Sunday, November 29, 2009

What is the point of Christmas?

I don't celebrate Ramadan but I am told that the feast and the festivities after the fast is wonderful. It is a time for friends and family to exchange gifts, spend time together and enjoy the end of a period of fasting. In Muslim countries, this marking of the end of Ramadan is an event, heralded in the shops, on the street corners and a real tradition. It is part of the culture. I don't celebrate Ramadan because it is linked with Islam and I do not practice that faith. My Scottish friends don't make a big thing out of Christmas, for them New Years is the thing to be celebrated and gifts exchanged! Another year where you have not been wiped out or slaughtered by other murderous highland clansmen is to be celebrated!

Today I walked past my neighbours home and on their lawn they had one of those hot air operated Santa Claus figures. At Hallowe'en they had a hot air and fan operated biker, with an eye patch sitting astride a hog motorcycle, and now there was Santa, deflated and lying face down in the mud. Christmas for many people is rather like that hollow Santa. While they may get involved with the parties, the festivities, the trees, and tell their children fables about fat men who climb down chimneys, when the presents are unwrapped, like the deflated Santa Claus there is nothing left, just empty wrappers and a tree and decorations to put away.

The shops are busy and the stores are blaring Christmas ditties, people worry about what to make for dinner, what to buy. There is the inevitable short lived guilt about the homeless in the city and we put a few dollars in the Salvation Army kettle, or donate a turkey to the Mission. There are the lights, the cards, and above all the cultural pressure to be happy.

I cannot see the point of a non Christian or a non practicing Christian of celebrating Christmas. It is just a pain! For them, Christmas is truly a deflated Santa Claus. It is an empty holiday. While there is comfort in spending time with the family etc, apart from understanding its deeper meaning which is rooted in the birth of Jesus, it is meaningless, even as a cultural festivity.

The reason I dont celebrate the end of Ramadan, or the Indian festival of lights, or Hannukah is simply because I am not a part of those faith traditions. To celebrate a religious festival, or one that has its meaning derived from and an integral part of a faith tradition like Christmas without either having a deep appreciation of those faith based traditions or to practice the faith is pointless.

No wonder Christmas for many people is such a depressing time! Unless they are Christian, they try in vain to find meaning under the colourful wrappers and lights or in trying to get the family together for a hallmark dinner. In the end, these things, like the hollow Santa, are in themselves empty. Thus, rather than celebrating the season, they are left with the cognitive dissonance of wanting to be happy and celebrate and find meaning and at the same time, be aware that it is all a sham. It is trying to separate what they experience from what they think the season should be, that many people find so distressing.

There are those who will say that there are two Christmas celebrations, one religious and one secular. The secular one, with Happy Holidays, and Rudolf and all of that are simply creations of our merchants and card makers, coupled with some sentiments from poetry and glossy memories of past times. When we think of Christmas trees, we imagine the scene from the Nutcracker, when the tree is revealed to the children, a splendid huge thing with lights and of course presents underneath. Children today do not experience the wow factor from looking at an evergreen with a few lights on it. They have X boxes, nintendo and are used to surround sound entertainment. In this age of amusement the Christmas tree has a poor showing.

The idea of gift exchange, is from the Biblical story and the tradition of boxing day came from 19th century England, where wealthy children would put their unwanted toys in their boxes out on the curbs on December 26th for the poorer children. It was the ultimate boxing day sale...things marked down 100%. When we think of gift exchanges, we often think of stories like the Waltons, or other families where gifts were simple and small and from the heart. Simple and small is again a thing of the past. In many of the households I am aware of, the presents for the children and adults could fill a small room. Like the description of the gifts in a Child's Christmas in Wales, most of the presents are the useless presents!

If you remove all aspects of Christianity from Christmas you are left with: Santa Claus...a figure who only appears once a year and is not half as exciting as a handsome prince, a superhero or an X man, Rudolf and the Reindeers? Many drivers find deer a downright hazard on the roads, the Christmas tree, a messy needle dropping affair, cluttered with cracked and faded memories, parties, these can happen any time, family gatherings? There is nothing unique or wondrous about any of these things.

