I just don’t, no matter how I try. I feel that part of the reason is tied up with the pressure that is placed on women to conform with the images of young, thin women and girls that are used in advertising everywhere.

What a world we live in – everywhere, beauty is linked to thinness and youth, and everywhere, there are advertisings and offerings of food – junk food, gourmet food, pastries, chocolates, candies – and always, the people depicted enjoying these foods in ads are young and thin.

But it is not just the crazy beauty images combined with the crazy food world that leads me to feel this…intense dislike for my appearance sometimes. I think it also has to do with the kind of person I am. I am at my best when I can go mountain biking or x-c skiing for hours at a time, and I love being able to suddenly run for a bus without feeling like a sack of potatoes.

I think being fit and active is part of being fully human for me. Even though I am a writer and spend my working life in a sedentary occupation, I probably have never experienced as much joy as I have hurtling downhill on skis when the sky is the colour of the mediterranean sea, and the snow sparkles with millions of diamonds. I think this latter reason for disliking being fat is a legitimate one, and something worthy of acting on.

The former reason, that the world is a mess and corporations are lying to us about what beauty is, and what good food is, does not strike me as a good reason at all to whip myself back into shape. In fact, it almost makes me want to stay fat, or become even fatter, as a way of saying “fuck you” to these stupid structures.

I suspect that this beauty-as-thinness-junk-food complex might be behind the phenomenon of young women purposely making themselves ugly, or at least un-beautiful, with piercings in weird places, extra fat, shaved heads and lots of black stretchy clothing. I admire this response, because it defies the pressures to conform to everything we are taught, as women, about beauty and how to be attractive.

However, in the end, I think I would like to get back to being the super-fit mountain biker / pilates fanatic, since it is such a positive part of who I am and have been. And besides, I really enjoyed riding my bike today. Since dear Tyler inspired me with his broken bones and flying through the Alps, I have not reset the odometer on my bike.

By the time I get home today, I will have biked 80 kms in about a week and a half. I have enough experience to know I have to ease back into cycling slowly, and weather has also intervened. I am curious to see how many kms I will have on the odometer by the end of the season, in October.

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What Tyler Hamilton did

He rode for three weeks with a broken collar bone and came in fourth place at the Tour de France. I would have thought it impossible, but there you have it – Tyler Hamilton with his collar bone held in place with tape:

Oy.I came across this fact (no doubt well known among people who follow cycling as a sport) when a friend posted an article about Lance Armstrong’s latest issues with the American anti-doping agency.

So yes, I know that Tyler Hamilton was on EPO, testosterone and quite possibly a pint of his own fresh blood when that picture was taken. That’s how he knows Lance Armstrong dopes – they did it together.

But I am impressed by Hamilton. He has been referred to as “tough” for his ability to withstand pain on the epic three-week ride through the Alps. He also rode with a broken shoulder during the Giro d’Italia in 2002. He was in so much pain he vomited.

But I am not sure that “tough” is the right word to describe Hamilton’s feats of withstanding pain. Because maybe he did not withstand the pain so much as stand, or cycle, with it–even  within it, never letting go.

This notion of toughness with regard to Hamilton interests me because he is not a big tough guy. At his peak, when he came in fourth at the Tour de France, he weighed about 140 pounds. He was and is an elf on a bicycle. A little guy riding through mountains as if he had wings.

Whatever it is that made it possible for Tyler Hamilton to ride a bike for three weeks with a broken collar bone is the same quality that came forth when he testified before a grand jury about doping. Flood gates opened, and he revealed everything he had kept hidden for 14 years. Along with a great many of his peers in the cycling world, he had led a double life – hiding the reality of doping from everyone outside of pro cycling’s closed inner circle. But once the he started telling the truth to the jury, Tyler’s double life collapsed. And in the wake of that collapse, he appeared on 60 minutes to let the entire cycling community, along with all his friends, fans and enemies, know that he had given away all his secrets, and in so doing, the secrets of cycling’s great master, Lance Armstrong.

For the average person, the only way to tell if someone is lying is to trust their instincts. Armstrong and his supporters say that Tyler is lying – that he is trying to draw attention to himself to make money or sell books.

But the face I saw in the 60 Minutes interview was a human face; the face of a person standing within his pain, moving through debris created by the wave of truth-telling that cleared away his past life.

If toughness has a hard outer shell, if it is insensitive to suffering, then Tyler Hamilton is not tough. And he is certainly not big. His strength seems to be in his ability to move with the currents that push and pull him – wind currents, waves of pain, the force of truth rushing through his life – until he somehow arrives at a new place which is sometimes, but not always, the finish line.

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