The idea of aiming for another marathon toyed with me, probably based on the adage that there’s no fool like an old fool — particularly where I’m involved. But last time I tried that, Berlin 2013, I ended up in a Zurich hospital, writhing on a padded table like a trapped snake, as an exasperated doctor and nurse tried to restrain me long enough to inject steroids into a couple of collapsed vertebrae.
It’s not just time that’s on the attack. I’m at least 20 kilos the wrong side of the plimsoll line. But while desperate profiles call for desperate remedies, this one isn’t quite bad enough to seriously consider a return to the plodding life. Not just yet, anyway. So how else to get the sweat pumping? I have my rowing machine, as I’m reminded every time I stub my toe on the bloody thing. And indoor rowing is a fine activity, but I’ve struggled to establish the sort of routine necessary to melt the midlife lard.
I need to get out more, as people like to advise me. April in Switzerland is wonderful. In fact, every month in Switzerland is wonderful. It’s a hiker’s paradise, and I should get into the hills in the next few weeks to continue my friendship with the Alpine Panorama Trail. I managed the first 5 stages, from the Bodensee, which marks the junction of Germany, Austria and Switzerland, to a sleepy village called Stein. There are 25 more stages before Geneva, and it remains an ambition. It could be done by the autumn if I put my mind to it, but more realistically, I should aim to cross off another five at least, and possibly even ten, other commitments permitting. At least there’s no international football this summer. That said, followers of England need only budget for a three-match commitment these days.
The other obvious Swiss summer outdoor activity is cycling, which is why, a couple of weeks ago, I ventured into our nuclear bunker to check out my trusty old Trek. (Yes, our nuclear bunker – really. Once a mandatory part of every Swiss dwelling.) I’d hoped that some public-spirited neighbour might have cleaned up the bike and had it serviced, but alas, I was left disappointed. I gave it a mournful once-over, but the trusty old Trek is now a rusty old wreck. An enthusiast could probably return it to full health, but I am not that oil-smudged person. Instead, I resolved to take the easier route. As usual, I would throw money at the problem. And what could be more motivating than buying a new set of wheels?
Some research led me to Canyon, the noted German Velo manufacturers. Being an online-only merchant makes their prices competitive, but has the disbenefit of me not being able to enjoy the humiliation of visiting a store to be fitted out by a smirking youth. Instead, the ordering process includes a series of instructions that involve placing a spirit level beneath one’s crotch and attempting to measure the distance between this object and various parts of the body, all while standing up straight and staring straight ahead. They do recommend recruiting an assistant, but I feared that any such request to the women in my work team would have ended up as a report on the desk of someone in HR.
So I had a go at logging these measurements myself, only to be told, in rather uneasy English, that the dimensions of my body appeared to be somewhat irregular, and that I should try again. It seemed easier to cut out the middleman, so I reverse-engineered the process. There were only five possible results of this data entry — XS, S, M, L XL — and I suspected that L might do it. So, I entered a bunch of arbitrary numbers until it gave me this result, and on I went.
My original thought was to order another hybrid, repositioned by Canyon as “Fitness” bikes. But some research into Switzerland’s nationwide network of cycling paths revealed that even those not designated as off-road routes seemed beyond the capabilities of a hybrid. And so, at the age of 59, I opted to buy my first ever mountain bike.
The next speed bump on the road to midlife Adonishood was finding that a trademark dispute means that Canyon can’t sell and ship direct to a Swiss resident. I did some research, and found the procedure followed by many Swissies before me. This meant having the bike delivered to a warehouse in Waldshut, a small town on Germany’s southern border. It’s a popular place for dentists to open wide, attracting those unwilling to spend many thousands of CHFs on routine treatment.
The export-import operation was quicker and less troublesome than feared. Once the notification came, I was off. The drive to Waldshut was less than an hour. I found the depot, signed something at the reception desk, paid about £10 and was sent to the adjoining warehouse with my bit of paper. The place was humming. On a pressure gauge, the needle would have been bouncing around the segment bounded by industriousness and frenzy, while never quite crossing into chaos. At its ugliest it was like the aftermath of a lorry hijack; at its most benign, Christmas morning. Using the box cutters provided, my fellow punters were slashing cartons open and neatly stacking the small squares of cardboard in wire cages. This behavior was less to do with gleeful impatience than the Teutonic enthusiasm for green living. When you buy or collect large packaged goods in Switzerland or Germany, you always have the option of leaving your packaging behind. The car park at IKEA, outside Zurich, has cardboard mountains to rival the real ones visible in the distance.
