By Trevor Gornall / All images: ©Joolze Diamond
Lake Annecy, Wednesday 7th September 2011, about 8 pm. I’ve just demolished my penultimate meal before starting The Alpine Challenge, a three-day timed event, taking place on closed roads, over some iconic French climbs. I’m already nervous, as I’ve never attempted such a ride before, and I could hardly be described as a ‘climber’. At the same time I’m feeling excited to take on the challenge and looking forward to testing my form in the hills.
As a room full of fifty or so people finish off their evening meal, up steps Sven Thiele to the microphone. The Hotchillee Events founder delivers an assorted array of welcomes and essential if unspectacular housekeeping messages relating to the following day and the event start. He then pauses, and what he says next causes a hush to fall across the room. He introduces us all to James Golding.
James appears to be in the peak of physical condition – just another competitor in the event, but seemingly one to mark. In his late twenties he looks like he’s well set to take this ride apart. Sven concludes: “For those that don’t know, James has had a little setback lately. He will leave Annecy on Sunday after the event to fly back to the UK for surgery on a tumour that is growing in his stomach, and then undergo a course of chemotherapy. We’d all like to wish James the best for a speedy recovery”.
I was stunned. A lump in my throat I found I could barely look at James. I felt a multitude of confused emotions. ‘What are you doing here man, get yourself home and rest’, I thought to myself. He looked invincible, but he had cancer. There was no way from the outside anyone could have known the battle he was facing. It’s a moment that has stayed with me.
The next morning as the event rolled out of Annecy, along the lakeside and up the first incline, little pockets of riders formed. I found myself in the front group of ten or so. After a few miles James broke away o the front of the pack. We were not racing, just tapping out a steady tempo well in advance of the day’s timed sections. James had his earphones in one ear, and he just rode alone out front, him and his music on the closed roads. I wondered what was in his head. I had no idea then that almost exactly three years later we would be sat having a coffee together as he told me his story. If you are squeamish, proceed with caution, for this is not a pretty tale.
Three years before Annecy and James was living the life of any typical young English lad, working hard and playing hard too. A skilled tradesman he had trained as a plasterer and earned a decent enough living. Over time he’d created a small but successful property sales and letting company. Life was good. Despite being dyslexic he’d built up his own business through hard work and dedication. But things had not been right for a while. James was finding the physical nature of his plastering harder than it should be. Over time he developed more back pain and fatigue. The cause of his discomfort remained unknown as he slowly deteriorated.
On 11 November 2008 James was admitted to Walsgrave Hospital, Coventry. On 13 November he was diagnosed as having an 11.5 cm “abnormal mass” wedged around his spine, kidney and bowel. The experts thought it likely to be cancer and ordered a biopsy. This was done a few days later, to better understand what type of cancer James had. The tumour was deemed inoperable due to its location, so James was then signed-up for a programme of treatments. He started chemotherapy just two weeks later, the first week of December 2008. The planned treatment programme would mean several courses each being one week of chemotherapy, then three weeks off.
James recalls his second course of chemo took place between Christmas and New Year and vividly remembers friends visiting him in hospital over the holiday period. He was then due to have his third course of chemo in the last week of January, but doctors found some swelling around James’ ankles and so decided not to administer the course. Instead a blood transfusion was ordered and two lots of new blood were given. This led to an instant improvement in the way he felt; however the swelling in his ankles remained.
At the same time his stomach started to swell up in size. No one knew why, so more tests were ordered, including x-rays and an internal camera inspection to determine whether the cancer had spread to the lining of his stomach. This came back negative, but James’ doctors were still unsure as to what was causing this condition, and in the meantime he was losing weight at a dramatic rate.
James had become neutropenic. This means his red blood cell count had fallen so low that he was unable to fight infection. He had to be kept in quarantine and visitors needed to wear gowns and masks in his company. Ulcers had developed all over the inside of his mouth and throat to such an extent that he was unable to eat normally.
Chemotherapy was postponed until such time as James gained weight and control of his condition. But his condition deteriorated and he became even weaker. The decision was made to put a feeding tube directly in to James’ bowel with a view to him gaining weight and stabilizing before they could administer the next dose of chemo. Fluid was taken off James’ stomach to relieve the swelling, but immediately after it was removed his stomach ballooned-up again.
