Wednesday, March 5, 2008
Ninety-nine percent of racing is just not being sick.
Often your first clue is a swallow. You take a sip of a drink and as the muscle contractions cascade down your throat, you feel a change, that something’s not quite right. Asked to put your finger on it and explain the sense, it can be hard to describe; something’s just wrong. An hour goes by and your soft palette grows sore. Then it’s your body’s turn; muscles that may have been flooded with lactic acid in the morning are, just hours later, aching and unwilling to move. You have the flu.
Cyclists are particularly sensitive to the charms of the virus. When we’re in shape, our lack of body fat makes us an easy target. Fat is our body’s savings account and viruses can overdraw our system faster than identity theft. And that is exactly what it feels like. What is happening to me? Why do I feel this way? What happened to my form? Why can’t I ride hard? Who is this sick person? Not me.
And because we cyclists are usually so in touch with our bodies, so aware of each sensation and each change, an illness is a large-scale change. As we cycle between the sweats and the chills we are reminded what it is to be fragile, rather than the specimen of hard-fought athletic efficiency we know ourselves as.
The trappings of the illness—tissues, blankets, soup, cough medicine, Ibuprofen, an endless parade of DVDs and ancient sweatshirts—are Laurel and Hardy comical, but the simple truth of having the flu is that we feel so wretched that we would eat spackle on moldy bread if it came packaged with the promise of instant recovery. Anything that can ease our suffering is welcomed, and that is the surest sign that something is amiss: When does a cyclist go out of his way to avoid suffering?
Whether you’re a good patient or not, many of us feel utterly alien in our own bodies as the illness moves through it’s progression. There’s the bad attitude, sometimes accompanied by some whining, the TV programs you wouldn’t be caught dead watching with your mate, and the eternal twilight caused by sleeping in two-hour shifts.
One morning you wake and even before you put foot to floor, you know. The flu has passed. You have returned to yourself. The real moment of glory comes in that first post-flu ride. The smells can be alternately fresh and mechanical. The sounds are varied as the horns and buzzes of a Spike Jones routine. You can see for miles and all the colors are Kodachrome. Whether you feel fit or not, there is no surer sign that all is right with the world than when you are back on your bike.