Why I ride? The psychology of fighting for your life

Why I ride? The psychology of fighting for your life

Where is your breaking point? At what point do you listen to the voice that tells you to stop? In life, much like riding a bike we all have that inner voice, when things become tough, how far can you go before you break!

That moment when you think, that’s it I can’t go any further. The voice in your mind having two conflicting conversations. One telling you to keep pushing, the other to stop, thats it I cant take any more.

So what is it in us that chooses to listen to one of these voices? 

Since our DNA is pretty much 99.9% the same as the next person, what separates us when it comes to this enjoyment of the suffering one feels during high intense endurance events? Is there a link between those who thrive in that environment, to those who cope better when dealing with a life threatening condition? I know I liken both time trialing and managing this tumour in a similar way, on one side I am trying to go faster and push my body past its limits and the other I am trying to slow everything down. Both different races, both can be defined in time, both require mental strength, the biggest difference is the outcome. 

During a bike race, when your suffering it feels like time goes slower, on the other hand when you know something is growing inside you that can take your life, time speeds up, you struggle to hold on and to stay in control, just as I am about to break, I transfer myself onto my bike in an attempt to stay in control.

I feel the injection go into my arm as I am moved into the MRI, and I know in a few weeks I will be sat opposite someone who I know, but is also a stranger. Someone that will be with me at possibly the lowest point in my life, but I don’t really know anything about them, we are not even on first name bases. 

As the bike moves slowly up another alpine pass, the sun beating down on me, I feel the sweat run down my face dropping onto the road. My body screaming in a sea of suffering as I glance up and see the top of the Col. I then hear this voice, only 3km to go David. 3km at over 9% with the top looking down on you. 

You have to detach from the summit and focus on the process, live in the moment and welcome the suffering into your body, live for every pedal revolution. This, after all, is living. I choose to be on this mountain, and I can stop at any time.

Unlike the discomfort of sitting opposite this stranger who is about to deliver life shattering news, I don’t have many options to say, you know what I feel like stopping now. I am not in control.

Ok 2km now left, this is the last climb of the first day, 6 more days of this to go and I can hardly turn the pedals. The easy option is that beautiful decent, you could turn round and ride back, or I focus on continuing to turn those pedals. 

After what feels like a decade, I take the final pedal stroke that sees me summit over the 3rd and final Col of day 1. Only 6 more days to go. 

The inner battle between these two voices goes to the one that never quit today. 

As I climb off the bike I can hardly walk, the feeling of complete fatigue mixed with happiness is like no other. A far cry from the same feeling of not been able to walk in hospital. Back at the hotel the sign of a bath was like heaven, my body needs to get into that bath. I have not had a bath since leaving hospital as I worry about getting stuck, but tonight a shower is just not going to cut it. One hour later and the panic of I can’t get out becomes a reality! Am I going have to call Chris the support guy who I only just met to come lift me out of the bath on day 1, or do I find a solution to this situation. 

After several attempts I am out the bath and ready to fight another day. 

The fresh mountain air greets me on day 2, a much welcomed feeling over the air in the hospital room, I feel like I can’t breathe when I am in there.

Every morning the beauty of the mountains was a reminder of how lucky I was to be alive and have the ability to ride. I won’t lie, this was a brutal experience by day 3 I had saddle soars and I could hardly walk at the end of each day. The first twenty minutes each morning were horrid until I went numb, then it made sitting on seat much more pleasant.

The climbing started right away on day 2 and we had 3 cols to go over before the decent to Bourg St Maurice. The last climb was a brutal 20km up the Cormet de Roselend, the only thing keeping my mind of the pain in my body was the incredible scenery. Arriving at the hotel felt like heaven, I could not move and started to feel the saddle sores kicking in. Not what you want on day 2 of 7. 

I had spent years skiing in this part of the world, so I had a rough idea of what the next day would throw at me, but doing it on bike was a whole other story. Only one col, but 48km of it right from the go. It was horrid, my mind was fine, it was my body, it didn’t want to work. Today was very much about focusing on the process, as the Col de I’iseran is one of the highest paved passes in Europe at 2,700m. After 4hrs of relentless cycling we made the summit. However, this was a 121km day so it wasn’t over yet. 

When taking on something like this, I wake with a mix of emotions and excitement, with a fear of how much it will hurt, no matter how fast I go up these climbs it hurts. Everyone cycling up them is at their own personal limit and has their own reasons for doing it. Mine was not about overcoming adversity to achieve a goal, after four diagnoses it was about  living, and there is no better way to remind myself that I am alive, than by cycling up the Col du Telegraphe and Col du Galibier the latter being one of the most iconic passes in the Alps.

As we cross the Alps the vegetation changes becoming more Mediterranean which brings higher temperatures, however the Col d’Izoard had other ideas. For most of the morning we could see the clouds forming, when this happens in the Alps the mountains look angry and you know you could be in for some fun. Not to disappoint the heavens opened up 2km from the top and we got soaked. Arriving at the top covered in clouds it was a short break for the quick photo then onto tackle the last climb of the day. Freezing cold and shivering it was a very hard day.  

The feeling of finally getting into the shower was amazing, forty minutes later I could feel my body or what’s left of it anyway. 

By now, I am a complete wreck, saddle soars, and nervous system that’s not working and fatigue… I love this feeling, I am alive, living my dream, the penultimate day sees us climb for 30km over the Col de la Cayolle, a gradual climb, but a long one that felt like it was never ending. The mind can almost relax as I know I only have one day left, the feeling I am almost there, the dream that I had in ICU of cycling across the Alps is within reach. The doctors who told me I would never do this are about to be shown anything is possible if you believe. Finishing this day at the ski village of Valberg. Not before a pretty tough 12km climb. 

