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by Stephen Newman
March 9, 2017
Photography by Jered & Ashley Gruber and Supplied
The great thing about cycling is that it can be all different things to different people. It’s a form of transport, a way to get and stay healthy, a way to catch up with friends, an outlet for competitive urges, a way to explore, and much more besides. For Sydneysider Stephen Newman, cycling has been a way to take but some control of his life; to get back on track after a major health setback; to, in his own words, “feel almost normal again”. This is Stephen’s story.
Just before the 2016 Tour de France started I was diagnosed with a brain tumour, one that was compressing my brain stem. By the time the Tour had reached the Pyrenees I had had 15 hours of surgery to remove the tumour. I awoke in ICU 24 hours later to my wife telling me that Chris Froome was still in yellow but that Richie Porte had moved up a place.
I was barely cognisant of anything. I had no movement down the left side of my body, I couldn’t even wiggle my toes. My right eye had been forced shut from the trauma of surgery and I had an eight-inch-long scar down the side of and along the top of my head.
I spent a total of eight weeks in hospital and a rehabilitation facility. I learnt to walk again, to string a sentence together, and to get to a point where I could see light at the end of the tunnel. I had lost 12 kilograms in a very short period, most of it muscle mass. I put that down, primarily, to being fed through a tube for a couple of weeks following surgery.
My legs were like matchsticks — I couldn’t put any force through my left leg, let alone ride a bike. I started doing light leg presses while in rehab and realised that I may, at some point down the track, get on the bike for a gentle ride.
By the time I left rehab I was able to ride the stationary gym bike for 10 minutes. I told my wife that my goal was to be back on the road by the end of the year, a goal I now know was wildly optimistic. I was still 68kg, as opposed to my normal 80kg, but I felt, at the very least, that I would be able to make use of my bike when I got home.
Left: Stephen on a stationary bike in rehab. Right: At home on his own trainer. In Stephen’s own words: “My wife made me wear the helmet in the beginning because I was no guarantee to stay on the bike”.
Just prior to my diagnosis, back in May 2016, I was out for what I thought was a routine bike ride when I started to feel as though I might not stay on my bike. I was suffering severe vertigo — not the type of vertigo that makes for an annoying few minutes while you regain your balance, but the sort that sends a shiver down your spine.
I dismounted and turned the bike around, towards home. I should have immediately hailed a cab but, foolishly, I decided to ride home. How I made it I do not know. Of course I didn’t know it at the time but I had a brain tumour and it had well and truly taken over.
I told my wife what had happened. She suggested that riding on the road might be off the agenda until I sorted out what was wrong. She suggested I buy a stationary trainer. Up until then the idea of riding indoors was anathema to me. I considered myself a purist, believing that a real cyclist gets out on the road no matter the weather or circumstances.
I bit the bullet and invested in a quality stationary trainer. I stayed off the road for the two months leading up to diagnosis and surgery but I did discover that with the internet and a well chosen cycling app, I could make cycling rewarding, if in a slightly different manner to what I was used to.
Upon retuning home from hospital, post-surgery, I made my first tentative foray onto bike. I managed a gentle 15 minutes. It was, at that point, all my legs would allow.
For the first two weeks, 15 minutes on the trainer became a badge of honour — at least I was able to ride. My preferred riding destination became a loop around a virtual London, or in my case, in those early stages, a stretch of road in virtual London. I was, and am still, unable to venture out onto the roads of Sydney. I still have double vision in my right eye and I don’t have enough strength in my left arm to move the chain ring lever. In short, I’m still too much of a safety risk, to myself and to others, to consider riding in traffic.
In the subsequent months since surgery I have graduated to three or four weekly rides of 40 minutes, sometimes over an hour, my longest being 90 minutes a couple of weeks ago. For anyone who has ridden a stationary trainer, you’ll know that a solid 40 minutes on a stationary trainer can be worth two hours out on the road. There is no respite on a trainer, no break in play, no freewheeling. And then, depending on your app of choice, you might also have fellow riders from around the planet overtaking you, challenging you, all while you’re having various statistics thrown at you.
I have come to enjoy the workouts. I have improved my times, my power output and my efficiency. My form is coming back to me. I finish the workouts layered in sweat, a reminder that I’ve been working. I even consider that when, one day, I am able to get back on the road, the stationary trainer will still get plenty of use.
I do miss the camaraderie that comes with being out on the road, and even though I stopped club rides some time ago, I enjoy catching up with my mates, with other cyclists, swapping stories, putting in a turn where appropriate, and taking in the crispness of an early morning in the rising sun. I do not miss the traffic, the occasional close shave or the odd bit of driver anger.
I still have a long road to recovery but it’s not all uphill. I’ve been through the worst of it, but there is still the matter of radiotherapy to come, to try and kill off what is left of the tumour. I have been fortunate, to not only have an outstanding surgeon and support team but to have my cycling, which has enabled me to feel almost normal again.
Cycling has helped me recover, it has helped me stay motivated, it has given me goals. And even though I’m still a ways off being back on the road, the important thing for me is that I’m back on my bike. I have put some weight back on and I have got most of my muscle tone back. I’m still not at my pre-sickness level or even at my pre-surgery level but I am working towards it.
Perhaps I won’t get back to those levels (although I think I’m a decent chance) but I do know that I am fortunate to be able to do this. I have discovered an all together different element to the beauty of cycling.