I don't celebrate Ramadan, Kwanza, Hannukah..etc. because I am not part of those faith traditions and because they would be merely good dinners or parties if they were stripped of their faith meanings. Likewise when people try to celebrate the Christian holiday of Christmas without an appreciation or understanding of the Christian faith, there is nothing left, merely some good dinners, an few parties and a needle shedding evergreen in your livingroom. Even the fat man stuck in the chimney would not be so jolly with this!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

HINI Pandemic of poor planning

Children suddenly dying, sick for one day, dead the next, no help. Is it an invasion of it is the HINI virus and the media's sensationalistic coverage of it.

Ontario was ready! Armed with policy analysts and strategists, they decided to set up numerous clinics in out of the way places, open only for a few hours at a time. When the clinics opened, they were flooded with individuals desperate for the vaccine. The lineups rivalled that of Rock concerts. At least in at a Rock concert you are entertained! Here you are in a lineup for the priviledge of receiving health care, something we already pay dearly for in Ontario. The clinics were overwhelmed, the vaccine insufficient. When questioned as to why they were not prepared, one policy analyst, who was responsible for strategic planning, said they did not expect the turnout would be so great.

I can only assume that this analyst has no access to the internet, news or the radio to make such a foolish remark.

After weeks of long line ups, it was decided to hand out bracelets. Here those seeking the vaccine, drive to a remote spot, wait for about an hour, get a bracelet, drive back, wait again and drive home. Not a very green solution and a very poor patch up job for a poorly planned program. The government should be ashamed of itself.

Today I attended one of those lineups. I saw elderly people, the fear visible in their eyes, washing their hands with sanitizer, mothers who wanted to protect their children, working people all waiting in line to get a vaccine that they should receive from the family doctors...but wait...

Family doctors themselves had to apply for the honour of receiving the vaccine. My own doctor applied one month ago, still no sign of the elixir.

The program seeks to inform people by means of the internet. Which is fine, IF you have access to a computer. Many of the elderly people I spoke with today do not. The program also has a long and convoluted message on the city of Ottawa's phone line. No where does it mention you need a bracelet to attend a clinic. Some of the people I spoke with today were misinformed of that.

Most disturbing of all was what I heard from my family doctor. If you receive the HINI vaccine and the regular flu shot in close proximity, your risk for contracting HINI increases. I have seen this information NO where.

Therefore in addition to enduring long line ups in cold arenas, you can actually INCREASE your risk of contracting HINI.

While I have no experience of how this program is being implemented in other provinces, I can say that it is a disgrace in Ontario.

Children suddenly dying, sick for one day, dead the next, no help. Is it an invasion of it is the HINI virus and the Ontario government's shameful mishandling of the situation.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

AIDA or is it Amneris?

Today I listened to the Mets sumptuous production of Aida. I have seen Aida numerous times before and every time I have seen it, I have had no sympathy for Amneris the pharoahs daughter and every sympathy for Aida the hapless Ethiopian slave girl. That was all before this performance.

Amneris was sung by Delora Zajick who has performed this role 250 times. Her performance was riveting, she portrayed the usual vengeful side of Amneris, but also and much more poignantly her vulnerability. Amneris wanted someone to love her, and in the end realized her jealousy of Aida destroyed Radames whom she loved. When Radames is condemned to die by the priests, she prays as he is sentenced, each time imploring the gods to have pity. It is similar to the pleas that Aida makes when she is torn between her homeland and her love Radames the captain of the Egyptian army. It is interesting that both implore the gods to have pity. Aida however prays to the gods to have pity on her, whereas Amneris prays to the gods to have pity on Radames. (Johan Botha)

While Aida (sung by Violeta Urman), prays that she is unhappy and wishes to return to her homeland, her prayers and songs are selfish insofar as they are about her happiness. Moreover she dooms Radames when she asks him to tell her the route that the Egyptian army would take to destroy her people. She does this admittedly after the mother-of-all guilt trips by her father Amonastro the Ethiopian King. He denounces her as a daughter, and calls upon the dead including her mother's spectral hand to condemn her unless she saves her people. Aida give in.

