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.