'the hard road'
Would be like many others, were it not for just one word. A word that every moment strikes fear into those it touches. That word is ‘cancer’.
I was 14 years old when I had my first run-in with the disease that was to shape my life. A small pea sized lump on my left inner thigh quickly grew to the size of an orange, and my mother was told they may have to amputate. I loved to run and my mother begged the doctors to save the leg, but by the time I had the surgery, I was told I would never run again and would have to wear the leg brace for many years. Only one year later I ran my first ever marathon (for charity), running around a sports field track in my home town of Huddersfield.
It was the start of my passion for endurance events and when I first started cycling seriously. My usual weekend route involved cycling from home to Scarborough, eating fish and chips (out of newspaper) and then cycling back. It was a round trip of about 165 miles and of course back then, I had few friends who were willing to spend a full day cycling, so mostly rode alone.
Much of my childhood had been spent in care, where I was abused repeatedly and by the time I joined the Army at 21, I was out of control. I had tried unsuccessfully to deal with the abuse I had suffered for many years and figured they would instil some much needed discipline in me. It was one of the best decisions of my life, because the Army allowed me to excel at the sports I was interested in, namely running, climbing and mountaineering.
I became the regiments Joint Service Rock Climbing Instructor (JSRCI) and this later gave me the opportunity to lead my own expedition in 1986, the year Italy won the football world cup. I was there in Courmayeur training my team to climb Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps at 4,808m. The remit was to take ten complete novices to climbing, spend six weeks in Wales and six weeks in Italy preparing, then see how many we could get to the summit. I’m proud to say eight made it and it was a fitting end to my military career.
I would go on to climb Mont Blanc again with my regular climbing partner, Steve Chapman, who was asthmatic. It was the highlight of a climbing career that spanned many years and many countries.
Many times, particularly while on my round the world cycle tour, I was asked if I would write a book about my life. It is a complicated story, because I am still fighting the many demons from my childhood and youth. During this time, along with my writings (which were mostly brought out in my travel blog) I began to make audio diaries, speaking openly about my life. This has greatly helped me to speak out about not just my cancer, but my other illness, depression.
I thought writing the book would be easy, in truth it is anything but and I’m still not sure I’m ready to share everything. However, I have decided to get on with it and have set 2020 (or earlier) as the year it will be completed. Firstly it will be in electronic form, then if sufficient interest is shown I hope we can find a publisher willing to print it.
back to cycling
As a club we travelled abroad regularly, to the Alps, Pyrenees and Greece. It was a golden age and we were all very competitive, looking for the next challenge. A small group of us decided to take part in what was then called “the hardest one day mountain bike ride in the world” – the Grand Raid Cristalp. It traverses high into the Swiss Alps, a 125km route with over 5,000m of climbing from Verbier to Grimentz. Even today it is recognised as the premier mountain bike race.
While I loved MTB, I soon realised I needed to move back to road riding. Broken bones were all too frequent, as my skill level going downhill never caught up with my lack of fear. When it was time for the climbing though, there were few of my friends who could stay with me. I needed a new challenge…
Returning to road riding was simply sublime, as I explored all the different disciplines, road racing, track, time trials and best of all, the new sportive events that were appearing in the UK.
During this period, cancer once again came into our lives and it wasn’t just me this time, but Caroline too. I was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2005 and Caroline with breast cancer in 2007. Looking back now I’m truly amazed by how we both accepted it and just got on with our lives as best we could. It’s funny, because I totally ignored the doctors and continued to cycle.
Just weeks after my brachytherapy (which involves many dozens of radioactive seeds being placed directly into the prostate) I took up my role as trainer for the 2005 The Race Against Time team, who would tackle the 1,000 mile Lands End to John O’Groats route in only five days. It was to be our first 100 mile training ride, where we would practice ‘through and off’ pacing.
Only problem was, I couldn’t sit on a saddle and when the group leader Ciaran (Doran) asked how long I’d stay with them I replied “lets see how far I can get” riding out of the saddle. I completed the full 100 miles, all without being able to sit in the saddle – because the pain in my legs was nothing compared to the pain in my prostate!
