Personal limits and gender

Since cycling over Mont Cenis pass and into Italy, Liam and I have completely overhauled our preconceived definitions of personal limits for this trip. The past three weeks we have spent cycling through the Italian and Swiss Alps, and it is has been one incredible challenge. Whereas a month ago I would have vehemently argued that I could not cycle a loaded touring bike up a gradient steeper than 10%, I can now confirm (supported by Garmin data!) that I can manage a gradient of 25%. Some days, 10% has been a welcome relief. The Italian Alps do not mess around.

Immediately after descending Col de Mont Cenis, we tackled Col de Lis, which felt harder and with steeper sections than both Cenis and Forclaz. Then, after Lis, we ended up climbing a small pass to a village called Monti, which was the hardest things I have done in my life. I was in tears at the top from the sheer exertion required to push down my pedals. I told myself I could not do it. Repeatedly. I told Liam that I could not do it. Repeatedly. My bike kept falling over sideways because I could not pedal it. I could not get back on as my bike was trying to roll backwards down the hill. I cycled 8m sections at a time. And I got there.

And then, there was the supposed “easy day.” Which turned out to be the hardest day yet. This time I had proper tears, not just from physical exertion, but from the emotional labour required to cycle up steeper and steeper hills, which just when you thought it was all over, constantly gave you surprises of even more severe gradients. I met self doubt with exhaustion repeatedly, and I pushed them aside. I had to take a time out to cry very loudly, whilst eating a tin of mackerel. It drained me.

We’ve both found it really hard, but Liam has found it less hard than me. We think the reason for this lies somewhere between him having better gears and well, him being a man who is six years my junior! I’ve found it very difficult to admit to myself, and also to Liam, that I’m reaching my physical limit. I have pride, so it turns out, in my mental and physical toughness. I don’t want to be weaker than Liam, and I want to carry as much as him and be as fast as him. I am learning that I can’t. Despite challenging gender inequality in every day life, I am learning there are undeniable biological differences between Liam and I that I have to acknowledge.

Initially, I think my experience of cycling meant that we were about equal. He carried a little more weight on his bike than I did, but really not that much. Now the tide is turning! It’s fine most of the time, but on the steeper hills (over 9%), I just don’t have the physical strength to push down that pedal for very long. My legs fail me and I need rests all the time. I feel weak and frustrated with myself. I wander into emotional and physical difficulty and I berate myself.

After an emotional day of struggling, Liam and I had a big chat and he helped me see reason. It’s logical that he should carry more stuff than me, and it’s also logical that my physical limit is different to his. Try telling my pride that! But, I’m really trying to overcome it. It is a hard thing for me to accept I have physical limits, and ask Liam for help.

I’ve discussed this issue with a few fellow cycle tourer warm showers hosts. Eduardo (more on him later!) simply commented that of course Liam should carry more, he is the man. Another couple, Chris and Keith, reassured me that I am strong, and it is a good thing to learn and acknowledge your physical limits. Keith said he learnt from his trip that he needs to be aware of his physical limits and respect them.

Although in my heart I know that I am strong, and that it is OK to have limits and ask for support, the experience of meeting my limits and feeling so deflated had left me lacking in confidence. Self-doubt and frustration were ruling my head when we set off from the Warm Showers host to climb two more mountain passes, San Bernadino (2018m) and Albula (2300m). There were tears before 11am, and I kept telling myself I could not cycle up the mountain. I had to fight back tears because I felt so deflated.

Well, I made it. We got over the two passes and actually it felt a lot easier than some of the ones we had done before. Partly this was due to us leaving some of our gear behind, having a rest day and inflating my tyres (doh). Interestingly, the Albula pass was actually even harder than Forclaz, but we are stronger now. I am stronger now, even though I don’t feel it.

I am absolutely loving everything about this trip and what we are doing, but that does not mean it is always easy. I am loathed to discuss difficult topics because I know I have chosen this path, and I fear sounding like a whinger/moaner. Yet, incredible adventures are not always just about having fun. They are about finding your limits, meeting the worst parts of yourself, pushing through anxiety and batting away those self critical voices. I have spent some parts of every day over the last few weeks either in tears, or close to them. But, I am happy.

I am also extremely happy to now be resting in an Air Bnb with Liam’s parents! I need some rest, my muscles and bones ache. It is nice to have dry feet, a roof over my head, a shower, a fridge and nowhere to be. We’ve covered 2400km with 27,500 of ascent, and it is time to have a break!

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