Amneris gives Radames to the priests to be condemned but Aida, who caused all of this in the first place escapes. Amneris pleads with Radames after his arrest to save himself, and that she herself would save him. Her love was unselfish. She wished Radames would love her and would gladly give up her power and crown and position for him. Aida betrayed Radames.

In this incredible production by Sonja Frisell, there were horses in the triumphal march but the most moving was when Radames is entombed beneath the alter of Pitah. While the priests and Amneris, who is destroyed sing a lament, he awaits his death. Aida has joined him by hiding in the tomb. The two declare that they will be happy in heaven, away from the veil of tears. Meanwhile above the altar Amneris is mourning give them peace.

This opera has been misunderstood by me as one about Aida but it is really about the quality of true love. Despite what Aida sings about her homeland and the fact that she will die without Radames...her words are hollow as she betrays him. Despite what Amneris sings about revenge and destroying her rival, she wants to be loved and her love is far less selfish. She would have died in the place of Radames. Her flaw, her jealousy doomed both Radames, Aida and herself and when she sings about giving rest and peace, one realizes she is singing about herself as well, a woman utterly destroyed. She rolls her eyes in this scene as she realizes that the gods she prayed to, are hollow. There is no more meaning for Amneris.

Friday, November 20, 2009

November always bleak and the death of a season!

November in my memory is perhaps the bleakest month here in Ottawa. The weather never makes up its mind. It is invariably dark and grey and tries to snow, but usually ends up in a cold rain. The trees are bare and the wet decaying leaves litter the curbs and clog the gutters. The garden is a mixture of mud and leaves, and the once flowering roses now are bereft of foliage and only have a few frozen flowers to remind us of their summer splendour.

November is a month that reinforces the message that summer and fall really are over and encourages us to remove our winter gear and coats from storage. It is a time to store the golf clubs and even sadder for me it is the end of my cycling season.

This year, I have had a wonderful bike season riding with two bicycle clubs and taking several local trips. Biking is a tremendous way to discover your surroundings and I had no idea that the Ottawa area had so many hidden gems. Somehow you miss all that in a car as you are focused on your destination rather than the journey itself. Cycling teaches you that the journey is as valuable, if not more so than the destination.

I have learned, due to the many times I have gotten 'lost', that at times an unintentional detour is a discovery. I never had to worry about running out of gas and since cycling is such a great cardio vascular exercise, I found that my stamina improved by leaps and bounds over the spring, summer and fall months.

While there are many ways to extend the bike season, by wearing boot covers, layers and even balaclavas, I find that there is a balance between comfort and performance. You can dress in multiple layers including heavy boot covers and winter gloves, and then remove layers as you warm up, but when you stop in the cold weather you quickly chill, or at least I do. I have the heavier cycling tights, sweaters and layers and boot covers but I find, even if I line my boot covers with plastic so that they are totally windproof, that I still freeze.

I shall miss my bike! It is time to plan bike trips for next summer and look forward to the cross country skiing season!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Television...a reflection of a nasty society

I just finished watching a rerun of an episode of Little House on the Prairies. The show is utterly charming and extols family values, kindness and charity. As I was watching, I thought back to the shows that I enjoyed while growing up.

There was Bonanza and despite the odd "shoot em ups", Hoss, Little Joe and Adam were all honest, hardworking and caring types. Pa Cartwright would always negotiate with the natives, or greedy lumber barons. He believed in a better world. The Cartwrights were the kind of people you would love to have as neighbours, especially Little Joe! Another show I liked was Sea Hunt. Here diver Mike Nelson exposed and fought against underwater corruption and crime. He was honest and helpful often risking his life to safe another! Most people would call those shows corny or overly sweet.

Essentially all the shows that I enjoyed had one thing in common that of a triumph of kindness over cruelty, of truth over lies and basically good over evil. Why are these themes so absent today?

