I now realise that when I started this journey just over fifteen months ago, I knew nothing.
I was just a guy with an idea who wanted to help, albeit that my idea of helping was to push my body to, and occasionally beyond its limits: it’s what I do. But I am not a counsellor, not a therapist and as Jane has told me on more than one occasion, not a good listener. I’m just me: I get stuck in and do what I can for as long as I can while the flame burns bright.
But the last two days have taught me that words are not enough.
I wrote as recently as last Friday, which seems an eternity away just now, even though it’s actually only four days ago “This has been, without doubt, the hardest week on the road since I started”. That was physical. To that you can now add mental. I am both physically and mentally drained by having had a huge November followed immediately by a bout of the lurgi itself followed, without rest, by two days on Cycling Santas.
Let me deal with the physical issues first.
986 miles in November preceded the illness that left me struggling for both speed and endurance in a week that still generated 221 miles. One day of rest (which included standing in the pouring rain for two hours at a kids’ football match) then preceded 50 miles of Edinburgh to Glasgow on Cycling Santas in a brutal cutting headwind and frequent sleet showers. Sunday was almost a bridge too far, but to quote wee Oscar “Never Give Up” so there was never any danger that I wasn’t going to complete that leg. But I was slow.
Let me paint the scene. 32 cyclists left the Edinburgh Sick Children’s Hospital on Sunday morning. The NCCA’s official support crew had just withdrawn their services because they didn’t believe they could rescue that number of cyclists if the weather turned as bad as had been forecast so we were left to decide for ourselves whether we wanted to ride through to Glasgow or put the bike on the train. Well as I’d just taken the train through from Glasgow, and hardly missed a day since I started fifteen months ago, that was never going to happen. I think everyone bar myself and Danny (Mouldy’s mate) were on superlight road bikes with wee skinny tyres. Danny was on a cyclo cross bike while I was on my trusty old tourer: maybe not the fastest but most definitely comfortable for supporting me over long distances. It’s my number one bike, the one I use for day to day LifeCycle commuting.
By the time we got out of Edinburgh, I was last and the lycra train was well away. But they waited five miles up the road and everyone got back together before we hit the long slow climb through Uphall and Broxburn to Bathgate. By the time we got to within three or four miles of the scheduled lunch stop at Armadale, I was being looked after by a bunch of Chris Riddle’s Fullarton Wheelers boys from Irvine, with Chris himself riding as rear gunner to make sure I stayed on the train.
Let me say at this point that I didn’t mind being at the back: the oldest, probably by a distance, the most overdressed because I wanted to stay warm, and on the heaviest bike, my objective was merely to finish. I asked myself many times during Sunday “does a child recover from neuroblastoma any quicker by rushing the treatment”? The answer of course is no.
We quickly discovered as we were sat in the café in Armadale that the speed merchants of Cycling Santas were at Morrisons in Airdrie, some 13 miles further up the road. That was how much time and distance I had cost those guys. I felt kind of guilty. Our train had passed Mouldy and Danny going by Bathgate but they joined us in the café and we all left Armadale together. That lasted for all of about three miles before Danny, Mouldy and myself were once again spat off the back, and riding into an icy headwind blowing at 25mph with sleet, once you’re gone, there’s no way back: the train’s away.
Cue Chris Riddle, team manager, player/coach and captain. Chris once again jumped off the back of the Fullarton train and stayed back with the three of us. Mouldy convinced Chris that he was okay to get Danny through to the finish so Chris attached himself to me. I know from twelve Highland Marches how it is to be out on your own, and that that’s okay when you’re going well, but when you’re not, having someone there to drag you along makes all the difference, not just physically in terms of taking the wind, but emotionally in terms of just keeping you focused. Chris did that in spades, over and again and certainly above the call of duty. I was the reason that Chris finished the leg twenty minutes behind his wife Connie. Chris, I thank you and I salute you.
So we finally made it to Yorkhill, an iconic children’s hospital that I’d not been to before. For Chris and Connie, this was like coming home because Vanessa lived there for the best part of 15 months from 2011. Vanessa herself was there, accompanied by her grandparents, and looking as radiant and as bubbly as she had been only five weeks before at Celtic Park. We caught up on some of the stuff that’s been happening since, particularly with the adventures of The Flag and picking subjects at school early in the new year before we all piled inside to meet the staff and the children. That’s 32 bikers and a significant family entourage.
