Some days things can just get a bit much for any of us, we just seem to get out of the wrong side of the bed and everything can go pear-shaped from the start of the day. How many times have you said to someone “I’m just having one of those days!” It’s great to stay positive through the thick and thin of life’s trials and tribulations, but we are not all bullet-proof and things can get us down; then we met Alistair Trippett!
We all are some way affected by that bastard known as cancer, although the treatment and fight against it get stronger every year, so does the chance of getting it in some way shape or form, it kills, ruins lives and is just basically the asshole of all life’s up’s and downs. We hooked up with a young twenty-year-old mountain bike nut called Alistair from Staffordshire in the UK, he shoved us firmly back down in our place, proving some people’s positivity, bravery and fight can be way up there at level 100! Alistair was a keen young rugby playing lad when he first got diagnosed and here’s his story.
What age did you first get diagnosed?
At the age of twelve, I developed a small lump on my shin, at first we just thought it was a knock caused by my sport, as I’d recently tripped on a hurdle, so they thought it could have been that. It was about the size of a ten piece coin, It didn’t go, so we had scans and a biopsy on it, but they said it was fine, just asking us to watch and measure it. I went back six months later and although it had grown they still said it was fine. A month later alarm bells began to ring when the lump started giving me pain; two weeks later I was in operating room having ten-hour major trying to remove it.
So that operation didn’t work then?
Well, they killed it, but they killed the whole bone, so I was left with something that wasn’t going to fix itself. The lump was on my Tibia so this was irradiated and killed. My Fibula was transplanted in the place of the now removed Tibia. The Fibula bone was then the size of a little finger, so if I’d have walked on that it would have just snapped straight away, so the dead Tibia was put back in around the Fibula for support. It was clear after a few months something wasn’t right. The dead Tibia and the supporting metal work had become infected. All the metalwork had to be taken out and I was just left with this Fibula broken at both ends that were just going to snap if I walked on it.
Were you then left in a wheelchair?
Yes, I was weak anyway after all the operations, the chemotherapy stops anything from healing, your hair falls out, you don’t grow and no injuries heal.
So at that age, when you should be starting to think about girls and getting out having a laugh with your mates, it must have affected you mentally?
Yes, I was hospital bound anyway, I wasn’t socialising then, I didn’t see my school mates for six months. There was no way I could have lived any form of normal life, as the chemotherapy was really battering me that hard.
So was that all the surgery was done or did you require more?
Once the chemo had finished we then started on fixing this damaged leg. When peeling back my cast we found that where they had stapled my wound on the front of my leg the skin had totally broken down. For a week I was sent home with my shin bone showing on the front of my leg. I was then back in operating room where a plastic surgeon took half of my calf muscle and stuck it on the front of my shin, this provided some meat to stitch it back together.
That fixed that problem. But the bone still hadn’t united, I had several bone grafts to make it unit and they didn’t work because the aftermath of the chemotherapy left me weakened for a year. I walked on it broken for a year with a brace on to stop it bending too much; you could bend the bottom of my leg with your hands at that point! But I was cycling even then, jumping off the crutches and onto a bike as often as was possible; I don’t know what would have happened if I’d had a bad fall at that time!
So the whole time this was all going on, apart from when in a wheelchair were you riding bikes?
As much as I could, some days after the chemotherapy I literally couldn’t get out of bed in the morning, but the cycling helped to strengthen the bone and muscles; so it was a good thing. It also gave me the much-needed freedom to get out of the house and away from everyone. After a few years of being like this, it was decided that we would try and fix this non-united bone. This required a “cage” that consisted of ten wires running through one side of my leg and out the other, during this time I was unable to ride a bike. I had this done when I was sixteen.
That last time they pinned it, how long ago was that?
Well, it was pinned when I was sixteen for eight months, then it broke so it was pinned again when I was eighteen for ten months. So I ended up being on crutches for seven years from the age of twelve until I was nineteen. I’ve now been crutch free for just over a year and it feels great. I’ve been left with one leg considerably shorter than the other, so I’ve continued with my cycling, as it’s one of the few ways I can get a buzz and stay fit.
So what do you think of these folk who look out of the window, see it’s raining and can’t be bothered to ride?
I can still believe that I don’t want to ride sometimes! I think it’s important when the weather is good though that I’m out there having fun.
You must have had good support from your family and friends through all of this, were there any times you needed counselling?
I’m pretty stubborn, I’m the type who thinks, no matter what people advise and tell me, I’d rather have a go and find out for myself. This is because you can listen to one person who will sugar-coat something and you find out they were just talking shit, so I tend to just not take much notice of people’s advice now. I keep getting told I should go and talk to other people who are going through something similar, but I will tell them how terrible it actually is so sometimes I think taking the unknown one day at a time is best.
