How the love of your bike can lead you to the love of your life

A few days ago, it was Valentine ’s Day. “Oh , don’t remind me!” I can hear you shout with disgust. I understand. Valentine’s Day is a day with noble intentions: A special day set aside to remember and celebrate the love and relationships in your life. But for so many it has become a painful reminder of the pain and sadness caused by relationships (or the lack thereof). I personally feel that this day has been ruined by commercialism and so my wife and I do not really celebrate it. For us, doing things when we feel like it, and not when commercialism dictates, works best. In the spirit of St. Valentine’s, this blog is all about the successes (or disasters, as you will see) of love and relationships. Of course, if it was not for my bicycle, I never would have met my wife.

Family picture

When I first arrived as a young student at Imperial College in London, it was like I have come to another planet. Everything was overwhelming. Settling in was extremely tough. My first accommodation was at a place run by the Opus Dei. If you have read the Da Vinci Code, you can imagine that there were very strict rules and curfews in place. It was a good arrival point to London: This place gave me all that I would need in terms of accommodation, housekeeping and food on the table. But I am an independent person and so with no specific complaints, I wanted to get out from there to live life by my on rules. I got myself a one bedroom flat. As a consequence I could not always afford bus or tube fares but would do the 2-hour commute every day from North London to South Kensington by bicycle.
I had worked very hard to get where I was. I certainly did not have time for dating or much socialising. Studying was the focus and that suited me. My parents were always very worried about me because I could not dance. In Colombia, if you cannot dance, then your romantic prospects are doomed. They paid for lessons in the hope that I would learn how to dance but to no avail. Two bad ears and two left feet are not a good combination. I had a sister, who was also my best friend and close confidant for many years. She tried to teach me to dance. Unfortunately, she was also unsuccessful. When my sister died (perhaps a story for a later time) I threw myself into my studies for a very long time. I did not really mind to be honest. I did not want to deal with the outside world and it was my way of keeping my mind occupied.

All that changed of course when, one day, by chance I literally stumbled upon the girl that was to become my wife. I was cycling back home from a tough day at the university. My mind was especially occupied. I would often use my cycling time to work out difficult problems I would come across in my studies and for stress relief. That day was no exception. I would be so deeply engaged in thought at times that I would even cycle past my destination by mistake (something that also happens if I take another form transport). Although, I did not pass the flat on that day, instead something much worse happened. Luckily, this occurrence actually ended up to be quite wonderful in the end.

I was cycling through Hampstead Heath, a beautiful park in London. A girl was sitting nearby on a bench, reading a book. She was one of many people on that gorgeously sunny day out reading and enjoying the sunshine. As I was cycling through, I cycled into one of the many ponds dotted around! This particular girl went over to see if I was okay. I was all wet and I felt very embarrassed. “Are you okay?” she asked, and then I said something that was completely out of character. (Don’t ask me how this came out of my mouth!) “I am okay” I replied, “…but I think we need to meet again when I am dry”. She looked at me in silence and for a moment I thought that I had just made a colossal mistake. But to my astonishment, she smiled. And it was one of the most beautiful smiles I have ever seen. “Okay” she said and we exchanged details. The rest, as they say, is history…

Sometimes the biggest accidents in life lead to the greatest discoveries. This girl turned out to be the love of my life. We have been married for close to 9 years now and we have a wonderful little girl. I have been really lucky to have found her.

PROGRESS UPDATE
A lot of things have happened during the last weeks. Training is going well (despite the bad weather we had last week). Many Rotary Clubs around the UK have offered their help and support. All these contributions (as well as a detailed account of my training) deserve a single blog post, so that is what I intend to do for the following blog posts. Please keep coming back and of course, keep on donating!

Donate: http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/cyclerotary

Web: http://www.portobellorotary.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/portobellorotary/

Twitter: @Rotary_Porty

End Polio Now

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Scotsmen and men in tights: They have more in common than you think!

If you have read previous blog posts you might now that I am not British, but I consider Scotland as home and I have proudly worn its national dress on many occasions. It is this experience and the intense cycling training that I am undergoing that has led me to establish various links, as well as discuss some common “myths”

 

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1. A real man wears tights and skirts
‘Why does that man wear a skirt?’It is the question that tends to get on the nerve of every Scot. Those of a more sensitive disposition might even see it as a veiled insult. But to outsiders, it is a perfectly natural question to ask. In all fairness to our visitors, to the uneducated eye, the kilt does look like a skirt. ‘It looks silly!’ I’ve seen many a tourist smirk. The same problem arises with cycling clothes. To the novice, the question: ‘Why do you wear tights?’ is also quite standard and acceptable to ask. Let’s face it, tights and skirts are not ‘traditional men’s attire’.

 

It is only when you delve deeper into the reasons behind the wearing of these items of clothing that you come to appreciate it. The kilt is centuries old. It is not only a piece of clothing, but also a symbol of the individuality and defiance of a nation that has fought fervently over the centuries to protect their customs and way of life. When a visitor understands the history behind it, it seizes to be seen as a silly costume but rather what it is: Attire of historical importance. It is a symbol of strength and a unique identity that can only be worn with pride.

