April is a strange time for me as a cyclist. Apart from not having a clue what kit to wear on the bike because of the unpredictability of the Great British Spring, it’s a month I find myself thinking back to what I was doing this time a few years ago. I find myself thinking about how much my life has changed because of cycling.
April 2014 – At this point in my life I wasn’t a cyclist. I played netball and went on the occasional jog, I’d always liked being active. But by the time April came around in 2014 I’d been pretty much immobile for months.
The previous Autumn I’d been diagnosed with a slipped disc in my lower back which was causing acute pain down my left leg. The state of the disc was so bad pain relief wouldn’t make a dent and my doctor decided it was time for surgery to remove the part of the disc compressing my sciatic nerve. I was 22. I felt like I should be as fit as a fiddle but instead I’d spent the past six months unable to walk more than a few meters due to the pain I was in. I’d gained a lot of weight and my mental health was in bits. On April 22nd 2014 I had the surgery and overnight the sciatic pain was gone. I thought the hard part was over but it was really just beginning.
I didn’t realise that after I’d had surgery I’d be overcome with anxiety about the possibility of slipping a disc again. I got the all clear to exercise a few months after the op but I could barely muster the courage to sign up to the gym. Que further weight gain, more drinking, even more worry about my health. I wanted to exercise but I’d been told I could never really run again either so I didn’t know what to do.
Later that year my boyfriend persuaded me to buy a road bike. He’d started cycling and thought it might help me get some fitness and confidence back. I was scared. This was when I met Belinda from BellaVelo! I told her I’d just bought a road bike and I was a bit clueless. She talked me into coming along on a café ride. To say I was clueless was an understatement. I’d misjudged how unhealthy I’d become in the past year and the 20km beginner ride felt like running a marathon. But why did I love it so much? I went on a couple more beginner rides with BellaVelo but one particularly frosty day a couple of us took a slide on some black ice. I wish I’d just brushed it off and got back on my bike but, regretfully, I threw in the towel and decided cycling wasn’t for me.
April 2016 – I had a lightbulb moment. It was when I saw a picture of myself at my Mum’s birthday party. I barely recognised the overweight girl in the picture. I’d squeezed myself into a dress that was three sizes bigger than the size I was when I hurt my back. Not only was I unhappy with how I looked, I was desperately unhealthy. I hadn’t managed to get back into exercising after the operation. I’d occasionally play netball but I’d ask to be Goal Keeper and I’d do the minimum amount of running possible. I was really playing for the social side of it. I would get out of breath walking up stairs. My hobbies were literally eating take away and drinking pinot grigio. I knew something needed to change.
I saw an advert for a place in Ride London 100. I’d kept the bike with the intention of selling it at some point but I’d never gotten around to it. I reluctantly signed up. I thought that there wasn’t a chance of me getting a place anyway and then I might actually get around to selling the bike. At least I’d tried, right? I was at work on April 17th 2016 when I got an email from Ride London “Congratulations, your place in Prudential Ride London to Surrey 100 has been confirmed!”… I went to the loo and cried.
I found myself in the same place I was at the end of 2014. Clueless and scared. I had 3 months to train myself to ride 100 miles. I pulled on some yoga pants and my boyfriend’s old, baggy cycling jersey and I set out to do a lap of Richmond Park. I made it about 5km before I needed to stop. I sat down and questioned what the hell I was doing. I couldn’t go back though. I’d told people about this now. I’d started raising money for charity…
April 2018 - I guess the rest is history for me? The failed Richmond Park ride was two years ago now. I completed Ride London in 2016 and by the time the event came round at the end of July, I’d fallen hook, line and sinker in love with cycling. I loved every second of Ride London that year. I assumed I’d want to stop cycling after it was all over but I carried on. I carried on until Ride London 2017 and by this time my brother had started cycling and he rode it with me and my boyfriend, Jason. I kept carrying on. This year I started crit racing. At the end of April I’ll be racing in my first road race. It will be pretty much two years to the day since I got on the bike. Four since the surgery on my spine.
Over the past two years of cycling I’ve made some amazing friends, reconnected with BellaVelo, I’ve started racing, I’ve cycled abroad in France, Belgium and New Zealand, I’ve lost over 20kg of weight, massively improved my mental and physical health and I’ve inspired my brother and Dad to cycle (and tried to encourage a few more people too).
I feel like cycling is so accessible and it is about so much more than just exercising. All the encouragement and advice I’ve received from the incredible women in BellaVelo has been priceless. Everyone has their own cycling story and I hate to say it but mine is full of all the clichés; “Cycling has changed my life” and “I don’t know where I would be without cycling”. But they are all true.