The War: 999

A war is also fought during retreats. Many gloryless, fightless steps back, in the hopes of later strides forward.
- - -
I dragged the bike bag back down the stairs towards the subway station. It would have to wait.

On the days that followed, many a standing ride ensued, and throughout the constant fear in the back of my mind. Is it back?
- - -
Two weeks later, we made it to the check-in counter. The performance was lacklustre at best, but deep within, I celebrated joyfully

Everything - the season, and more - is not lost.


Life: a racing metaphor

A two-hundred mile drive early Sunday morning, enjoying along the way the usual diet of beetroot juice, a honey sandwich, a couple of bananas. And a strong espresso from a thermos before the warm-up.

Riding flat-out from the gun and still dropped like a rock within the first half-hour. Legs bursting and the constant feeling of being about to puke. Not even halfway in, the thrown towel - no point driving oneself to sickness for a second time this month. Early call at the showers and a two-hundred mile journey back.

- - -

Lack of doping controls, unfair game play, all the other conspiracy theories notwithstanding - it remains a challenge I can't seem to master easily, with different weaknesses rearing up each time I let the guard down and fail to attend to any seemingly diminutive detail.

And yet, hours into the drive home, the void feelings from the empty endeavour still mixing with the endorphines, the realisation that the only way out is through: more.

- - -

Any similarity to real life is obviously not just a coincidence.

- - -

Stars of track and field, you are.


Douro Deja Vu

Late March. Somewhere over the Pyrenees. The eleventh flight of the year already, on a machine named after Erlangen.

In spite of this having been my third training camp installment in this still young season, my training volume to date is likely the smallest since attaining my current category. Work commitments, health concerns, and abysmal weather kept epic outings and frequent interval sessions at bay. Instead, I'm now happy to simply work out a sweat on the indoor trainer during early morning sessions, or follow wheels of my loyal training partners as we fight the elements on the roads south of Munich - or, just now, the wet shores of the Douro river. I still hope to convert the vast amount of overtime clocked into miles under more inviting skies, and draw encouragement from the fact that, even with all the woes and interruptions from yesteryear, the season still ended successfully - perhaps even stronger due to the freshness off the forced break.

- - -

If life does begins at Forty, the Thirties are providing for a most interesting, roaring prelude, shaking up the concepts of career and work-life-balance, relationships, luxuries, or sporting goals. Not the manager, but not quite an employee either. No longer racing the Bundesliga, but still unwilling to drop the towel. Not exactly committed, yet neither absolutely single. Far from riches, and while insisting it is not splurging, rewarding myself more often, say, with a new suit... or four.

American essayist Flannery O'Connor once posed that "(n)othing needs to happen to a writer’s life after they are twenty. By then they’ve experienced more than enough to last their creative life".

I gazed over the snow-covered mountains overlooking dry plateaus in the distance and, devising a traversal crossing of the range, established just how little applicability I could find in the writer's statement above.

- - -

As if those twenty years hadn't been busy enough.


Nihil obstat

The wind was gnarling with the waves breaking high against the seawall.

DCFC's New Year began playing just ahead of a silent countdown.

As fireworks went off in the distance, a Swiss army knife opened a beer for the toast.

I drank a bitter sip and felt a sudden urge to throw the bottle off into the dark waters. Instead, I offered the sea some and brought it back to the recycling bin.

- - -

The Last Time I Saw Richard was on as I poured the remaining coffee and packed for the upcoming ride.

Picked for its symbolism, it was the ride that ended '16; now it should begin '18.

This time - perhaps it was the warmer weather, perhaps an altogether different mindset - I thoroughly enjoyed the descent.

- - -

Deep Blue Something gave way to Natalie Imbruglia and Alanis Morissette as the endorphines of a sun-soaked five-hour ride hit me in the evening. One more day to go. This gift comes with a price. But in such moments I realize just how much I'm glad to pay the bill, time after time.

- - -

There's a sunset somewhere every second of the day. But when one happens to watch it...


365 // Fail better

I took my health for granted. Drinking from noon until noon again and waking up to cross a mountain range the next morning.

And then there was Iceland.

I loved the struggle. Always boasting of seeking the hardest path. Betting against the odds and relishing on the challenge.

And then there was Iceland.

I thought I had the answers. The meta-knowledge on how walking down the path differed from knowing it. No hay camino, se hace camino al andar - and those were worn soles.

And then there was Iceland.

I believed in a four letter word. And that a deed done with it could never be lost.

And then, there was a weekend in Reykjavik. An alarm clock that went off too early Monday morning. A whispered "don't let go" before the hotel door closed behind me. A drive to the airport, and then, the void.

