It’s the time of year where I pack up a backpack and a bike box and head to Europe. Lots of cyclists do it for various reasons, and there are quite a number of Australian cyclists who do it to ply their trade, or attempt to crack into professional cycling. I’m quite a long way removed from all that. For me, traveling to Europe to race my mountain bike involves the joy of travel, the experience of racing at a high level where you can nothing but learn and hurt, visiting friends and meeting new ones, and experiencing cultures that change with ridge lines.
Having just arrived in mainland Europe, I know what I’m doing everyday from now until when I leave. Things are changing. Gone are the times where I flew over without a ticket home. I know I can’t change my flight back on a whim to allow an extra five weeks, as I did last year. Instead, I feel a little underprepared for the next few weeks, and a little bit disappointed that I haven’t allowed the time to visit friends in Antwerp, or Gryon, Pezinok, or Zurich. The opportunity to do big isolated days in the Graubunden region is not on the itinerary, nor is any stage racing in Poland or Swiss Marathons. While packing up at home, the usual trepidation was evident. Should I really be going? Why don’t I just stay home and get a real job? But driving through the Stubaital en-route to the Sudtirol yesterday, listening to FM4 and the feeling of limitless possibilities was hard to ignore. What if I went there? What if I did this? I wonder if… I find it hard not to feel completely electric, and wiping a grin off my face is pretty hard.
So not seeing friends, and just getting out and enjoying and exploring areas hurts. But it also shows what a different stance I’ve had on the whole thing for the past few years. I’m spending three weeks in Europe, doing a the Dolomiti Superbike and TransAlp Stage Race, with a few days riding in Livigno in-between. I’ll be with at least one team mate (Naomi Hansen) this whole time, with other team mates like Kath Bicknell, Will Hayter and Stu Spies all making appearances in that time too. What a great trip! To think that such a great three weeks doesn’t feel like enough is purely selfish.
At the heart of it is the desire to explore the European Alpine regions more extensively. A mountain bike, some legs and a reasonable cardiovascular system can take you to some amazing places in ‘the old country’. But each time I’m here, it’s hard not to gaze a little further upwards, into the rarified air of the higher mountains. The places that tyre treads don’t allow you to go. These are the places that some sturdy footwear, a steady mind and a good selection of mountain skills can take you. Riding near true mountaineering test pieces is always awe inspiring.
Or look down and along the valley. At times, the vision of a fully laden cycle tourist has made me glad that’s not really my end of the sport. But increasingly – it is. Predominantly self-sufficient travel from point to point is a gorgeous thing – and Europe holds many cycle touring possibilities. Lining up for TransAlp with my Subaru-MarathonMTB.com Team mate Naomi Hansen will be great, and I’m really excited about racing in a mixed pair this year. But what about packing a backpack, and designing your own route? The rewards seem immense – as does the hardship and challenge.
So I think it’s the case of being a positively toxic lifestyle. Far removed from a drug addiction, alcoholism, or a gambling problem – yearning to experience an area via a multitude of sporting disciplines has so many positives, and by and large is socially acceptable. However it does border on the realms of believability for a lot of people – and the reality that a few months of sporting and self exploration each year isn’t maintainable is upon me. Memories of being asked ‘The Big Three’ multiple times in 2010 have come back:
“Are you Pro?” – no.
“Don’t you have a job?” – well sort of
“So how do you support yourself?” – what do you really need?
They were tricky questions to answer, but ones that always made you realise how much fun you were having – even with days of alpine misery, heavy hunger flats or racing with nothing but tunnel vision.
2012 must be the time for a reality shift. Three weeks is ample time for a holiday in an area. Three months is either greedy or inefficient. But sitting here in the Dolomites, each little valley catches your eye as you follow it upwards, past sun terraces in the forest, beyond the tree line, and to the rocky crags and snow patches above. There’s always somewhere else to go here!