He became weaker and weaker and by the middle of February 2009 he was bedridden, unable to walk, and having to be taken everywhere in a wheelchair. His condition deteriorated further with vomiting and diarrhoea added to his lengthening list of symptoms. An MRI scan was arranged. A nutritionist instructed James to eat anything and everything he could, in a desperate attempt to stem the weight loss. He was told to forget any notion of healthy eating and instead to seek out foods with high calorific content. He began consuming pies, pizzas and burgers, anything to fatten himself up again.
On February 26th 2009 James remembers eating pizza with his mother – the next thing he recalls is waking-up in intensive care. His mother later revealed to him that the surgeon thought he was so ill that he did not expect James to make it through that night. He was given a less than five percent chance of surviving. James was stick thin, frail and so weak he could barely breathe, never mind speak. He has no memory of what occurred next, so he tells the story as his mother recalls it to him.
The results of the MRI scan suggested peritonitis (an inflammation of the inner wall of the abdomen) and the doctor wanted James to undergo surgery to determine why this condition had developed. He was in a wheelchair in a holding room, waiting for a bed to become available. James was in an extremely poor condition, but overall his vital statistics had been constant and he had been stable. The doctors knew there was a major problem, but they had still not been able to diagnose exactly what that problem was, or an approach to treat it.
Suddenly, while in hospital his vitals dropped dramatically and his condition became critical. Doctors decided James needed an emergency operation – even though they were still unsure exactly what that operation might involve. In the words of the surgeon: “James was pretty much on his last legs and the only remaining option was to open him up and have a look.” It was almost midnight on a Friday night.
Despite the late hour, a team of six surgeons were rapidly assembled. Even as James was being put under anaesthetic his condition worsened still and the surgeon recalls having to leave his coffee in the canteen and rush to James, as there was a major fear he would arrest before he could be operated on. James was immediately put on an IV drip and fortunately he stabilized enough to be operated on that night.
The surgeon found James’ abdomen in a pretty desperate state. They had to remove large quantities of fluid and undigested food. The feeding tube to James’ bowel had eroded meaning that all the food that had been pumped in to him had not been digested, instead it had gone in to his cavity. All those pizzas and burgers James had been instructed to eat were also not making it to his bowel, contributing to his weight loss and the swelling of his stomach.
The mammoth operation lasted four hours but in the end they managed to clean up the mess that was James’ insides. Despite the operation being a success the surgeon remained worried that given his state of weakness James might still not come through.
But pull through he did. The lead surgeon would later say that had he known James prior to the operation then he may not have doubted the outcome that night. Had James not been so fit and healthy before his illness the story may have ended differently. But the physical nature of his job and regular gym visits in the evenings meant James was stronger than most before he got sick and this was critical to him being able to fight back. Paying tribute to James’ fortitude and strength of character in a letter sent after the operation the surgeon stated that it’s hard to accept in his current physical condition James is the same guy that was operated on that night.
James woke up nearly two weeks later in intensive care, having been in a coma. He found 45 stitches in a 35 cm wound up the middle of his stomach, from his abdomen to the centre of his chest. Just keeping him alive required numerous tubes sticking out of various parts of his torso, nose, throat, and back. Part of his bowel had been removed to the surface of his body. He was unable to lift his head or, indeed, move at all. But he was alive.
Soon after he was moved from Intensive Care to a High Dependency Ward where he began the long road to recovery. Four months of painstakingly slow baby steps. But finally the doctors had understood what had caused James’ condition and could now plan a recovery programme for him. At first he remained bedridden and totally dependent upon others for every basic human function. The primary major objective he set himself was to be able to cross his room and go to the toilet by himself. But before then he needed to learn to walk again. Gradually he started this process by trying to wiggle his toes a little. After a time he was able to move his ankles while lying in bed. It was quite some time before he even attempted to stand up and he remained in a fragile state for several weeks. Each day the nurses would help him get closer to the edge of his bed, as he tried to get a little further than his previous effort. The first time he attempted to stand up he blacked out as his legs folded beneath him. A few days later he would try again, and this time he managed to stay upright for a couple of seconds. Little by little he managed to achieve more until one day his physiotherapist stood him up and while facing him she took a step backwards. James recalls: “I had two choices, stand up and follow her or hit the deck. I was determined there was no way I was gonna fall”. Here he managed to take his first step since before his operation.
