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

Cycling Weekly - - Contents - David Brad­ford

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

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