Ten minutes after the medic removed the wide-gauge needle from my arm, I was stamping on the pedals, surging away from the clinic through rush hour traffic – head held high. The fresh, bloody, track mark on the inside of my elbow was concealed by a strip of medical tape and a plaster. But I was making no attempt to hide the fact that my inner arm had recently received a jab.
This is not a stark, Armstrong-esque, confession. I’m no amateur blood doper. I’m certainly not a pro cyclist, either!
In truth, I’d just spent an hour and a half at the NHS Donor Centre, at St George’s Hospital, in Tooting, south London, while a very large needle, drew out and returned, small quantities of blood.
No hiding on the floor of a team coach for me. In plain sight, I’d been hooked up to an apheresis machine which separated platelets from the rest of my blood – aptly enough, by spinning it – before pumping what remained back into my body. This process is repeated, over an hour or more (typically 90 minutes in my case), until the required amount of yellowish fluid – the platelets – has filled the sterile collection bag hanging from a hook.
What has this to do with cycling? My brother-in-law, Mike, received countless, crucial, platelet transfusions over the best part of a year, while he was being treated for acute myeloid leukaemia. There’s no telling how he would have coped for so long without those invaluable units of platelets. In a healthy body they are what causes the blood to clot and so prevent bleeding.
Heart-breakingly, Mike died at the start of February 2014, leaving behind his wife and two young children.
Before he’d reached the end of that struggle with AML, when we were chatting brightly about a post-recovery period which never came, we’d talked about taking part in some cycling events such as the London Duathlon, held every September in Richmond Park. Then my wife, Jacqueline, had her ‘eureka’ moment, suggesting that she and I, enter the four-day, London to Paris, fund-raising ride organised by the Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research charity (now renamed Bloodwise).
It’s hard to find the time to train for long-distance events like London to Paris. We were facing 500km on the bike. And, while 26 miles a day, two-wheeled, commuting helped me, Jacqueline’s only pedalling was done once a week in a gym’s spinning class.
Radical action was needed. We plumped for a one-week, cyclists’ training camp in Mallorca, choosing the Stephen Roche operation based in Palmanova, right next to Magaluf, where shepherd’s pie and full English breakfasts regularly nudge paella and tapas off the top of restaurant menus.
Stephen Roche is arguably Ireland’s best-known professional rider (alongside Sean Kelly). In one year alone – 1987 – he famously won the World Championship road race, the Giro d’Italia and – after his celebrated, gritty, climb back into GC contention at La Plagne – the Tour de France. His son too became a prominent feature of the pro peleton and Stephen’s Mallorca business – based on what we witnessed – is booming.
It was a pleasure to wake up in sunny Spain early each May morning without feeling the after effects of a night spent downing cold beer and sangria. We were there to cycle, not paint the town red. And cycle we did.
Before each day’s ride, we’d gather in the bike garage in the hotel basement and, echoing the pros at the start of their races, we’d sign our names on a large whiteboard, choosing from four groups, graded into speed sets.
Ride captains took charge of each mini peleton for the duration of the ride. Several people who suffered punctures were handed a team leader’s wheel so they could keep going – another gratifying imitation of pro cycling.
There was a distinctly international air about the holiday. At meal times we shared bottles of wine with fellow cyclists from France, Switzerland, Ireland, England and Canada. We may have been complete strangers but our shared interest meant that we were soon talking and swapping stories, as if we’d been chain gang comrades for years.
Where else would you become friends with a master potter from the midlands of England, who’d made his home in Finland? Or a lanky French rouleur with a twinkle in his eye who – after much prodding – revealed that he was a computer programmer for the French army. But of course, he wasn’t really supposed to tell us that. He was on his 16th Stephen Roche camp.
Each evening the following day’s route maps and elevation profiles were placed in the centre of the table in lieu of a menu. They provided ample subject for conversation.
Forget the bars and discos which cater for rowdy stag and hen parties, the island of Mallorca itself is a gem. And there’s no better way to experience the beautiful scenery of villages like Gallilea and Valledemossa; or the majestic, coiling Sa Calobra climb, than from the saddle of a bike.
Our Mallorca week gave our London to Paris training a much-needed fillip. And it surely helped us trundle across the cobbles and into Paris in due course. With help from Mike’s wife and children we raised almost £7,500 for Bloodwise.
My platelet donations are inextricably linked therefore to my cycling. Both are closely associated with my brother-in-law’s leukaemia. After 90 minutes ‘hooked’ up to a machine each month, I wear those needle marks with pride. If anyone asks about them – and I hope they do – I can tell them the whole story. If nothing else I’ll be raising awareness about Bloodwise and its work. And who knows, they might make a donation of their own – of the charitable, cash, kind.
About the Author: Iain has been pedalling through London and Richmond Park, believe it or not, since 1989. He definitely predates the genus, ‘mamil’. And if you enjoyed this post please consider donating money to Iain and his Gurning Grimpeurs team who are raising vital funds for Bloodwise – the UK’s biggest blood cancer charity. They’ve cycled from London to Paris twice as part of their fundraising which began two years ago in memory of Iain’s brother-in-law Mike who’d lived with acute myeloid leukaemia for about 11 months before he died. The Gurning Grimpeurs comprise Mike’s two children and his wife, along with Iain and his wife.