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I have been to the mountaintop

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Fiona McGlade reflects on cycling, friendship, cancer and recovery.

It was on one day early last spring, as I was training for Around the Bay, that I rode my bike from inner city Melbourne to the base of Mt Dandenong and found myself pondering the course of the road as it rose skywards before disappearing around a bend.  It was both this intriguing disappearance, coupled with the sudden emergence of adrenaline-charged cyclists shooting like projectiles from this mysterious void, that first piqued my interest towards what lay ahead for the cyclists who meandered up the hill.

Within a week I was unloading my bike from my car, in readiness to test my legs on my inaugural climb.

‘Here goes,’ I muttered, before clipping in my feet and pedalling up through the rising suburb.  Passing the houses on either side, I slowly got used to the requirement to maintain a steady pressure and push down upon the pedals. In a while, the suburb gave way to forest and I was swallowed into nature’s belly.

The imposing forest, with its heady mixture of filtered green light and birdsong, provided a pleasurable distraction from any discomfort and before long, the houses were creeping back in along the roadside as I approached the awaiting village. Breathless but elated, I dismounted in the heart of the township.

‘Made it!

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My friends Michael and Janet are both keen cyclists who live in the North East of the state in a location perfectly positioned to access many of Victoria’s iconic peaks. Keen to encourage my new-found interest, they had invited me to stay over the Christmas period to try some ‘real climbs’. It was decided that Mt Buffalo, with its consistently steady gradient would be the first on our agenda.

To the uninitiated, it is hard to describe the all-consuming process required to kick in to get oneself to the top of a big hill. Suffice to say that it is all about mastering the mindset and not succumbing to the inevitable despair involved when facing the road rising ahead and beyond the next corner.

Aaggghhhh!

How does one manage to steel the mind, to continue to power the legs, to keep driving the pedals against an increasingly urgent barrage of internal signals screaming STOP, STOP, STOP?

This question must confront all climbing cyclists so I ask, where do you go when called upon to ‘dig deep?’

For me, it is all about song lyrics.  It was on that climb that I learned to keep a really long song playing over in my head, as a distraction to subdue the pain signals until the summit was reached. And the song that helped me over that big Buffalo hump just happened to be ‘American Pie’.  I followed the tune of that marching band right until the final pinch was behind us and my friends and I were joyfully dismounting in front of the coffee cart.

But not done yet, that Chevy loaded with kings, queens, jesters, Lennon, Marx and marching bands continued to drag me towards many other summits over that summer season, drinking whiskey and rye all the way.

It was in late April, during the season of transition when the weakening sunshine is splintered by the cooler air in its wake, that Janet and I decided to have a crack at Mt Donna Buang.  Whilst Donna might sound and look pretty, in my view, she is quite a beast.

Janet had pulled ahead quite early into the climb but I came upon her waiting patiently at a car park a few kilometres short of the summit.  Resisting her suggestion for a comfort stop, I snuck on calculating that with my head-start I might just be in with a chance of reaching the summit before her. The road was getting a bit sharper and meaner and it seemed that my cunning plan was working like a dream when suddenly… damn!..  I was ridden down from behind by a clattering mass of bike and rider as Janet powered past.  I lamented how it appears that she has both climbing endurance and a sprint finish!

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We rested briefly at the top, soaking up the views of the valley in the retreating sunshine. Then, like the shepherds and their flocks of old Europe, we steered ourselves down the mountain towards the lowlands for the winter.

The closing-in days and falling temperatures tend to sort things out a bit on the roads.  The cyclist numbers drop down leaving just the rugged and the rugged up gritting their teeth in the traffic tussle of the daily commute.  Having now promoted myself from a three to a four-season rider, I was proud to count myself amongst these intrepid spirits, as bedecked with lights I flashed along the dark streets. With my climbing legs and mountain-minted confidence, I felt free, intrepid and indomitable.

However, unbeknownst to me amidst all this cycling action, something else was silently and sinisterly going on within my body.  Something was going terribly wrong. Fortuitously, I chanced upon a lump in my body, a discovery that activated a chain of events and found me five days later in a surgeon’s office being told that I had cancer.

CANCER!  How could this be so?

Somewhere beyond shock…distress…disbelief…bewilderment…I now struggled to hold together my absolutely shattered sense of self whilst navigating this new and unfamiliar world. As I was informed of the treatment plan already mapped out for me, I realised that my life was hijacked on a course towards an uncertain destination.  I wondered how I was to reclaim enough of my self to find a way to keep on going and survive?

I have found myself facing certainly the biggest mountain of my life, contemplating what extraordinary measures I can recruit to help me stay on a path that offers no alternative but upwards.  I search to draw my inspiration from something bigger than myself and have turned towards people, particularly those ordinary people who, in confronting and transcending even greater obstacles, have achieved the extraordinary.

For some light in my darkest moments, I seek out the speeches of Martin Luther King Jnr whose actions and oratory truly transformed a country and a generation. Of course, I have my favourite speech, delivered with great prescience just the day before he lost his own life. His words reach deeply into my core and continue to draw me forward when my own humanity feels sorely deficient. For like him, I too have been to the mountaintop and seek to reach there once more and again taste the sweetness of the air that rewards the dogged traveller at the top of that arduous road.3

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