Where do I begin? I'm now a pretty fit 61 year old, but it has been a long and hard journey to get here, of which cycling has played a major part. It is no exaggeration to say that my bicycle literally saved my life and as a cancer survivor I'm one of the lucky ones, but as you'll read in the bio below, not without huge personal cost. Here is an article I wrote for the Zwift community pages to inspire others and I think it tells my story as well as any other I've written.
I was 14 years old when I had my first encounter with a disease that was to play such a huge role in my life. A small growth the size of a pea quickly grew into a large orange sized lump on my left thigh and by the time I was scheduled for an operation to remove it, the surgeons told my mother they would have to take off my leg. The only thing at that age I knew how to do well was run and I was pretty good at it, so my mother insisted they think again. They took away so much bone that placing an implant alongside what was left to hold the marrow in place resulted in the prognosis that I would never run again and would most likely have to wear my shiny new leg brace for the rest of my life.
A little more than a year later and I’d run my first marathon for charity around the sports field track in my home town of Huddersfield. This was also when I started cycling seriously for the first time, as on weekends I’d get on my bike and cycle to the seaside at Scarborough, eat fish and chips out of folds of newspaper and then cycle back. It was a round trip of 180 miles. More than 30 years later and I was still doing this trip with club mates on a regular basis.
I joined the Army at 21, because I was out of control and would most likely have ended up in jail. The pent up anger I carried forward from my abusive childhood (I was brought up in care) needed an outlet and here was an organisation that would not only pay me to travel around the world, but encourage my sporting exploits. It was pretty obvious my forte was endurance, even at this early age. Running, climbing, mountaineering and skiing played a huge part in my life and so that I could spend more time doing this instead of my regular job, I became the regimental outdoor pursuits instructor. This culminated in me taking a party of complete novice climbers to Wales and then the Italian Alps in the regiment’s centenary year (1986) and getting 8 of the 10 man team to the top of Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest mountain. This seemed a fitting way to end my Army career.
It was my fascination with rock climbing that got me back into cycling. The MTB boom had started in the UK and myself and a few friends saw it as a good way of getting to the more remote crags and mountains. There wasn’t a local MTB club, so along with Tony Vangrove, my regular riding partner, we set up West Yorkshire Rough Riders, which became one of the largest clubs in the region. I’m proud to say the club still flourishes today despite some of it’s founder members having passed on.
Although I raced MTB it was the endurance events that really interested me, but because I just couldn’t go downhill fast enough (my skill levels never caught up with my lack of fear) I ended up breaking bones all too regularly. It was this and the fact that I had no-one in the club to really challenge me when going uphill that saw me move over to road cycling once again. This was a whole new ball game and opened up a lot more possibilities of ultra endurance events, not to mention the cyclo sportives both in the UK and in Europe.
I embraced all aspects of the sport, road racing, track, time trialling and of course the sportive. My only regret is I didn’t stick with cycling (instead of running) when I was younger, because although I had decent times in my events, maybe I should have done much better. My coach once told me anyone who could run a marathon in 2:36:40 should really be able to make Cat 1 or Elite, but I never got close as a Cat 3. I had a lot of fun though, travelling regularly to Europe to take part in the Etape du Tour and other long distance events, particularly those involving a lot of climbing which seemed to be what I did best.
In early 2005 just as I was beginning to feel I could do well in this seasons masters category, cancer struck for the second time. I’d entered an event I expected to do well in and came nowhere, so thinking it was overtraining scheduled another race after a rest period. I bombed in that and then knew it was time to visit the doctor. I was diagnosed with prostate cancer and the surgeons suggested I have it removed. After doing some research I found there was a procedure known as brachytherapy, where they ‘sew’ 100 irradiated rice sized titanium seeds directly into the prostate and went back and told them this is what I wanted and it all happened pretty quickly.
Prior to my diagnosis I’d signed up to do a 1,000 mile Lands End to John O’Groats
(LE-JOG) charity ride in just 5 days for “The Race Against Time” with a small group of riders. I’d been doing some coaching on the
side and so became the groups unofficial trainer. A couple of weeks after my operation we had our first 100 mile group training ride scheduled. Ciaran, our group leader called me up to ask if I would be attending and I told him I couldn’t yet sit on a saddle, but that I would drive down and join them as it was to be a through and off session and some of the group had never done this before.
I decided I would ride out of the saddle for as long as I could, going back and forth up the group. As we got further into the ride I was asked how long I’d stay with them as I was riding totally out of the saddle – I tried to sit but it was just too painful and responded I’d ride for as long as I could. That ended up being the full 100 miles, or 5 hours, all ridden out of the saddle. For me, it was just another challenge. The sceptical amongst you may find that hard to believe, but it is easily verified by any member of the team of 2005.
