During the first part of lockdown, my addictions re-surfaced.
This negatively impacted my family, my work, physical and mental health. I was crumbling. This is my story of how I used the hard lockdown and bicycles to change my ways. I hope it helps others who may be in trouble to reach for something better.
As lockdown set in I smoked cigarettes as often as I could to pass the time and used the excuse of being stressed due to the lockdown to justify heavy evening drinking. When my wife made a recording of my breathing whilst I was sleeping, I was shocked and knew I had beaten up my body. The sound was horrific. Like someone was literally grasping for their last breath and about to drown.
About two years ago
The last time I put a riding jersey on and was serious about cycling was roughly 20 years ago as a collegiate athlete at East Carolina University back home in North Carolina. When I outgrew my old faithful Kona Kula (I am 2m tall) a decision had to be made: continue my mountain bike career (if you’d call it that) on a bike too small for me, or sell it and have at a few weeks worth of beer and party money. Sadly, I chose the latter. Then, about two years ago my family and I decided to start cycling together. Our idea was to explore the neighborhood and the Delta Park Spruit in Johannesburg, on bikes. My wife and son were none the wiser about the quality of bikes nor did they mind, they just wanted something to cruise on. Something that could give them a bit of joy and exercise.
As it happened our neighbor mentioned I should check out a bike store that sold affordable second-hand bikes. So after a quick look at the Bike Market website, I decided to pay them a visit and ask: “What’s the biggest size bike you’ve got?” I met Alex, the owner, and he pulled out a bike for me. It was a Specialized, it looked great, it met my quality standards, it was within our budget and the kicker: the fit was spot on for my height. Initially, I was so excited to be back on a mountain bike but my enthusiasm was short-lived and I hardly rode it. Then towards the end of 2019 and into 2020, I started to ride more frequently but the lockdown hit in March and the world changed.
When Lockdown hit, things got real
I did not react well to the lockdown. The stress of the situation was all too much. The lockdown amplified all of the triggers that had led me to things like cigarettes, alcohol and excessive use of pot. Then, during lockdown, my wife played that recording of me sleeping and I realized my body was in no shape to deal with a virus. Physically I was in bad shape but my mental health was, let’s just say, pretty wrecked.
Being around for my family for the long haul is a priority of mine, and I realized that I wasn’t doing everything in my power at the time to make sure I could stick around for them. So I got real, realized I had never achieved my once goal of running a marathon. I decided enough was enough. I put all the substances down and set myself a goal of making that marathon distance.
Learning to enjoy the process of becoming fit
I started running a few times a week, at some point, I even did a jump rope challenge with one of my Army buddies in the states, and I was also getting onto the mountain bike a few times a week. Remember those three hours per day we were allowed out to exercise? Well, I was one of those thousands of people along Delta Park spruit trying to make every minute of those 3 hours count. In years past my phases of exercise would last only two weeks. Looking back I know why. I always wanted that instant gratification of being fit but I was never willing to put in the hard work and to enjoy the process along the way. Not this time. Week three came and I was still running and cycling. Then week four, week five and here I sit today almost five months clean and have a sub-4-hour marathon under my belt.
So what now?
As my running and cycling picked up I eventually got a coach. It wasn’t something I went out looking for, but during a business meeting in Centurion one day I met my now coach, Nico Sterk, from Sterkspan Coaching Academy and it was pure coincidence. I’ve always been quite athletic, very competitive, I realized I wanted to truly find my limits during this journey and I wanted someone who could take me there and make sure I stayed healthy in the process. I received my first training plan and knew exactly which days of the week I’d be running & cycling, how far and for how long. It was so good to be back on a bike and pushing myself once again, even if it was in the dead of winter.
A few months into this journey I found my way back to Bike Market. The marathon goal I had, eventually morphed into an Ironman being put onto my list of goals and into my calendar for 2021. My training rides were becoming a bit difficult to achieve on the local trails as I needed to stay within certain heart rate zones, and occasionally keep certain speeds for time and I was having a tough time getting that done. I knew that eventually a road or even a gravel bike would allow me to get the job done more effectively.
I spend a lot of time during the year traveling with my company on motorcycle trips, and we are always looking to explore down dirt roads to see where they can take us. I felt that a gravel bike would be the perfect bike for me, but I didn’t know if Bike Market even stocked them. I phoned Alex, we hadn’t spoken in months, I told him about my lifestyle change, how committed I was to these goals and asked him if they sold road or gravel bikes. His answer was yes.
I met up with him a few days later where I explained in more detail about the change I had found in myself, the goals I wanted to achieve and how fitness had become one of the top priorities in my life again. Alex was so moved by my story that he committed to support me as much as possible and we went back to the shop to see what bike would suit me. I’ll be honest, 20 years ago, not only was I racing bikes, but I had also worked in multiple bike shops as a mechanic and I literally thought I knew everything about mountain bikes, all the components and felt like I was a guru of bikes. When I walked into Bike Market that day (at the age of 37) I instantly felt old and out of the technology loop. I couldn’t believe how much the tech had changed and that eBikes were now a thing. Huh? It was hard not to act like I knew what was going on but the reality was I had to humble myself and put my trust into Alex.
We walked around for a bit and came across a gravel bike that not only looked great, but it fit. It was a Trek Crocket and it was pretty much love at first sight. I hopped onto it, rode around the parking lot, my eyes lit up and a smile stayed on my face. It felt so good and it really was what I was looking for. I left with the bike that day, along with some shoes and kit from Bike Market and an extra pep in my step knowing that there was someone else out there who believed in me more than I did. I was a bit emotional on the drive home knowing that by sharing my story to a friend, that he believed in what I was doing and was willing to help in the best way he knew how.
My first gravel ride
The next day I set out early on an urban cruise around Linden and Melville to get familiar with the new bike. My initial plan was to stay on tar the whole ride, but as I made the turn up the hill to Conrad from Jan Smuts I couldn’t resist making a quick left turn onto the gravel. I had my doubts about the rigidity of a gravel bike, but I was instantly impressed with how well it moved and how much more momentum it has. After a few minutes of riding on gravel towards Victory Park I was able to envision the endless potential of where a gravel bikes.
I got home, ate, showered and immediately sat down at my computer to plan a big gravel day. I plan motorcycle adventures for a living for clients, shoot photographs on those trips and for brands, but when I opened up my computer that day to curate the next adventure, it was all about me, my next gravel adventure.
The next goal
I’ve led groups of people up Sani Pass on motorcycles and once upon a time we saw a kid riding a bicycle down the pass, some thought he was nuts, but I didn’t. I was jealous because at the time I wasn’t in shape to do it, but now it’s different. I know I can ride up that pass, and in 2021, me and my bicycle will be sitting on the deck of the highest pub in Africa appreciating how far we’ve come! Cheers!
| WORDS: Joe Fleming @Sotallrightnow |
| IMAGES: Images by Joe Fleming, Dino Lloyd and Alex Bramley |