- - -

I recovered completely, once more highlighting just what a fabulous piece of machinery hosts my consciousness. But I am now aware of just how special simply carrying out everyday activities by myself can be.

I still cherish my ordeals and voluntarily give up comfortable positions, be it in sport, work or elsewhere, to fight what I believe is the good fight. Yet I'm learning to give up martyrdom and realise that the struggle should not be an end unto itself.

I still undertake those metaphorical hikes, however I now appreciate that sometimes, the walk will not leave a path - or that such path may lead to a dead end and one must then backtrack, as hurtful as that may be; one way or another, the knowledge gained is not static but must constantly be learnt anew.

- - -

Someone once told me it only happens once a lifetime. That I know not to be true. Poor are the souls who have not yet lived through it. And I'm all the richer for - even if only fleetingly - having touched the skies once again.

Yet a price was paid for this experience. The effects of those butterflies flapping their wings were felt by others as well, and I have to acknowledge my share in not properly restraining those, or dealing with their aftermath. Howe is right: the knowledge that makes us cherish innocence makes innocence unattainable. Which, however, in turn "adds to a rich and complete picture of being human (...), part of the wildness and beauty of (a) life lived with depth, commitment and grace" (from a comment in this very blog).

Indeed. Always - and all ways - Yay!


Of hills and writing

Some two years ahead of getting my adviser's blessing to start writing my doctoral thesis, I already had the core part of the acknowledgements sketched out within my head. In a sense, those two pages were one the reasons for me to soldier on, suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous Ph.D. fortunes, so that in the end I could have those them published.
To different measure, I can trace similar patterns between last month's race chronicle, or a previous blog post on two similarly motivated hikes: seeking new experiences for want of a life worth writing about. Sometimes the ensuing essay or photo album may already be vividly on my mind before I even set out on such adventures, and may - like pages IX and X in the above - even lend the necessary impetus to see them through; other times the storytelling follows as an afterthought, perhaps if, by looking back through a different angle, I find something interesting enough to entice the writing spirits (who would otherwise picture me writing about shoe shopping?).
- - -
Upon first moving to Munich, a friend commented on the Facebook status where I announced my relocation: "Head South along the Isar, the first hill comes at Schäftlarn". 
The climb from Schäftlarn Abbey to the village of Höhenschäftlarn quickly became my standard go-to hill for interval work. It's not such a beautiful ascent which rewards one at the top with majestic views of the Alps, as is the case with the Peißenberg, but it's close enough for rides during the week, and with 1.5km and 80 vertical meters sufficiently long and steep to enjoy the reputation as "The" Schäftlarn within the Munich cycling scene.
The summer of 2013 saw Christoph Listmann take over the crown from Peter Maly, improving the 3'14" that had stood for over three years by a single second. With such distance and steepness favouring my rider profile, I eventually set out on a quest to stamp my mark, and two years later, I first matched the then-new best time of 3'12" by Austrian legend Klaus Steinkeller, and then set a 3'06" to seal my name atop the leader board. I was happy to let that mark stand, continuing to do hill repeats on its slopes, but no longer with any concern for the time. It wasn't until Spring this year that I started conjecturing designs of being the first one to break three minutes, but my illness put those plans on hold. In the meantime, between fellow amateurs and professionals alike, some had come within a second of my time, yet still my name stood. Until last Friday.
A relatively unknown, a hobbyist for his lack of a proper license, posted a 3'04". The wind was not unfavourable and his bike could potentially be below the minimum weight stipulated by the regulations, but nevertheless, such a time doesn't come without the legs. Chapeau, I said, and vowed, half jokingly, now I'd have to actually bring out my carbon hoops instead of my regular training setup. 
- - -
A very similar feedback loop between experiences and their written expression takes place with my training and racing entries on Strava. My activities' titles are as if mini-blog entries, where I attempt, on occasion, to convey a bit of poetry replacing the standard naming conventions. Trying out new gear: "Shiny shifters, sunny skies, speedy Saturday!" . Warm, sunny day in winter when I decided to cancel or postpone all meetings and go on a ride: "Of global warming and work-life balance" . Rained on? "Wednesday weather warning withheld, wet ways wearily wandered". Most often, though, the titles are nonchalant, fact-of-the-matter ("Breakfast Lactate" or "That warm-up thing"). 
And so I contemplated - as I rode off early Tuesday morning, bringing my Pride and Joy, with its shining, cut-to-measure carbon galore, for the first time outside of a racing event, to a (if this could be classified as such) training ride - how this endeavour would eventually be titled, and the entire story behind it: from discovering the climb, to countless repeats up and down again, walking its length with my father when he last came to visit, my illness, the first workouts on its slopes when I was healthy again, and now this symbolic moment representing my return to the top of the rankings, to performance levels that ultimately I grew so used to employing to define me. "Sorry, Felix" ? No need to rub it on the poor soul that had just enjoyed his moment of glory. "Schäftlarn Sub-3 Minutes Club, Member Count 1" ? (There is a "3 Minutes Club" for all riders who have managed the ascent in less than 240 seconds). No, though it would be fun to start a second club. "Ops, I did it again?". My mind wandered.
I felt slightly sluggish; and contemplated how I often struggle on early morning rides against my body still craving to stay longer in bed or another cup of coffee; yet last week in spite of similar sensations I had still managed to post pretty usual numbers on my series, so why expect any differently this time? I rode on. It was a beautiful morning. Blue skies, little traffic, even a gentle breeze aligned with the climb. I made my way down, enjoying the aerodynamics and stiffness of my racing machine. Rolling out on the flat section at the bottom, I turned around and waited for the last car to disappear from sight, stretching one last time as I took a deep breath. Then I darted off.
And I failed.
- - -
Writing is like reading, except the book is trying to kill you. This chapter, it seems, won the first battle.