James remained frail and delicate – still unable to put on weight. He refused the feeding tubes – relating them in his mind to what had caused his previous complications. Doctors told him they were concerned that without the tubes he would never be able to consume enough food to put on the necessary weight that would mean they could then complete his chemotherapy. Perhaps by now you have gathered that James does not shy away from a challenge, and that’s how he then tackled the issue of gaining weight. As well as the daily hospital meals he was consuming, James’ mother would return from the supermarket every day with two shopping bags full of food, and he would make his way through it all. He also managed to sweet talk the nurses into bringing him food from the hospital shop.
On top of that, and against hospital rules, he was organizing takeaway delivery of Chinese food and pizzas direct to his ward. The nurses turned a blind eye since his condition remained so desperate. Friends would also bring him takeaway food whenever they visited. In all he was consuming 5-6,000 calories per day and his weight finally began to increase.
The doctors gave James a target of being well enough to return home two weeks after Easter 2009. He was determined to convince them he was ahead of schedule, and two days before Easter on 12th April he managed to walk the 100 metres or so of the ward. It was enough to convince the doctor, and despite needing a wheelchair to get to the car park, he was able to leave hospital and return home before Easter.
Well, not exactly home. His condition meant he still needed round the clock care, so it was to his mother’s house that he first went. Here he stayed with his mother, and grandmother. They cared for him, ensuring he was well fed and looked-after as he slowly regained his strength.
After a few more weeks he was able to walk one kilometre, on crutches, to the local shop, buy some food and a drink, have a little rest, and walk home again. This effort would be so exhausting that after returning home he would sleep the rest of the day. In all it took around four months before James was back to anything that you might consider ‘normal’. He eventually returned to his own house and moved out of his mother’s place: “It’s amazing how quick you can recover if you’re living with your mum and nan”, he laughed.
Looking back on his recovery James says that he would love to claim he had some perfectly thought-out master plan, carefully plotting incremental targets and a nice neat linear progression. Only with hindsight does he now realize that the process was one step at a time, breaking down the progress into manageable steps. His mantra remains ‘three steps forward then two steps back is still moving forward’. He warns that setbacks are normal and to be expected. During these dark times routine becomes your friend. Familiarity is comforting and gives structure to your day when stuck on a hospital ward or bed-ridden at home. You start to look forward to the repetitive nature of daytime television, no matter how dull its content is in reality, because the routine gives you the markers that break-up your day into manageable short-term goals.
“The main setback I faced was when my bowel turned itself inside out – creating a natural stoma.” he says casually. I visibly recoil as he continues to explain how this required another procedure to correct it, since once again everything James ate was pouring out of this hole in his bowel. The surgeon managed to turn his bowel the correct way around and stitch it up “as best they could”. James also experienced regular problems with his wound bursting open, and needed to return to hospital frequently to be re-stitched.
I asked him how he coped with these setbacks. He was remarkably pragmatic in his response. “If my bowel turns itself inside out, then that’s not great – but I’m not back in intensive care unable to lift my head. It’s a setback, but overall it is still progress compared to where I was. Recovery is no different to climbing Alpe d’Huez. You break it up in to manageable pieces. The best way to get up the mountain is to focus on getting to the next corner.”
James continued to have a problem with his stitches reopening, and was returning to hospital every few days to get stitched up. Eventually his surgeon put him forward for a fast-track operation to put his bowel back together and stitch him up for good by the end of June 2009. Following the op, and against his doctors’ recommendation, James was able to go out and celebrate his birthday with his mates on 4th July. He returned for a hospital appointment on 23rd July to be told by his surgeon that the operation to return his bowel had been a success and that the previous scan he’d had on the cancer was showing it had shrunk. The surgeon told James to go home and never to darken his door again.
Within a couple of weeks of being declared as ‘recovered’ James started to think about returning to work. But he remained too weak to do a physically demanding job like plastering or property development. His mind needed something big to focus on and build towards.
As a kid James had been a keen mountain biker. In 1991 he received a Kona Fire Mountain a couple of days after his 11th birthday, and he raced cross-country MTB. He then progressed to downhill between the ages of 16 – 18, but was eventually persuaded to stop racing and get a “proper” job.