 

Cycling gear sits tightly. It improves aerodynamics, reduces weight and on certain occasions can also prevent accidents. If you are new to the sport, the padding in the shorts might make you feel like you are wearing an oversized nappy. It can be hard to get used to at first. But after your first long ride without the right attire, the reason behind wearing tights with a built-in nappy becomes very apparent as you nurse your chafing and saddle sores. Over the years, cycling shorts have become a symbol of endurance, strength and going the extra mile.
To an outsider, both pieces of attire can look very silly. It is only after some education and experience that these outsiders also come to realise the importance and beauty of it all… and why men have to wear them, and proudly so.

2. Commando is the word!
The greatest of myths around kilts, just as with cycling shorts, it is the “norm” not to wear underwear underneath it. Even so, many still do. I always find it intriguing that people become so interested in what goes on in the underwear department as soon as you put on a kilt. This fascination is also sparked when you walk around wearing cycling shorts! Yes, I have seen their questioning  expressions… So, do I wear underwear? It’s for me to know…

3. The real pioneers of Man bags.
In 2006 there was an article in The Guardian newspaper on the advent of the man bag: A fashion satchel to be worn like a traditional handbag. Years ago, most men won’t be seen dead clutching anything that even remotely resembled a purse. The Scots have been centuries ahead of the rest of the country (world) it seems. The sporran, traditionally worn with the kilt is the world’s first ever man bag. A foreign comedian (okay, not too foreign, just English) Michael McIntyre, jokingly referred to it as the ‘cock bag’ because of its location. Cyclists also have something similar (albeit on the opposite side), three handy shirt pockets at the lower back.  f you are in need of more storage space you can also use a very practical saddle bag. For ease of reference, I decided to collectively refer to these useful items as ‘bum bags’!

4. Flashy flashes for a kilt, flashy lights for a bike.
My wife always jokes that I look like a Christmas tree when I go out cycling: A high viz jacket, two (flashing) lights on my helmet and additional lights and reflectors on the bike makes for an elaborate advertisement for road safety. Even so, I am happy to be visibly kitted out. The ‘flashier’ the better. The same can be said for highland dress. Highland dress is very distinctive. Even with just a kilt and a plain shirt on, you will stand out from the crowd. But it is not proper highland dress in the complete sense of the word if it does not also come with long flashes to keep up the socks, kilt pins, a Sghian-dubh (that famous knife that never goes through airport security) and of course, for a real formal do: A Bonnie Prince Charlie jacket which might also make you look a little bit like a woman to the untrained eye… isn’t that bonnie what our Charlie did?

 

Who would have known that men in tights had so much in common with men in kilts?    I think I will be wearing a fair amount of both this year as I train and go from Rotary Dinner to Rotary Dinner to raise awareness for this project and End Polio Now. I hope I will need more than one bum bag to fill up with all your generous donations. Why don’t you do something today that will make yourself feel as proud as I feel when I wear a kilt (and my cycling gear)? Why not donate to End Polio Now and help me to eradicate this terrible disease? Now is as good a time as any. Any kind of help, no matter how small will be greatly appreciated. So, please share this blog with your friends and do what you can and let’s feel good. Thank you!

 

Progress Update

Training continues as planned. More Rotary Clubs continue to give us a hand in many ways. The Rotary Clubs of Annan, Pitlochry and Cheadle & District have all offered accommodation along the route. As I have mentioned before, not having to pay for hotels is a great way to help because the equivalent amount of money is then added by myself into the total funds raised for this project. On a worthy note… Rotarians of Cheadle & District will be travelling to India to take the battle against Polio on their own hands. They will participate in a National Immunisation Day!

More information:

Twitter: @Rotary_Porty

The benefits of anger

I am angry. I am angry because we live in a world where many children cannot reach their full potential because Polio still exists. Especially because we are so close to eradicating it, but yet so far… Many children may know how angry they can get but not how far anger can take them. Yes, you read that correctly. Anger can take you places. I learned that one day purely by chance when I was a teenager in the Colombian countryside. Once again, my bicycle is part of the story.

It’s a heart stopping, knuckle whitening drive on winding highway roads up a steep mountain path to Ubaté, the town of my ancestors. Slow diesel trucks and “flotas” (colourful buses) with Jesus or Mary painted on the back abound on this stretch of road, the main artery connecting country to the capital. My mother would pray and swear at the same time as my dad swerved past these slow hindrances at breakneck speed, narrowly missing the oncoming vehicles driving in the opposite direction. This is hardly the worst stretch of road in the country. Highways anywhere in Colombia connect major towns and cities and comprise of a narrow, winding pass snaking its way up and around mountains on top of more mountains. Throw into the mix the occasional landslide, a sprinkling of livestock or people in the road and a dollop of potholes and you have created the perfect recipe for anybody to re-examine their stance on the afterlife more than once. Along the way, stars, shrines and crosses mark where people have died. Yes, driving on the highway in Colombia can turn anyone into a philosopher.

