A Journey Around the British Isles … Part 84
And having cycled up the hill to this great library, my next move is to cycle all the way down it again to find the road that will take me over an altogether bigger hill. A mountain range in fact. The Cambrian Mountains.
At one time the term was applied to any upland region of Wales but has now come to refer to this area of North Ceredigion and Powys. A district known for centuries as the Elenydd and sometimes called “The Desert of Wales”. It hasn’t the dramatic peaks of Snowdonia or the brooding beauty of the Brecon Beacons. It doesn’t attract holiday makers by the barrel. There’s nowhere up here to stay and many would say that there isn’t much to see. They would be wrong as such people usually are. This is the sparsely populated centre of the nation. This is where the Wye, The Severn, The Teifi, the Towey and the Elan all rise. This was proposed as a National Park at a time when such decisions were made in England and was refused. This is more than a national park. The Elenydd is a national treasure.
I’m going to get a taste of it. I’m using a road of course, and the real beauty of the Elenydd is it’s lack of roads, its lack of access, its remoteness. I’m following the northern boundary but there is plenty of high moorland beyond in every direction. Here is a part of our supposedly over-populated island where you can walk for days and not see another person.
But first I’ve got to get up there. The Severn and the Wye are the UK’s longest and fifth longest rivers. They rise within a few miles of each other. Indeed they enter the sea together as well. Between them they flow over 350 miles. In order to have that distance of downhill they must start pretty high up. The mountain I’m about to climb is different to all the other climbing I’ve done in Wales. Here it is one very long pull for many miles followed by the longest freewheel in the country.
There is no downhill at all for the first twenty miles. It’s a gradual ascent out of town. Aber keeps its charm all the way. It even copes with a retail park or two without making the place look either homogenous or shabby. If the whole world is starting to look like Luton then Aberystwyth has managed to buck the trend. Houses grow more prosperous as they become fewer. It a day of strong breezes and they swirl around the built up areas. It’s not easy to tell which direction the wind blows but it’s either behind me or my legs have undergone a remarkable recovery. As the gentle uphill continues I realise that it is both. I’m feeling superbly strong and I’ve got the wind in my sails. It is remarkable what a good night’s sleep will do.
How can I have such a reduced lung capacity and yet be able to cycle with such power? It works something like this. My legs are strong from weeks of pedalling. Any energy I can send to them is going to be used very efficiently. My calves have been like the stages of a butterfly. They commenced more than a little out of condition. I’m a naturally fit person and even during my resting period I undertake a good deal of physical activity. Even so, my legs were decidedly flabby at the beginning of the tour. By Scotland the muscle definition became more and more obvious and I was rather proud of them. Through Ireland they went from looking powerful to becoming powerful. The more powerful they became the less powerful they looked. Well into the latter part of my journey they were now skinny. They didn’t look anything like as strong as they had while pedalling through Dumfries and Galloway but they were now producing nearly twice as many watts per kilogram. If I could get oxygen to these limbs then the hills would provide few problems.
But I was suffering from a lung infection that reduced my air intake significantly, had me wheezing while walking upstairs in the hotel and yet I was climbing all the hills that mountainous Wales could throw at me. The answer lies not in the lungs but with erythrocytes. Red blood cells to you and me. These are the principle means of carrying oxygen around the body. The more red blood cells, the more oxygen is circulated, the more energy you have for your legs to turn into power. High levels of fitness means high levels of erythrocytes. Professional cyclists have long known this and have long used any means of increasing their red blood cell count (for the race but not for the drug testers.) The two finest exponents of this pharmaceutical art were Marco Pantani and Lance Armstrong.
Pantani was the finest climber of his generation and a man who could electrify a mountain stage of any grand tour. He was also widely suspected of being an EPO user. EPO is a synthesised protein that stimulates the production of red blood cells. It’s mis-use in professional cycling had long been known in the cycling community and came to light with well publicised drug busts on members of cycling teams. It’s secret use was what allowed Lance Armstrong to become the most feted athlete on the planet before being reduced to the most famous cheat. The story is perhaps best told in Tyler Hamilton’s book, The Secret Race where he repeatedly calls the drug Edgar. (Short for Edgar Alan Poe which sounds a bit like EPO).
Cycling has long forgiven its cheats so long as they didn’t break the eleventh commandment: Thou Shalt Not Be Found Out. Hamilton himself was a frequent EPO user but his work in uncovering what was going on and how it was being got away with tilts the scales. The three men cycling can most thank for exposing the fact that the best chemists rather than the best athletes were taking the palmarès, are Paul Kimmage, Christophe Bassons and David Walsh. One a professional cyclist who refused to dope, one a professional cyclist who became a respected journalist and one a journalist. All three suffered greatly to expose the problem. All three could and should have got support from the cycling authorities and all three were badly let down by those authorities.
Professional cycling is now largely a clean sport. Not only do we have the testers words for it and health and fitness passports and the close scrutiny of a passionate following where cheating is deplored. The cleaner nature of the cyclists can be seen in the same features that I myself am now displaying. When Pantani was riding away from the pack in the high alps he was doing it with abnormal sized legs for so small a man. When Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome were doing the same they were doing it with legs like pipe cleaners.
I wasn’t taking as much air into my lungs as I would like but what oxygen I was sucking down was finding no shortage of red blood cells to carry it to legs , arms and brain. No illegal substances for Simon. Just a surfeit of cooked breakfasts and a million rotations of the pedals. I was making good progress up a very big mountain and I was enjoying every rotation.