What was the best bit of the whole day? Being in that wee party of Chris, Connie, Vanessa, her grannies and her granda as we made our way through the corridors to the Schiehallion Ward. Vanessa is living proof that neuroblastoma can be beaten, and we just have to believe that by keeping on keeping on, by continuing to fight, continuing to fundraise and continuing to raise awareness, that one day mankind will understand enough about the illness to make a significant difference. All of us believe that that can be done, and talking to Chris afterwards at the family reception, he was enthusiastically upbeat about treatments that will be coming to the UK in the next five to ten years. There is hope and we just have to keep believing and doing our bit.
Approaching 7pm, Mouldy and I were on our way again, bikes in the back of my car (nae seats – a van wi’ windaes for a couple of days) heading for Stranraer. We were booked onto the 7:30am boat Monday morning heading for Belfast and needed to get our heads down for a few hours. Despite a treacherous drive down on white roads in parts, we were duly camped in the bar, with the Flag up on the wall, at the Arkhouse Inn by the back of nine.
Plan A was to stay over in Belfast until Tuesday and maybe grab a few beers with some special people who were helping to make our visit possible. However because he’d been on the road since Wednesday, and because the Belfast leg had been cancelled then re-instated, Mouldy hadn’t booked the boat so we were down at the ferry terminal early to grab a deal. I had a pre-booked day trip ticket at 20 quid, but they wanted 38 each way from Paul (plus a further 38 from me) if we wanted to split the journey over two days. Sod that for a game of soldiers. There was also the not insignificant question of the weather. As I sit here writing this, having been home for about three hours, the rain is lashing down outside and the wind is howling. This is Tuesday, the return day of our preferred Plan A. We parked it, elected instead for Plan B, made it a day trip and walked back into that same wee bar in Stranraer at half ten last night. We even got the same beds in the same room. And the Guinness was good too.
Belfast was special. No, let me correct that: Belfast was very, very, very special. Belfast was the real reason I came on this trip. Belfast was the reason why I wanted to do Cycling Santas. Belfast is the reason why I started LifeCycleForNeuroblastoma. There are two very special people in Belfast for whom I can never do enough miles, yet I live every day hoping that in some way, what I am doing helps them in some small way to overcome their loss. People have been telling me for a long time what a perfect couple Stephen and Leona Knox are, and yesterday I got to see why at first hand.
Stephen is a tall man, he must stand at least six two or six three. And with the firmest of handshakes, you know you are dealing with a man of real conviction and true character. Leona on the other hand, is petite and stunningly good looking, not that Stephen isn’t you understand. We gave each other the biggest of big hugs and in that moment it was like not actually having to say the words “I get this”. When I quizzed them about how they got together, Stephen related a story from their University days when Leona decided to get her hooks into her man. And they’ve never looked back. I call them the First Couple of Never Giving Up, for that’s what they are. Leona has been reading the blog for a long time and I know that she dissects every word: the reality is that I try to live LifeCycle just like Stephen and Leona lived their life with wee Oscar for the best part of two and a half years. I will never understand how they coped during the most difficult of times, particularly at night when someone had to be compos mentis enough to function at work the next day, but what I can do is live out LifeCycleForNeuroblastoma in the spirit of how they came through that period of their lives. Oscar may no longer be with us, but his memory lives on, and for me, the number one motivation to complete this course, 25,000 miles and beyond, remains Oscar Knox.
When we arrived at the Royal Belfast Hospital For Sick Children, Leona produced three black wristbands from her bag. Not a box of wristbands, just three. One for Mouldy, who’d been fundraising for wee Oscar from day one, one for Clare, wee Oscar fundraiser and our Belfast cycling tour guide for the day, and one for the LifeCycle Man. FEARLESS on one side, #TEAM OSCAR on the other side, the black wristbands were created especially for the Fearless Oscar Knox boxing event at the City Hall in Belfast, the only boxing match ever staged in the iconic old building.