As part of his extended recovery James decided to get back on the bike. His first ride was only five miles - a loop around his local reservoir at Draycote. “That first ride almost wiped me out”, he recalls. But the next week he went back and did two laps. A whole ten miles. And so he started to slowly build up the time on the bike, gradually regaining his fitness little by little.
The fact that he could ride ten miles gave him back his freedom. He was now well enough to ride to his mother’s house or a friend’s house, rest for a while, grab something to eat, then ride home again. If he was not strong enough to ride home at least he was somewhere safe. Gradually, if he felt well enough, he would take a longer route home.
As he pondered his return to work James decided he needed to repay the Macmillan nurses that had helped him through his recovery and cared so compassionately for him when he was at his lowest. He thought about the Mid West Challenge and the Rocky Mountain Challenge in the US, eventually deciding that only a five or six day charity ride was simply not going to cut it. “Riding for six days just didn’t sound like a challenge compared to weighing six stone and not being able to lift your head from the pillow.” He candidly tells me.
Eventually he decided to ride across America. The route he first looked at was San Diego to Jacksonville – 2,900 miles, planning to finish the ride on 23rd July 2010, exactly one year to the day since he received the all clear. But James being James didn’t want to do things by half. He decided to set himself the ‘modest’ task of raising £100,000 for Macmillan. The main issue he found in achieving this was that few people in the UK could visualize the distance since they had no concept of where Jacksonville was. So the route was changed to Los Angeles to Miami. Still coast-to-coast, but 3,473 miles – more than 500 miles further. The ride was set to start the following June, the fundraising target was fixed, and James started serious training in late September. He announced his ride one year to the day since being diagnosed on 13th November 2009.
After a short holiday with his mother in Antigua to celebrate ‘a year of still being here’, James started to up the training miles. With the ride across America not until June, a series of smaller events were added to his training plan to gradually build up the miles and also break down the enormity of the preparation he had to do. His programme included Etape Caledonia in Scotland, Dragon Ride in Wales and eventually the full length of the UK from John O’Groats to Lands End as the final warm- up. 900 miles in 7 days. Around this time James met Mark Sinclair, then of Adidas UK. Mark got on board with James’ plan, as did Trek bicycles. Together with Mark, James planned his ride across America. He aimed to average 120 miles a day – and take 30 days. He was persuaded to add four rest days – against his better judgement. “I wanted it to be a challenge”, he says “taking a rest seemed a bit like cheating to me”.
James set off from LA on 19th June 2010 and the ride started well with everything on target, delivering 120 miles per day as planned. By the midpoint James still felt strong. He rolled in to Austin Texas on 4th July, his birthday and American Independence Day, and attended an appointment at Mellow Johnny’s – Lance Armstrong’s favourite bike shop. Livestrong had picked-up on James’ story and wanted to hook-up during his ride. James was on a natural high and had never felt better. As he told me, “I was living the dream”.
Six days after leaving the excitement of Austin, James was getting towards his stop in New Orleans. He spotted a sign informing him just 46 miles to go. Great - he thought to himself - with a bit of a tailwind I’ll be there within two hours. Within moments James felt himself being flung forwards at a terrifying speed. He had been hit from behind by a truck travelling at 70mph, which catapulted him along the highway. He recalls the horrific moment as he tried to claw at the tarmac with his bare fingers to slow his momentum. He eventually came
to a stop 120 feet further down the side of the road from the point of impact. He was unable to move, with three broken ribs, left elbow smashed, and hardly any skin left on his legs due to the abrasion. James lay in a crumpled ball at the roadside thinking to himself – “am I going to need to learn to walk again?” A guy on a Harley Davidson was passing by as the collision occurred. He called an ambulance and waited while it attended. The ambulance was quickly on scene; the only delay being to check that James did indeed have appropriate means to pay for his emergency treatment. They then quickly set about shifting him, as unknown to James he had come to rest next door to a nest of re ants. James recalls “The damage the ants might do seemed to concern the medics much more than my existing injuries.”
After three days in hospital James was well enough to discharge himself. A $15,000 bill made him grateful he had taken out the correct insurance policy. Despite being barely able to walk he went to collect what was left of his bike from the police department and then flew home immediately to start another period of recovery. For those wondering, the truck driver was never charged with any offence relating to the collision.
