Bicycles. What are we doing and why?

I’m not really sure where the idea came from, but on my first trip out after leaving rehab last November, after a couple of drinks, I declared to some uni friends that I wanted to cycle from London to Paris and asked who would do it with me. Two laughed and declined the offer, but one agreed. Sorted. (Then another friend was roped in at a party a few weeks later, oops… The other two are driving the route in our “support vehicle”.)

At this point, I’d been on an exercise bike a handful of times, but not out on the roads, due to my wariness of my balance issues potentially leading to falling off/crashing into a car/making a general fool of myself. One day I was bored of the exercise bike and the sun was shining so I gave up wondering about what cycling would be like and got on with it. I hopped onto my bike and went for a little cycle up the road. It was okay, if you ignore the fact that my prosthetic foot smashed off the pedal every now and again rather forcefully, and that I wasn’t able to pedal a full circle because it was impossible to get enough flexion in my knee for it to get round. Taking my foot off the pedal every time it got near the top the trying to put it back on to push down allowed me to kind of keep moving, but every rotation was quite traumatic and I was all over the place.

After this glorious success, I decided I was pretty much a cyclist so made sure my next socket reflected that, with the trim lines cut much lower to allow my knee to bend further back. I whacked my bike onto a turbo trainer and got going in the safety of my garage. Slowly my fitness began to improve and I started to venture out onto the roads again. I continued to have issues with my foot flying forwards off the pedal so put cleats on and had a go like that. This wasn’t my best idea ever… It worked wonderfully in the garage when I could step off over the bike to the right hand side and twist my body to unclip, but I really could not unclip my right leg when out cycling. The obligatory fall on your first time using cleats became an obligatory every ride fall because I would try and go that way at some point and it was very hit and miss as to whether I unclipped or not. This wasn’t helped by my iffy balance and the different weight of the leg meaning that my brain hadn’t figured out how to always go to the left. Not good, not fun and not safe.

How you get a prosthetic foot out of them absolutely defeated me. Even when on a very light setting I still found it near enough impossible without being off the bike, on that side. Having no ankle to rotate to unclip is hard.

So I moved onto attempt 3. This involved leaving the one clip in pedal on the left side and putting a toe cage on my right. I thought this would work beautifully but was very wrong… The toe cage flips round underneath the pedal and I don’t have the control over my foot to flip it around. That was written off instantly.

I think that cycling is really, really, really great, so it was beginning to get a bit frustrating at this point. I was also getting ever closer to cycling 180 miles to Paris so had to find a solution.

The breakthrough came when a physio who had worked with British Cycling started at my leg place. My prosthetist got him in to talk to me and he said to keep my knee locked out when unclipping. Rather hesitantly, I put those pedals back on. He was right, suddenly it became easy! I no longer had to settle for embracing the thwack of the pedal and metal that was happening rather too often. (Worse than the horrid noise, when my socket hits it rather than the pole bit, the pedal hacks into and damages the pretty blue colouring – now that’s not on.) It makes sense, there is a lot more power in rotating when my leg is straight, but that wasn’t apparent to me at all.

My heart rate does still double when I approach junctions due to the fear of not getting a leg out of the pedal in time, but actually now I can always do it with my left leg first, so I’m in the same boat as everyone else and just need to get over it.

I was lucky to spend a week in Greece a few weeks ago and cycled for a few hours most days with a really lovely group of people, many of whom were very experienced cyclists and fabulous. Conquering all of the hills on a mountain bike with massive tyres gives me hope that I will fly along on my road bike and getting down a trickyish bit of single track on the last cycle without falling or having any issues (as I had done on every other offroad bit of cycling with my questionable balance and slow reaction time on that side…) gave me a HUGE amount of confidence. If anyone reading this was there – thank you! Even though it wasn’t always entirely true, people telling me that I’m great really does make me feel great and it gave me a huge boost. I came away feeling like I really could do anything.

So why are we cycling London to Paris for Legs4Africa?

I’ve volunteered a couple of times at training days run by the charity Handicap International UK, for physios and OTs being trained to go out to disaster zones to provide support. I first did this last November, fresh out of rehab at 6 weeks post op, and it really made me think about how different it all would have been had I not had the wonderful healthcare and resources that were available to me here. I had taken everything for granted; from all of the neuropathic drugs that I demanded and so heavily controlled to prevent phantom pain, down to the simple resources like shrinker socks. We were doing transfers and someone mentioned that actually it wouldn’t be a bed, it would be a campbed that would tip over as you leant to the side or just the floor. With such limited facilities, everything would be ten times harder. I then started to wonder about prosthetic provision and came away from the day and looked up charities that help amputees in developing countries. Everything that I’d done so far had been quite selfish, it was all about me – hospital, rehab etc.; everyone had been bending over backwards for me and I wanted to do something for others.

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Legs4Africa jumped out at me immediately. They take the redundant limbs from here in the UK, where laws state that they cannot be reused, and ship them to Africa. There, they are remodelled slightly to fit others in need of a limb and boom, that leg that would have otherwise have been sitting around your house for the next ten years, or a centre/hospital/hospice may have had to pay to have removed, can give an amputee in Africa the chance to walk. Incredible.

It’s just five of us on the cycle – Clair, Alice and I are cycling and Jenny and Ali are driving along nearby with our stuff. We’ve tried to learn as much as we can about bikes and tried to get as fit and strong as possible. As much as I hate excuses, the reality is that it has been tricky for the others combining it with medical school and exams, and quite on and off for me as the suction on my leg stops working far more often than I’d like, or I get a nasty blister or sore, stopping my training in it’s tracks. However, we have exactly two weeks left and are all pushing hard!

We are incredibly grateful for the generosity of Machine, Clif Bar and Look mum no hands!.  Machine is a wonderful bike shop and cafe on Tower Bridge Road, that is supporting us by servicing our bikes and providing us with the bike equipment we need. They have an absolutely gorgeous shop and are such nice people – I really would recommend popping in for a coffee if you’re in the area. Clif Bar have provided us with gels, bars and things to fuel the cycle which is similarly a huge help. Thank you to Victoria and Vitas, and to Clif Bar! Look mum no hands! has super kindly given us some stuff to help us “look cool”, which will definitely help us along.

Thank you as well to everyone who has sponsored us already. You’ve probably seen this a million times now, but if you haven’t and would like to sponsor us you can do so here:

Or like Legs4Africa on facebook here, follow them on twitter etc. and help raise awareness of the wonderful things that they are doing!


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