Leona, I know you will read this and I have a message for you: that wristband is not coming off until I have completed this journey: okay I swapped it from my right wrist to my left while you weren’t looking but the sentiment stays the same. It’s the token that says I get this and I’m in it for as long as it takes to help beat this disease.
Now there was one thing I’ve wanted to ask Stephen and Leona for a very long time, but it was so personal that it was always going to have to wait until we met face to face. I apologise for my timing on this but at the time, I was on the outside looking in, hoping for good news but guessing deep down that eventually it wouldn’t be so. At the beginning of May this year, I had the idea of having the LifeCycleForNeuroblastoma image printed onto my vintage Tour De France yellow jersey from 20 years ago. It looked gorgeous and I parceled it up before sending it to Oscar at the Hospice. Stephen and Leona confirmed that not only did it arrive but Oscar had it on the ward in his final days. To Stephen and Leona, I say this: Oscar’s yellow jersey is my gift to you that says I’m in this for as long as it takes to help beat this disease.
But that wasn’t all. Leona went on to explain that Oscar’s consultant was himself a keen cyclist who rides to work and he took an active interest in LifeCycleForNeuroblastoma from the moment that Oscar’s jersey arrived. Stephen and Leona still have the yellow jersey because Oscar’s performance will never be beaten. Dr Rob, as I will call him, spent a good twenty minutes with us, discussing stuff about the challenge, and I even quizzed him about how long I’ll be off the bike when I get my much needed hernia op. Cue laughs all round…
After we’d all been out for lunch, Clare took us on a wee Belfast bike tour. Up the Falls Road, past Milltown cemetery, then a left to form a loop that would eventually take us past Queens University and back into the City Centre. Cycling Santas and a LifeCycling Man dicing with city centre traffic at the start of the rush hour. Gotta be done.
Then it was time for the Flag to make a reappearance. First up was City Hall, the same City Hall where wee Oscar had hosted his boxing show, before we moved on to the iconic Crown Bar, complete with its elegant Victorian booths. Stephen rejoined us there for a swift beer before Mouldy and I had to make a sharp exit to make the boat back to Stranraer ahead of the impending storm.
But this blog cannot be complete without mention of some more very special people. I am quickly coming to realise that if there’s a good cause being supported by Celtic minded people, then Iain McGovern is never far away from the surface. If you need something done and you haven’t been able to fix it, Iain McGovern is yer man. Now Iain’s too modest to admit that he had anything to do with Charlie Duncan being our support driver yesterday, and you know he may well be right, but Iain’s too kind a soul to be too far away from the story. Charlie has tenuous links to Iain’s Tyneside supporters’ bus so his stamp is all over the goodwill that Charlie lavished in our direction.
Charlie, you were the glue that kept yesterday’s Santa Special on the road. You were the guy who parked up every 200 yards on the way through town to guide us through the one way streets of the city centre before we finally hit May Street and onward to the Falls Road. You were the guy who lugged all our stuff around in the back of your motor before finally chucking our bikes on a rack when were came out of the Crown. Charlie, without you, Cycling Santas would not have happened in Belfast. Stepping into the breach is one thing but to do it at three or four days notice is another. #Chapeau, kind Sir.
And finally, this is where this blog gets very, very hard to write. If I get it wrong, I hope you will forgive me. However if I manage to pick the right words, I hope you will understand what a roller coaster 48 hours this has been…
Sunday was the official end of Cycling Santas 2014 for the NCCA and was marked by Vanessa helping to hand out presents to children, much much younger than her, who were living the life that she herself had lived in that same ward just a few short years ago. Vanessa is living proof that neuroblastoma can be beaten.
But Monday was for me the icing on the cake for very different and very sad reasons. Oscar didn’t make it. But LifeCycleForNeuroblastoma is my way of recognising that the challenge can take a very, very long time, with unrelenting dedication by a team of people, with no certainty that the outcome will be successful. And I sincerely believe that therein lies the bond that ties Stephen and Leona to this challenge: we don’t know how it will turn out but we will keep working at it, and keep fighting, just the same way that wee Oscar did.
Sometimes, words alone are just not enough….