My fitness challenge
Cycling f irst helped Richard Cavender to lose four stone, then to shine at Ridelondon, in spite of a debilitating spinal condition
Rewind two years and the mere task of putting on shoes was a challenge for Richard Cavender. “I had to lean down on the side of the bed to reach my foot, then sit up and take a few breaths before putting on the other one. I thought to myself, this is mad.”
Since emigrating to Spain a decade earlier and setting up an IT business, Cavender had settled into bad habits, “working harder and harder while getting fatter and fatter”. With his weight hitting a lifetime high of 110kg, there was no more denying it: he needed to take action.
Digging out a neglected hybrid bike, Cavender tentatively began cycling, at first just the odd 5km or 10km as his work schedule allowed. Before long, though, he was part of an expat cycling community.
“The guy running my local bike shop suggested I try a road bike. From that moment, I was hooked; I bought a bike and started riding more and more.”
Within a month, his priorities had flipped: “I was doing 200km a week; work was getting in the way of my cycling.”
Cavender lost four stone in as many months and spent the summer of 2016 relishing his newfound fitness. But one morning last October he woke up with a sore neck that, rather than easing through the day, grew progressively more painful. The next day it was worse. Much worse.
“By 7pm that night, it felt like someone was taking a baseball bat to my head and I was wearing a helmet of pain.
“My wife drove me to the hospital. Every bump in the road was like being smacked round the head with a sledgehammer. That night was horrible, unable to lift my head, the pain unrelenting.”
As Cavender’s agony intensified, doctors briefly feared he had contracted deadly meningitis. Test after test came back negative. Strong painkillers eventually brought the symptoms under control but still no one could work out what was wrong. For the next six months, he was passed between experts in multiple different medical fields, each one drawing a blank. Meanwhile he did his best to manage the pain, stifle the worry, and keep working, conscious that “self-employed in a foreign country, if you don’t earn, you don’t eat”.
The breakthrough finally came in February this year, when a rheumatologist diagnosed him with ankylosing spondylitis, a form of arthritis that causes inflammation in the joints of the spine.
“The immune system attacks and eats away at the vertebrae, which grow back irregularly,” explains the 49-year-old. “The risk is, they fuse together.”
Treatment would require immunosuppressant drugs that cost €1,000 per month — thankfully for Cavender, they’re available free on Spain’s national health service. Further welcome news was that a crucial part of the treatment plan would be regular exercise.
“Your spine can’t fuse together if you’re moving all the time, so you need to be as active as possible; cycling is ideal.”
Rarely are doctor’s orders so willingly obeyed.
“Cycling gets rid of stress, keeps me fit, helps my spine, and I love it.”
Having already signed up for Ridelondon, Cavender postponed his first course of the drugs so as to train without the risk of side effects. His first task was shifting the 10kg he had gained while sidelined, before really getting to work. Just five months later, he crossed the line on the Mall in a sprightly five hours 17 minutes.
Upon returning home, Cavender began taking the prescribed immunosuppressants — to near-miraculous effect.
“After two days on the drugs, you couldn’t tell there was anything wrong with me. It’s weird: although I have a serious, progressive disease, to look at me, you’d never know.”
The invisibility of his condition has heightened Cavender’s empathy for people whose suffering is concealed and thus misunderstood.
“These days I have a lot more time for people who have long-term illnesses, and a better appreciation of hidden disabilities. There are a bunch of people in society who are living their lives with a lot of pain but who appear to be perfectly OK.”
Free from symptoms, he is making the most of his new lease of life by taking to two wheels whenever he has the chance.
“I get out on the bike every couple of days, covering 200-300km a week. Here on the Costa Blanca, it’s sunny pretty much all the time, the roads are great, with hardly any traffic, and Spanish drivers give you room — if a car overtakes too close, you know it’s a Brit.”
Aware that most people with ankylosing spondylitis struggle with chronic pain for years before getting diagnosed, Cavender phlegmatically counts his blessings.
“I have a diagnosis and a treatment, which allows me to carry on doing what I love doing — which is cycling. Really, I’m lucky.”
Saved by cycling: one rider’s journey to health, p46