Looking at this with your attitude and outlook, we’d guess that the worst effect of it was on your parents then?
Yes for sure, my mum definitely had it rough, she gave up her job for me; this wasn’t too bad, as her and my dad run their own company, but she hasn’t gone back to work since, she probably saved my life a few times, as she’s a nurse anyway. I can think of two occasions where she has been firm with nurses and doctors caring for me, which has without a doubt saved my life. There was one point where ended up in Leicester hospital after visiting a friend and I became ill overnight with my blood pressure going down to 50 over 25 due to an infection. A few legal threats and select words later I was stabilised but I think she thought that was the end for me.
Each of these operations made your one leg shorter, so how much shorter is it now?
Probably just less than 100 mm shorter than it should be now.
When did you get the idea for the longer pedal and shorter crank to counter your short leg on the bike?
Two weeks after getting my last cast off I had already bought a full-suspension bike; I just couldn’t wait to get back on it. Then I joined my local bike shop club “Velo” and I couldn’t keep up with them at all to start with. I just stuck with it for about two months and found I could keep up with the pace better. They noticed my hip was dropping when riding and that I had back and hip ache whilst on the bike. Being professional bike fitters they knew that this couldn’t be ignored. Tom who works there asked around and had a 30 mm block of aluminium milled to attach to one of my pedals, this made a huge improvement to my cycling.
Then the more people who saw it, the more they wanted to improve on it. I met Paul Judd and Matthew Woodall, good guys and Matt really knew how to ride a bike and the engineering behind it. We couldn’t just make the block bigger, as it would just become weightier and more unstable and when I took my foot off it, it would have swung the wrong way up for my foot; not what I’d have wanted riding half way down a rock garden!
So what was next move on the pedal and crank?
Matt did the pedal with a counter-weight, so it was always the right way up for my foot. I rode that for a few months and it was good, but it was only 35 mm higher and still 60 mm(ish) from what I needed. Then we got the idea of the cranks, which was taken on by another local bike shop “Spokes”, they sorted that out. They gave Hope a call and within 24 hours two cranks arrived, with one being 165 mm for my shorter leg and the other 175 mm. I’ve now got a gain of 45 mm on the bike and 5 mm from an insole in my shoe.
Looking to the future now, you say you need one more operation to physically lengthen your bone, when will this be?
Well, I’m not desperate for that at the moment, I want to ride my bike for a bit and do at least a year’s enduro racing first.
How long will you then be off the bike for and will you then be able to ride normal cranks and pedals?
Well, it’s pretty much impossible for me to answer that. My previous history has meant that I no longer follow normal procedures with expected recovery times. Some of the best surgeons in the country will be working on my case, but there is just so much uncertainty regarding lengthening. It’s going to require more metal work, a few more operations and probably a year of recovery, amputation also still firmly remains on the cards as an option. I’m just happy living my life for the moment, it feels good.
Looking far into the future, what now are your hopes and dreams?
Originally it was to race and just get better and better, but now I think the more riding I do I just want to enjoy it. I don’t want to take it too seriously because then it stops becoming fun. Don’t get me wrong I want to do well in my races and get up there competing with the fully able-bodied people, I’m aiming for top 20%. Then I’m thinking about maybe doing a team that are similar to me, people with problems that may need adaptations to their bikes.
A month after this interview Alistair slipped and snapped the bone again, ending up posting pictures from the hospital bed, still amazingly joking and with a smile on his face, so we got a concluding paragraph of him.
Gutted for you mate, did this come as a big shock or does it feel a bit like the norm now, plus how will this affect you now with the final operation and your near future?
It still came as a shock, I always thought I was going to break it on my bike, not at work! I’ve started treating life like a bit of a game so that I’m never taking anything too seriously, I’m good at laughing things off; fortunately. It sucks but these things happen. Surgery is probably going to involve a nail or something similar being run through my shin bone for support but I’m just in a cast, for now, to see how that goes. I’m still hoping to continue my racing next year. I might miss out on the first stages at Tweedlove and PMBA in March but I’m hopeful I’ll be back on two wheels soon, I very much doubt it will have changed my mentality.
Some people can have a lasting effect on us after the pleasure of their company, Alistair certainly falls into this category, a humble, but fantastically upbeat and brave fella, kicking us all into touch with any of our petty problems and issues. So next time you’re about to complain because the local council didn’t put your wheelie bin back in the correct place or you punctured your road bike after the farmer’s hedge cutting, then pause and think of what this young fella has had to go through before you do.
We wish Alistair all the best in his future and hope he can finally get back on this bike and enjoy his riding, incident free. F##K CANCER!
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Words: Jim Buchanan Photos: Doc Ward