Turning to Two Wheels to Ride Through Hardship
Words & Photography by Nils Amelinckx
‘Between changing nappies, dressings, and treatment regimes, initially I simply couldn’t summon the headspace to ride bikes. Eventually, with my utopian hopes for a potential cure being repeatedly crushed, I began to accept that I would need to deal with this disease as a chronic illness. This wasn’t just going to be a turbulent chapter within the otherwise settled book of my life. If I wasn’t going to be able to add days to my life, I wanted to make sure I would add life to my days.’
I find myself becoming aware of the well-travelled route connecting two points, its path uneven and battered from overuse, clearly visible from a distance like a fault line that slices through its pristine surroundings.
Scalpels have travelled this path all too often, retracing their steps from sternum to pubic bone, circumnavigating what is left of my belly button. As I reach up to lift my bike off the bike rack, the scar across my abdomen sears as it fails to stretch sufficiently to allow the motion.
My local stomping ground, the Lake District, is one of the wettest areas in England. Autumnal storms batter the mountains with heavy rainfall, and downpours purge the air of its impurities, yielding an aftermath of dazzling clarity that accentuates the landscape’s texture and lays bare its imperfections.
With time becoming increasingly precious, I have become obsessive about these settled interludes. The sight of a sunrise or sunset from a mountain, well above a layer of clouds, has developed a dual meaning for me. I need to witness these wonders as often as I can. Perhaps you only begin to truly appreciate the view from a clear summit when you are otherwise stuck in a dark valley, blanketed under ominous clouds.
For a few days, I had been tracking a high-pressure system that – with a bit of luck – might establish itself to coincide with my good week in between rounds of treatment. Better still, my diary was relatively free of hospital appointments and unavoidable work meetings, allowing me to pull the holiday trigger with little notice should the stars align.
I’m beaming. Green slate chippings crunch under my tyres as I grind my way up one of Honister mine’s steep tracks. Today, luck is on my side and everything has come together for me to strike meteorological gold. Wispy clouds stratifying a steel-blue sky are illuminated by the soft rays of an autumnal sun, which throws long shadows across the clearly defined landscape. Relief, textures, and colours are all accentuated by the natural soft-box conditions. There’s a post-industrial beauty to this place.
As I ride, I begin to sense an unexpected connection between my surroundings and the state of my beaten body. Disused quarry inclines slice diagonally across the otherwise pristine landscape, visibly scarring the mountainside. Within the belly of Fleetwith Pike, home to England’s last active slate mine, there is an 11-mile network of man-made infrastructure. Some parts are still active, while some parts are disused, internally disfiguring this mountainous body. Scarring and a few mineshafts aside, few external indicators give away what lies beneath. Sometimes it’s perhaps better not knowing.
Riding bikes became a serious pastime when I moved to the Lake District following a ski season in the Alps. I was born and raised in Belgium. Bikes had always been a big part of daily life, but it wasn’t until I realised that my new snow-free surroundings made the perfect canvas to explore on two wheels that mountain biking became a dominant pastime. As an added bonus, it would help to fill the void that emerged when I left seasonnaire life behind in the French Alps.
Moving through a landscape by bike is the quintessential way to travel – slow enough to take in the sounds, sights, and smells with intricate detail, turbocharging the senses, yet fast enough to cover real ground. It is a social affair, too, and helped me create new social circles after uprooting from France.
I vividly remember celebrating my 30th birthday with a bunch of friends in one of Ennerdale’s youth hostels, halfway through a classic Lake District mountain-bike loop that encompasses four of the national park’s bridleway mountain passes. It’s a big day out that requires a fair amount of Lakeland graft and shouldering of your bike, but with gritted teeth should see you round in a day. We had decided to slow the pace to include an overnight stop, allowing for a few celebratory beers and a temporary disconnection from the daily routine of family life.
