Shirley Knott

You might want to grab a coffee, or perhaps something stronger seeing as it’s now officially the weekend, because this week’s tale is just ridiculous. If you’d said to me in August 2013 that I’d be telling this particular story, not just now but at any time, then I’d have been calling for the men in white coats. But the bottom line is what I’m about to tell you is a reality, at least currently, and every week that passes makes it ever more likely that it’s actually going to happen.

But first, I want to talk about probabilities. I’ve followed a number of Journeys of children who have been diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma, and the prognosis is often the same: multiple secondary tumours spawned off the primary, always incredibly difficult to treat, and with urgency, and parents left to pick up the pieces when faced with the devastating news that their precious child is as likely to not make it as they are to pull through. Sometimes the odds are as low as 10% that a child will survive but hey, I’ll tell you this: there are some real fighters out there, and even the ones who don’t make it never fail to battle the disease with all that they’ve got.

So it was with those kind of odds in mind that I got thinking about the Arsenal team of 2003/04 that they dubbed The Invincibles after they went unbeaten through the entire league season. It had only ever been done once before in English football, by Preston way back in 1888/89 but back then the competitive landscape was completely different.

My fascination with that record comes about because they couldn’t possibly have imagined, when they stuffed Everton at Highbury on the opening day of the season, that they would become immortal in English football just nine months later. Arsene Wenger had talked about the possibility before the season kicked off, but that was merely going to heap pressure on his players. The irony of that opening day victory, on 15th August, is that it was ten years and four days before the start of LifeCycleForNeuroblastoma. Two improbable events, some might say hugely unlikely events, separated at birth by ten years. That 2003/04 season concluded one week after the scheduled end date (twelve years on) of LCFN in May. Why that story grabs my attention right now is this: when did Arsenal start to realise that it was on? And more importantly, when exactly during that season did the players start to believe that they were actually going to do it? There’s a huge psychological difference between wondering whether something is possible, and making it so. It’s about belief, it’s about perseverance and it’s about luck, but at the end of the day it’s mostly about a single ingredient: parking every negative thought and turning obstacles into opportunities.We’ll return to why this is relevant later, but for now let’s turn the clock back seven days to this time last Friday night…

It was snowing.

My fear over the whole winter has been about the weather. I set my stall out a long time ago to do my 25,000th mile on the road from Belfast to Forres early in May and I’ve been messing about with the schedule for the past three months in case I was forced off the bike for any significant period of time. When I was out of action for nine weeks after my hernia op last winter, I reckoned, looking out of the window, that I’d have lost five or six of them anyway because the snow that fell soon after my op became an icy landscape that hung around for weeks. That was, and remains my fear.

So with a couple of inches of fresh snow on the floor by last Sunday morning, and the forecast predicting sub zero temperatures for most of this week, I faced a dilemma. Monday was D day: bus or bike?

On Sunday morning, I dug my old mountain bike out of the shed and swapped the tyres over. It’s had road slicks on it for the past five years, and I have to pay tribute to the fact that it carried me through that first winter of 13/14 with only one day lost to the weather. So Sunday afternoon, I went out to play. The first test was to check the state of the Billy Bowie hill out of Stewarton, and the even steeper, but shorter ascent up to the nursery at the top of the Cutstraw hill. The latter was frozen but by picking what looked like a decent line, the knobbly tyres dug in and did the business, at least while I was in the saddle: any shift of the weight to the front by getting out of the saddle left a spinning back wheel: lesson learnt, but that was never going to be a problem because a mountain bike is geared for going up steep stuff.

Next up was the A77 bike lane. I don’t like riding on the main carriageway because of arseholes. You would think that when the cycle lane is clearly covered in snow, with the likelihood of ice underneath, that drivers would understand why a cyclist is using the main carriageway. Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. I’ve witnessed two incidents of arsehole behaviour this week: one happened to me at 5:45am on Tuesday morning while the other happened to another cyclist while I was in the cycle lane on Wednesday night (testing it for ice ahead of Thursday’s run into work, given what had happened to me the day before). An arsehole believes that they own the road and that you shouldn’t be there. They pay no attention to road conditions. Despite the fact that there’s a motorway a hundred yards away, they drive up behind you at speed (and we’re usually talking 60-70mph) then blast their horn immediately before, during and after they cut you up whilst remaining on your side of the road. This happens in the dark on a road where a vehicle passes every sixty seconds at most. It’s not busy. But being passed by an arsehole is a frightening experience, especially when it’s winter, it’s dark and it’s sub zero.

I digress.

The main event on Sunday afternoon was to ride a mile on the bike lane, uphill, downhill and on the flat, in a couple of inches of snow. Can I say straightaway that it was exhilarating? I’d never ridden on snow before and I loved it. But it was hard work, at least 40% harder than on black tarmac, and much, much slower. But hey, I was sorted: Monday morning I was going on the bike…

Monday delivered 46 miles. It matters not a jot how I did them, that fact is I got to work and I got home again. But on Tuesday morning, when I had the road bike back out (arsehole day!) my legs were torturing me: lactic acid from working so hard the previous day. I messed with my route through Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday to make sure I was safe, but still banking the miles to keep the ultimate goal of 25K in May on the road.

Yesterday morning, Thursday, was a real downer. I knew as sooner as I left the house that the Clunch Road/A77 route was out of the questions because of ice, but Old Glasgow Road had been gritted. But my legs just wouldn’t work. Excuse my French but they were totally fucked. I was down on speed, and therefore down on distance, and it was -3C. These are the days that make you, or they break you. But hell, I’ve been here before: many times. These are Thursday legs, except this was an acute case. These are the days when you focus on the kids and the fact that they don’t give in. So you just keep on pushing, maybe working a lower gear, but the objective is simple… to get to the other end.

Having got there of course, the next issue to deal with is that you’ve got to do it all again, in what I term the uphill direction because of the prevailing wind, nine hours later. Experience to the rescue. Been there many times, got the T shirt and read the book. But as yet, no one’s come forward and offered to make the movie of LCFN. There’s still time: I don’t retire for two more years…


Back to that Arsenal story. Why are the The Invincibles relevant to LCFN?

On May 11th 2015, inspired by a wee girl from Forres who I’d met in the Curlers Rest pub on Byres Road in Glasgow some five months earlier, I banged in a 345 mile week. It was the time that Mouldy, Robert, Kev and myself legged it from Forres to Celtic Park after a normal LCFN week on the bike (except I took the Friday off because I was packing and travelling). That was the start…

Leaving aside the full weeks that I’ve been on holiday (ie counting any week that I’ve been at work for a day or more), the weeks since have gone 240, 233, 257, 211, 240, 259, 231, 222, 220, 220, 227, 260, 230, 248, 224, 273, 257, 208, 250, 214, 258, 276, 268, 257, 264, 281, 234, 204, 274, 206, 251 and 236.

33 weeks.

The challenge is to carry that run of 200 mile weeks into a full calendar year.

That year will end the week before the same team that cycled from Forres for Eileidh last year set off from Belfast late on the Thursday night of May 5th to ride to Forres to hug Princess Puddles. The challenge is to make it happen. 13 weeks remain between now and then. The odds of this happening were about 5% back in May last year, about the same as Gail was possibly given on May 9th 2014. I’d only been back on the bike for a few weeks after nine weeks out and it was never even in my thoughts that I could be sat here nine months later looking at this. But then I ask myself the question “did Gail see Eileidh being the lively wee monkey that she is today this time last year”?

A full calendar year of 200 mile LCFN weeks?

Shirley Knott.

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