When I learned that exercise is the only thing that has been shown to slow the progression of Parkinson’s, I started cycling, overcoming the numerous obstacles that Parkinson’s puts in my way.
Amongst many other symptoms, Parkinson’s affects my balance and coordination, causes dizziness, muscle cramps, dystonia, rigidity, stiffness, pain, slow movement, tremor, fatigue, poor posture and slowed reaction times. It affects my right side more than my left. The presence or absence of each of these symptoms, their severity and their duration are completely unpredictable.
Parkinson’s also affects my concentration, my memory and my ability to multi task. Those who cycle with me know never to rely on me for directions! On our LEJOG adventure, I once cycled eight miles around Tiverton, looking for a way out!
Exactly five years since my diagnosis, I am tackling an enormous physical challenge. To cycle 137km whilst climbing 3,700m of hills in one day. I have trained for this for nine months, in all weather.
This year alone, to prepare, I have cycled an average of 175km each week, spending 222 hours in the saddle and cycling up hills equivalent to five times the height of Everest.
I know from using a Wattbike, that 65% of my power output is generated by my left leg and 35% by my right leg. My posture is asymmetrical and this causes back, shoulder and neck pain. For long days in the saddle, I am making constant adjustments to try to correct these. I am bloody proud of my left leg for getting me up some impressively steep hills!
Parkinson’s causes problems with fine motor skills, so I have difficulty doing things like attaching my lights and Garmin to my bike. By the time I’ve pumped up the tyres (which can take several attempts), zipped up my jacket, fastened my shoes and helmet and put on my gloves, I’ve already overcome a number of challenges. However, as long as I am organised and leave myself enough time, I can be ready to set off with everyone else.
Recently, my balance has worsened. Pushing off on my bike requires my concentration or I’ll be on the ground before I even get started. I need to concentrate on my balance and I sometimes find it harder when someone is cycling close beside me. If I drop behind my fellow cyclists, or ask them to give me some more space, it’s because I’m concentrating on staying upright, not because I don’t want to talk!
There is an etiquette to cycling in a group and each position in the group carries with it, specific responsibilities. This is important for safety of each group member but it is something that I cannot always be relied upon to comply with.
For example, a ‘turning right’ hand signal poses no problem for me. Try a ‘turning left’ hand signal and as soon I take my left hand off my handlebars, I can no longer control my bike! The cyclist behind me has to remember that a wobble usually indicates an imminent left turn!
Signalling to those behind me to warn them of potholes, obstacles or other dangers in the road is an important element of safe group cycling. However, my reaction time is slower than most. Those who cycle with me regularly know that by the time I’ve seen a pothole, taken action to avoid it, taken my hand off the handlebars, signalled and shouted to cyclists behind me, then it’s too late….I’m in the pothole! They know not to rely on me for such signals.
The timing and doses of my medication have become really important. I take more medication when I’m planning a long, hilly cycle. However, what I eat, when I eat, how I’ve slept and a number of other factors all influence how well my medication works. It is an art and not a science and it doesn’t always work as I have planned!
If my medication wears off, my speed, dexterity and even my thinking, reaction time, posture and balance can all be affected. Everything becomes harder, it’s like I’m cycling against the wind or wading through treacle. The tiniest incline feels like a mountain as my legs lose power and my mind becomes slow. I can’t remember which gear lever moves my gears up or down. I have to focus extremely hard to stay upright and brake effectively as my hands shake and dystonia causes my right hand to twist and move involuntarily. A rest, medication and jelly babies usually work after a short time but obviously I aim not to ever get in this state.
So, with my new bike, electronic gear shifters, meticulous timing of my medication regime and lots of practice, I cycle well. In fact I’m fitter and faster than I’ve ever been.
I am joined by a team of fabulous people, all of whom have trained hard and who will find this challenge one of the toughest they have undertaken. We will all push ourselves to the limit of our physical capabilities and the challenge will no doubt test our psychology too as we dig deep to continue to climb those hills long after each and every fibre in our our bodies has yelled ‘stop’.
Is it worth the effort, I have been asked? Absolutely! Cycling is good for my body and my mind. It helps me stay strong mentally and physically. I love being outdoors, the weather has been fantastic and our countryside beautiful. I love a challenge and I’m blessed with lots of friends who will cycle with me despite my poor group skills! I’m also blessed by the support of family and friends who don’t cycle but put up with my endless tales. Apologies to them, I have no intention of stopping cycling any time soon!