James then had a short break, his injuries meaning he struggled to make his way to Mauritius to perform best man duties at his friend’s wedding. But his injuries healed and he was soon back in the saddle again. By now James had become a Macmillan Ambassador, delivering inspirational talks to cancer patients and survivors. He was also doing more cycling events with the charity. One was Macmillan Alps Cycling Challenge Bonneville to Alpe d’Huez – six famous Tour de France climbs in three days. Again, James wanted more of a challenge than the standard event offered,
so he decided to first ride from Calais to Bonneville. 620 miles in five days, then join the start of the event on 9th September 2010. James was a little surprised at his own reaction to this event. Watching a 65 year old guy dragging himself up the mountains, last one to the top every day but never giving up. And a young girl who only learned to ride a road bike four weeks before the challenge. Each of the other participants’ achievements inspiring in their own way. He was struck by the realization that not only was he doing it for them – but they were doing it for him. They too were fundraising for Macmillan, and without the help of people like them, those Macmillan nurses might not have been there for him when he had needed them most.
Still, there remained some unfinished business. The fact that James had not completed his Macmillan ‘Ride across America’ was bugging him. Initially he decided to go back to the scene of his truck collision outside New Orleans and complete the remainder of the ride. Eventually he changed his mind, because doing half a ride across America was not the challenge he had set himself. Putting all his costs on credit cards, James went back to LA In January 2011, determined this time to cycle all the way to Miami.
As James got to Louisiana he met up with that same Harley rider who had been first on scene and called the ambulance after the collision with the truck several months earlier. He followed the ride for two days and stayed with James throughout - fuelling him with his own special recipe Cajun pork crackling. James was relieved that was what was meant when the guy told him he had some special “crack” for him to try. On the same day as this rendezvous James received a phone call from his girlfriend Louise. She was pregnant. At first James tried to put this news out of his mind, unable to cope with both the ride and enormity of becoming a father. James was especially surprised since his surgeon had told him there was no chance of him ever being able to have children after what he had been through. This was the last news James expected. By coincidence Louise had also been told that she would never be able to have children. The news came as a huge shock to them both. James focused 100% on his ride and completed the trip in 24 days, averaging almost 145 miles per day and over 20mph. He completed the full distance without taking one single rest day.
But after returning home James fell in to a spiral of deep depression. The euphoria of achieving something that had taken so much time and devotion was replaced with a deep emptiness that he was finding hard to fill with a more mundane day-to-day life. He would stay in bed day after day, and not want to talk to anyone. The prospect of fatherhood was daunting and he feared how much his life was about to change forever. Eventually he decided to seek counselling to get things back on track.
By the end of February 2011 James had been introduced to Sven Thiele and together they arranged to attend a training camp at the hotel of former Tour de France and Triple Crown winner Stephen Roche in Palma Nova, Mallorca.
In March 2011 James had more Macmillan duties and he supported 35 other riders on a coast-to-coast ride across Mexico. James was slowly getting his mojo back, but was still not in a good place.
In early May he went for routine scans back at the hospital, before heading to Annecy for a training camp at the end of May / start of June 2011. He returned home from France on the Monday after the camp to receive the news that the scans had revealed another tumour. Blood tests and x-rays were organized as James started the process of fighting cancer again.
After a series of complications were explored James was eventually told he would need another operation to cut away the tumour. The first option was keyhole surgery. If that failed then James faced another major operation involving an epidural, a week in intensive care and another four-month recovery period. James’ operation was set for 12th September. His child was due to be born less than 2 weeks later on 23rd September.
James was determined not to let the cancer take over his life. Despite having the tumour growing inside him, he continued to ride, completing London to Paris, the London ITU Triathlon and the London Virgin Triathlon. He also completed the Macmillan Emmerdale to Eastenders 24-hour ride with the Emmerdale TV soap-opera cast. He was not using these events to deliver any greater objective other than telling his story and not wanting to let his tumour limit the way he lived his life.