Long endurance rides became more regular, particularly during my cancer treatment. It was in truth (and still is) my coping mechanism. I dreamed up another challenge – to help raise funds to send a friend out to the Philippines to help the aid effort and this involved cycling from my work place in Leeds to Paris and back (approx 970 miles) in just four days. A difficult enough challenge in itself, but extra toughness was called for when it rained all four days. Around this time the UK time trial scene was also part of my main focus, especially in the longer distances.
As I was gaining a lot of experience from my endurance riding, it seemed appropriate to share my knowledge and I became involved in coaching. My clients were mostly cyclists who were wanting to prepare for the burgeoning sportive rides that were becoming increasingly popular. None more so than the L’etape du Tour, where you get to ride an actual mountain stage of the Tour de France a few days before or after the professional riders have done so.
The atmosphere is electric, with usually more than 15,000 riders from all over the world taking part. I think I completed about six editions, both as a solo rider and later with small groups of riders. However I think the La Marmotte has to take pride of place in my collection, because of the circumstances surrounding the small group I had trained specifically for the event.
I was in the middle of treatment and really quite ill, thinking I would never get to ride the event myself. In fact for the two days prior I had been unable to keep food down, but on the morning of the ride I decided to take part to try and support my riders. I can’t explain what happened next, because I rode out of my skin and came away with the gold standard for my age group. It was one of my best ever rides in a sportive.
cancer claims my wife
We both did our best to try and live life to the full while dealing with our cancers, enjoying immensely giving something back to the cycling community that had now become our family. Caroline followed and supported me on many races and time trials and became involved heavily in what we both called “the wives club”. But it was her skills as my partner in helping to set up the White Rose Classic (after we broke away from British Cycling) where she really shone brightest. It would never have become the success it did without the tireless effort she put in and Caroline had in reality become the front end of an event that always had more riders than the 1,000 places we were only allowed to accept.
It was a tough time though as in 2008 I lost my IT job of many years to redundancy, although I think it was more to do with the time I was taking off to look after us both than anything else. Devastated, I took a huge gamble with the redundancy payout and decided to try and turn what had been for quite a few years just a hobby, my photography, into a full time job.
The banks refused my loan request, stating it would take three years before I broke even, so I spent just about all the redundancy money on professional photography kit. I had been doing a fair bit of sports (and particularly cycling) photography in my spare time covering various events, so it seemed a logical step to expand to other areas too.
If there is one thing I do well, it’s fighting the odds. I worked hard to make it work and within a year I was earning more than my IT job had paid and had won awards for my photography, which had expanded to taking in anything from wildlife to weddings. I gained accreditation with the Royal Photographic Society and won assignments abroad, including to Africa. Then towards the end of 2009, I lost it all. Caroline’s cancer had returned and this time the doctors told us there was little point in going through treatment. We asked how long we had left and the doctors stated about a year. She died just nine weeks later.
Only those who have been there can possibly know the pain I felt. My whole world fell apart and this time, I couldn’t stay strong. I descended into a deep depression, quit taking care of myself, let my business slip and shut out the world. By the time my own cancer returned I had lost the will to fight and just wanted to die, but that was never going to be the path I would be allowed to take. The cancer spread to my lungs and I lost most of my left one before being told in 2012 my cancer was now terminal, I had 12 months at best. Strangely it came as a huge relief and I determined I’d enjoy what time I had left; within weeks I’d sold my car, the house, the business (kit) and had given everything else away to charity.
Leaving my home in England to tour around the world (or at least, as far as I could get) by bicycle would turn out to be a life changing experience, but not everyone was as sure as I was that it would work. My oncologist asked,
“where will you go Derek?”
“the roof of the world (Pamir Highway)” I replied
He laughed out loud before saying “and just how do you intend to breathe up there? You have just one lung and that is diseased, what you are suggesting is impossible and you need to choose an easier challenge.”
Reaching over and offering my hand I said, “I like impossible” before walking out.
I’d like to think he’s kept the postcard I sent him shortly after I came down from the Pamir Highway, on which I’d written just three words: “nothing is impossible.”
The bit was firmly between my teeth as I not only survived beyond the death sentence handed down to me, but began to see a reason in it all. As I began to open up and talk about both my illnesses, (cancer and depression) in private and later, through the media, I realised I was actually doing some good. Helping others or even just inspiring someone became my ultimate goal and my world tour became all about how I could do this best. I had found a reason to live again, but alas, by the time I reached Canada after two years on the road, the cancer was taking its toll and I really was dying.