But I'll vow: not the war.


Running to stand still

I did my first race in the entry-level "debutantes" class in February 2002. I finished fifth and stuck around, waiting for the awards ceremony, which was to take place after the main Elite race. A certain lad from an orange-clad team made a daring attack and won solo - Gean Oliveira was his name, and he was quickly my new hero.

In January 2003, after moving my way up in the ranks over the course of the previous year, I got an invitation to join the Sapiranga Cycling Association's cycling team - and would get to wear that same orange jersey. Being located in a small city maybe an hour away from Porto Alegre, the team invited me to spend the weekend there for us to ride together and get to know each other better. At the last moment there was a change of plans and my host could no longer offer me the spot on the couch, so I ended up on Gean's room, sleeping on a guest mattress on the floor. I remember telling him just how surreal this all was - here I was, one year later, having dinner and sleeping at the house of a former medallist at the Brazilian Championships.

I raced for the Sapiranga-based clockwork orange "Last Sprint Team" throughout my days in Brazil. I progressed within the team, eventually sharing the team's leadership role with Gean before moving to Germany almost ten years ago.

- - -

March this year, after my best off-season preparation to date, I fell ill with an infection around the saddle area on the second day of our spring training camp. The plum-sized lump was not testicular cancer, but it was still scary enough having flesh-eating bacteria suddenly growing out of nowhere; the associated fever and risk of further spread meant it should be attended to with no delay. The surgeons' words informing me of the risks involved still echo to this day, but it was a matter of risking it with a surgery, or facing certainty in no time - and so after five minutes' time to call my parents and my sister and sign disclaimers, I was put to sleep and wheeled off to the surgery room.

All went extremely well: the exams the days following indicated all matter had been removed, my body was responding well to the antibiotics, and there was no damage to any of the organs in the surrounding area, so within a week I was allowed to go home. It would be another couple of weeks until I was allowed to exercise even moderately, and yet another month until I could bear weight on the saddle again. However, after an initial week of leisurely spinning the pedals, just as I attempted ramping up my training back to a normal training schedule, my still weakened immune system threw another curve ball: I fell ill a second time, with a cold giving way to tonsillitis and another round of antibiotics. It wasn't until the end of May that I could finally throw a leg over the bike without ensuing complications.

- - -

The national championships were and are always the highlight of any season. In 2013 I transferred my license to Germany, meaning that, instead of fighting for a podium spot in Brazil, I now had the chance of finishing on the second page of the results list against some of the best names in the time-trialling discipline in, well, the whole world (my German countrymen have won 7 World titles and have a total of 17 medals since the discipline was introduced 23 years ago, twice as many as the second-placed nation). On the start line last Friday, there were no less than 6 Worlds' medallists. Against such firepower, the few amateurs who manage to qualify, by winning state championships or having enough rank list points to warrant a start - and are brave enough to show up - form a small, tightly-knit circle, who keeps in touch during the year racing on different events, but will gather on Nationals' weekend to celebrate - and maybe this is part of what I only recently realised - what the sport is all about.

Away from the spotlight, with the cameras filming the world champion and the other Tour de France contenders and many a photographer on the course not even bothering to shoot the amateurs, we all have little to no chance of ever landing on the podium, and yet we train with utmost dedication for an entire year to meet on that day and have a go at the best race possible.