I think that there has been a subtle change in television. The shows have gradually become cruel and nasty. The survivor series are a good example. There is no kindness there, only brutal self serving survival.... nasty selfishness on the screen. The survivor series of course is a genre in itself. Then there are disturbing series like Dexter, a serial killer. What does that tell you? Unlike the Cartwrights or Mike Nelson of Sea Hunt...I would NOT want Dexter within 100 miles of me!
The same is true for the endless sea of CSI type shows. Who wants to watch as the police investigate yet another sadistic murder and rape scene? What pleasure is there in this? What does it teach us?

It is trite to say that television is there to teach us, but I believe it is accurate to say that the shows that we enjoy, ie have the highest ratings, are a reflection of us, and of the spirit of the times. If one is to believe Rick Mercer, the times today are cynical, there is no good and no evil, it is all about self. The books we read, Self made millionaire, Self help, Self enlightenment..that genre of book typified by Ekhart Tolle and other self proclaimed gurus who promise to cure what ails you...if you buy their book, weight loss books, all point to same thing. We have become, or have been led to believe we have become, an utterly self absorbed society.

This is reflected in the disturbing trend of a marked decrease in the number of volunteer hours that people do. People have a thousand excuses, they are too busy, they have the children, the children need to go to soccer practice etc. etc. but the wane in altruism is simply a reflection of the fact that we have become a cynical and self absorbed or selfish society. The reason that television is nastier is because we have become that way. We delight in watching Survivor or Dexter because we think to ourselves, we cant be that bad, and therefore feel a little better. We are like the Grinch, and our hearts have become two sizes too small. Like the Grinch, we snigger and scoff at that which holds us to a higher standard and perhaps calls us to account for the way in which we spend our time, in service to self or family rather than to others.

Television is a mirror of our society. The shows like Bonanza or Little House, or the Waltons are relegated to specialized channels and are by no means mainstream. The ideals of service and kindness have been replaced by cruel and nasty principles. What television shows us is not a very good image of ourselves.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

When poppies fade

As a child growing up on military bases, remembrance day was a very meaningful event. Usually we would have a WWII or even a WWI vet recount the horrors of war. I recall being particularly alarmed when one vet told of seeing orphaned children running from their bombed homes. As a seven year old this was the stuff nightmares were made of. I remember crying in the classroom for those children. Our poppies were made of paper then and faded and dissolved in the rain.

On the base, there were parades and march pasts of the veterans. Most, if not all of the service men at that time, including my father were veterans. There were rows of them, in uniform on the parade squares as we watched and listened to the band play. I particularly enjoyed, and still do, the Scots regiment with their kilts and bagpipes and magnificent drums, played with flourish and flying feathered drumsticks. Being an air base, there was always a splendid air show with roaring fighter jets, and vintage planes. Were it not for the stories told to us by the veterans, one could easily believe that war was a thing of spectacle and flourish and bravado. The march pasts however, always caused a lot of emotion and tears in me because of what I had heard and also read by this time. The poppies were plastic and garish and poked you when you tried to put them on!

As I grew older, the march pasts were smaller and the WWI vets moved into homes and were in wheelchairs. As a young adult, the crowds at the memorial crosses became fewer and fewer. There were a few old men in tattered uniforms with poppies on their left breast. They saluted the flag as people just walked by. The 11th hour of the 11th day was a thing of the past, and irrelevant to many. The number in the march past was smaller and feebler. Our memories like the poppies were fading. For most individuals, especially when I lived in Montreal, the war was best forgotten. Never forget the motto of the veterans was a relic and one must move on and create the future without reference to the past.

It took our recent engagement in war and the reality of young people killed in action to cause people to retrieve their faded poppies from their kitchen drawers and speak to their children about war and watch documentaries about battles. Since that time, the crowds have increased as more and more people now understand that it is crucial never to forget. For many it became clear that we cannot have a meaningful future if we do not remember and honour the past. One of the reasons Eisenhower after he liberated the death camps took so many photographs and documented the horrors was simply as he put it "Because some day, some bastard will say it never happened" That was what was happening with our remembrances of war. No one claimed they never happened, but somehow they were forgotten, relics, to be dusted off like old medals but what happened then, could not affect us today.