A major fall outside the town of Rimouski in Canada dislocated my shoulder and this on top of my now deteriorating health meant I was struggling to continue. It was to be an enforced rest and a chance to make some new friends, who would help put me and the bike back together and then send me on my way towards Halifax, Nova Scotia.
all for love
I’ve always believed that having a strong and positive mind can help when fighting an illness. If you give up on yourself, then it’s likely to be a quick end, but if you fight it can be very different. By the time I met Hilke in a youth hostel in Halifax I think even my own very positive energy had just about evaporated and I had accepted I didn’t have much longer. We sat up all the first night talking and then agreed to walk the trails in the area, having picked up another passenger, Dana, to join us in the hire car. When we got there I was too tired and exhausted to walk and so stayed with the car until they returned later in the day. We ended up travelling together down to Toronto to stay with a friend, and by the time we got there I was pretty sure I’d fallen in love with Hilke.
That changed everything for me, as suddenly I cared far more about staying alive and enjoying the thought of being with someone else to share love again. When we parted, we agreed to meet up when I eventually got back to Europe and Hilke invited me to spend Christmas 2014 with her. I needed to get my previously dislocated shoulder checked out and also see where my cancer was at, so flew home to Manchester in England and made the necessary arrangements.
At the end of November I stepped off the ferry at the Hoek van Holland to meet Hilke, having no idea whether a relationship was wanted or even possible. We spent Christmas together and decided we both wanted to make it work, I would stay in the Netherlands.
A few weeks later I was asked if I’d return to the clinic to repeat my tests as they had made a mistake. Only thing was there was no mistake, they just didn’t believe the results. I was clean, there was no sign of cancer. After trying for years with Caroline and being told I couldn’t have children, I never thought it would happen this late in my life and so when Natascha was born the following December, I was happier than I’d been for very many years. It all seemed like a crazy dream.
Cycling in the Netherlands was/is fun, even though I couldn’t keep up with Hilke. I was still recovering though and getting stronger all the time, so I joined a local cycling club (TC Het Trapstel) to help me regain my fitness. It was a good move as the club runs were just what I needed and even though I struggled initially, they never left me behind. I also needed a poor weather alternative, so looked into indoor training and that’s when I first discovered Zwift, the indoor cycling platform. It was a revelation, quickly helping me return to something like decent fitness and by the beginning of 2016 I was riding 12 hour indoor Time Trials. By October I was ready for another silly challenge and broke the Zwift indoor distance record with 1,600 km’s (1,006 miles) in 52 hours and 37 minutes.
Joining one of the biggest clubs on Zwift, Team World Bicycle Relief (Team WBR) I led regular training rides and took part in the main fundraisers to send bicycles to Africa. These were 24 hour non-stop cycle events where I scored the highest mileage in the first two editions, in 2016 and 2017.
Back in the real world having dot-watched (whereby you follow riders online on a virtual map) the Transcontinental Race of 2016, I applied for the 2017 edition TCRNo5 and was accepted.
Suddenly unsupported ultra-endurance racing just got very real for me and it was the beginning of a struggle that is still in progress today. You can find my scribblings about the TCR elsewhere on the site, but through a combination of illness and bad luck I failed to finish both TCRNo5 and TCRNo6 the following year. I have unfinished business with this event!
This year (2019) due to breaking my hip last September, I will be helping out as a volunteer on TCRNo7 at CP3 in Austria. I hope to cycle as much as possible to get there and explore the area when not on duty. Also having made a return to photography I hope to get some decent pictures and to this end will be covering other events on the run up to August. My main focus though is on 2020 and getting back to full racing fitness, where if accepted I will close this particular chapter of my life by completing TCRNo8. I’m encouraged to do this by the fact that it wasn’t until his third attempt that eventual (multiple) winner James Hayden finished his first TCR.
There is much more I could add to this story, but I think I’ve rambled on enough. However, I’ll finish with an interview I gave to an up and coming youngster who wants to make his living as a journalist. I hope in some small way this article has helped and if you’ve read this far then you need to read this…