THE REAL PEDAL POWER
CYCLISTS DISCOVER THE TRUE MEANING OF MATESHIP
Let’s be clear, this is not a story about bicycles versus cars. It’s probably not even so much a story about bicycles, except perhaps as metaphor for something that keeps you pedalling because if you don’t, you’ll fall over.
This was to be a story about MAMILS, those much derided Middle-Aged Men in Lycra, slowing perfectly clear roadways in their matching knicks, talking loudly about their next carbon frames, polluting coffee shops with their post-ride perspiration.
But it turns out to be a story about a couple of blokes who ride bikes to get them through what middle age can throw at men.
Curiously, Australian filmmakers Nickolas Bird and Eleanor Sharpe struck the same phenomenon in their recent documentary MAMILS, a study of men’s cycling groups across three continents. They set out to take a wry look at the male midlife obsession with expensive bikes but instead uncovered touching stories of camaraderie, community and hope. Perhaps its most poignant case study was an Adelaide man who credits his cycling group with literally saving his life, staying his planned suicide with each ride.
Steve Holmes, of Main Beach, understands how cycling can keep you hanging in there. In October 2016, he was diagnosed with a rare form of bile duct cancer, cholangiocarcinoma, the same one that had claimed his brother’s life only two years before.
It was a blow he never saw coming. He felt like he’d played all his survival cards when he recovered from a broken neck he sustained in a crash of the lead pack during the Gold Coast 100 cycling event five years earlier. It was during his eight months lay-up, wondering how much of his paralysed body would return, that he conceived the idea of an online resource featuring everything you ever needed to know about cycling events in Australia and New Zealand. He followed it up with a local site, Ride GC, encompassing local clubs, recreational groups, regular rides, events and retailers. An internet novice, he started building the sites with his one functioning left hand.
“It was a passion,” Steve says. “Cycling is huge on the Gold Coast. I didn’t know how big it was. I was just the person who was trying to pull it all together. I could see where it could go.”
The sites were just beginning to gain traction in cycling circles, catching the attention of cycling tourists and corporates, when – bang – Steve was back off his bike. “I was on a ride one day when I thought I had a stomach virus and the next thing, I’ve got this cancer where the survival rate is nil – nil! What do you even say to that?”
Steve’s cancer story is a long tale of operations; complications; unsung doctors who appeared from nowhere to save him within minutes of death and pure, sheer, brilliant luck.
The tumours an 11-hour operation painstakingly removed came back with a vengeance and took hold on the outside of his liver. He was in so much pain, he knew he couldn’t have long.
Then his oncologist unearthed a trial for Keytruda, an immunotherapy drug being tested on rare cancers, being run out of Hamburg, Germany.
“I was that sick, he virtually had to move my hand on the page so I could sign the consent form,” Steve says. “It was a long shot that I even qualified for the trial.”
The next thing he was in Brisbane hooked up to a Keytruda infusion. Four days later, he was on the floor, sicker than he’d ever been but with each dose, things improved. One day, he realised he couldn’t feel pain any more but thought he must be just getting used it.
His cycling sites lay untouched but the people he had reached through them were sending their messages.
“I spent a lot of time lying on the couch,” he says. “And I would think about riding and my cycling sites and how I was going to make them better. I’ll tell you one thing, when you’re preparing to die, it really helps to have a passion.”
Steve still can’t speak about the miracle that happened next without a few tears. It’s still too new and perhaps he doesn’t quite believe it yet. Just a month ago, he got word he was in complete remission, one of only two known people in the world to escape the clutches of cholangiocarcinoma.
“When you’re ready to die and it doesn’t happen, it sounds ridiculous but you go through a ‘well, what do I do now’ phase,” he says. “But I knew what it was, it was getting going with all the ideas that came to me while I was dying.”
He’s currently revamping and relaunching his cycling websites and newsletters, creating a Buzz Feed style app with his curated cycling information and an online magazine. The details rush out of him, a man in a hurry, and it’s not hard to see why he feels like he needs to fit a lot into each day. He’s back on his bike too – just twice a week, finding his legs again, being back out on the road with his old cycling mates.
He probably won’t be in any lead pack again, although you wouldn’t bet against it, but he’s on his bike, a miracle in itself.
Retired paediatrician Dave McCrossin, of Burleigh, has his own tale of riding for life.
Dave was an early adopter of cycling for fitness and mateship, certainly well before anyone had heard of a MAMIL. He started out on a sturdy hybrid bike wearing shorts and a T-shirt more than 25 years ago.
He’s seen the roads get busier and the cycling packs
get bigger. He made the switch to lycra when it was hard to go past its suitability for the sport and, over the years, has ridden in many of the country’s major recreational cycling events.
The former director of Paediatric Services at the Mater Hospital, Queenland’s specialist children’s hospital, took an early retirement when Parkinson’s disease made it difficult to keep up the demands of his work. He and his wife sold up in Brisbane, bought an apartment on the Burleigh Esplanade and Dave joined an old mate’s local cycling group. He found a bunch of blokes who took him under their wing. Someone would hang back with him if he was having a slow day but mostly they didn’t change too much on his account, just as he liked it.
“When you get older, it’s not about racing – that’s for the 20 and 30 year olds,” Dave reckons. “It’s more the social side, the conversation and just getting out there and getting some exercise.”
But Dave doesn’t move like he used to. Parkinson’s symptoms include shaking, increasing rigidity and slowness of movement. Yet cycling, preferably faster than you’re physically able, is clinically proven to alleviate Parkinson’s symptoms. Researchers believe the action of cycling improves connections in vital areas of the brain.
It was something Dave was already on to. Over a year ago, he switched to an e-bike, fitted with a small, silent electric motor, to help his legs keep pumping when he needed a boost. His mates particularly love it when he powers past the A-listers taking on Springbrook on a Sunday morning. “It’s kept me on the bike and that’s helped not only my physical health but also my psychological,” Dave says. “I’d recommend it to anyone who’s struggling a bit.”
Be warned, sales of e-bikes are booming as recreational cyclists age and want to keep riding into their 70s, even 80s. Old MAMILS, it seems, never die … that’s why they do it.