Another charity challenge (raising funds to send a friend out to the Philippines with Tear Fund) saw me ride from my workplace in Leeds, to Paris and back, a distance of 970 miles in just 4 days. It rained all 4 days. The doctors had warned me not to stress my body too much, as my immune system was shot. I responded by doing the Marmotte in the middle of my treatment, gaining the gold standard for my age group. I was no longer racing and became increasingly involved in the Sportive scene in the UK, working initially with British Cycling and then in 2007 when my wife Caroline was diagnosed with breast cancer we ran our own event to raise funds for cancer research. It became a classic, mostly due to the fact I’d stuck in every difficult hill I could find and if I’ve learned one thing about these type of events, the harder the event, the more riders like it.
The year 2008 saw me changing careers when I was made redundant from my IT job of many years, because I was taking too much time off to look after myself and Caroline. Of course that wasn’t the reason given, but what hurt most was I trained the junior who replaced me. It ended up being one of the best things to happen to me. I had been working as a sports photographer in my spare time, mostly at cycling events and redundancy forced me to go professional. The bank refused a loan, telling me it would be 3 years before I broke even, so I spent all my redundancy money and gambled our future. In less than a year I was earning more than I’d ever done as an IT professional, had overseas assignments and won international awards. I just love it when someone tells me I can’t do something!
The joy was short lived however. In late 2009 Caroline was diagnosed with secondary stage breast cancer (she’d already had the breast removed in 2007) and given just 12 months to live. We made a bucket list and I’ll never know how we managed to make the top 3 happen, because she died just 9 weeks later. Maybe you can begin to understand why I never trust doctors. My world fell apart, I descended into a deep depression which resulted in me failing to take action when the disease returned again. I let my business slip, lost many good friends and shut out the world. The following year my breathing had become so bad I checked myself into a clinic and discovered the cancer had spread to my lungs. Although I was fortunate once again in beating the disease, It had come at a huge cost as I lost the majority of my left lung.
My depression was the hardest battle I’ve ever faced and I simply lost interest in life. By the time I was told in October 2012 that the cancer had once more returned and was now terminal, it really did come as a huge relief. I asked how long and was told 12 months, to which I replied I would go cycle touring. The doctor said this would be very beneficial and asked “where will you go?” I told him I would cycle to the roof of the world (the Pamir Highway) to which he laughed and said “Derek you need to choose an easier challenge. How do you propose to breathe up there? what you are suggesting is quite simply impossible” to which I replied ‘I like impossible. Thank you for your honesty’ and walked out.
It took just 3 weeks to sell my house (I’d already had to look into this to pay my private medical bills) to sell my business and my car. I gave everything else away to charity and set off to cycle around the world on 12th November 2012, my whole worldly possessions now in my bike panniers.
I made it to the roof of the world, cycled the Pamir Highway and sent the oncologist a postcard. It read “nothing is impossible”. My round the world cycle took in 37 countries, 4 continents and 37,000 km’s. It had been a journey of not just discovery, but of healing. I still have bouts of depression, but when I think back to 30 months ago, when I was really ill and my weight had fallen to just 53 kg I know how lucky I’ve been, because one event changed my whole life around and made me start fighting to live again. I fell in love.
Cycling across Canada from Vancouver to Halifax, Nova Scotia, I met Hilke in a hostel. I was not cycling because I’d dislocated my shoulder on a downhill into Rimouski when my front tire exploded, so was taking some R&R and was pretty low. We sat up most of the first night talking and decided along with another girl we’d share a hire car to explore the local Cabot Trail. I was so ill and struggling to breathe I stayed in the car while they went on the trail, but over the next few days we got to know a little more about each other. Hilke was an avid cyclist, but a muscle injury meant she was taking time out and making her own trip across Canada. She lived in The Netherlands and when we finally parted a week later we agreed to look each other up when I eventually returned to Europe to get my dislocated shoulder fixed.
I stepped off the ferry at Rotterdam not knowing whether Hilke wanted to be with me or not. I was madly in love with her, but had no idea if she felt the same. We spent Christmas together and decided we wanted this. It was my best Christmas ever. Cycling the paths I struggled to keep up, but I was definitely getting fitter and when I was bought a road bike for my birthday, I joined a local club. I love the cycling community and although it took a few months before I could be comfortable on club rides, they never left me behind.
Zwift (indoor training software) happened because I wanted to train mostly indoors throughout the winter (due to my poor immune system) and I looked online for a cheap trainer. When I saw the YouTube videos of Zwift I just had to join.
My first ride was a metric century and my second ride was 100 miles. By the beginning of 2016 I was back to decent fitness and completed 410 km’s in the New Year 12 hour Time Trial. In October I broke the Zwift distance record, cycling 1,620 km in 52 hours 37 minutes and in December scored the highest mileage in the World Bicycle Relief (WBR) charity event, cycling 731 km's in the 24 hours of the challenge and raised sufficient funds to send two buffalo bikes out to Africa.
Footnote: You can never be complacent with cancer and while it appears I’m clear, it is never far from my thoughts. They used to say it is not hereditary, but we now know that’s bollocks. I’ve lost my mother, my absent father, my brothers and a sister to the disease and this is why you’ll see me doing so much fundraising for cancer (and other) charities.
Please check out my blog to see the latest challenges I've signed up for.