And this is when I first met James - in the hotel restaurant in Annecy on 7th September 2011, the night before the three-day Alpine Challenge event. He completed the event and flew home on Sunday morning, then straight to the hospital on Monday. Fortunately the keyhole surgery was a success and the tumour was removed. Two days later James was home from hospital. His son Freddie born two weeks later, and two weeks after that he commenced more courses of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, which concluded at Christmas 2011. “And now?” I dare to ask. “No news is good news” replies James with a coy grin.
James was back on his bike in the New Year of 2012, but again the months of treatment had left him feeling permanently tired and he had lost almost all of his strength. “At least I had a good excuse not to do the new baby night feeds.” he jokes, before acknowledging his partner Louise had been amazingly supportive during this time.
But James was in for quite a rude awakening about how much fitness he’d lost. He would go out riding with the same training group that he had done before the relapse, but he struggled to hold the wheel and frequently found himself “chewing the bars” trying to hang on at the back. But gradually his fitness returned over the next couple of months. As he became stronger he decided that he wanted more and he needed a fresh challenge. He called his good mate Mark Sinclair: “If Mark Beaumont rode around the world in 190 days then I bet can do it in 80”.
Mark’s reply was: “If anyone can, you can”.
And so the idea was born, to become the fastest person to ride around the world.
“Wow”, I said “You must have really given this a lot of thought.”
“Not really” was James’ frank admission.
“When you’ve been in the situation that I was, you often don’t think about the enormity of something like a world record. The thing that I’ve learned is that humans can pretty much achieve anything they set their mind to by taking things one step at a time and focusing on what we want to achieve. The only boundaries that exist are the ones we place on ourselves. A fundamental issue with humans is that we don’t remember anything of our lives from birth to two years old, and this is the time when we really did a lot of important learning. We didn’t just suddenly one day discover how to walk, talk, go to the toilet, or feed ourselves. These skills were developed little by little, day by day, one step at a time. But we can’t recall those tiny incremental developments because those memories are lost in the first two years of development. Those things are second nature to us now, we do them without even thinking. This makes us think they are easy, and we tend to think that we should be able to pick up new things and instantly master them.
We have forgotten that it takes time and practice and focus, patience and effort over many months and many small increments. Like everyone else I learned to walk and talk and eat when I was 2. But, unlike most other people, I had to learn it over again when I was 28. So I remember what that process was – it’s fresh in my mind. I remember that it started with trying to wiggle my toes, or grip a knife and fork. I remember that, like a baby, I could not eat solid food. Some people have said its like I have been reborn, and I guess in some ways I have. It’s exactly the same process that I apply now to everything I do. I break it all down in to smaller more achievable goals, over a long period of time. Occasionally I’m still tempted to just go for things from the start, but invariably this approach fails and I need to remind myself – one step at a time.”
“So”, I say, “You are going to be the fastest man to ride around the world?”
“Well, it remains an objective, when the time is right. But I didn’t quite expect to fall in love with my three year old the way I have. And I am not sure I was aware I could love Louise the way I do now. Louise and Freddie have changed my life. Riding around the world is something I still really want to do and I have worked hard to find sponsorship to enable me to do it. I did actually have a company who wanted to sponsor me. This went all the way up to their board for approval. They said – OK, but we need him to prove a little more that he is capable of delivering results.
So, we developed the idea to go for the seven-day world record first. My sponsor was an Australian company, so we decided to start at their office in Perth, Australia - where the original seven-day world record was set in 1940 - 1,540 miles in total. We would use that as a platform to launch the Round the World in 80 Days ride. But just two weeks before we were due to fly to Australia things changed. The Company made large numbers of employees redundant and so didn’t want to be seen to be putting cash into such a venture at that time so they pulled out.
It all came as a major blow. James put the challenge on hold and tried to search for another sponsor. He cancelled his flights and gave up on the Australian plan. A new sponsor was not immediately forthcoming and James spent a few months soul searching as he wondered what to do next. He re-engaged with Macmillan and talked through the issues. He wanted to get back to the basic objectives of what they were trying to achieve. A world record is just a means to an end, a hook to generate media coverage. The real objective is to raise awareness and raise funds for Macmillan. He’d let himself become obsessed with the record attempt. In the end he decided he could not justify spending £10-15k on costs to get himself and a crew out to Sydney. He decided that £15k could be better used by Macmillan.
