Bicycle touring after cancer? Would I still be able to go it alone – drop everything, pack my bags, hit the road for months at a stretch, cycling thousands of kilometres in the process?
The prospect of getting back in the saddle and performing such a formidable feat anytime soon seemed seriously bleak during those first few weeks after melanoma wide excision surgery.
Riding a bike would be a tough and daunting proposition for quite a while yet – here I was with ten stitches running down my left shin and a slit elliptical four inch wound needing several months to seal tight and strong enough to bear the strain and rigour of long distance cycling.
But with melanoma it’s not just about the physical recovery from surgery.
Surgical wounds heal pretty fast and in a matter of weeks a scar is all that’s left.
It’s what goes on inside your head – the gnawing fear of the cancer coming back someday who knows when – that needs to be dealt with first before a full recovery can be achieved.
Dermatologists and plastic surgeons will remove a cancerous lesion and reconstruct the surgery area in order to minimise the possibility of any detrimental physiological and aesthetic impact in the long term.
They will then follow up your case with routine visits for a minimum period of five years if all goes well and there are no evident signs of local recurrence or metastasis.
However, crucial as their role is, I do believe that an equally crucial role has to be played out by the patient.
And the most critical thing to do – however cliched this might sound – is to keep positive about the chance of a full recovery and to build on this hope by doing things everyday that make you believe you shall pull through fine in the end.
Cycling helped me to recover my inner locus of control after cancer.
Seven weeks after my wide excision surgery I rode my Dahon folding bike for the first time.
Then I got to work with rebuilding the physical endurance and mental stamina I’d need to cycle faraway from Malta and my brush with cancer.
But I was cautious and did not overdo it all at one go.
Best to step up the process and lengthen my journeys incrementally, increasing the number of cycled kilometres each time –
Early November 2015 – 400 kilometres across storm racked southeastern Sicily only three months after surgery.
December 2015 / January 2016 – 900 kilometres across Sicily’s Mediterranean coastline plus multiple forays into the frigid, overcast interior, climbing ten percent gradients up 1000 metre hills all the way up to Buccheri on Christmas Day.
April 2016 – 600 kilometres across Southern Sicily in just seven days, visiting Agrigento, Montallegro, Portopalo di Capo Passero, Noto Antica and Palazzolo Acreide.
But all of these journeys were short and carried out in low to moderate UV index levels.
Could I now possibly hope to cycle solo across the full north to south length of the Sicilian interior during mid-July?
From the port town of Pozzallo, located on Sicily’s southeastern Mediterranean coastline, to Enna, then north to the majestic hilltop towns of Leonforte and Nicosia, finishing my journey at San Stefano di Camastra on the Tyrrhenian coastline.
Just like the years before cancer struck.
Hard enough to cycle west from Pozzallo, along the Mediterranean coastline, in the direction of Portopalo di Capo Passero, then north along the mostly flat Ionian coast to Siracusa, Catania, Taormina, ending the ride in Messina – almost 300 kilometres in the sweltering heat.
Opting for this coastal route – graced as it is with its numerous villages to kick back and restock on food and drinks – would still have been no pushover in the torrid summer months.
But abandoning the mild contours and frequent pit stops of the coast and taking on instead a four hundred kilometre trek through the vastly less frequented rugged interior, with nowhere to stop and resupply for as many as thirty or forty kilometres at a stretch on the remotest of routes, might even be considered by many to be total cuckoo.
Most cyclists shy away from the arduous challenge of tackling the interminable sequence of harsh, steep gradients across the barren, sparsely populated Sicilian hinterland, preferring instead the reassuring security of cycling along the coast, through Siracusa, Catania, and the length of the Taormina Riviera.
Shun the interior and stick to the coast if you do want to play it safe.
But then you’ll miss meeting the golden raking rays of a magical mountain sunrise as you ride across breathtaking high altitude terrain at the break of dawn.
And you’ll miss hurtling along zero trafficked switchback roads plummeting down into the chill shadows of forest canopied rift valleys.
Or ever experience just how silent and serene a starlit night can feel – stop dead on the road, switch out the bike lights and gaze at the stars and you’ll feel thankful for having escaped the maddening droves of tourists plaguing the coast.
Eight days after scudding out of Valletta aboard the Virtu Ferries eight hundred passenger, forty knot flagship catamaran, Jean de La Valette, I cycled across a 1200 metre high mountain pass – the highest point on the serpentine Strada Statale 117 Centrale Sicula road straddling the westernmost perimeter of the Parco Nazionale dei Nebrodi.
What a night to remember!
I was cycling at night most of the time, ending my journeys real early in the day so that I could be out of the sun by 8 – 9 a.m. at the latest – you sure can’t afford hanging out in the sun with UV levels dangerously high after having survived skin cancer.
That night I cycled out of Nicosia at 3 a.m.
A stiff twenty kilometre slog into the foothills of the Appenine mountain range ensued, with the road soaring five hundred metres clear from Nicosia’s confusing maze of cobbled streets lined with crumbling derelict dwellings to a wilderness of barren shrub plains backed by vast tracts of deciduous oak forest.
Switch off the bike lights and dive into night.