- - -

In years past, I prepared meticulously, with training camps at altitude, special diets and workouts; and I was always pleased with landing somewhere in the middle of the results table. Obviously, this year my expectations had to be reassessed. The initial registration listed 49 names, on race day, only 24 turned up, indeed the smallest field of the last years. As we chatted on the warm-up area, one fellow competitor remarked that, even with only those few, simply making it into the top 20 would already be a remarkable act, and we all nodded in agreement. I had been training properly for barely a month, and if in a more typical setting of 50 or 60 starters a top 30 would well be in reach, here I knew better. Still, I had decided to take part: as a celebration for being healthy, to honour the fact that I had qualified, to meet my friends, to prove a point.

Chemnitz was bustling with a few thousand spectators gathering on the main square that sunny Friday afternoon. One by one, after a final equipment inspection, we lined up the starting ramp, awaiting the final countdown ahead of an hour in hell. I had driven the course in the support car as one of my teammates in the Under-23 category did his run a few hours earlier and had an idea of what to expect, but clearly the crowds had more than doubled as the contenders for the main race were about the start. I had set a conservative target power output given what I had managed on the last few training sessions, and knew from experience not to let the loud roar trick me into overdrive already in the first few minutes, but as I left the city behind and entered the main stretch of road, my legs still felt like they could give a bit more. Nothing to lose, so why not? Every couple of miles, through every small village or intersection, small groups of spectators would be yelling and honking and throwing a small road-side party, and I couldn't help but smile - and keep pushing. Fifteen kilometres into the ride, Lars Bartlau, the Bremen state champion, who had started a minute after me, was about to overtake me, and yet that fazed me not the smallest bit. Ten kilometres later, as we reached the turnaround point atop a small plateau, I had not only drawn even but even managed to again gain a few hundred meters. I struggled on the technical descent, the side wind likely affecting me more than heavier-built riders and was overtaken again, but once more, I just soaked it all in and made my way down at my pace. I would still be overtaken by a further rider on my run-in back to town, and yet I would still be radiant every time I checked my numbers and saw 3, 5, 10 Watts above my intended mark. Entering Chemnitz and seeing the marks for the last 3000 meters, I was completely empty, but somehow the crowds managed to push one to find that final ounce of glycogen to get to the finish.

(C) Denis Günther / DG Design

I crossed the line in 1 hour, 3 minutes and 15 seconds, a 28.3 mph average over the 48 kilometre course. Tony Martin, reigning world champion, won in a time of 54'16", or 32.9 mph. Justin Wolf from Nordrhine-Westfalia was the sole amateur to make it into the top 10, his 58'31 netting him the 8th place, one place and six seconds ahead of Domenic Weinstein, 5th at the Rio Olympics on the track. Lars, my minute man, would end up 19th, with 1h01'19". My teammate Richard Stockhausen, who made himself a name with a 4th place in 2011, would finish 14th as 4th best amateur, just barely beating the hour with a 59'49'.

Upon finishing my run, however, not only was I completely unaware of the numbers or the placings above, but these were utterly irrelevant. I hugged my teammates and supporters who had been driving our follow-up cars, and if someone had reached me a bottle of champagne, I would have celebrated on the spot as if we had won. The exact meaning of what had just taken place was lost on me at that moment, but there was a sense of fulfilment unlike any previous run. I came, I did what I do best to the best of my abilities at that point in time, and had tremendous fun while doing it.

After a quick shower and change of clothes, Paulus, the team owner, drove with me back to Munich; the rest of the team would also do the road race on Sunday, which I had decided against, giving my spot to one of the newer kids in the team for his first time at the Nationals. We got home just before midnight and I still wrote a couple of messages, tried to find photos and reports, and caught up with the results from national championships across other countries before collapsing in bed for a well-earned night of sleep.

- - -

The following day, there was a message on voice mail. It was Gean, in his unmistakable style and voice: 
"Man. The fastest time trial of my life, at (a race in Uruguay), I had a 29 average. That was over 15 kilometres and it was completely flat. I just heard of what you did over three times the distance with all those hills. Twenty-f*cking-eight. With one month of training on your legs. Seriously, f*ck you. That was the most awesome ride and time. First or second-last doesn't matter. Hats off for your guts to go and face these guys. If you were still racing here, you'd be on the podium today. Don't forget that."

- - -

This post is not complete without some acknowledgments. To those that took care and helped me stay the course over turbulent waters. To those that, in good times as well as hard times, wrote, called and kept me in their prayers. To those that inspired me and those that drew inspiration, and in doing so motivated me to attempt to go further. 

From the bottom of my heart: thank you.

Repeating what I wrote almost five years ago,
"Chances are, if you are reading this, you have a stake in these accomplishments, and I have a debt of gratitude to you. Thank you all for the pleasure of sharing the way along these roads over the past ten fifteen years."