I still pinch myself when I think about where two wheels have taken me. I never thought in a million years I would be mountain biking. I’d only seen the extreme downhill stuff and the stunt-pulling superhuman launching from death-defying heights. I had no idea that there was a place in the sport for people like me.
My bike has taken me to some incredible places. Together we’ve travelled widely, climbed some of the worlds highest passes, ridden epic trails and ventured to remote corners of the planet. I often wonder if I would’ve had so much fun with my bike had I not been diagnosed with a degenerative disease at a young age that forced me to reassess my life and live for the day.
I’d just turned 17 when I first experienced a severe and debilitating pain in my spine and down my legs. This mysterious pain came and went for over a decade. Eventually, I was referred to a Rheumatologist who spotted the signs immediately. I’d just turned thirty and was living in the UK when I was diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis: commonly referred to as AS; sometimes shortened to Anky Spond; or (my particular favourite) Anky-what???
Anky-what is a progressive, inflammatory disease, that mainly affects the joints of the spine. The culprit is a malfunctioning immune system. There is no cure for Anky-what and it can eventually cause the spine to become rigid (known as bamboo spine) which has happened in my case.
This condition is particularly tricky as it often escapes tests in the early years, which means there’s a delay in diagnosis. Subsequently, the correct treatment to slow the progression usually only starts when the joints show irreversible damage. Even today, the average onset to diagnosis period is still eight years. It’s the same story in the US, Canada, Europe, Australia and the UK.
The good news is that Anky-what is relieved by exercise and aggravated by rest. There’s always some level of pain to contend with whether I’m up a mountain or sitting on a sofa watching TV. Sitting actually exacerbates the condition and movement eases the pain, so getting hooked on reality TV shows is not in my best interest. I find there is always a bright side to these things.
Although it wasn’t fun having my twenties robbed by a debilitating, mystery illness, when I found out what it was and how to deal with it, I thought, hmmmmm, I’d best crack on with all those “one day” dreams while I still can. With deterioration ahead of me, I drew up a wish list of a gizzilion things I wanted to do.
Some wishes on my list were small and would only take a few minutes, hours or days. Other more ambitious dreams such as “I want to achieve a blackbelt” (tick), “take a sabbatical and travel the world” (tick), and ”space travel” (still to do), would take a tad longer.
Every now and then I pick up the list and take another look. I was about to enter my mumble, mumble decade on this planet when I though it was time to try something new. My specialist raised both his eyebrows at mountain biking.
“Cycling is a good idea but I wouldn’t recommend mountain biking,” he said. On top of that, my deteriorating spine had made my ribcage less flexible, which in turn reduced my lung capacity to around 70% of the norm – not conducive with an activity that requires sudden bursts of exertion.
Fortunately, over the years, I’d become an expert in justifying my dreams. I was determined to ride a mountain bike even if it was just on flat gravelly paths. In my mind it was a teeny-tiny toe dip into the mountain bike world. That’s when I discovered there was more to the spectrum of mountain biking than flying down rock faces in full-face helmets.
I met my friend Claire while studying martial arts. In that period I’d developed my fitness, discovered a new level of determination and the real meaning of perseverance. All that came in handy when Claire found out I’d bought a mountain bike. “Come out with me, we’ll start on the easy trails,” she said. There’s no harm in giving it a go, I thought, and we headed off to Wales.
I was really surprised where my knobby tires would go and how much the bike absorbed the knocks. Best of all, (once I was sensible) it didn’t aggravate the pain. Thanks to Claire’s encouragement and infectious enthusiasm, I was on the red trails by the end of the day. As for my lungs, I developed a knack of maintaining fast breathing for long periods.
The next thing I knew I was in a team with Claire signed up to the Snowdonia challenge in Wales which involved fifty miles of mountain biking, a hoof up and back down Mount Snowden and a paddle in a Canadian Canoe. We entered it for fun and camaraderie more than anything, but by the end of the race we were one of only two all-girl teams to cross the line. I’d spent eight hours on the go and realised a new level of endurance.
When I moved to Australia, the mountain-bike-love continued with new mates who showed me the trails. Some would hang back so I could follow their wheel to learn the lines and others taught me the skills to get me up, down and over the technical stuff – as well as standing in the perfect spot to catch me when I got it wrong. Just like the UK, I found Australia’s mountain bike community full of encouragement and a pay-it-forward mindset.
As much as I loved the local trails, it was when I put mountain-biking and travel together, the pinch-me moments really cranked up. The river of encouragement from a world-web of mountain bike friends (coupled at times with a little wine-fuelled courage) just kept flowing. Do you fancy giving Australia’s longest off-road bike trail a crack? Why not! (Ching) Himalayan passes? Count me in! How about a pioneering expedition in Ethiopia? Pinch. Pinch. Pinch.
It’s not been easy by any means. I still have awful days. Those days can turn into a week or longer and I’ve questioned myself more times than I can remember – usually when I’m slogging up a trail in a remote corner of the world at high altitude feeling my reduced lung capacity and getting pinged off by ridiculously small rocks. In those chinstrap moments I allow the doubting demons to get in. They tell me I’ve been on borrowed time and it’s over. But there’s a support crew who say it’s not.
Anyone who has ridden the local trails or those epic journeys with me, taught me a skill, tweaked my bike, or just shouted some words of encouragement as they passed me by – they have all played a part in keeping the demons away and helping me find my happy bike groove.
I still watch rad bike movies in awe of the superhumans who star in them. At the same time, I’m content to get my thrills in a different way. The beauty of adventuring on a bike is that there are no medals for the fastest rider. The prize is the journey, the exploration, the unknown as much as the renowned, the education, the new friends and conversations, the immersion in culture and just getting out into the world – all doable for an average rider with a decent level of fitness if you can get on the bike day after day.
It’s surprising where a teeny-tiny toe dip on a gravelly path will lead. As a writer, it’s fuelled me with endless stories. As a person, it’s filled my soul. And after living with Anky-what for more years than I care to admit, I’ve created a whole new list – just for my bike groove.
Tracey Croke is a journalist and travel writer addicted to roughty-toughty adventures and exploring with her mountain bike. Her quest for a good travel story has involved venturing into post-conflict Afghanistan to join a pioneering expedition across the Pamir Mountains, sleeping in a swag next to a croc-infested billabong and having her smalls rummaged through with the muzzle of a Kalashnikov. Find out more at traceycroke.com Facebook: TraceyCrokeWriter Twitter: @TraceyCroke Instagram: TraceyCroke