Since Anna became an ironman, everything is easy

10461630_10152115535442142_6489943080907839476_nShe’s got long blond hair and a pretty face. Her nails are always polished, you’ll never see her without make-up and her favorite shoes are pumps. In her Ryanair-outfit she’s the classic image of an airhostess. A very cheerful airhostess, because she always smiles. And she never keeps her mouth shut. This is my Finnish friend Anna.

I had to think of her when I read about the Australian Mirinda Carfrae, who won the triathlon world championships, the ironman of Hawaii, last weekend. Carfrae swam 3,8k, rode 180k and ran a bit more than 42k in nine hours and fifty five seconds.

I can hardly express how much I admire that result. I am an athlete myself, but I can’t imagine pushing my body to the limit for nine hours straight. I can’t imagine swimming for one hour, let alone running a marathon, after riding my bike.

My friend Anna did it. She competed in the ironman in Nice, this summer. The talkative blondie, who doesn’t look like an athlete at all.

When she told me she would take part, I was speechless. I rode my bike with her a couple of times and I know that, well, she doesn’t ride very fast. She doesn’t have the talent nor the body for that. But Anna thought she was ready, after competing in a quarter and a half triathlon.

I was not the only one with doubts. Once Anna was in the line to pick up her start number, she just got ignored – because the other competitors and the organisation didn’t believe she was really going to take part.

Anna completed the swimming in 1,5 hours. After riding her bike for 120k, it started to pour with rain. The parcours was going downhill by then, mainly over narrow winding roads. Anna constantly saw other competitors giving up. And crashing. At a hilltop, volunteers put foil under her suit to make sure she got a bit of isolation. Shaking of cold, Anna kept repeating to herself the cheers of friends she carried with her on a note: “If you can dream, you can also do this.”

After seven hours and twenty minutes Anna finished the bike ride. In the meantime she got such a stomach ache she could only lie in the fetal position. Once the pain finally lessened, she decided to start the marathon. I felt like Forrest Gump, she said afterwards, I ran to the finish in one straight line. In five hours and twenty minutes.

And so Anna passed the line in fourteen and a half hours. The moment I heard she made it, my heart filled with admiration. Anna didn’t suffer less than Mirinda Carfrae. Actually she suffered five and a half hour more.

I didn’t want to stop when it hurt, I didn’t want to stop when I was tired, I wanted to stop when I was done, Anna decided before the race. Why? Because she would try to do the impossible.

Since Anna became an ironman, she radiates joy even more than ever. Everything is easy now, she says. Every difficulty seems tiny compared to what she did in Nice. Anna did something no one – not even herself – thought she would ever be capable of doing.

And this is what I think so much more admirable than seeing a talented professional winning the world title: Anna didn’t compete to win. She competed to beat herself.

Published in Dutch, in newspaper Trouw, 13th of October 2014
Photo: Facebook

My mum

Berghuijzen 1I am visiting my parents as my mum asks me: “That Tyler Hamilton book, about his doping confessions, you havent’t read that yet, did you?”

She walks to the book shelf and scours the titles, looking for The Secret Race. After a while she pulls the book off the shelf and hands it over to me. “There you are. Very good book, you know.”

By now, I’ve sort of got used to my mum being a cycling fan, but if she says things like these, I’m still flabbergasted. Till five years ago, about cycling she would only state things like: “All those men riding a bike through France, what’s that good for?!” And: “Races are so boring! Hours and hours on a bike. Stupid waste of time.”

Nowadays, it’s getting more and more common the tv is tuned in to the Tour de France, even if my mum is home alone. When I was a kid, my dad used to follow the important races; in my memory the radio played Radio Tour de France the whole summer, the house filled with the scent of freshly baked pancakes and me washing my sandy feet before joining the family at the dinner table.

When I started cycling at 30 years old, my mum really didn’t like it. Why would I want to do that at my age, she asked. Racing, suffering, crashing, breaking bones… And especially: that stupid act of just riding a bike all the time. She didn’t understand. She wished I would stop immediately, so she didn’t need to worry about me crashing all the time.

But soon she had to admit I was fully captivated by bikeracing. She decided to stop resisting and she started to show some interest. Suddenly I found her at the side of the road at the Ronde van Drenthe, with a camera.

She was so nervous about seeing me race that all her photos turned out to be totally blurred, because she was shaking all over. Next time I passed with the peloton, she had put her camera on a big stone to make sure the photos would be good.

Just after the first year I started racing, my brother was diagnosed with cancer. Testicular cancer, the same type of cancer Lance Armstrong suffered from. The doctors found it out in an early stage, there was no reason to think my brother wouldn’t be cured, but he had to be treated with chemotherapy and they operated on him twice. My mum read Armstrong’s It’s not about the bike, and the book gave her hope. She started to wear the yellow wrist band.

