September 2016. We both started work again (albeit in a new and better job for me) after a year cycling in some incredible places.
For both of us, our year off culminated in a multiday cycling challenge at the end of August – a 6 day Nice to Geneva Raid Alpine for me, and the Haute Route Pyrenees for Mark (link). Back from our respective trips on a high, and faced with the reality of having to go back to work we were quickly looking for our next challenge and started our holiday planning!
Mark really enjoyed the Haute Route, and reckoned that completing one within the daily time cut offs would be well within my reach too.
So we signed up for the Haute Route Alps in August 2017. And it seemed like a great idea until the route was released sometime in November:
900km and over 22,000m of climb in 7 days. An Alpe d’Huez TT on the “rest day”. The organisers proudly advertising this route as the hardest and most challenging Haute Route course to date. Oh dear.
So we started planning. A holiday to NZ in January in the middle of the Southern hemisphere Summer (also shown in the title image for this post).
A spring training camp in Gran Canaria in March for me. And then our “usual” early Spring holiday in Provence over Easter.
I’ve been lucky. I’ve never a bike related injury before beyond the usual aches and niggles. Then a series of things happened – a slight lowering of my handlebars in March in a bid to become more aero, a bike fit and then a 2 hour road race at the end of April where I was constantly riding down on the drops.
By the 1st week of May I had constant waves of paraethesiae (pins and needles) radiating down my right arm. I had spasm in my right trapeizius which caused pain by the time I cycled to the end of the road. I became unable to ride down on the drops or climb out of the saddle – hyperextending my neck and any additional pressure on my arm would aggravate the bouts of pain and pins and needles.
On 2 successive Sundays, solo rides out to the Surrey Hills saw me having to stop halfway up Ranmore and Box Hills because of the pain and to have a bit of a cry. On each ride, I had already taken my entire day’s ration and more of ibuprofen by 11am.
After 2 weeks I was already losing patience and getting worried. There aren’t many perks to being a doctor but with constant pins and needles going down my arm I really wanted to find out what was wrong. I decided there was no point seeing my GP to wait for a referral so thanks to my colleagues I had an MRI one lunchtime at work. The MRI showed an osteophyte (bony spur) impinging on the C5 nerve root where it comes out of the neck. I was relieved that it wasn’t a disc problem and my brother who is an orthopaedic surgeon in NZ reassured me that most of these problems settle within a few months without any surgery – not ideal as the HR was just 3 months away!
The 3rd Sunday of May was beautiful – blue sky and very sunny. After painful and demoralising Surrey rides on the weekends before, I had decided that I was better off staying indoors on the turbo where I could cycle in an upright position. That 2 hour turbo session in the kitchen was another low point.
The Tour of Wessex was meant to be our multi-day tour training and took place on the last weekend of May. Having signed up for the long route for all 3 days I had significantly lowered my expectations by now. In the end I only managed the short route (around 128km) on the first day and even then I had to stop twice due to agonising pain and pins and needles in my neck and arm.
After every bike ride my right trapezius was going into spasm. Physiotherapy and dry needling would give temporary relief for a day or two. I was taking a lot of ibuprofen and constantly smelt of Deep Heat! As the weeks ticked by and the symptoms weren’t settling my despair grew. The HR entry is not transferable to another person, not was I allowed to postpone my entry until 2018.
I continued with the twice weekly turbo sessions, sitting up every couple of minutes to relieve the pressure on my neck and shoulder, praying for rain so that it wouldn’t get too hot in the kitchen. Mark, ever the optimist, pointed out that at least with neck pain I could still train on the turbo, unlike a knee or hip injury. Over the summer I became very familiar with this view.
We love the Alpe d’Huez area and have pretty much been there every Summer since 2006 and this year was no exception. However the night before we drove out (in mid-June), I was in tears again – after a busy week at work, my right trapezius was in agony and I wondered whether it would be worth me going as I did not think I would be able to cycle at all, and especially not downhill being unable to go down on the drops still. This really was the make or break week for me and the HR.
Then something unexpected happened. By the time we arrived in Allemont late Saturday evening the pain in my shoulder had eased. And the following day I managed to ride up Alpe d’Huez and most importantly descend down on the drops without too much discomfort. I rode every day that week and sacrificed volume for intensity, doing less riding than originally planned but riding the climbs hard. Whilst my symptoms were still present, they were significantly better than before. I PBed up the Alpe on day 4 which showed that the turbo training was paying off (not the most impressive time in the grand scheme of things, but 45 seconds faster than my previous PB from 2013) and for the first time in two months I thought maybe, just maybe I might be better by the end of August.
After a week in the Alps, it was back to work. Within an hour of sitting at my work desk and computer the symptoms returned with a vengeance. The penny finally dropped. A referral to occupational health and then a workstation assessment found that the desk/chair/computer set up was all wrong and whilst not the cause, it was definitely aggravating and prolonging my symptoms. I am now waiting for a new desk and chair.
Since returning from the Alps at the end of June I’ve managed several weeks of solid training – twice weekly turbos (no nice post work Richmond Park or Box Hill evening rides for me this Summer) and a Saturday morning Richmond Park chaingang before heading out to Surrey for another 80-100km on my own.
And now there’s just one week to go until the start in Nice on Monday 21st August. The last 2 weeks at work have been really stressful so I have had a bit of a relapse. I’m now tapering, recovering and hoping that an easy week non clinical week will make all the difference.
Find out how the Haute Route went here: Mark and Lillian’s Haute Route Alps.