Finding motivation to keep pedalling as the cycling calendar draws to a close, along with the waning summer weather, is something most can relate to. But 61-year-old Wattbiker Mark Harrop saw more ominous signs in his stats, which he took to his doctor for a shocking diagnosis. But how is he turning bad news into a good reason to ride?
I’ve been passionate about bikes since I was a kid. My garage is stuffed with bicycles of all shapes and sizes. I have ridden everything from the mountain bike trails of Moab to the Grand Tour climbs of Europe.
Before Christmas 2022, I knew all was not well. My regular rides were inexplicably slower, taking much longer than usual. When I finally got home, I was completely wiped out. I put it down to the usual winter malaise: cold and wet weather, heavy steel bike, layers of winter clothing – and maybe too many mince pies. But I was constantly ill. Another bout of Covid in March 2023 was the final trigger I needed to seek medical advice. I thought I probably had Long Covid. As it turned out, I didn’t. I was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer – multiple myeloma – in the same month.
TRACKING PERFORMANCE IS ALWAYS WORTHWHILE
Myeloma is an incurable cancer that affects blood. One of the main problems in looking to diagnose and treat it is that it can be difficult to detect, with its symptoms passing for other more minor conditions.
I started chemotherapy at the beginning of May, which involved weekly hospital visits and the consumption of around 1,180 tablets over a four-month period. But I kept riding my bike.
I was the first patient they’d had who had presented on the basis of cycling stats. I made a chart showing speed over a route I regularly ride which showed deterioration starting in August 2022. Even with that, I didn't really know something was wrong until December of that year, and then I had tried to put it down to winter.
My Wattbike was a big part of keeping fit and getting not just performance but health and fitness back on track. The usual advice for myeloma patients is to avoid cycling. The disease thins the bones, and the treatment thins the blood which can make you dizzy; not an ideal combination for the cut and thrust of UK roads. But my bike keeps me sane. I have ridden nearly 3,500km since being diagnosed, most during the chemotherapy itself. Some days I just couldn’t turn a pedal. But as I continued tracking progress, you could see where the chemo drugs kicked in, and my performance started to come back.
My Wattbike Atom has given me the option of stepping off on bad days, a real godsend. I even bought an e-bike to keep me riding when any incline felt like a mountain. I rode 500km on that bike, but as soon as I felt well enough, the e-bike went on a hook in the garage – and that’s where it will stay, if I have my way.
THE ROAD AHEAD
By the time you read this I will have had my stem cells harvested in preparation for the transplant itself, which is scheduled for the 18th September. The transplant process completely wipes out your immune system, so I will be in the isolation unit until I’ve started to recover, and things are at least stable – up to three long weeks.
As you might guess, I’m not very good at sitting still. I don’t really like watching TV. I have a lot of books to get through, and a very large Vostok rocket model to build (and no, I don’t know how I will get that home on the tube either). The doctors want me to keep fit – and I would like to ride when I can, but there is only a primitive exercise bike in the isolation unit. So, I came up with a plan.
The week before I go into hospital, it’s the annual Myeloma UK London-Paris bike ride. I can’t be there in person, but what if I could cover the 500km distance as a virtual ride whilst recovering from the transplant?
This way, I keep fit and I raise some money for a good cause at the same time. Myeloma UK has been hugely supportive since the day I informed them of my plan. But to make the plan a reality, I needed three things: the agreement of the medical team (I don’t want to compromise my recovery in any way), access to a really good indoor training bike, and critically, permission from the London Clinic where the transplant and isolation will happen.
My consultant Mike Potter has been very positive about my ongoing cycling antics and believes I am capable of the 500km distance without impacting my recovery. I’ve had my own Wattbike Atom at home for the last five years, a fantastic piece of kit that’s seen me through tens of thousands of glitch-free kilometres and one pandemic, and Wattbike have made an Atom available for me to use – as well as handling the logistics of getting the bike to and from the hospital. The London Clinic have also been great. As well as receiving the Wattbike in the isolation unit, the nursing and administrative team have been a source of advice and practical assistance to me. Thanks in particular to Sara and Jeorge, I owe you many pastel de nata!
I also want to thank my employer Arcadis for their ongoing support and understanding. Working through my treatment has kept things as normal as possible and provided a welcome distraction. Last but not least, my love and appreciation goes out to my family and friends: your support means the world and is a massive component of the positive approach that I know will get us all through this in one piece. Now all I have to do is ride my Wattbike.
Mark will ride his 500km challenge in support of Myeloma UK, the only organisation in the United Kingdom that’s exclusively dedicated to myeloma and related conditions. They receive no core Government funding and rely almost entirely on voluntary donations and fundraising. Mark has smashed his goal of £5,000, but if you’d like to add to his efforts, visit his JustGiving page.
We’ll be hearing from Mark throughout his treatment as he undertakes his 500km challenge.
Lucy Gossage is a 14-time Ironman champion and an oncologist. Most people would be happy with one of those descriptors – and even then, a single Ironman finish would suffice, let alone multiple championships – would be plenty to feel good about. A Wattbiker since 2013, we find out what drove Lucy to such great heights, and where she’s aiming in the future.
You might know James Golding for his ultra distance undertakings on the bike. Surviving cancer twice – first diagnosed in 2008 – James took to the bike to regain his fitness and regained his passion for the freedom cycling offered.
Not every Wattbiker is a cyclist first and foremost. When Kris first got a Wattbike, he didn’t yet own a road bike – his smart bike was a first step to improving fitness at home, taken at a time when everyone was finding themselves with more time at home on their hands, along with some of the drawbacks that entailed, too.