This year, I watched the remembrance day ceremony on Parliament hill. There were fly pasts from jet planes, children singing the songs I used to sing in those ceremonies in the military base schools, but once again the most meaningful moment for me was the march past. There were so few veterans. There were no WWI vets. For them unlike those immortalized in Flanders Field, they did grow old and die, there were precious few WWII vets. There were many people at the ceremony many with fresh memories of their children or friends who had been killed in Afghanistan. I cried with the march past. I cried because I saw in the faces of the veterans living witnesses of the past. I cried because people had indeed forgotten, and once again we are engaged in war. Let us all pray that our poppies never fade!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Will opera die?

In many of the opera's I have seen, the hero or heroine or sometimes both die. Unfortunately I sometimes wonder if that will be the fate of opera. Increasingly it seems that I am the youngest person attending the operas and I am over 50! I hope that opera will continue to live and to be available to everyone and not be thought of as arcane and elitist and a thing of the past not worth listening to in an age of competing entertainment.

Sadly, the death of music programs in many schools, because they want to concentrate on what they see as the fundamentals, has meant that many children, unless they are fortunate enough to attend well funded private schools, are simply not exposed to great music. This fate has not only befallen great music, but I was told by many teachers that for a long time Shakespeare was not taught in schools as it was wrongly seen as 'elitist'

Great music, the classics, the soaring works of Brahms, Mozart, Beethoven and the operas provide us not only an insight into Western culture and Western civilization, but provide us with an outlet for many of our deepest emotions. As Shakespeare provides us with a vocabulary and a means to articulate what we feel, opera and the classics enable us to hear what we feel unfold before us.

Opera provides the best example of this interplay between passion, culture and our emotions. I have seen Madame Butterfly many times and yet I sob when Butterfly kills herself. Why is this? No doubt because Butterfly is a dramatic example of unrequited love. She loves an unworthy man! Similarly when a villan like Tosca's Scarpia is killed, I cheer. Why? No doubt because this represents a desire to right all wrongs. Opera therefore is a play that paints archetypes in music.

No doubt there are those who will argue and say, these themes can be represented in modern music, or movies. In part, they are correct but that is like saying we can live on tofu and water. We can, but life would be rather dull. Opera is greater than life, the characters full of passion and we secretly wish we could live like that! There is nothing so romantic as a love duet in a grand opera. When Delilah sings to Samson about her love (albeit for evil gains!), and begs him to respond to her kisses and tenderness....there is not a woman in the audience who has not asked for the same thing, although few have the vocal capacity to sing it in such a manner!

Not to expose children to the classics, is perhaps to doom them to a life where they will be unable to articulate their deepest passions and feelings. How can they express that they have a love that they would die for? Calaf would die for Turandot. How can they express that they would sacrifice everything to protect the one they love. Well, Traviata does this! Opera has a cleansing effect on one's emotions. After I see a great opera, and cry and am moved by the sheer beauty of the voices and the drama that unfolds. I am always thrilled and empowered!

I have met many people who say they don't like opera, but they have never been to an opera! They have a notion that opera is boring, or about fat ladies singing. Nothing could be further from the truth! To listen to the dramatic tones in Mozart's Don Giovani when the statue drags Giovani to surely not boring. The very flames of hell are licking at the edge of the opera stage!

Young people often escape into their music to find some way of expressing or articulating their turbulent emotions and passionate feelings. Unfortunately the music they listen to is often as banal and empty as what they are trying to escape from.

I am sorry that more teachers and parents do not take their children to the opera. The HD performances in cinemas are inexpensive, exciting and enables one to see live performances from the great temple of opera, the metropolitan opera of New York. I hope that they do lest this tremendous art form become almost extinct!

Calaf no hero!

This afternoon I saw Turandot, Puccini's last opera. The Zeffirelli staging of Turandot at the Met can only be described as fantastic. There were Chinese dragons, numerous fans, unbelievable costumes and beautiful lighting. The splendor and beauty of the stage was a marked contrast to the sheer cruelty and bloodiness of the opera. In addition, the people of Peking were all dressed in grey and scurried about the stage like rats.

