A year ago this week, I was in Majorca on a cycling training camp.
We were averaging 70 odd miles a day, with a few 100+ rides, and even a few huge climbs chucked in for good measure. I could just about hold my own with the ‘fast group’, and was certainly too fast for a group lower down. My legs were lean, my rump tough, my cheeks gaunt and my pedal stroke speedy but smooth.
In short, I was fit.
On Sunday morning, I was reflecting on how much has changed since that Majorca trip, while absent mindedly checking my emails. Into my inbox pinged a message about a cycling event happening on 3rd March. Nothing big, just a 50 mile sportive – a kind of pre-season tester, to see who’s got the legs for the races to come.
I considered for a moment. My new drugs have drastically reduced my seizures, I’ve started going out on the bike again recently. It’s only 50 miles, so why not?
I looked in my diary and there, gloriously, was a blank space. For the first time in ages, I thought, there’s nothing stopping me. I wrote the event in, using big bold letters.
Then suddenly, unfathomably, I began to weep.
I’ve been trying to work out why. And now, I think I know.
When I was first diagnosed with a brain tumour I became determined that I wouldn’t allow it to stop me cycling. Until I literally could not balance any longer, I’d keep those pedals turning. I don’t like the fighting language of cancer, but this at least would be my defiant two-fingers, stuck up to my condition.
I’d just been to Majorca and trained the big miles like a proper cyclist, even though it subsequently turned out I’d been carrying around the tumour all the time. That was my first two fingers, right there.
I cycled from my home to a hospital in Cambridge, a 100-mile round trip, to see a brain surgeon about my tumour. I can’t imagine my consultant had many brain tumour patients arrive from miles away in cycling shoes and a sweaty club jersey. Two-fingers.
I cycled to a family holiday in the east Midlands, 117 miles door to door. I cycled the Ipswich to Norwich route of the Tour of Britain. 134 miles, and in impressive time. Two-fingers.
I cycled along the French coast to watch the Tour finish in Boulogne, then jumped back on my bike and – for a second 30 miles that day – towed weaker and knackered cyclists back over the hills and against the wind, to the ferry at Calais. Two-fingers.
I race-trained most Tuesday nights, and managed to keep up – sometimes even do some damage – in my ability group. Two-fingers.
Take that, brain tumour. This guy is cyclist first, brain tumourist later. Know your place.
Only, it didn’t quite work out that way.
The tumour fought back; or at least the seizures did. I started having them more frequently on the bike. Eventually, they came so often that I felt I couldn’t safely go out with my cycling club.
Then I started having a seizure just about every time I got in the saddle, sometimes two. It sapped my motivation to ride, leaving me sometimes too sad, sometimes too unsafe.
No matter how much the doctor increased my drugs, it made no difference. By the end of the year, I had as good as climbed off. Even as I told cycling friends month after month that I’d be back in the saddle soon, I knew in my heart I was going nowhere fast.
I might muster the occasional loop of the local reservoir, but that wasn’t being a cyclist. Not like before.
New Year and the seizures started coming even when I wasn’t exercising. From then, even the possibility of a decent cycle ride felt like more than I could muster.
It turns out, as I was still thinking to myself even just a few weeks ago, that I’ll be attending my next MRI scan with my tail between my legs. A brain tumour patient and former cyclist.
The battle lost.
And then I got hold of this new drug, just to help get the seizures under sufficient control that I could sleep.
And I started feeling better.
Clobazam hasn’t taken away the seizures completely – and yes, it is still just a temporary drug – but for the first time in ages, cycling seems possible again.
It wasn’t that I happened to be free next Sunday which brought a tear to my eye this weekend. It’s that it takes place a couple of days after the MRI scan, for which I’d already admitted defeat.
I will be turning up to that MRI as a cyclist after all. I’ll be turning up to it, and to the subsequent results day two weeks later – metaphorically at least – in cycling shorts, with a pump and spare inner tube tucked into my back pocket.
I’ll turn up as me, not a shadow of what I used to be
The brain they’ll be scanning will be one that – despite everything – still belongs on two wheels. And that is what made me cry.
It’s just 50 miles. The kind of thing I used to knock out before breakfast. I’ll have to hang at the back, so I don’t put other riders at risk. But right now, they feel like the most meaningful miles on my horizon.
I plan to ride every one of them not with the arrogance and bloody-mindedness I had before, but with respect and gratitude for what I can still do.
The blank space in my diary has reminded me how lucky I am.