Hills and valleys enshrouded by darkness save for the flickering twinkle of a slumbering village’s street lamps far off into the distance.
Incandescent glow of a zooming solitary vehicle’s headlamps as it plunges down a tortuous, snaking path into ravines blotted out black.
Thirty-two millimetre all terrain bicycle tyres crunching up loose gravel on asphalt.
Soporific flowing rhythm of cicadas busy chirping.
Sheepdogs raising the alarm, shattering night with a guttural cacophony of lugubrious wails.
I keep on cycling as fast as I can never once stopping for as long as the howling sounds threateningly close.
Turn on the handlebar bike lights to full power – just shy of 2000 lumens – and pedal like hell and stand ready for snarling dogs to rush out into the road as they did a week ago in the blacked out valley between Enna Bassa and Leonforte.
Thank God, not tonight – the dogs stay put and never once step into the road.
But I never fully relax my strung out nerves till first light and what a spectacle it is!
At first there’s nothing – just a sheer solid sheet of black cloaking the land.
Cycling blind save for the twenty odd metres of lit up tarmac straight ahead.
Either side of the road there’s no light, no distinct shapes, only a solid boundary of black dented ever so slightly each time I swivel the handlebar to right or left and revealing a spotlit tangle of overgrown weeds, thorn bushes, leafless tree stumps stunted and shrivelled by the scourging summer heat.
Then all at once everything changes. Night dissolves into day and hills, valleys, mountains are instantly revealed by the sudden vanishing of an impenetrable pall of darkness straight out of the abyss.
How could I not help wondering in such a moment that I’d never have seen such magical dawn light, and witnessed its warm caress spreading across glowing amber fields now set on fire, had it not been for melanoma?
Melanoma – surely the hardest of my life’s experience so far – leading me on to this magical moment in time here alone in this light with all of the land to myself.
How could I not have felt hopeful of putting cancer behind me once and for all after having cycled through all this?
Eight weeks later I cycled back to Sicily from Bari. The worst of the summer heat had by now receded, but it was still far too risky to cycle all day as I used to do before being diagnosed with melanoma.
Once again, I cycled mostly at dawn and dusk and night, slipping out of the sun’s reach as much as I could.
But always keeping in mind and heeding the repeated ominous warning of locals, I avoided entering or leaving the big cities in the dead of night.
This time round I did not cycle the entire north to south span of the Sicilian interior but stuck to the Ionian coast at first cycling out of Messina and stopping for a two day break at Fiumefreddo di Sicilia before moving on to Catania.
Catania’s lungomare next – derelict and looking pretty miserable with the end of the high season – then back into the Sicilian interior fifteen kilometres south of Catania city centre.
This was the only day during my entire 2000 kilometre return journey across Sicily, Calabria and Basilicata that I kept on going for fourteen hours at a stretch without stopping at any one point to shelter from the sun – very little sun that day and I was ever so close several times to being drenched by the torrential end of August thunderstorms gripping most of eastern Sicily.
150 kilometres in one day departing Fiumefreddo di Sicilia at 5.30 a.m. and cycling into Ragusa Ibla at 8. 15 p.m.
My adventure was almost over – in ten weeks I had cycled solo by night across Southern Italy, embarked Jadrolinija’s M/V Dubrovnik at Bari and trekked from Bari to Trebinje and Medjugorje before returning to Italy via Mostar and the Croatian Adriatic coastroad.
Plenty of time to reflect and consider what I had achieved on this journey as I hung around Ragusa Ibla for the next five days.
And I couldn’t help thinking that had I not tried I would never have known just how far I could have gone. This had turned out to be my most painful bicycle journey ever. No doubt about that. Cycling at night for weeks on end wreaked havoc with my sleeping cycle and I was getting far too little sleep on most days.But I knew all along that this pain would not last. It was the extent of what I achieved that would endure forever in my mind.
Throughout this journey I found myself believing more and more in what I could do if only I reached out to do it even if it took the maximum of painful effort.
I visited places – Monterosso, Enna, Siracusa, Catania, Messina, Fiumefreddo – I had already been to several times during previous solo bicycle journeys.
But I had never seen these places the way I had just seen them on this final journey.
Because of melanoma I consistently avoided being on the road during the peak hours of day preferring night for that purpose – a hopelessly insane strategy insofar as safeguarding a proper, healthy sleeping rhythm as well as maintaining a decent regard for my personal safety especially since I was travelling solo.
Many times I got acutely disheartened and almost lost hope several times in completing my journey. I also required emergency hospitalisation after collapsing from near heat stroke in Bosnia and was hit by an overtaking van when cycling back to Sicily along the Tyrrhenian coastline close to Villa San Giovanni.
But I never gave up completely and trusted in heaven above and in myself to keep on moving.
I kept trusting and believing that I could still carry through with my dreams even after having been through cancer.
I saw places as I had never seen them before. Such magical light! Such natural beauty!
I doubt I’ll ever ride again through Italy and the Balkans in summer.
This final journey was all there was left to do in this part of the world during the hottest months and I did it with the help of heaven above.
All Text and Photographs Copyright (c) David Bugeja 2016