Lying in bed knowing all I had was one more day felt incredible, I had never given up in two years and now I was close to seeing this goal through. Just one more stage of what was going to be the hardest day yet. 

Sitting on the bike seat, I could feel tears run down my face, the saddle sores were so painful, which in turn set of my neural system, this was going to be a hard day.  How hard can this be? It’s not as hard mentally as 6 months in hospital unable to wash yourself, having people help you go to the toilet and brush your teeth. 

As if this last day wasn’t hard enough, we arrived at was meant to be our last climb of the day to find out the road was closed.  This meant several extra cols, but with the bonus of finishing on the col de la Madone. An epic last day which saw us on the bike for a 100miles, 3000m climbing and just short of 9 hours we reached Menton. Job done over 40hours, 56,000ft of climbing and 740km the Route des Grandes Alps was done.

Now it was time to face another challenge, a fight where I am less in control and the fight that maybe one day, will find my breaking point. 

You hear the Dr say “well I am just going to tell you like it is, you are at risk of full paralysis from the neck down” my reply was “ your telling me I am just going to be a head” his response “yes that’s correct”. 

There are lots of people who are incredibly inspiring, but I am not sure I could live that life. I guess we never know until it happens on how we will deal with it, but being told this, my first reaction was I want to die. I felt like I was drowning, unable to breath, trying to control the emotional part of my brain and ask sensible logical questions. Stay in control, don’t lose it. 

Knowing this outcome, I did what felt natural, I ran. My fight or flight kicked in and I was off. I am not sick, I refuse to believe this, I am going to ride my bike until my limbs stop moving.

It got me thinking around the language we use around illnesses, how a word can have such a massive impact on our perception, which in turn has a possible epigenetic effect on how our body deals with that word and the situation. I have never believed I am ill, I don’t believe I have a tumour, when I look in the mirror I don’t see someone disabled who has a life threatening tumour, I see an athlete. 

Sitting looking at my scans I hear the words “If I saw this scan I would say the person is most definitely unable to walk and they would be pretty unwell” 

There is no way this person has just cycled 740km across the Alps. 

Is this the power of the mind? I believe I am not sick, I constantly tell myself this can’t be. The most difficult time is when it’s still, lying in bed with only that voice, the fear of the unknown growth in my spinal cord that could take my life. 


It’s why I ride, I ride to hide from reality, when I ride, I am free, I sometimes think when I am on bike that if I was to die I would rather it be now, fast so it’s over, not some slow process of my body slowly giving up on me. Does everyone have these thoughts? Or is it something unique to people on this journey. 

I remember cycling along a narrow thin road on one side a huge drop down into a river, on the other an intimidating mountain rock face. As the road cuts a path through this mountain in the Alps I cycled closer to the edge, I could just cycle off the road! No more scans, no more surgeries just cycle off a cliff. I then pulled back into the middle of the road and powered on over this incredible Col. Why was I thinking this, at first glance you might think I am mad, but it was more about a powerful emotional control. It was being on the edge, but being in control to walk the line, but then say I am in control and pull away. Something I never feel with the tumour, I feel it has control, so when I sit in this hospital room, I can’t pull into the middle of the road and say not today, I sit opposite this stranger as he tells me you are going over the cliff and there is not much you can do about it.

The great thing about descending Alpine cols is you are truly in the moment, if your mind drifts off, you run the risk of crashing. 

You work hard climbing to then get your decent. To feel the wind in your face and you are completely immersed in the moment. There is no feeling like it for me.

Much like life, these Cols are like challenges in life, you have to pace them correctly or you can burnout. Emotional burnout is something I have become very familiar with. Managing your energy is important, when your living with a tumour, it is easy to let it take over. You can become obsessed with it and your whole day becomes about tumours. This is not healthy, I try to keep everything and everyone around me just going about normal life then set time aside either daily or weekly to manage it. 

Managing a tumour can become a full time job, it can consume your every waken hour, then your dreams when you sleep. There is almost no escape. How do you manage that? 

For me it was becoming self-aware of my inner world, how my brain is made up, the mechanism behind thoughts and my actions. By building up a better awareness and relationship with my mind I can better manage my emotions. I created a plan much like I would for my bike, I have to pace what I do on these climbs, if I go off too hard I am going to pay for that later in the day. It’s about knowing what you can put out that will allow me to cycle for 8hrs. This is also true with fighting the tumour, I have to protect my emotional energy.

This has been extremely difficult since returning from the Alps, in the Alps all I focused on was cycling, now I am having to face my other race, and it is harder than I ever imagined. Am I close to breaking point? What would that tipping point look like? And can you make it back if you do break? 

With surgeons wanting to operate on me now, doctors telling me my options and at the centre of it, me. I feel great, not one sign of a symptom, just a scan showing a tumour crushing my spinal cord. Your actions reflect your beliefs, and I believe I am not sick, however I know that I can’t hide for ever. I just want to ride, I am not asking for much, just a bike and smooth roads.  How do you make this choice? Surgery to save my life but risk loosing everything from neck down, or keep riding till my limbs stop moving? 

How do I even begin to make this decision? As my body recovers from cycling across the Alps and the news from both doctors in the UK and America.  I sit and reflect on what was the toughest week I have ever had on a bike and probably the biggest test to my mental strength. The week after sitting in front of several doctors all telling me the same thing, ‘this is a high risk tumour’, ‘there is no cure’, ‘this thing could crush all your nerves’ and I have a choice to make, I go into surgery and risk paralysis or I keep riding and run the risk of slowly losing everything from the neck down.

What would you do?

I wake each morning and tell myself that everyone dies but not everyone lives, so for today I will climb onto my bike and keep riding. 

david smith