I’d been living with MS since 2004 and was feeling the increasing frustration of not being able to get out into the countryside with my husband, as my legs were no longer prepared to carry me any distance.
Pete, clearly not prepared to let this be a permanent problem, hit on a solution whilst we were on holiday in France, where everyone was enjoying travelling to the beach by bike. He arrived back at our tent one day, having hired a tandem for us to try! I have to say, I was sceptical at first; I hadn’t been on a bike for many a year and now I was expected to ride on the back of something when I couldn’t see where I was going and wasn’t in control of the brakes.
However, after a few anxious squeaks (by me, not the bike), I had to admit that it was fun, cycling along special cycle lanes the few odd miles to the beach in the sun. I mastered the art of letting my legs move round on the pedals without actually putting any weight down and so minimising my effort. I could see that I was successful when Pete looked more tired than me as we dismounted.
We didn’t initially consider getting a tandem ourselves. After all, we live in the Yorkshire Pennines; there are lots of hills there. It would be a silly idea. So for a couple of years we just hired a tandem for a sunny two weeks. At least it was something, and I looked like everyone else as I pedalled away; no stick, no wheelchair.
In the meantime, not to be thwarted by our home geography, Pete kept thinking and came up with the notion of canoeing. Again, the Pennines are not known as great canoeing territory. The solution was to get an inflatable canoe and escape to the Lake District when we could. We discovered that it is feasible to travel there and back in a day, and still have a lovely few hours out on a lake. My parents also live up that way so we can even claim a bed for the night. We’ve had memorable days on Coniston, Windermere and Ullswater … and there are many more to try yet. It’s becoming something of a challenge to “bag” them all.
One great day out was to canoe about half-way down Ullswater with the wind behind us to Howtown, pack up the canoe into its, not exactly portable, but manageable, bag, and wait for the steamer to take us back up to our car at Glenridding.
An important trick that I’ve learnt in order to minimise fatigue is to only paddle when I feel like it, generally when other boats are nearby, so that it looks like I’m pulling my weight, but otherwise just dipping in a blade now and again, to “help out”. Fortunately, Pete is great at doing all the hard work, which also includes getting the canoe inflated and deflated.
It then occurred to us that maybe it would be feasible to use a tandem round where we live if we used the car a little, either with me driving to the start of a flatter route and Pete cycling solo there, or putting it on a bike rack. After all, I’m never going to give Bradley Wiggins a run for his money; I’m just tootling short distances of about five miles. So, we took the plunge and bought a mountain tandem (yes, they do exist!) a few months ago. They come with lovely fat tyres which absorb a lot of the bumps. To make it as suitable as possible for me we fitted a crank-shortener to the back pedals which makes it much less tiring (since my back pedals still have to go round in time with the front ones). In order to minimise any complaints about my sore backside, we also got a very wide springy seat and a seat post with a spring shock absorber which is very helpful over all the bumpy paths.
So far we’ve made several trips in the local woods, had a bit of an epic trip following a reservoir road amongst the moors and a cycle along a canal towpath. The railway follows the same route at that point and we left the car at a station so that I could travel back by train but, after a good rest and refuelling stop at our destination, I was really chuffed when I made it back again too.
We have plenty of stops to admire the scenery and rest, and cafés are always popular, or flasks of tea. I stagger off the bike feeling utterly exhausted but extremely happy. I am out in the countryside again, smelling the earth and feeling the fresh air in my eyes. I feel like I’ve climbed a mountain and, whilst part of the tiredness is fatigue, that speciality of MS, most of it is the same as that old feeling of happy tiredness from having been outside on the fells all day.