In the lead-up to Christmas, I felt assured that the essential winter training had done its job. I was well prepared for the oncoming days of excessive eating, drinking and wearing garish woolly jumpers, especially after spending two weeks of December in Gran Canaria, tackling the climbs along with my team-mates whilst dressed in military uniforms.
I must give it to the team: those jerseys looked cool and succeeded in provoking the feeling of “Operation Lockdown” that every bike rider associates with January 1. I almost felt the need to paint my face with camouflage in order to complete the outfit.
As a bike rider, I’m used to preparation. Days, weeks and months are planned ahead of races. Eat, train, sleep… And yet, whenever a race approaches, there is always the nervous feeling of uncertainty. Have I done everything properly? Am I strong enough? Do my legs look trim or do I need to suck in my cheeks a little when Bjarne sees me?
As was the case when I landed home in Denmark on December 22. The icy wind hit me in the face along with the chilling realisation that I’d yet to buy a single present.
In previous years, when faced with the same scenario, I’ve often tried to save face by quickly scribbling down a handmade gift voucher (don’t tell me I’m the only one who has done this?)
Dear Mum, thanks for everything, here’s a voucher for a homemade meal anytime you want. You’re the best! Love Chris.
But I felt four years in a row was perhaps a little inadequate, especially as I’ve yet to serve up a single one of those meals. Probably for the best, to be honest.
If only I had some of my handmade papier mâché napkin rings that were ever so popular back when I was in 4th year at school…
So I was faced with the daunting task of buying all my gifts in the dying seconds of the game. This would be my very own 1999 Champions League Final. I was to be the Solskjær of Christmas!
In order to succeed, I needed to consider the coming days as if it was a stage race. Buying presents was the prologue. Short and painful but the Tour de France without a prologue doesn’t really work, does it?
I made quick work of distancing any desperate shopper who tried to follow my heels through the panicking crowds. Had they ever fought to get into the decisive echelon in Qatar? I think not. Standing in line in need of help, I raised my arm and shouted “SERVICE!” half expecting an employee to come running with a new wheel.
I even put my Kilimanjaro experience to good use and turned any shop assistant willing to help into my personal Sherpa. On several occasions, security was almost called after I asked for my bags to be carried up to my fifth floor apartment.
Having successfully wrapped all presents – I only buy square-shaped objects to avoid any difficulties – I was ready for the festivities to begin.
I consider December 24th to the 28th as crucial mountain stages, four days where I have to perform to the best of my ability: good behaviour and a substantial appetite. I can’t run the risk of losing face in front of my father-in-law by turning down the final serving of rice pudding (the pre-Sanremo meal is a starter compared to this). Peaking at the perfect moment is key.
Nonetheless I am still a bike rider and therefore automatically programmed to feel bad whenever I have an extra mince pie. It usually ends with having one too many and telling myself that’s it okay. From January 1, I’ll be serious. I will, I will, I will…
Of course, there is plenty of training to be had during the holidays. As the stress from family lunches, Christmas carols and crying children mounts, the home trainer becomes my own little sanctuary. What Christmas can do to a man…
Alone in the basement, I escape into my imaginary world of Belgian commentators, riding solo in Flanders and the smell of heat cream. For every extra interval or hour spent out in the cold, the urge to pin on a race number again grows and grows.
The excitement of re-entering the peculiar world and mindset of an elite athlete increases parallel to the feeling of despair when you realise the off-season is soon over. You wish for it to end, it’s time to get back to business and yet you feel as though it’s only just started. All the things I didn’t get to do… (hang on a minute, I climbed Kilimanjaro, not bad).
The bitter cold at Sanremo, fighting for position before Arenberg, my first Grand Tour, the Giro in Ireland, Rogers winning on the Zoncolan, the World Championships, writing blogs for 1. So many experiences, and as we jump into this season, I make myself the promise that 2015 will be even better.
And that now I’ll be serious… I will!! Okay, after the obligatory January 1 McDonalds meal, I have been serious. Promise.