Celebrations, however, ended up being an understated affair. Fear clouded my mind when I yet again excreted scarlet fluids on a mid-ride toilet stop. Although my GP had repeatedly dismissed these symptoms as nothing to worry about given my age and level of fitness, I couldn’t help conjuring images of late family members withering away as rogue cells consumed their bodies. What if, against all odds as a fit and otherwise healthy 30-year-old, I had cancer?
Just over a month later, I traded fear for reality. Bowel cancer. Details of the severity of my diagnosis came in bite-sized chunks. Metastatic, stage IV, and peritoneum were some of the new terms being added to my vocabulary. I was given no more than five years left to live.
The start of treatment signalled the end of riding. Or so I thought. There was recovery from surgery, follow-up chemo, and the arrival of our second child to contend with. He came into this world after my third round of chemotherapy; my other half was induced to ensure I could witness the birth. I had just spent the first of many bonus stints in hospital to deal with some of the treatment’s many side effects, and my availability hadn’t been guaranteed.
Between changing nappies, dressings, and treatment regimes, initially I simply couldn’t summon the headspace to ride bikes. Eventually, with my utopian hopes for a potential cure being repeatedly crushed, I began to accept that I would need to deal with this disease as a chronic illness. This wasn’t just going to be a turbulent chapter within the otherwise settled book of my life. If I wasn’t going to be able to add days to my life, I wanted to make sure I would add life to my days.
There is something about riding mountain bikes that focuses the mind. Just-in-control descents as you pick your line between loose rocks, through mud and over roots. Scouting the trail for features that will catch your wheels as you hear them desperately scratching around for grip. Controlling your speed and braking just enough at just the right time. The subconscious mind makes hundreds of decisions per second and triggers the release of adrenaline, dopamine, and endorphins, leaving few cerebral resources to divert attention elsewhere.
With what little light remained at the end of the cancer tunnel now being reduced to a pinprick, I made the conscious decision not to let my illness dictate who I was and how I would live the remainder of my days. Despite the initial screaming of both lungs and legs, I gradually rebuilt some stamina and once again started to go further and, much to the approval of my adrenal gland, faster.
Time in the saddle allowed me to switch off and temporarily get above the ominous clouds that hung over me. Off the saddle, the feel-good hormones would continue to buzz around my veins. I had inadvertently self-prescribed a solid dose of resilience and with that slowly began to regain life.
I could be forgiven for having lost count, but we are now seven surgeries, more than 40 rounds of chemotherapy, and five sessions of radiotherapy into this four-and-a-half-year marathon. Every step along the way is finely etched into my memory. By way of a gentle reminder, I get a cytotoxic slap every couple of weeks to try knocking back the cells that are still on a mission to take control of some of my body’s vital functions.
Twice, I had my abdomen emptied of organs and the remaining cavity filled with a hot chemo solution in an attempt to control disease nested in the membrane that lines it. Initially – and perhaps optimistically – this procedure had been touted as the golden key to a potential cure for this otherwise inescapable disease. A procedure only carried out in two places in the UK, simply qualifying for it was a challenge in its own right.
Major surgery like this left marks well beyond the prominent scar that acts as my body’s own meridian. One of my greatest fears following my bowel cancer diagnosis was the prospect of being fitted with a bag. Having your bowel end on the outside of your abdomen unequivocally signalled a life-limiting change to me, so, when I came round from having been temporarily turned into a sink, the sight of a bag left me visualising my future self as an under-watered house plant, slowly withering away in a life deprived of outside light and air.
Nothing that is worthwhile comes easy. Having already seen the strength I could gain from getting out on a bike, I made it a personal challenge to see how quickly I could get back into the mountains on two wheels once again. Although I’d been opened up like a suitcase, that was not going to stop me riding bikes to help regain the resilience I had previously found.
