I’m a cyclist. I’m also disabled. Cycling has become the only way I can have some independence and freedom. I cycle to work each day. I can cycle the kids to school. I can cycle to visit friends. I even cycled most of the coast-to-coast this autumn. Walk? Not much, maybe a few 100m on a good day, barely at all on a bad one. Multiple sclerosis takes its toll and creeps up slowly. Cycling is an amazing release for me, as well as a practical way to get around and a way to keep fit. The issues that affect disabled cyclists are both different and the same from those affecting all cyclists but with some thought we can enable many more people to have some of the independence that I still cling onto. With this in mind – flushed with unwarranted confidence after my coast-to-coast outing – I decided that a conference about disabled cycling was something I had to make the effort to attend.
The conference was organised by the inspirational charity, Wheels for Wellbeing, who were celebrating their 10th birthday. Only problem was the conference was in central London, quite a trek from York where I live. No problem of course; as a confident disabled cyclist I would cycle to the station, get the train, and then cycle across London to the conference and back again. Wheels for Wellbeing had put together a fascinating conference and even invited me to be on a panel. I was going both to represent Empowered People, another amazing charity with whom I cycled the coast-to-coast, and the York Cycle Campaign, a local grassroots group representing cycling and cyclists in York.
It was an early start on a chilly November day but first leg was fine. Cycling to York station is easy and the staff were fantastic at getting me and my bike on to the train. Their curiosity at someone using the main line with disability assistance to help with a bike was only mildly disconcerting. The staff at London were equally helpful, though there was a certain irony at being wheelchaired the length of the platform to collect my bike. But before I knew it, I was outside Kings Cross waiting for my Wheels for Wellbeing support rider, Alex.
I lived in London for a few years, but that was the best part of two decades ago. Back then there was no MS, and also no cycling. Cycling in London was a no-go back then but I’d heard big changes have been happening recently, superhighways and the like. Back in 2000, when I lived in London, cars outnumbered bikes in Zone 1 by 10 to 1, but its now approaching 1 to 1 (source: Transport for London, page 9). This is in stark contrast to the rest of the country. London is doing something different, something bolder and people are returning to using bikes for utility (i.e. not needing Lycra). It really is setting the standards at the moment, but now it was time for me to put it to the test.
Alex soon arrived on his folding bike and we were ready to start our route following some of the superhighways and links that connected through quiet streets. The first shock was the sheer number of cyclists! They poured down the dedicated infrastructure, past all the stationary traffic on lanes that were mostly separated from the cars. We rattled our way over London Bridge, past Vauxhall and onwards to City Hall, the conference venue. A spectacular view over the Thames, Tower Bridge and HMS Belfast was my reward.
The conference was fascinating, with interesting talks both political and personal. I heard a lot about how London is increasingly taking cycling seriously as mode of transport. I heard how active transport (e.g. walking and cycling) is a crucial way to counter the growing epidemic of physical inactivity. Wheels for Wellbeing launched their guide for accessible cycling, aimed at local authorities, and how that same accessibility agenda is creating the conditions in London for more and more people to use bikes with trailers (for kids, shopping and pets!) and cargo bikes for work and deliveries. But most of all I met so many amazing people who are cycling as a way of escaping the confines imposed by their disabilities, be they obvious or unseen.
After a brief relax in the pub – I owed Alex a pint after all, probably more so after what was to come – it was back to catch the train. We left an hour and a half for the journey. Alas, it had been an early start and a long day, and I started to struggle. Too many uphill stop starts were taking their toll on my wobbly legs and as we neared Kings Cross they finally gave out. They would not turn the pedals anymore. Less than half an hour to get to the train and I was immobilised.
What happened next was astonishing and heart warming. Firstly we hailed a cab; the driver helped me in with Alex’s folding bike and, followed by Alex on mine, we dashed to the station. Alex went to find the assistance service whilst the driver, protesting that I shouldn’t pay the fare, helped me from the cab. The assistance service then scooped me up, bike and all, and calmly wheeled me to a later train alerting the guard on the way. So an hour after flopping in the street I was tucking into a hot dinner on the train whilst sipping a beer. The ticket inspector merely smiled and commented “I know all about you”. I kept quiet. The staff at York were equally helpful and by that time I had recovered sufficiently to cycle home without further incident.
Safely home again now I reflect on an exciting day out. Would I do it again? Yes, without a doubt. What would I change? Nothing: it was exhilarating, stimulating and a delight to feel nearly independent again. If I didn’t try these things then I would be giving in to my disability and I’m not ready for that. Have you cycled across London after taking the train? I’d recommend it.
Early in 2016 my partner, Kate, and I were invited to a family gathering at an art exhibition. This is not unusual, there was an attractive card and warm message from an aunt but out of the card slipped a cutting. It was from Saga magazine – not my usual reading fare – and only a few hundred words long. It described the extraordinary story of Simon Lord, an avid cyclist who, not to be put off by the irritation of being confined to a wheelchair, had formed a charity to enable disabled people to attempt long cycle rides.