Turandot (sung by Maria Guleghina) is the quintessential ice queen. A princess who has renounced love and men and beheads all suitors if they fail to answer her three riddles. The opera opens with the handsome Prince of Persia walking bravely to his death and Calaf discovering by accident, his blind father King Timur and his servant Liu. Calaf swears that when he sees Turandot he will curse her for her cruelty. When he sees her, as she appears on a lighted dias of gold above the people, he is captivated and proclaims he is in love. Despite the court eunichs Ping, Pang and Pong telling him he is a madman and will die as so many others did and despite an impassioned plea from both his long lost father and his servant, he is not dissuaded and singing about his destiny, he rings the gong, announcing he will be the next suitor. We also see the head of the Prince of Persia being raised on a stake to join the heads of all the other defeated suitors.

The lead tenor Calaf sung beautifully by Marcello Giorani, is often portrayed as hero who risks all to secure the love of the ice queen. Who but the Italians would know of passionate, all consuming love. In this opera however, Calaf is portrayed as a man equally as cruel as Turandot. After correctly answering the riddles and therefore winning Turandot's hand, Calaf foolishly proclaims that if she can find out her name, he will sacrifice his life. Turandot is enraged and proclaims that no one shall sleep that night, nessun dorma...on pain of torture and death until she finds the name of the stranger who won the contest. I had always thought that nessun dorma was a beautiful love aria, but instead it is a deluded song where Calaf is willing to sacrifice all the people in Peking, rather than reveal his name and end the suffering. Calaf is begged by Ping Pang and Pong who bribe him to go away as his very presence will cause the suffering of many, but her refuses citing his love for Turandot.

Turandot's servants bring King Timor and his servant Liu.( sung by Marina Poplavskaya) Liu carried a love in her heart for Calaf and because of that love, will not betray him and reveal his name. Turandot orders that the truth be ripped out of Liu. Lui sings a beautiful aria about the true nature of love. The executioner is called and Liu, rather than reveal the name of Calaf, kills herself. The distraught King takes her dead hand and follows her as she is carried away saying he too will journey with her.

Turandot at this point melts. Many commentators say she melts because she has found love, but it is clear that she does not melt for pity at the blood she has shed but because she knows Calaf has won. Calaf is so often thought of as a brave hero, but by abandoning his blind father and letting the lovely Liu die, he shows himself to be every bit as hard and as icy as Turandot herself.

The opera ends with Turandot and Calaf being married in a splendid scene with masked dancers, coloured banners and, of course, Giacomo Puccini's splendid lyric and dramatic music. Turandot and Calaf were well suited, one blinded by hatred, the other blinded by a deluded sense of destiny. The only sane people in the opera were the comical trio, Ping Pang and Pong who tried their best to dissuade Calaf.

Somehow, I don't think this marriage would last very long, but in the wacky world of opera, all things are possible!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Putting the FUN back in Fundraising

This year, I am team captain of the Kanata Nepean Bike clubs 2010 ride for MS. This is a two day event that is from Ottawa to Kemptville. It is a lot of fun and attracts bikers of all levels and ages.

The event is fully supported with rest stops every 10km or so. In Kemptville, we can either camp or stay in the residence of the agricultural college, now part of the University of Guelph.

In order to ride, each rider must fundraise at least 250 dollars and pay a registration fee of $50.00. While this may not seem like a lot, it took me an age and much harassment of my friends to achieve this goal. I ended up raising $650 but not without a lot of blood, sweat, tears and deleted emails. Last year our team of 11 spoke and many of us concluded that this is not fun.

This year, I am soliciting advertising spots on our jerseys and shorts. Each biker in our team of 25 will be fully kitted out in shorts, jerseys and gloves with the logos of businesses who chose to advertise with us. At $400 for one advertising space, I have been met with great enthusiasm as it is a very visible and inexpensive way to advertise. For me this puts the FUN back in fundraising.

There are some who are old school who will still continue to raise funds the old fashioned way by soliciting your family, friends, neighbours and club members but I believe that this newer technique is truly the way to go. Each cyclist on the team can ride for free and have a new cycling outfit to boot. If they chose to fundraise in addition, that merely goes towards their total and they would be well on their way to raise more money for MS.

