The piece below has reposted with the permissions of Graeme Willgress and Anna Hughes and extend grateful thanks to you both. Anna was kind enough to contact me on Twitter to offer stories that she had collected for her book, Pedal Power: inspirational stories from the world of cycling, which was published in 2017. Graeme’s story was one of those featured.
This is a story about Graeme Willgress, a cyclist who has suffered complex mental issues throughout his adult life. Cycling opened the door to a long, slow process of recovery, and has enhanced Graeme’s life in many ways since he re-discovered it in his forties. He writes about his experiences at his website, http://riding2recovery.com, and in his three published books. This story is written by author Anna Hughes, and appears in her book ‘Pedal Power: inspirational stories from the world of cycling’.
‘Three years ago, I couldn’t imagine cycling anywhere. Today, I can’t imagine not cycling everywhere.’
Graeme Willgress was an active child, excelling at sports and enjoying the outdoor life, but he suffered a mental breakdown at the age of 17 as a result of low self-esteem, anxiety, and being put down by teachers and his tyrannical father. As he bottled up his experiences and his anger, his adult life became dogged by panic attacks, extreme anxiety and bouts of depression. With two marriages behind him and multiple house moves, he rarely felt settled. In his forties he suffered another horrendous breakdown, exacerbated by losing his mother, father and sister – all within three years. Things had reached boiling point.
Graeme shut himself away in his caravan. It was impossible to leave – simply going to the shops was a Herculean task. Graeme felt stigmatised by his local community, separated from his family and friends, and completely isolated from the world.
After a chance meeting with some touring cyclists, he remembered how much he had enjoyed riding in the past, thinking back to happier times mountain biking in Snowdonia as a student; despite the physical effort, he’d found it calming.
So Graeme set out to see if he could recapture some of that tranquillity. He purchased a bicycle and, after a 20-year gap, began to ride again. His first ride was a physically demanding 10 miles through the hills of West Devon; a struggle with low fitness and an unsuitable bike. ‘By the time I got to my house I was completely exhausted… but there was a big smile. I felt I’d achieved something.’
He began going for longer rides – things wouldn’t always go smoothly, but steadily he built up the miles and the strength.
‘Once I began to cycle I entered a new world… I never felt bad when out on the bike.’
Cycling enabled Graeme to begin reconnecting with people. He could turn up at a cycling cafe and just be a cyclist; he could leave his house behind and be free in the world. Becoming a Sustrans ranger for his local stretch of National Cycle Network gave him focus and new friends.
An idea that had lingered in the back of his mind was fighting its way forward: what if he could take a longer ride, a challenging ride, for multiple days? He lived near the sea, and his work with Sustrans had shown him how many coastal cycle paths there were. What if he could ride around the whole thing? The thought thrilled and terrified him in equal measure. Could he do it? Ideas became plans and, with the encouragement of his therapist, Graeme set in motion what would be an incredible journey: Ride2Recovery, which would take him around the coast of mainland Britain. It would be a substantial ride of multiple months but, crucially, without needing to cross the sea. ‘The coastline was the limit of what my mind could cope with. I couldn’t stretch that boundary any further.’
In 2011, two years after Graeme had conceived of Ride2Recovery, he left his home in Hatherleigh with Irene the bike, Trevor the trailer and enough kit to keep him going for four months. He had completed a few shorter rides in preparation for the challenge that lay ahead. He had also set up a fundraising site for Sustrans, started a blog, and received the nod from his doctor and therapist. Tears rolled down his face as he rolled away from home.
For the next four months, Graeme took it one day at a time. He learned to listen to his body and his mind, to go when it was good and rest when it wasn’t. By the end of the first month he was calm, open, stable and, above all, happy. He kept a daily travel diary and discovered a passion for writing, which would help him in the healing process. He returned from his trip having cycled 4,000 miles around the coast of England, Scotland and Wales, but having gone a whole lot further in his steps to recovery.
Since that ride, Graeme has completed two more Ride2Recovery adventures, cycling 2,500 miles along the Atlantic coast from Land’s End to John o’Groats, via Ireland, the Outer Hebrides and Shetland. Significantly, the journey involved a flight to Ireland and a ferry to Shetland – modes of transport that had once induced panic attacks and would have been inconceivable only a few years before. His second ride was to France, his first journey in a non-English speaking country for over ten years.
Graeme still battles with poor mental health, and episodes of depression and anxiety. But cycling has transformed his life, making his illness manageable, and things he once thought were beyond him are now possible thanks to his wheels.
‘Every time I ride I smile and every time I smile I get a little better.’
‘Pedal Power: inspirational stories from the world of cycling’ – Anna Hughes (https://summersdale.com/sd-author/anna-hughes/)
‘Riding2Recovery: a journey within a journey’
‘Riding2Recovery: all around the ragged edges’
‘Serenity and Storm’ – all by Graeme Willgress (http://www.riding2recovery.com/my-books/)