FINDING CYCLING: A BUMPY RIDE
I’ve always been sporty. I played rugby, gymnastics, trampolining, and was a multi-sport coach. Then in 2013, I had a stroke. I lost full function in my right side and was left with reduced speech and memory loss. I was still fit but I didn’t have the strength of coordination to do the same sports anymore. My friend’s mum Karen said ‘Look, find a sport and be the best you can be at it. It doesn’t matter if your body is different, find something you enjoy that suits it.’ I had no idea where it would take me. Initially, I thought I was just using it to regain physical strength and improve coordination. I tried athletics, wheelchair racing, running, but nothing suited me. My right side was too weak and my coordination – don’t ask! Then I remembered: I’d used my bike when I was at a really low point 6 months after my stroke. I’d successfully cycled 120 miles to my friend’s house, all with a right side hemiplegia and epilepsy. I applied for British Cycling and it went from there.
‘The next few years were a whirlwind. I had no idea I’d make it to Rio 2016. I was just focusing on being the best I could be and having fun.’
CHANGE INSPIRES ME
When I first started cycling, my biggest inspiration was regaining my physical ability and trying to be the best I can be, but now it changes all the time. Every year, my body changes, my skill level changes, I accomplish more or find new areas to work on. It’s that constant re-evaluation, the idea that there’s always something new to achieve that drives me. It’s keeps it exciting. I never had a sporting hero – people always ask me if I do, but I never did. Even when I was a coach, I loved playing sport but I hated spectating. I wanted to be part of it.
INDOOR VS ROAD CYCLING
I do both, although technically I’m stronger at the indoor 3km pursuit. I think it’s because with indoor you’re on a bike in a controlled environment, there are no gears, no breaks. You literally just pedal as fast as you can. It’s a sprinting endurance race so there’s slightly more of a sprint at the upper end.
I’ve only recently gotten into the endurance side of things with road racing. I love it but, honestly, I haven’t had the time to focus on it until now. When I first started, the focus was on what I could do. Rio was so close – less than 3 years away – and I was developing really quickly so they knew that there were strong opportunities to medal. The aim: see what you were good at and then improve it as quickly as possible.
The weather was another factor. I struggle to cycle in the cold and rain. As soon as I hit the cold, the right side of my body shuts down. It won’t work at all. Some days when the weather is freezing during winter, I can’t do anything other than crash on the sofa. My leg doesn’t want to move, my right arm just drags along. The only thing that works is hot water bottles and duvets, anything and everything to try to get warm so I can move. With indoor track, it doesn’t matter.
‘How do you get through it, or do you just ignore it?’ Now, I ignore it, but it is frustrating. You want to get out there and do things, have your whole day planned, and suddenly you can’t do anything. I know it will pass. I try to focus my brain on the positives: ok, so I’ve had a stroke; yes my right side isn’t great, but how do I manage it best for me? Taking a step back, there are so many people in wheelchairs who can’t walk at all. At least I have the opportunity to. Sometimes it’s really difficult, but I can walk so whenever possible I do. It definitely makes you appreciate life and respect other people more because I’m sure that anybody who’s stuck in a wheelchair would give anything to be able to walk, even for a few minutes each day. Luckily, I only need mine on rare occasions so at those times I avoid it. I just lay on the sofa and do nothing until it passes. Normally, with some sleep my body resets and once it’s warm again, it’s fine. It just takes time.
‘My body changes on a year-by-year bases and adapts how it works so I’ve learnt to change the way I work with it.
LEARN TO SPRINT YOUR WAY
My son always says ‘When in doubt, sprint it out.’ Fantastic advice for sprint cyclists – they’re sprinting anyway and used to short durations of manageable pain so can’t lose –, terrible for endurance. I tried it and it nearly killed me, my legs completely died. That’s not to say that you can’t sprint as an endurance cyclist, but there are definitely good and bad ways to approach it.
THE PERFECT LEG CADENCE
Gear selection is just as important as your legs. To achieve a high consistent speed and be able to maintain it they need to work together. Most people think that the faster your legs go, the faster you’ll go, but it completely depends on your gearing. E.g. In TT, if I have really fast legs but I’m on a really easy gear, the overall speed will be slow. A steady pace suited to TT will be much faster. Likewise, cycling on a really hard gear can stop you being able to spin your legs really fast; the overall speed will be slow. Technically, your leg cadence should be consistent and reasonably fast (averaging 90rpm). Some people genetically can’t do that so they spin at a slightly slower cadence. Everybody is different so it’s about finding what suits you. E.g. if you compared me with an able-bodied cyclist, most of them would pedal really fast on a low gear, whereas I cycle on a high gear with slower legs. Technically, my method isn’t correct, but it what works for me currently until I can increase my cadence. I’m working on it.
ON DEDICATING EVERY RACE TO A DIFFERENT PERSON
That was important to me. At Rio, I dedicated every race to someone (the individual and their family) affected by stroke or a different life-changing illness like cancer or heart disease. It’s easy to forget but it’s not only the person who’s suffering, it’s also the family around them who are supporting them and having to deal with the mood swings, personality changes and having to pick them up when, actually, they’re struggling too. It’s really hard. To this day, I do it for all my main events, but especially the Paralympics because the world’s eyes are on us. It has a huge impact so I like to use the platform to inspire people going through tough times and motivate them on the dark days.
THE PARALYMPIC EVOLUTION FACINATES ME
When the Paralympics and disability sport started, it was all about the athletes’ disabilities, whereas today it’s about the sport and how good the athletes are at it. It’s more competitive than ever. Instead of saying ‘Oh they have a disability… an amputee missing an arm or a leg and they take part in this category because they’re disabled…’ or that I had a stroke, it’s ‘I’m Megan. I’m a cyclist. Yes, I have X wrong with me, but I guarantee you that if I challenge you to a couple of laps around the track I’m going to whip your backside.’ It’s about the sport, not the disability and that has a massive impact, not just on what you see on TV, but the ripples travel throughout society. It impacts how people respond in supermarkets, shops, schools, everywhere. And children growing up (or people who incur disabilities later in life) can think: you know what, this happens, but maybe I can do that too. Paralympics and Olympics have done a fantastic job at making that accessible.
MY BIGGEST MOTIVATION: THERE’S ALWAYS HOPE
If something bad happens, you can use it to make your life 1million times better and change it for the positive. I class myself as Megan The Second because pre-stroke I was a very different person to who I am now. Today, I’m here for sport, for cycling and I’m enjoying life. The moment I stop enjoying it is the moment I’ll retire. Life is too short to be stuck doing something you don’t like, or just going through the motions. Live. Find something that excites you. I've always lived like that, even pre-stroke. Whether it’s to do with work, sport, relationships or anything else.
I LOVE COMPETING AGAINST…
Louie ‘Rocket Rolf’ on my team. He’s a C2 rider, I’m C3. Initially, I was stronger than him, especially in the gym – I can lift double the weight – but he always kills it on the track. I always have the faster start, but since I’ve been off with injury he’s improved a lot and his back end is better. I love racing against him. Not only is it a massive incentive for me to improve, but a lot of fun.
MY FAVOURITE QUOTE
‘I’m not what happened to me. I’m what I choose to become.’ I use that quote for everything. Yes, I had a stroke but I didn’t let it rule my life. I haven’t let it decide who I’m going to be. I chose my life. I choose my path. I’m in control of that so if it goes wrong, it’s my fault, if it goes right, it’s because I worked for it and deserve it.