I mentioned my blog to a colleague recently. She asked what it was about so I told her. MS and bikes. Her response something like ‘Oh no, not more bikes!’ A comment made jokingly but I get where it comes from. Cycling is something drives me but others can find it a little dull. The restart of the blog is perhaps an opportunity, then, to explain why it does drive me. What I feel cycling has given me. How it actually makes me feel. In a way that someone who is not an avid cyclist can appreciate, if not one hundred percent understand. And how it will drive me going forward.
It is difficult to put feelings in to words about anything. But I will give it a try.
The Beginning: Escape
I wasn’t going to mention MS in this post but there is no escaping it as, for me, cycling and MS are almost bound together. An unholy matrimony, if ever there was one. After all, I found out that I have MS in the aftermath of a fall on my first racing bike. It is a long story that has been told earlier in the blog. Put simply, the problems that we thought were side effects of the fall were actually MS making itself known. What is more important here is the response to that diagnosis. Quite simply, after it had sunk in, I went out and rode. Not huge distances at that stage, I was very much a beginner. A very unfit beginner. I just kept going out.
The reason I rode so often was the belief that I would not be able to for much longer, that I would soon be generally less able. For the same reason I went a little crazy and just bought whatever books or CD’s I wanted. Why wait? At that stage I just did not know that an MS diagnosis did not mean life was over. I simply had to do everything while I still could.
So I rode my racing bike as much as possible. Something that had just been a route to physical fitness became something more. The fear of MS that embodied that first year was gone whilst I was out there, peddling along wide and empty landscapes, taking in new sights and sounds. It was an escape from a reality that, through lack of knowledge, was a scary place to be. I went somewhere that was away from that reality and was able to forget, at least for awhile.
Initially cycling was a form passive resistance, a way of escape. Then the resistance became more active.
Fighting Back and Achievement
Progressive MS leads to physical decline. I know that is happening slowly but initially I thought it would happen fairly quickly. So it was a surprise that, instead of physical decline, I was getting stronger, leaner. More confident, on the bike at least. Importantly, after the shock, came the will to fight back. I wanted to keep getting stronger, faster, ride longer distances. The idea of setting myself targets made an appearance. A way to give some structure to the fight.
Alongside this I found my world was getting bigger, not smaller as expected. The horizons broadened as I laid out what I wanted to achieve. Initially to Provence, France. I wanted to climb a mountain with my bike. Why not Mont Ventoux, the famed route via the town of Bedoin, famed for its difficulty. My first big ride. Where I really learnt how cycling could make me feel. And, through a fundraising climb for MS research, the fightback even more tangible.
The feelings that day were completely addictive. The trepidation at the foot of the mountain, looking up and thinking that there is all that way to go. The initial climb, not that bad…. then it gets savage. Everything is straining, putting as much force on the pedals as possible. All my strength, pushing to move at a snail’s pace on the ridiculously steep, claustrophobic road to the top. The forest is smothering, you just don’t know how high you have climbed. Calves and thighs are screaming! It is a strange incentive but to feel pain when you know your illness will compromise your senses is good!
Then the top. Emotional overdrive, elation! Illness? What illness? Total joy!
I remember looking down, holding my bike, and just thinking ‘I did this’. Me, my legs, my neurologically compromised body. From bottom to top.
To feel that way, so positive. Seriously, it is difficult to put emotion like that in to words. My obsession with mountains and climbing started that day. The feeling of achievement, of literally being top of the world. After the darkness of fear that came with diagnosis it was something to be blinded by the sunlight of optimism.
A personal achievement that good was not going to happen everyday. Of course, I wanted more.
To achieve something often means pain and effort. It meant compromise. Changing my diet, staying away from some of the nicer food and drink. A couple of months of relative sobriety. A small price to pay for that moment of exhilaration when the mountain is summited or the line is crossed on a long challenge ride. Nothing ever comes for free, after all.
Continuing to achieve, to keep that fight going. It took a lot, sometimes. That personal pain and effort has been caught on camera just once. Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2017 was cold and wet. One hundred and fifty kilometres of road through the Ardennes, undulating roads with over two thousand meters of climbing mixed in. Short, steep and brutal climbs. The picture below was taken on one of these, the Cote de la Redoute. The snarl on my face was totally real, nothing faked. I was nearly falling sideways, trying to keep a straight course. I felt the pain in my legs and my lungs while my heart pounded, trying to get the blood around my body quickly enough. But I was making it. I kicked harder, maybe used some colourful language.
My legs got me up the climb. And my belief. My desire to push hard, push onward. Nothing would stop me. Not the hill or the weather or MS. Nothing. I needed to achieve, feel that the fight was continuing. Get that moment in the Sun.
It can’t last forever. My legs are getting worse. As they tire on long rides, there is worryingly little pain. Just numbness. Foot drop manifesting itself, sometimes to the extent that it is a challenge to put my right foot on the pedal. It is difficult to push your leg harder when you can’t feel it. MS making it’s point, reminding me it is there. The climb in the picture above? I couldn’t do that now. MS seems to know my love of climbing and wants to take that away first. Worse than the pain of aching muscles is just feeling….. nothing.
In the face of this perhaps it is understandable to become more passive. I like the way it feels, though. To resist. To achieve. I aim to keep these feelings, albeit in a slightly different form.
I started this post to get the explain how cycling makes me feel. The freedom it gives me, the joy. I didn’t even manage to cover the adrenalin rush that cycling gives me. Add to that element of risk of adrenalin and you have a whole new post. I will only say here, for reassurance, my adrenalin rushes are sought on empty roads! As to how cycling makes me feel? I don’t know if this post succeeded in laying that out.
MS was also not going to be mentioned in this post but I cannot escape it. Bikes and MS came around the same time in to my life and without that fall the MS would not have been found. An early discovery has been key to keeping me in good health. I am grateful for that. MS will not be allowed to define everything, though, including cycling. Especially cycling.
I plan to continue enjoying it, to keep moving onward. The medical support I have now even encourage it as long as I am sensible. Difficult but I have to be. I simply have to get off the bike and rest more. Compromise can even lead to the abortion of a treasured target, as I did earlier in 2022 for Col d’Aubisque. Difficult to accept but so be it. Going forward, heading to the French Alps next year, there will be no talk of targets, no obsession with fighting what I have.
Instead here will be excitement. Excitement at names like Galibier and Alpe d’Huez. I will still push myself, ride in all weather, on all terrain. The drive is still there. But it is more important to experience what is around me, no more pressure from targets. If I get halfway up a mountain, that will be fine. It will be good to stop and look around and be at peace with the hand that has been dealt to me. The feeling of elation will be there. I will have made it that far and no-one will take that away from me.
Still, it will be such a kick to get to the top and look down. I will give it a go.