In my case, the unpacking was a necessity. Without this operation I wouldn’t have fitted the box into my car. It took several attempts to reduce the packaging enough to satisfy the grumpy old guy in brown overalls who kept shouting “Smaller! Make smaller!” and wouldn’t let me leave until I’d sliced the cardboard enough times to get it all in the wire cage without any folding or crushing.
Once I’d got escaped from the bellicose warehouseman, I joined the line at the nearby German customs office to get my paperwork stamped. This confirmed the goods were being exported, and would allow me to claim back the 20% VAT from the vendor. Next, I drove across the Rhine to Switzerland, a journey of a couple of hundred metres, where I parked by the Swiss customs office, declared my imported goods, and paid the 7% Swiss tax. I was now legal.
The remaining task, once I got it home, was to put the thing together. This, I was assured by the blurb and the YouTube videos, would be quick and easy – though with my celebrated boxing-glove dexterity to factor in, I suspected (rightly) that it would be neither of those things. When I was driving to Waldshut to collect it, I allowed myself the fantasy of being in the saddle, swooping down some steep path in the woods, well before sunset. Instead, once I got home and started trying to make sense of the manual, reality reappeared, and the thing defiantly stared at me for a full 24 hours before I starting snipping at the sticky tape that bound its bits together.
Given some brute strength and a smear of assembly paste, the saddle was easy enough to affix, though its firm, lean profile did not strike me as an obvious soulmate for my oversized arse.
The handlebars were more of a challenge, and I had to watch some more YouTube footage before being quite certain I had them pointing in the right direction. The front wheel should have been easy, but the disk brake, presented as an advantage, seemed anything but. Was it really supposed to slot in between those rubber bits? Was it OK to prise them apart with a screwdriver? I hope so, as it was the only way I could fit the thing. I’m still not sure if I have it the right way round. Does it matter if the quick-release lever is on the right or the left? The manual says one thing; YouTube another.
After examining the pump that came with the bike, I realised this was nothing to do with the tyres at all, but the front suspension. Really? This was all new to me. Careful reading of the manual advised me to take it out, bounce around on it for a while, and “measure the sag by using a rubber tie”. Hmm. I checked my wardrobe, but didn’t seem to have one. Becoming disheartened, I attached the pump and spent a minute furiously venting my frustration on it. At this point, I noticed something written on the frame, and peering at it through the sweat dripping from my forehead, saw that it was a list of recommended suspension pressures matched to the rider’s weight. Now they tell me. It seems I should be aiming for 135 PSI, and not the near-200 I’d generated. Next problem – while it was obvious how to get air into the suspension, I couldn’t work out how to get it out again. If only I had that rubber tie, I thought, I could hang myself and put an end to my misery — though admittedly, a rubber noose might have design drawbacks to add to my growing exasperation.
Eventually, after much googling, I was led to a button on the pump that allowed some air to escape, and things were looking up again. The remaining task, attaching the pedals, was mercifully straightforward, though I read the bit about the importance of noting the R and L marks only after I’d attached them the wrong way round.
By now it was a darkening Sunday evening, so my first outing had to wait until I got back from work on the Monday. Of course, there were further delays while I located my helmet, keys for locks, means of carrying said keys, and so on, so it was a while before I was able to haul the bike down the stairs to the waiting world.
So. This is it. After wobbling along the lane for a bit, I realised that thing about unforgettable skills being akin to “like riding a bike” rests on a rather shaky premise. In the interests of public safety, I turned off into the woods at the end of my road. Ah! This is mountain bike heaven, I told myself. And it probably is, but not for the aging plump novice. The wide flattish tracks were ideal, but they soon gave way to smaller, steeper trails that I wasn’t quite sure what to do with. Fortunately, there weren’t many witnesses around to gape as I inched my way downwards and got off to push the bike in the opposite direction.
The following night was more successful, largely because I forewent the woods and headed for the lake. This was more like it. The lakeside path is dead flat, with scenery guaranteed to pacify bike assemblers everywhere. On the outward direction, I was served up spectacular views of the still-snowy mountains beyond Rapperswil, while on the return, it was the distant skyline of Zurich. But it’s the lake itself that creates most of the silent mood music.
And that’s when I had my idea.