Like me, Simon has multiple sclerosis or MS for short. Now in his 50’s, he has a progressive form of the condition. I was diagnosed in my late twenties and have now just turned 40. I have a relapse-remitting form, where I get better between the relapses, but alas for the last five years not to where I once was. I have always been an active person: cricket, golf, squash, rock climbing, hill walking, I would do them all. Not so anymore, as my condition has crept up on me they have had to become part of my younger self, now left behind. Cycling was not on this list, but upon sober reflection I suspect it is only MS that has deprived me of a middle age swathed in lycra.
I live in York, a friendly place for cycling: I can cycle my kids to school without touching a road, I can cycle to work with barely 50 yards on one. So as my walking range has shrank inwards, my bike has become an essential mobility aid to get me around and about in York. Three years ago, after a much umming and arring I bought an electric town bike, which has been boon. I have been able to keep up good levels of regular exercise but not get exhausted by the typical headwind on the cycle home from work in the evening. But this kind of cycling is hardly a challenge; I was no longer bagging Scottish Munros or sprinting between wickets. So, after a few gentle prods from my ever supportive partner, I sent an email to the charity with nervous enquiry about an upcoming event based in Scarborough.
Trials of Yorkshire
Two months later I stood waiting outside Scarborough station. The staff at York Station and the Transpennine express service had helped me make the journey with my city electric bike, and had wished me well with slightly incredulous expressions. A battered old van turned up and, with some firm directions from a bolshie passenger, a gentleman in his prime called Tom helped me load my bike into the back. I clambered up into the front next to the mouthy incumbent, who was of course Simon Lord. It was all very friendly, and I was soon installed in a comfortable room on the University campus in Scarborough. Drinks and dinner followed and I was soon introduced to everyone, Simon’s delightful wife Kim, the effervescent Andy, the enigmatic ‘Jumper’ and the kind Lisa to name but a few. The hard stuff was for tomorrow.
We gathered early the next morning. I was terrified. The route for the day was a challenge. We were to ride to Dalby forest, where some of the group were to attempt the mountain bike trails in the forest and then home again. The entire day was daunting 80 miles. But this was to be no leap into the unknown. On the road each of the ‘Empowered’ riders had a support rider with them to monitor them throughout the day. In addition we had a lead rider, Richard, who had planned the route and laid out a trail of arrows and a sweeper rider, Andy, who would bring up the rear and deal with any mishaps. Supporting this ensemble were the vehicles; a support van which was heartily equipped with tea, coffee, lunches, bike kit, and even a portable toilet and a sweeper vehicle with a trailer so it could scoop up any riders and bikes in difficulty. In short, we were well covered. Clarke was my support rider, a young engineering student from Liverpool, second cousin to one of our ‘Empowered’ riders, Charlotte.
Nervous, and not quite on top form, I struggled on a sharp climb out of Scarborough and took a tumble into the verge. I was scooped up and ably encouraged to continue. This was a new level of challenge for me and I was very relieved to see the support van some 12 miles later. A chair, some tea and many friendly faces were waiting for me. The next climb was tough and many of the ‘Empowered’ riders boarded the support vehicles, Simon included, who had sped his way along to this point. Helped onto an electric bike and feet secured in, Simon had an unusual style and was not fond of stopping for anything, or anyone. We redeployed at the top of the hill and followed a delightful downhill forest track into Dalby and lunch.
The way back began with a tough long climb out of Dalby. Gamely I took the lead, pedalling for all I was worth. Pushing and panting I eventually had to call it a day two thirds of the way up. I was spent, exhausted and gasping for breath. I was tottering and struggling to balance. Not only that, I had burnt out the motor on my bike. A disaster? Far from it. This was my triumph of the weekend. I had exhausted myself and found my limits. This is the frustration of MS: the encroaching nature of the condition makes it difficult to know how far one can push oneself and the shock of abruptly finding those limits. Scooped up by the team, my bike and I were soon safely installed in the sweeper vehicle with Neil, Gillian and Simon’s friendly dog Poppy for company. Day complete.
The last day was a stunning ride on the Cinder trail from Scarborough to Robin Hoods Bay and back. I was riding a different bike on loan now and was determined to complete the ride. Alas the final climb on the return up to Ravenscar took its toll on me and after one fall too many I had to call it quits. Nonetheless it was a great day and my graceful dismounts throughout the day earned me a yellow jersey in the evening camaraderie. I had cycled over 50 miles over the 2 days – more than I had ever tried before – and found a way to get both exercise and freedom with the support and backup that I now need.
Empowered People is a remarkable charity. With a group of warm, talented and committed riders and supporters they are able to create the conditions where riders with a wide variety of challenges – MS, Parkinsons, accident victims, cancer survivors and more – are able to attempt cycling challenges that would otherwise be beyond them. It is a charity that focuses on what people can do, rather than what they can’t. Empowered People aim to help and advise people to source the right bike for their needs. In addition they organise challenging bike-rides, for which they need to acquire and maintain the essential support vehicles. Most importantly they need volunteers to support the rides, making tea, driving the cars, helping with the admin and, of course, riding with the team. I am enormously grateful to them, and to the warm and inspirational Simon in particular, for giving me this opportunity to know I can still attempt physical challenges that I thought were now beyond me. And thanks to Aunty Robin – I don’t think you realised what you were about to start.