Fitness

Back on the bike after a stroke (Guest post)

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It’s Saturday morning in late September. I’m sitting in one of my favourite coffee shops enjoying a latte and trying to get the chill out of my bones. I decided to bike here this morning, despite the thermometer reading eight degrees. I love Ottawa in the fall: it’s one of my favourite times of year. The leaves are turning on the trees, but the Parkway is still reserved for cyclists on the weekends, which makes for some breathtaking rides. The Parkway hugs the Ottawa River, so it’s not unusual to run into hordes of Canada geese as you bike down the west-bound lanes. When the cars are away, everybody gets bolder, including the wildlife.

I’ve been a cyclist most of my life and in my twenties it was my main form of transport. A friend once described cycling as the closest humans every get to actual flight, and I agree. But I had an accident on my bike about a decade ago that left me fearful of climbing back on. While I still cycled every so often, I lost the joy I had had before my accident.

Then about six years ago I took the leap and bought a new bike: a bright red electric bike modeled after the wide-handled cruisers of the fifties that appealed to both my love of two wheels and my personal aesthetic. To my deep pleasure I rediscovered the joy of pedalling along the many bike paths this city offers. I could ride to work almost exclusively on paths. The five-kilometre trip was a pleasure every time and I resisted getting back on the bus until early December.

But last year in the late fall, I had a stroke. Hospitalized for the first time in my life, I spent two weeks answering every person who asked me, “What is your goal for recovery?” that what I wanted most of all was to get back on my bike. I didn’t know that this was a very unlikely and lofty goal. When you’ve had a stroke, people treat you like you’re not entirely compos mentis (which of course you’re not) and they don’t try to nay-say you. If I wanted to get back on my bike, nobody was going to tell me it was very unlikely.

But the first week I was back home, I climbed up on my stationary bike, which I had bought just before the pandemic hit in order to keep my biking muscles in good shape over the winter. I lasted five minutes. It wasn’t just the challenge of biking – even the act of getting on and off my bike was hard. I wobbled. I tripped. I cried a little. And I persisted. By January, I was on my stationary bike three times a week for 20 minutes. By March, that was four to five times a week for 30 minutes.

Then, at the suggestion of my massage therapist, I started upping the difficulty by twisting my upper body as I pedalled. Then I added hand weights. Then I closed my eyes, which forced me to try to balance more carefully.

In April, Big Red, my beautiful bike, came up from storage in the basement. In early May, I attempted my first ride on a real bike. It was a mere six kilometres over 30 minutes, but I wept with relief at the end of it. I had not fallen. I had not had to stop.

My balance was still shaky: getting on and off Big Red was not easy for me. If it had not been for the throttle that permitted me to get started without pedalling and let me catch my balance as I took off, I do not think this would have been possible.

The Ottawa River is seen through a copse of tress. In the foreground sits a red comfort cruiser-style bike with a helmet hanging from the handlebars.
Hanging out in a hidden spot on the Ottawa River with Big Red

Since that first ride, I have probably done 600 kilometres this summer. Weekends are my big ride, when the Parkway is open and I can pedal almost all the way to my coffee joint on a wide lane meant for cars, but I am on the bike paths several times each week. My Saturday rides are over 20 km.

I am stronger, better balanced and more confident on my bike. I have even survived a fall with relatively minor damage. But if it hadn’t been for the help having an e-bike gave me in the early days, I am not sure I would be back biking. Doctors and nurses have met the information that yes, I did get back on my bike with polite incredulity. And being back has helped me heal not only physically but mentally from the feeling of total incapacity I experienced last fall. I’m still here. I’m still pedalling.

I’m so grateful.

DJ Brown is a performer turned government wonk living and thriving in Ottawa.

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