14.7.17

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 two pages 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.

28.6.17

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."

13.6.17

Missed the boat

He had figured all the answers.
The questions changed.

He figured them anew. Did not even take that long.
Surprise! New questions. Trickier ones.

As long as you have a mechanism for finding answers, it doesn't matter.
The mechanism failed.

So what. If you do it with love, you will never lose.
He did, and he lost.

Nothing makes sense, I'll buy new carbon wheels and ride my balls off.
Two surgical interventions later, they almost did.

- - -

Well nothing ever went // Quite exactly as we planned (...)

But this is a fine promotion, and I shall laugh all my way to hell...

- - -

Beat that, Murphy.

6.5.17

Ultra Violence

It was June and I was busy with another series of hill repeats up Schäftlarn, coasting down to the river for recovery in between the interval work. As so oft happens, the right mirror came within a few centimeters of hitting my left arm. Had I veered left instead of right to avoid a pothole, just two seconds before, it would likely have caught me, sending me flying with potentially devastating consequences. I graphically flipped the driver off - who in return braked hard, screeching his vehicle to a halt just a few meters ahead of me. He stepped off, a man in his 50's, and facing me, demanded an apology. How dare I offend this honest man who is just trying to get to work?

"Sir", I retorted, "you could have literally killed me. Signalizing my frustration in such circumstances is the least I can do". He wouldn't have it. "I may have committed a minor traffic infraction by driving too close, but you, you have offended me. I can't let this pass". If I didn't have my heart on my throat from the past intervals and the incident, perhaps I could have articulated a better response. Or perhaps I should have had the police number on speed dial: fearing a retort - after all he did have one-and-a-half tons of metal at his disposal to just run me over, whereas all I had was my lycra armour and seven kilograms of fine carbon fiber - I gave him the apology he wanted and let it go.

- - -

When coming home from rides to the Southeast, I usually ride the last block on the "wrong" side of the sidewalk, in order to avoid two left conversions across traffic. Given the pedestrian traffic due to the nearby subway station, "riding" here usually means just rolling along at a very leisurely pace. Yes, there is a cycling path right next to the sidewalk, but with it being on the same grade as the road, and in between the bus and the car lanes, the conditions are not exactly inviting for riding against the flow there.

Someone had again steered their car dangerously close to our group, on the way back another had converted left in an intersection right in front of me, ignoring my right of way. I had even bothered to get the license plate of the last one, but thought I shouldn't ruin this otherwise pleasant day filing a complaint. I rode on, coming out of Karwendel Str. and taking the southern sidewalk on Albert-Roßhaupter-Str. to convert left again less than 200m later. Another cyclist rode a few meters ahead, likely heading to the bicycle stands under the train tracks in front of Harras station, with me following slowly as we slalomed between pedestrians and bus stop shelters.

And then I was hit. It wasn't a hard or particularly painful hit, but nevertheless a solid strike just as I rode past a family, mother, kid, and father. The later, deciding he did not concur with my sidewalk riding, opted to demonstrate his disagreement by punching me on the hips.

I braked and turned around. Caught up with the trio and wished my aggressor a nice day. And added, if tolerating my behaviour was out of question, then still there should be better ways of expressing dissatisfaction with my actions than resorting to gratuitous violence.

In particular, when immediately next to his daughter.

On a sunny Saturday morning.

23.4.17

Road trip

750 kilometers to where the Drac meets the Isère

21 hairpins on the way to the top

48 days later.


A comeback has to start somewhere.

25.3.17

Phoenix

Those had been some hard weeks at work: a trade fair, a colleague on holidays, a new release going out among other pressing deadlines, and those nagging tickets coming in from the support desk. Then the ordeals in cycling, the meetings with team management and sponsors, and training camp preparations, all while riding like a man possessed. Not to mention, well, all that actually matters.

Life has a funny way of sneaking up on you and one could say the writing was on the wall that something had to give. Or perhaps it was indeed a combined hand of improbable events and my recently reaffirmed vows towards the Gods of Yay had no bearing in the ordeals that ensued. Maybe - likely - a mixture of the two.

Previously I had discussed certain virtuous masochistic tendencies and my appreciation of hardships on the way to not at all megalomaniac goals. But, contrary to previous times where such setbacks were faced with the usual dose of enjoyment (!?), the aftermath of the latest events left me in a desolate and bare state, questioning choices and capabilities that I once had taken as unassailable: a whole new meaning to the idea of a lobster with no shell. Interesting times indeed.

- - -

The phrase, "create something from nothing", was found in many a conversation some time ago, but in the case at hand, there was something, only now it's been burnt down to the ground. And I long to foster it anew, hoping to force back some meaning onto what is otherwise essentially chaos.

To constantly re-create oneself, from decaying states that Entropy (ah, Boltzmann, my friend!) strives to steer towards the Void - perhaps in cycles of varying strength. There's a mythological figure for that.

A bird, no less.

13.3.17

Amplitude Spectrum

Fall in love, rush up a mountain to see the sun rise, lead a start-up as it ventures onto new markets, or command a thriving cycling team on its first year racing the Bundesliga: I've recently rediscovered the thrill of reaching for the highest highs.

But in a sudden turn of events, I found myself grasping for dear life, watching powerless as an infection spread and urgent intervention was required. In those few minutes between hearing the diagnosis, signing the disclaimers for the procedure, and being wheeled off to be sedated, there was a sheer panic unlike any I had ever experienced.

As I convalesced, even while absorbing positive news from my recovering state, questions flooded in: would I ever cycle again? How hard should one fight for what he loves, and when is it wise to let go? Who am I, if I'm stripped of what makes me be?

The non plus ultra experiences set the bar for what is the upper limit ever higher, and push me to try and always reach out further. But events such as the latest, experiencing joy simply from being able to carry out activities otherwise taken for granted, remind me just how important it is to remain aware of the fundamental state which still defines us as human beings: the lowest low.

- - -

In between these extremes, the broad range over which it all unfolds.