This month Rebecca writes about her 2022 goals. It's still uphill, but something a little different.
“Noman is an island” this phrase immediately catches my attention. The weak morning sunshine of the November day in 2021 pierces through the high single paned crittall windows of the old workhouse, a relic from the victorian era, a building that was built for the purpose of cleansing the social landscape of “undesirables”. It seems ironic now that as a woman with a young son, I would have been banished to a workhouse like this 100 years ago, classed as one of those undesirables. Tramps and waifs, and folk that preferred to live on the road, were also collected into workhouses. Sat at an old oak long table, salvaged from an old welsh farmhouse, the small open fire alight and bringing some warmth into one of the rooms I rent as an office I listen to Liam’s proposal. I had travelled back into Wales the day before, following a campaign in the bid for glory to be the fastest and strongest hill climber in the country. And yet, I failed to take that trophy on Winnats, and the strong Bithja Jones rose to the top once again. I thought that Bithja fought well, and under the blackened rain torn skies I defeated the odds over many of the other contenders there that day, settling for third place on the podium. It was a good third place, and back in Wales, crossing the ancient borders into the foothills to Snowdonia, I settled back into winter life with little sense of what is to come next, but comfortable with that.
Liam’s proposal is short and concise as ever. Not a coach of many words, his methods of developing athletic performance are clear and simple to follow, and this has worked well. He supports a charity called “Noman Campaign”, the charity aims to raise awareness of their campaign through athletic performance and they are partnered with Haute Route, an organisation hosting stage races in Europe. Would I be interested in supporting the charity by racing the Haute Route three day stage centred around the Alpe D’Huez? They would cover my costs and in return, I would commit and train for the hardest cycling challenge yet. I can’t really see a catch, other than the scale-up in training, and after a short bit of research into the charity, I am impressed with their mission statement. They campaign to get both boys and girls vaccinated against HPV in the attempt to eradicate 5% of world cancers.
Now, cancer is shit. Really shit. Ben, one of the nicest, most generous hearted people I know, healthy, full of positivity, giving so much time and energy to his family and friends around him. It didn’t make sense when he got cancer just as COVID-19 locked down our country. Disbelief. Ben is one of the softest but toughest of people, a family friend and we grew up being dragged (willingly) around mountain bike trails by Ben, he would lend me and my sisters bikes so we could go out with them and their three boys. Inviting us on their holidays, always an open door to everyone at their home, fabulous summer parties and bands playing into the welsh evening air. And, when I was crippled with Rheumatoid Arthritis, it was Ben who at 2am in the morning arrived at my cottage on my call to the fireman to lift me out and down the stairs. Such was the agonising pain in my joints. He took me back to their house, where Rachel and he cared for me during the night until my mum could take me to A&E. His cancer treatment was the worst kind you can get. Yet, even in hospital as he suffered the awful lonely place of cancer and chemotherapy, he would message and reply to all who contacted him concerned, he had time to give and talk to others during his very lonely time.
And, so it is true, no man is an island, as I think of Ben and the community around him, and thankful that his treatment has come to an end and being a success. I grab a coffee, take a break from work and go for a little bike ride. A bag on my back with supplies and spares, and my mountain bike, I head into the hills. Pedalling across the hills around Llanfyllin, I think about Liam's proposal. I would like to do something to help, I often felt helpless when Ben was ill, and whilst he had the biggest advantage of a huge caring family, it was a hard thing to see someone who you know and care for suffer in this way. Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a well known virus that most of the population at some point will contract. As a woman I get tested for HPV as it is a cause of cervical cancer, and yet there is little awareness about the multiple types of cancers it causes in both women and men, including neck, jaw and anal cancer. My son will now get vaccinated in the UK thanks to the Noman Campaign and the work of Tristan its founder. Yet, other European countries have yet to offer the vaccination to boys, choosing only to vaccinate girls. And the vaccination is highly effective 90% according to recent BBC News headlines. The mission of the charity is to ensure that all countries have a vaccination programme for both girls and boys, they lobby at government and community level, and as soon as their mission is complete the charity will no longer be operational. It makes sense.