Not long after, my mother bought herself A race bike. One with straight handlebars, to be a bit more comfortable and to make sure braking was easy. She was 62 already and she had never before in her life been on a race bike. She started to train. And she signed up to the Alpe d’Huzes – a challenge to ride up Alpe d’Huez up to six times in one day – to raise money for fighting cancer. She climbed Alpe d’Huez. Easy. My mum! She could even have done the climb several times, I am sure of that because she was in a great shape, but she didn’t dare to ride down. So it was just one time.

My brother is healthy again. My mum doesn’t have a goal to ride her bike for anymore. She doesn’t need a goal. Riding a bike is the goal now. She rides to relax, to enjoy nature. Just like it happened to me, she’s totally captivated by riding a bike. Tomorrow, she’s going on holiday, together with my dad – who also bought a race bike. They are going to ride in the hills in Germany.

Meanwhile, she will surf the internet, looking at all cycling pages she can find, to make sure she’ll see the results of my races as soon as they’re published. She knows exactly where and when I race, even if I don’t tell her. She cheers for me and my teammates on Facebook. And she texts me a good luck wish every single time.

You’re never too old to become a cycling fan. You’re also never too old to start riding a bike. And you’re absolutely never too old to be proud of your tough mother.

Go mum!


Stage 9: Climbing to the chapel

10500284_725714607474125_1257629835464876470_nMountains to the left. Lake Como on the right. We race at 50k/h on the apparently picturesque road along the water. No time to have a look. Full concentration is needed for the hectic situation on this winding

It’s a sunlit day. That’s so often totally different in October, when our male colleagues ride the Giro di Lombardia on these same roads, towards the climb to the chapel of the Madonna del Ghisallo. The asphalt covered in autumn leaves. Sun shining low through the haze over the lake. Or it rains. The riders transform into grey creatures, only lit by the headlights of the cars.

Today it’s a splash of colour. Everything is blooming, our kits a whirl of hues. We all take the turn in a couple of kilometres, at the roundabout in Bellagio. From there it goes up. The men continue once they’ve reached the top. For us, the finishline is next to the chapel. That’s where the last stage of the women’s Giro ends. With the Madonna, the patron of cyclists, we find redemption of the pain and the fatigue after ten days of racing.

But first we have to hold on for a bit longer. Persevere. We want to make sure our climber starts the Ghisallo in the best possible position, so we ride in formation at the head of the bunch. We go full gas – and hope the climbers from other teams will have a hard time moving to the front, so they have to spend a lot of energy in the first part of the climb already. We speed up. A lot of yelling behind us. You can literally hear the panic. We launch our climber. The finish line for us domestiques is at the roundabout in Bellagio.

The roundabout where Johnny Hoogerland attacked in 2009. It was a week after the death of Frank Vandenbroucke, in a hotel in Senegal. Hoogerland was the first one to reach the chapel. He pulled his jersey open. Underneath he wore an undershirt with the text: Per te VDB. For you, VDB. Hoogerland used to be a big fan of Frank. This was his homage. A homage at the chapel, where an eternal flame burns for all deceased cyclists.

There’s the roundabout. The race explodes. I get passed by a lot of riders, and so do some of my teammates. Our job is done. We are allowed an easy pedal up now. Catch our breath. Take a look around. Beautiful views over Lake Como, just as we have heard in all the stories. Moreover, this seems to be an ordinary road. Ordinary asphalt. Ordinary gradient. But if you know what has happened here, you just see it differently.

In the last 1,5k we suddenly hear bells ringing. The bells of the chapel. They give me goosebumps. They ring for us too! Just like they do in the Tour of Lombardia. Just like in 2006, when Paolo Bettini transformed his grief and despair into extraordinary power. One month before, Bettini became world champion. His brother Sauro wanted to give a party for him, but he died suddenly in a car crash. Paolo wanted to throw his bike away, never race again. But he decided to ride the last classic of the season in honour of his brother. He won, solo, crying, his face towards the sky and his hands pointing to heaven. Under the flamme rouge, the ringing of the bells filling my ears, I think of those images. And I get a lump in my throat.

Emma Pooley wins the stage. Our climber finishes seventh. Marianne Vos gets the last pink jersey of 2014, she takes the cup home. In 1962 Jo de Roo was the first Dutch cyclist to win the Giro di Lombardia. Nowadays, his trophey stands next to his front door – it’s an umbrella stand. After all, cycling isn’t as sacred as it sometimes seems. In fifty years, someone should visit Vos I guess. To find out where she put this Giro trophey.

Click here for the Strava-file of this stage
Published in Dutch newspaper Trouw, 14 July 2014

Stage 7: Squeaking brakes and smell of rubber

Giro Rosa 2014 stage - 7What if you let 150 women do a neutralized downhill of 13 kilometres?