Fundraising is now a professional business. The days of asking friends and neighbours to help, or even by hosting a bake sale are perhaps a thing of the past. While these events may gather a bit of money, they are labour intensive and yield little in the long run.

For me explaining what we will do and speaking about a team of cyclists and getting businesses to back us is a lot more fun than emailing my friends, pestering my neighbours and begging my family!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Death does not take a holiday: RIP Martin

I learned today that a friend of mine Martin Podehl died at the age of 68 as a result of a tree felling accident.

Martin and I cycled together as part of two bike clubs and I had the most fun with him on a long ride that rained and rained until we arrived at our lunch destination like drowned rats. He was an excellent, safe and supportive individual whom I shall miss. He rode with me on the century ride and then again on a CCCTS ride where he was sweep because of his knowledge of the area.

His death reminds me that we are truly creatures of the moment and we only have this time, this moment to tell our friends how much they mean to us and how much we care for them. I am not sure I do this often enough. I always assume there will be another time, but death does not take a holiday.

Martin was the consumate organizer and offered me wise counsel regarding a trip that I am planning for next year. His wit and skill will be missed by all of us.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Weight training..or what to do when you put your bike away

Now that the bike season is winding down, (pause for a sob) I have recently picked up a few books on off season bicycle training. One book is called "weight training for cyclists" by Ken Doyle and Eric Schmitz, the other "cycling anatomy" (also about weights) By Shannon Sovndal MD and my final book "the complete book of long-distance cycling" by Edmund Burke. The books all have a common theme and speak about the fact that weight training and explosive cardio is of much more value than spending time on a treadmill or even spinning. In fact, spinning does nothing for the muscles that we need to be more powerful and faster cyclists. They are all unanimous in suggesting three keys: The first and most important is weight training, the second explosive cardio and then diet.

Ah the joys of lifting weights! Biking is wonderful for the thigh and calf muscles but not much else. To be balanced, unless you do lifting as part of your job, you need weight training, in particular the strengthen the neck muscles, hamstrings and core muscles otherwise known as the abs.

It has been about a year since I have done any weight training and I have forgotten the "joys."

1) Sweaty equipment
2) People who leave impossibly heavy weights on the machines
3) Grunts, groans and assorted screams usually by muscle bound body builder wannabes with no necks!
4) Personal trainers who roam the weight room like sharks looking for exhausted prey
5) People who offer unsolicited and unwanted advice

However weight training every second day does offer its rewards for cyclists. Unlike cardio workouts where it is very difficult to get your heart rate up, a few very heavy sets with a leg press or bench press will do it in far less time. Weight training, for those who are in good cardiovascular shape gives you much more benefits in a shorter period of say all in the books and manuals I have read.

My off season cycling training manuals also recommend explosive cardio. That is run full out for 30 seconds, pause, walk and do it again. Also skipping and jumping. The key is short bursts of full intensity with little or no rest in between. It is exhausting. There are many suggestions but the key appears to be a short period where you are full out followed by short rests.

The other recommended routine is a combination of weight training and explosive cardio. You do a set of very heavy weights and then do jumping jacks, and so forth. This one is even more exhausting!

There is nothing wrong with spinning. It is a lot of fun, and you feel good after being bike deprived for a period of time, but the experts are pretty unanimous on this one, if you want the benefits of being a stronger and faster cyclist, weight training plus what they call explosive cardio is the answer.

The last element is the dreaded 'd' word, or diet and nutrition. There is no doubt that a biker with more fat is slower than a leaner one. Notice I did not say heavier. Muscle weighs more than fat and to be a strong cyclist one needs muscle mass. However excess body fat contributes nothing to strength or speed and slows you down. This, I must confess, is much harder for me than weight training or cardio. This is where I do battle with myself! Cycling clothing is a good indicator as well. Cycling clothing hides nothing and excess fat is clearly visible underneath that shiny coloured lycra!

See you all in the weight room!

Karine's Blog

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