It all makes sense, and as I ride into the hills around the small town of Llanfyllin, I feel ready to embrace this massive goal and work with Liam to make the commitment to train my heart out and his commitment to coach me to my peak performance all in the name of working together, of making a positive stand against a lonely disease. Embracing the celebration of cycling and scaling the heights of the alpine roads. If people can suffer the path of cancer and treatment then I can suffer the tiniest degree of the pain and fear that cycling brings. You have to be physically and mentally fit to tackle a race like the Haute Route Alpe D’Huez, and to succeed you need support. Racing road bikes is considered to be the most brutal endurance sport and going to a place of pain and suffering on the bike becomes a lonely endeavour, even with all of the support around you.
I think we all feel lonely in our lives at times. Lonely in our paths. Yet cancer is forced upon people, it becomes their only path, which is to survive it. There have been studies that show the correlation between cancer patients who survive having a wide network of support and company. And, I think this much is true about life and our mental wellbeing. I am certain a strong athlete is one who is mentally well and surrounded by family and friends. Noman Campaign brings together cyclists from across the globe to unite under their common banner “Noman is an Island” so, I like this banner and I like this idea.
The answer to Liam is of course, yes. I talk to Tristan the founder, he is full of enthusiasm and passion, and the phone call ends with “welcome to Noman”. Now the hard work begins, and Liam sends me a seven-month outline of how we will approach training. The annual plan states the planned blocks of training with specific outcomes, “Preparation. Goal: Strength”; “Aerobic Foundation. Goal: Power LT1” and “Race-specific. Fatigue Resistance (kJ + elevation) at LT2" to name a few, the day to day yet to be defined as we monitor how I adapt. Working out when I do those day to day sessions is hard. I am daily compromised between my commitments to my work, looking after Arthur, my 8-year-old son, and completing my training. The reality behind the scenes is that the micro scale is sometimes emotional and lonely. We often use positive self-talk techniques, I tell myself "you can do this, riding is a privlidge", what I mean is that the endeavour is my choice and my responsibility. Sometimes I want to blame work or blame the short hours around school drop off and pick ups to not get my training done. On those rare days that I let go of responsibility over my own actions, it becomes a question of getting on the turbo and getting that session done before the day is out.
Then my partner, Rick, says “hey, I can take Arthur, you don’t need to do it all alone”. I forget that I am not alone as much as I have been in the past few years. Training takes shape in a joyful way this winter. Weekends with Arthur and Rick have become weekends of training. Towing Arthur up forest tracks on his mountain bike has been great for some strength torque training on the bike, my endurance has improved from going out with my family. This surprises me, in the world of cycling sometimes it seems like you have to live in an isolated box in order to achieve training goals. My friends have also got involved, and watching Lizzy Banks tow Arthur up a forest track was brilliant. She exclaimed how her heart rate went through the roof, as her legs worked hard to balance and tow Arthur up. It shows that even professional cyclists can get something out of towing a kid up a climb!
Rick helps me to enable these rides, two adults to take care of an 8year old in welsh winter conditions. We are out riding one winter day shortly after the day that Liam proposes the new goal. It is Rick, myself, and Arthur. We decided to take relative shelter in Dyfnant Forest, all of us kitted out in waterproofs on our mountain bikes, it is raining and grey, the tracks muddy. Halfway through we huddle under a tree and eat a butter sandwich.
As we near the end of the ride we jump on a little lane, and I assist Arthur up a climb by riding one handed, the other hand pressing on his back to give him a push on his bike up the hill. These types of balance and skills are what you get in a track session, riding in close proximity to other riders, learning how to balance against each other. My mum and dad happen upon us as they drive out for a walk. They laugh as they tell us that they saw me and Arthur up ahead and said to each other “what nutter would take their child out on a day like today” (forgetting that they are) and then “of course it's Rebecca and Rick”. Arthur's face is full of smiles and energy as we end the ride, his cheeks red with the cold air, he is adamant he wants an ice-cream, so we do that. My training this year will be about sharing biking with my family. Noman is an Island. Bring on June and the Haute Route. I hope that over the next few months I can raise awareness of this campaign through my training and blogs, and I look forward to continuing to work with Liam on a common goal.
Haute Route Alpe D'Huez 2022.