Steve Fabes on cycling six continents

Steve FabesLike most decisions of great consequence, I happened upon the route for Cycling The 6 in a pub garden, beer in one hand, mini-Atlas in the other. The plan hatched was to travel the length of six continents, all by bicycle. I completed my ST training in General Medicine in a London hospital and finally after years of dreaming and with PACES in my wake I left my life and job behind for five whole years to begin the epic expedition.

I was after an adventure and a new challenge but I also hoped I would learn a thing or two en route. Some lessons have been more profound than others but almost all have been learnt the hard way. I will never again enter an Albanian shop wearing a Buff as a full face mask and unwittingly terrify all the staff. I will keep tiger balm well away from my eyes. More importantly I have discovered that the world is a friendlier place than it is frequently portrayed or perceived. Before entering Albania for example and my head was full of negative imaginings; a lawless land of landmines, terrorists, mafia and bandits. When I crossed the border if felt like a homecoming. Albanians working the fields would stop and shout, wave, cheer and even salute. Four times during my trip I have been invited into a stranger’s home to stay the night when spotted rough camping. I have been bought food on many occasions and have felt at times ridiculously unworthy of the hospitality I have received. Once I sat with a family who needed and could not afford basic health care, in a house where eight people slept in three rooms, with a beer in hand, full to bursting with food and with the promise of a bed for the night. I have also learnt to have patience, not usually a virtue I am overly familiar with. I have stopped trying to break my top speed on the downhills and now just appreciate the rolling vista. In fact I try to ignore the cycle computer altogether. I camp earlier and look around more. I eat slower. I stop arranging ambitious rendezvous on travel networking websites and then rushing to get there. I don’t need deadlines in my life. I always take the route marked out as scenic on the map regardless of altitude or terrain and every so often I cycle somewhere just because it has a funny sounding name on the map.

The challenges too have been robust, varied, and very different from those encountered in my old life on the hospital wards. Just what I was after. I have come face to muzzle with menacing mutts many times and in rural Greece was attacked by a large group of dogs (read the story http://www.cyclingthe6.blogspot.com/). I have had to take down my tent high in the Alps without gloves the morning after the temperature plummeted to -19०C. Physically the journey has had an obvious impact. The contours of my legs have begun to transform and my new hairy visage has given me a partial resemblance to a Morris Dancer, or so I’m told. I have lost ten percent of my body weight in three months despite incorporating a “middle breakfast” into my daily routine. In Montenegro and Italy I have relished the challenge of continuous mountain ascents from sea level to a height above that of Britain’s loftiest peaks but perhaps more challenging than anything so far was the sustained snowball attack delivered without mercy by school children across Kent as I cycled out of the UK. Along the way I have dealt with these many tribulations as best I can and have made as many sensible decisions as perfunctory ones but I am in no doubt that choosing to leave in the first place was the best decision I ever made and I am learning all the time.

So it was all going so well but three months after I started out the biggest challenge of my trip to date has left me heartbroken. On the road through Macedonia and Greece I was consumed by worry. My left knee had spontaneously swollen up in Italy. Now the swelling had come down but a small curious mobile mass was now palpable within the joint space. It often got trapped causing me sudden pain. I arrived into Thessaloniki in Greece with a plan to get some answers. This was not a problem I could ignore. I went to a particularly chaotic emergency department to be confronted by a overworked junior who glanced at my knee and wrote me a prescription for an NSAID. Eventually after an innocuous looking x-ray and much debate I came to the conclusion there was only one option left open to me. I bit the bullet and shelled out my monthly budget for an MRI scan of the troublesome joint and the curious lump within. After the scan the grim-faced radiologist leafed through a medical textbook and pointed at the page entitled “Osteochondritis Dissecens”. I confess I wasn’t overly familiar with the condition but I knew enough to know that this wasn’t a term I wanted to hear.

MRI of knee

The lump migrating around my knee was a piece of free cartilage sometimes referred to as a “joint mouse”. I wondered why it had to be given such a cutesy name and decided something like “joint wraith” or “knee plague” would be more fitting terminology. Repetitive micro-trauma caused by the cycling had caused a piece to come loose from my femur and the rogue bit of useless debris was now roaming free inside my knee. The radiologist pointed out the 11 mm lesion blunting the contour of my lower femur and I stared at it in anguish and disbelief. He made a call to a friend, an Orthopaedic specialist with a private clinic who would see me for free out of “professional courtesy”. The Orthopaedic doctor answered my questions without hesitation.

Can I continue to cycle? I would not.

Do I need an arthroscopy? Yes.

How long after the surgery until I can cycle again? Maybe not for three months. I’m sorry.

Gutted. Crushed. Heartbroken. My dream of an unbroken journey around the world by bicycle lay in tatters. Before I left London a few things did worry me. Perhaps I would run out of courage before I completed my challenge. Possibly. But I was more afraid that something entirely beyond my control would prevent me from continuing. It felt like my greatest fear was coming true and so early into my trip. I have to admit that my inherent impetuous nature has made it hard to resist the temptation to carry on regardless but I know I must return to have the scope. The three months I have spent on the road have flown by. I suspect the three months I will spend at home will not. But three months out of five years is a snip. I will be back riding as soon as I am ready. My trans-European ride has been magnificent and this is just a small bump in the road and another test of that elusive virtue, my patience.

In the wake of the volcanic eruption in Iceland and with European air travel in chaos I realised that even though I must return home I am stuck in Istanbul. So I made a decision… My adventure will not yet be over. I will hitch-hike back to London. I found somewhere safe to store my bike and most of my kit and scribbled the words ‘Volcano Victim’ on a sign I can hold up by the roadside. I will set off this week. I have set up a new Justgiving page so people can sponsor my hitch-hike home. Every penny will go to the UK medical charity Merlin. If you want to help me make the best of a bad situation please sponsor my mini-adventure back to the UK for my surgery by visiting www.justgiving.com/bustedknee to make a donation.

If you’d like to keep up to date with my progress once I resume my world ride please visit my blog at http://www.cyclingthe6.blogspot.com. To sponsor my adventure please go to http://www.justgiving.com/cyclingthe6. Every penny donated goes to the medical aid agency Merlin.

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