by Lindsay Warner

When I first tucked my hands under my armpits and felt a lump last August, I was in the best biking shape of my life. I’d been riding my boyfriend’s wheel all season, getting stronger, faster, and picking up tips and tricks from his racing days. I was just a week away from putting them to use in the iconic Green Mountain Stage Race, a grueling four-day event that climbs up and over Vermont’s steepest paved peaks. I was ready to go. And then I felt the lump.

When you’re 36 years old, no one wants to tell you that you have cancer until they’re absolutely sure. So I raced GMSR. Then Dam Wrightsville CX race. Then Grand Prix of Gloucester, taking second place in a sloppy, muddy race that forced me to keep my mind on the course and off the small, hard bump a few inches from my right armpit.

As the tests piled up — an ultrasound, a biopsy, mammogram, MRI, another ultrasound, surgery — I kept pedaling, until finally the diagnostics — and my racing season — ended on October 30 with my surgeon’s phone call:

“I’m sorry, Lindsay; it’s cancer.”

The only thing I knew about chemotherapy was that it made you sick and bald. I knew next to nothing about radiation or endocrine therapy, but I knew this much about myself: riding a bike made me happy. And I vowed that if I could control nothing else, I’d at least try to stay active through the next five months of treatment.

So once I healed up from two surgeries, I got back on my bike and I rode. A lot. The snow started early and fell constantly in central Vermont, but I didn’t really care — I’d discovered a network of fatbiking trails that some passionate locals groomed regularly, and I had a new Garneau fatbike (the Gros Louis 1) that really ripped. I’d only fatbiked once before, so there was some trial and error involved (no, you really can’t ride in fresh powder, and yes, you really can — and should — run super-low tire pressure if you don’t want to skid out around every corner), but I loved it.

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Chemo started January 7, accompanied by side effects that sometimes made it hard to get out of bed, or to keep up my work as a journalist and copywriter. Some days I couldn’t wait to get a workout in. Other days, I needed Chris to talk me into it, learning to trust him when he pushed me, and to listen when he suggested we head home.

And we had some glorious days, too; a bluebird day Nordic skiing, where we missed a turn and tacked an extra 16 kilometers onto what was supposed to be a 10K day; powder days at the local abandoned ski area; euphoric hours riding snow-covered berms and bumps on local trails. I logged each activity. And when I tallied them up after my last chemo cycle in March, I’d exercised 81 out of 84 days of chemo.

I couldn’t control so many aspects of my treatment: the fatigue, the nausea, losing my taste buds, losing my hair. But the one thing that helped all those side effects was exercise. (Except losing your hair. No amount of cardio will save that.) When I could ride, I felt like myself. Slower, balder, and less hard-charging than before, but still able to tap into the joy that comes from simply turning over the pedals: bike and breathe.

I will finish six weeks of daily radiation treatment on May 10. I ride to treatment as often as I can, and my radiation team has grown accustomed to the clacking of my SPD cleats on the hospital floors, and the mud I sometimes leave behind from riding the steep, windy dirt road to treatment. I hope to ride the Muddy Onion gravel grinder and the Rasputitsa Spring Classic, a sufferfest of a ride in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom — but if I can’t, I’ll keep riding to radiation and tagging along on as many group rides as I can.

I’m not as fast as I was. But every day I can throw a leg over the saddle and pedal forward, it’s one day closer to normal. My road to recovery isn’t paved — right now it’s muddy and riddled with potholes — but I’m still rubber-side-down. And that counts for something.