But for a boy, who grew up there, thinking about the afterlife was usually the last thing on my mind as we swerved and dodged our way to Ubaté. I was mostly thinking about how I was going to get away to do some cycling.

Ubaté is a town built on the plains of a river basin. It is a very fertile plain, ideal grazing ground for cattle. Wispy, long green grass covers the landscape and some areas are so wet that sometimes marches form after heavy rains. Eucalyptus and pine trees grow everywhere. The black, wet soil is favourable for anything to grow if the rains come and many locals plant corn, fruit trees and vegetables on the little patches of land that they have. Chickens, dogs, goats and cattle often roam freely. In anyway, for a little boy on a bike, this world offered endless diversion and challenges. Dogs became lions, cows became elephants and Ubaté became a place where you could have endless adventures.

As a child I never ventured too far from the house but sometimes my extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, nieces and everyone else with some connection to the family would go for a walk up the surrounding Gualá Mountains. At the top, we would all have a rest, eat lunch and enjoy the view before heading back down. This bit was always great, especially when the ground was wet and muddy. You could just slide on your bottom, something my mom was never happy about come laundry day! I always wondered what it would be like to ride down those steep mountains on my bicycle. But, as a boy, I never went with my bike. It was very steep and very far and there were many rabid dogs along the way. My dad always used to say that it could not be done.

DSCN3912Gualá Mountains – Yes. They do have a path to be climbed… not by many with a bicycle.

As I reached my teenage years, Ubaté ceased to be this amazing world of adventure and rather turned into a shabby patch of land in the middle of nowhere. I saw things for what (I thought) they were: Dogs were dogs and cows were cows. As far as Ubatè was concerned, it was a case of “been there, done that” for me. There were no real challenges left for me to overcome…apart from the Gualá mountains.

It was on one of those lazy Saturday mornings at the farm house that I discovered the power of Anger. I don’t even remember why I was angry. I just remember that I was very, very angry. And so, as it happens still today, without a thought or a plan in my head, I took my bicycle and went for a ride. Normally, I would pedal until I felt better and go back home. But after 30 minutes I still did not feel any better. I kept on cycling until, as if per chance, I was halfway up the Gualá mountain before I realised what I have done. My legs burned and sweat started to sting my eyes. Every time I tried to stand up to continue pedalling, the wheels would slide on the gravel. If I sat right on the back of the saddle, the front wheel would lift up. It was a challenge. I could walk and push my bike, but that would feel like losing. Not an emotion that would mix well with anger!

When I reached the top (please do not ask after how long), my throat was burning and I had no energy left in my legs. The only thing that I could find to quench my thirst were these plants with thick roots called Pepinos de Agua (water cucumbers). I ate them as I looked down onto the valley below. I could not believe that I had reached the top. My feelings of anger were replaced by feelings of accomplishment. I was now driven by the thrill to fly back down the steep pass all the way home on my bicycle as fast as I could. I could not wait to tell my parents what I did. Funnily enough, other family members later on commented on seeing me and not believing their eyes. A bicycle that high up the mountains was unheard of.

I never would have conquered those mountains on that day if it was not for Anger. Negative emotions are no fun, but I learned that they can be very useful. Use them. Take strength from them. Channel them…put them to good use. Nowadays I am not (always) angry. I used to be very angry for a very long time but cycling helped me. Feel it, let it strengthen you…use it for good and then, let it go.

I promise that I will channel all my emotions, good and bad to successfully complete my ride between Land’s End and John O’Groats. I now need you to channel your thoughts on how you should best support me in this challenge. Ride with me, contact your local newspaper, donate and do what you can. I say it yet again… I cannot do it without you. If you want some ideas on how some people are already contributing then continue reading below.

PROGRESS UPDATE

Training has been going well. Last week I cycled 289 km and climbed 620 m. I trained for a total 11 hours and 37 minutes. The longest ride was 84 km which I completed in 3 hours and 46 minutes.

If you have been reading my blogs you will know that several Rotary Clubs around the UK have pledged their support. But let me tell you about the most recent contributions:

(1) The Rotary Clubs of Carlisle Castle and Carlisle South will join efforts to make bucket collections on the day I cycle through the city. They will also attempt to contact the local press for me to be interviewed.

(2) Rotarians from the Rotary Club of St Ives will join from the beginning of the ride in Land’s End and accompany me until St Ives where the local press will also be contacted, pictures taken and funds hopefully raised.

(3) The Rotary Club of Dalkeith has offered to join me for a short distance along my ride.

There are other Rotary Clubs discussing how best to support me and thinking about how to help to eradicate polio. I will keep telling you about their ideas and progress. For now just remember: You, dear reader, with your contribution however small, can also make history today. So, channel those emotions and do something good. End Polio Now.

More information:

Twitter: @Rotary_Porty