Despite my best intentions, I had to brush aside some purist beliefs and – with some reluctance – embrace technology to achieve my riding goals. To me, the electric whir of an e-bike still feels misplaced in an ancient mountain range steeped in history and tradition. That said, having access to a bike that provides enough assistance to compensate for hospital-bed muscle loss undoubtedly accelerated recovery. And it became a shortcut to regaining happiness.
As I approach the top of the climb, near the disused quarry at the head of Warnscale Beck, my bike’s battery displays a few remaining bars; my own is well and truly depleted. I try to regain some charge by adding a double dose of electrolytes to some fresh mountain water, idly wondering what my gut might do if the water were contaminated.
Surgical procedures have merrily chipped away at my digestive system. I am no longer the proud owner of a large bowel, and only retain around 60 per cent of my small bowel. The result is that things move somewhat quickly, and staying hydrated can be challenging. In order to aid absorption and hydration, I rely on huge doses of loperamide (Imodium) and codeine to try to slow things down. Where one tablet of each would normally be enough medication to constipate a healthy person, 16 tablets of loperamide and eight tablets of codeine per day just about keep my body in balance. An external factor, like contaminated water, could easily cause enough of a wobble to bless me with a bonus hospital stay. In spite of the risk I can’t help but guzzle the ice-cold water, soothing my burning lungs and temporarily quenching a never-ending thirst. I use the opportunity to wash down my four-hourly dose of antidiarrheal medication.
I have come back to this place with a purpose. Today’s ride encompasses one of the four passes we set out to ride on my 30th-birthday weekend while at the peak of my mountain-biking ability. It isn’t lost on me how much my life changed shortly after my last visit, and my ego wants to find out if I still have what it takes to pick my way down between bedrock and loose boulders despite being two and half stone lighter. I have consciously opted to ride solo, longing to take the moment to reflect on the past four and a half years since my initial five-year prognosis.
Warnscale Pass is widely regarded as one of the more technical legal mountain-bike descents of the national park and will test anyone’s mettle. From the top of the disused quarry, the path initially provides a sense of flow as it meanders through a precariously narrow and somewhat ominous gorge, increasingly closing in on the waterfalls of Warnscale Beck. As the path nears the falls, it mimics the waterway’s course of least resistance and begins to point straight down the fall line, losing its flow yet merrily cascading over successive slabs of bedrock. Again, the metaphorical connection between trail and recent life is not lost on me.
I cautiously approach the technical rock slabs, looking for an exit point that isn’t too obscured by angular boulders – impact with one of these may redirect my front wheel and spit me off course. In the world of mountain biking, speed is your friend. As I commit to my line, I let go of the brakes in the hope that my momentum will carry me through the rock-littered run-out. Every successful execution builds more confidence. The experience reminds me of the anxious build-up to surgery. Every procedure is different, handing over control to a relative stranger, and I never know how and where I will be spat out.
As the valley opens up towards Warnscale Bottom, the trail diverts away from the fall line and begins to precariously cling to the contours of the U-shaped bowl. The thrill of overcoming successive slabs is replaced by the threat of a large drop to the left as my wheels ping between incessant loose rocks. Things finally get gentler when trail and river merge once more, both honing in on the shores of Buttermere. Chances are high I will ride this one out unscathed.
Back at the van, post-ride coffee in hand, I relish in the adventure I have just experienced. The pure focus required to tackle technical terrain has once again allowed me to temporarily switch off. To rise above the threat of the future. It assures me that I haven’t quite reached a palliative state. Every time I manage to get out, I am still winning.
The power of resilience does not simply rest on brawn and endurance. It is a product of both your heart’s intrinsic desire to keep beating and your mind’s ability to navigate through stormy waters. It is a survival asset ingrained into everyone’s DNA, but perhaps its true potential can only be exposed in life’s extremes.
So reclimb that mountain, let go of the brakes of life, and squeeze those grips of the moment with white knuckles. Life should not be about the number of breaths we take but the moments that take our breath away.
First published in Sidetracked Volume 23