Maybe I should explain the word ‘neutralisation’ first, cause not every each and one of you knows exactly what that is, I guess. In most of all cycling races, from the startline on, the bunch has to ride at low speed behind the car of the jury for a couple of kilometres. Mostly the pace is like 30k/h. Somewhere down the road there is a sign with a ‘0’ on it and that’s where the jury car hits the gas. The race is open. Sometimes, like today in Italy, we have a short stop at the 0-sign. In this case that came in handy, because we could hand our jackets to our teamleaders or do a quick wee in the grass next to the road.

Back to the neutralization. Most of the times it’s a lot shorter than 13k. And most of the times it’s also not downhill. But in Italy everything is possible.

So we ride down at 35k/h, behind the car of the jury and a couple of motos, from the skiing resort Aprica to the valley of the river Adda. As soon as the road drops, our ears get filled with the noise of hundreds of squeaking brakes and our noses are full of the smell of burning rubber.

A lot of riders are nervous, because once we’re in the valley we go immediately uphill again, to conquer a climb of 8k. Starting in the front is a good idea, so in the compact descending group everyone is trying to get to the front too. That’s not so difficult if you just don’t brake, because the natural speed you get on this road is much higher than the speed the jury is allowing us – which leads to a lot of fidgeting and boxing. A was at the front on the start line already, so I am more or less out of the hectic.

But I hear, smell and notice it. HEY! Someone gets boxed in. BANG! Another puncture. If you brake continuously, the rims get hot which make tires explode. I try to release the brakes now and then, to avoid a puncture, but that’s not easy if you have to stay under 35k/h in a downhill.

Each and every piece of road behind the car of the jury is taken, everyone rides as close to each other as possible to not let any space and lose position. With extra squeezing in the inner corners, and some extra space to pass in the outer corners as a result – give the pedals a short push, squeeze in and brake as hard as you can to avoid crashing into the rider in front of you.

After only 6k my hands are cramping already. A kilometre later I notice I can’t straighten my fingers anymore. My legs start to shake because of the forced low speed and the muscles in my arms and neck object as well.

I don’t like starting a race with a non-neutralized downhill, but I also dislike this.

Normally I don’t appreciate stopping at the 0-sign, but today I’m happy we do so. Not because I have to take off a jacket or have to wee, but because I can finally ease my tense muscles and straighten my cramped fingers. And the race hasn’t even started yet.

Photo: Cor Vos

Stage 3: Lovely Abruzzo mountains

Kilometre by kilometre, we leave the dirty stinking city behind us. The suburbs of Naples are exactly as you’d expect: dilapidated houses, roads full of potholes, the smell of rotting rubbish, newspaper sheets blow across the streets between our wheels. Kilometre by kilometre, the landscape becomes greener. Fewer and fewer buildings. Less and less mess. Until we ride on gentle roads winding through the foothills of the Abruzzo mountains.

The mood in the peloton is less sweet. Today we have the first uphill finish, and before that the first a mile or ten climb. Most teams want to send a rider ahead before we get to the final to help their team leader when she comes across. That’s also our plan. Other teams who have no real GC-rider want to be in the escape too, hoping for the stage victory.

That means attack after attack. Together with two teammates I’ve been instructed to sit in if there’s an escape, so in turn we respond to all attempts. It’s a very tough job in a landscape that’s constantly going up and down. After what feels like an eternity, finally a group gets up the road, with a teammate of mine there. Time to catch my breath and look for my teammates, who swarm around our team leader.

I can’t take it easy for long, because the first ascent is coming. That means going to the front for our team leader, so she can waste as little energy as possible. I fear I will be dropped on the climb after all the work I’ve already done. But once the road starts to go up, I realise that it is not supersteep and I can pace myself up it. Do not think too much, I keep telling myself. Just follow.

My teammates drop one after the other. Now it’s even more important that I stay here, to make sure our team leader still has someone to help her. But I also start to slowly slide backwards. At the moment I’m about to drop, we come through a turn, and I see a sign: GPM 100m. We’re there! I speed up a little and sail under Queen of the Mountains arch. Saved!

Once in the valley, I search for our team leader and my other teammate who also survived the climb. We decide that I’ll quickly get some bottles at the car. It is well above thirty degrees, so drinking is essential. With a jersey full of bottles I ride back to my teammates. Then I put my head down, because the gap to the leading group is large and we don’t want the riders in that group to get so far away from us that they mix up the general classification.

I realise I’m almost out of energy now. Riders from other teams come to help. The road goes uphill again. The front of the bunch accelerates and I lose the wheel in front of me, metre by metre. “Go past me! Quickly!” I call to my two teammates. They go and then I drop. The director comes alongside, sticks his thumb up and gives me a coke. “Get up there, eh, but easily” he shouts before he hits the accelerator and dashes behind the group. I drink my coke, enjoy the view of the majestic Abruzzo and hope that I’ll have another chance tomorrow.

Photo: Velofocus
Click here for the Strava-file of this stage