He decided to go for the world seven-day record, but to do it in France, where costs would be a fraction of the Australian adventure. He committed to the date and decided he would do it with or without sponsors. “Even if it was just me, my mum and my van, I was going to do this” he told me.
James needn’t have worried. He managed to pull together an amazing team in a very short period of time. He gained support from Skoda, Le Col, Chain Reaction Cycles, Vitus and Hope Technology. James and his crew left St Malo in northern France on 12th April. To get the record James needed to average 248 miles per day.
On day three James was feeling good and on target. Then the weather changed. The crew knew a headwind was forecast. They expected it to be 15 km/h, however, in reality it was nearer 45 km/h. As day three continued James battled in to the headwind, but after realizing it would be futile to continue with the initial plan, the team decided to turn around and head back the other way. At the same time James was developing knee pain. Until then he’d been looking strong, riding hard but smooth and controlled. His average heart rate during day four was only 120 bpm. When he stopped for a massage his heart rate fell back to 75 bpm. On day four he completed 245 miles in twelve hours at an average moving speed of almost 24 mph.
But on day five, it all went wrong. Despite being so strong and controlled James suddenly lost all power in his right leg. His knee developed a serious issue and his form disappeared completely. As he lay on the roadside in pain a team conference was called. The team decided unanimously that to preserve James’ health the only option was to abandon the attempt.
I was curious to know how James handled this. “Did you argue to continue the ride?” I asked.
“No, I knew immediately it was game over. I trusted my team 100% with the call. There would be no point in me having a team if I didn’t listen to them. The team worked so well together, gelled together perfectly. I didn’t have to think about anything. My job was to ride the bike. They all had their jobs and I had mine. If they tell me its game over I need to respect them and do as I’m told, otherwise why have a crew?”.
James took a call from his mate Mark Sinclair. Tears were shed, but James conceded this was not his time. They agreed that if he stopped now, his knee could fully recover, and he can come back and do it again. If, however, he chose to keep going now he might do serious permanent damage to his knee, and then may not get another opportunity. So they pulled the plug and James got into the car. He went back to hotel to get some food and relax.
I asked James how long was it after climbing off the bike before he started to think about rescheduling the record attempt. “I started planning a revised attempt within five minutes of sitting in the car,” he grinned. “I knew I would come back and do this again. Louise of course was very unhappy. I called her to tell her we had abandoned the attempt. She only wanted to know that I was ok. I said ‘Yeah, I’m fine - but you know what this means? This is unfinished business.’ She said, ‘Before you start with that, can you please just come home, we want you here!’”
James tells me he will have another crack at the seven-day record but at this time he cannot confirm a date. Just now life is better than ever, whether it’s home, family or work, and he says his current contended state is the perfect platform to plan and prepare such record attempts. “My life is in constant fluctuation” he tells me. “I don’t think there is such a thing as a constant balance. I’d rather hang myself than do a regular 9 to 5. I know in the past my life has had huge swings and too much bias in one direction or another, but now things are balancing out. The bike remains a fundamental part of my life and who I am, but these days sometimes Louise needs to send me out on my bike. She understands I need that in my life to be who I am.”
“Over the last couple of months I’ve done very little training. I ride my bike purely because I want to and I don’t pay attention to any stats. If I get to the top of a hill and there’s a great view I will stop to take it in, rather than chasing every moment of the ride to beat a PB. I’m in love with riding again and for me that’s important to moving forward and taking on the next challenge.”
“So how do I finish off this piece then?” I ask James.
“Let’s just say there is more to come. I’m not done yet, far from it. Watch this space. To be continued...”
I don’t doubt that James will be back to get the better of these monster endurance cycling challenges. He’s already demonstrated a remarkable ability to cope with whatever life throws his way. For the time being he’s content being a husband to Louise and a father to Freddie. He continues his work as a Macmillan Ambassador delivering a number of speaking engagements and cycling events with them. He is also retained by a number of organizations to deliver events through his own company, aptly named, One Step At A Time, and has a family of personal sponsors
on board including the likes of Mavic, Science in Sport, Wattbike and Adidas Eyewear. But I’m confident it won’t be long before we are reading about James’ next adventure.
Follow James’ progress and donate to Macmillan at http://rideforareason.org/ or visit his Company’s homepage http://www.onestepatatime.com
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