• Austin Birks

Cancer, Cycling and Zwift

Before I was diagnosed with level 4a bowel cancer in September 2018, it would be fair to say that if truth be told, I was not a huge fan of cycling. Yes, I had a bike, care of the generous ride-to-work scheme offered by Eamonn and Conor at uTrack. Indeed, as a company we had sponsored some excellent charity cycling events for the excellent CILT charity Transaid. This included the Celtic Challenge, which had the intrepid teams traversing the valleys of Wales before taking the ferry and hitting the inclines of Ireland before finishing the event at the doors of Trinity College in the very heart of Dublin.


I was tech support for that gig, as I was not confident about taking on the challenge of the event itself. Looking back, it’s fair to say that I was not a confident or indeed enthusiastic cyclist. Frankly, finding riding on the roads a dangerous pursuit as car drivers sometimes seemed oblivious to just how close they came to knocking me off my bike. Canals and towpaths - yes, loved them, great views and scenery, and no traffic.


However, with the advent of cancer and all that went with it, the bike found itself gathering dust, going nowhere, anytime soon. And then came COVID, and lockdown, so fast forward to July 2020, and as a highly vulnerable cancer patient I was confined to barracks and only allowed out to go to hospital for blood tests and chemo treatment or the local surgery to order more stoma bags.


Truth be told, I was struggling as I was desperate to get fit. I had set myself a tough challenge, namely to train as hard as I could so that I could take my 6th dan black belt in Shotokan Karate Do, a tough gig at the best of times. But, chuck massive life saving surgery into the mix in late March, and extensive and somewhat brutal chemotherapy and it was clear that I needed something else to push me hard, that was based at home, and would supplement my cardio training.


The answer was, as usual, found by my wonderful partner. She suggested that we invest in a turbo trainer that is attached to a bike, and basically acts as a bike treadmill. I had seen adverts for Peloton and was seriously committed to spin class. Indeed, I was a junkie, both before, and during cancer, but with all gyms closed that option was well shut. So, after extensive research, we invested in an Acer turbo trainer. As ever, Eamonn very kindly assembled it, and lo and behold, there I was in the lycra, mounting my mighty steed, and going absolutely nowhere, but burning off the miles and more importantly, the calories.


However, there was something definitely missing, plodding about on my own was ok, but I needed something more. And this is when my life changed. Oh yes, my dear chums, this was when I was introduced to the world of Zwift. This is essentially a clever software package that you tune into your bike, plug into your TV or iPad, and off you go.

What Zwift does is allow you to choose to attempt thousands of routes and races in countries and indeed volcanoes, all over the world, where you can compete, or just do your own thing, or use the process to train yourself to improve your speed, power, and the ever important average watts, or calorie burn.


The avatar style also allows you to really indulge your competitive side, as you find yourself racing with real people from every nation under the sun. Indeed, through lockdown, the numbers of Zwifters have gone through the roof, with over 3 million of us getting ourselves ready, climbing on the bike and just getting stuck in.


It is hard, simply because the technology basically changes the gear ratio, as the racing circuits force you up inclines that have you sweating beyond recognition. Trust me, when you see those numbers going up, you need to dig in and work those gears. It is unforgiving, it is relentless, and if you are in any way competitive, then you just cannot help yourself to push hard to beat that guy in front of you.


The tech is clever, and is very stats orientated. You get all your numbers both good and bad, and it is constantly collating what you have done, ride by ride, and week by week. You can unlock prizes as you use it more and more, to not only get you super fit, which is brilliant in its own right, but there is also another truly joyous but surprising aspect to it, and that is the sense of community. One of the features it offers, is the ability to comment, to like fellow riders as you overtake them or indeed, they overtake you, and surprisingly you create a whole social interaction from people all over the world. A truly unique friendship club that allows all nations and people whoever they are, to enjoy the common joy of biking together in the endless pursuit of physical and mental improvement, and even better, make planet earth a village.



The physical benefits for me have been significant. I never allowed the chemotherapy or all the other knock-on side effects to stop me, even when I was strapped into the 48-hour chemo bag that you have attached to you. I would simply push the bag into my cycling jacket pocket, and off I went.


Looking back, I can’t recommend the bike experience enough. I’ve made a point of using it every day since the first of January this year, and it has done me nothing but good. Yes, you need to keep motivated, and encouraged, yes you need to make the time, but it’s so worth it. I’m looking forward to getting fitter, faster and stronger,


I’m not competing with anyone else but myself, but living with cancer, every time I push that peddle, or climb that hill, or mountain, I just keep thinking that every rotation is a victory. I refuse to let cancer stop me doing anything, and I will not weaken in my resolve.

If you are tempted, my advice is just do it, nothing to lose and everything to gain, if you apply and immerse yourself, six months on you will not recognise yourself.


Keep safe and well my dear friends,


Austin







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