Tommy Simpson rests on Mont Ventoux. The cyclist died (on my birthday – 13th July) while attempting this stage of the Tour de France in 1967. One passes his memorial on the way to the top with only 1 kilometre to go. This fact became particularly salient as I passed it while experiencing chest pain on 29th July 2017.
After a further 500 meters, I had to stop due to the chest pain. Sitting astride the cross bar, gasping for breath, I could look up and see the weather station at the summit which was a mere 500 meters away, including a hairpin bend with a 20% ramp. I had completed this ascent just the day before and so I knew what I was up against. My friend, Sean, was already up at the top no doubt enjoying the views. We had already cycled from Chartres down to the Alps (via Alpe D’Huez, Izouard and Galibier) and therefore had quite some miles in our legs. After about 10 minutes, I cracked on to the summit.
Angina. Chest pain. When coronary arteries become ‘clogged up’ they no longer can deliver enough blood to the heart itself when demand rises for oxygen during exercise. A complete blockage will bring on a heart attack as blood flow becomes occluded resulting in cell death. Angina can be a precursor, a warning, if you like that something is wrong with your heart. Being told by your GP that you might have had a heart attack and being prescribed drugs to address the issue, is a life changer. In my case, scans revealed the extent of the occlusions which meant that I needed an angioplasty with the insertion of a stent to improve blood flow to the heart.
Now I am in need of returning to fitness after a 7 month rest from cycling. This time however, the challenge is very different given the new medical condition. Few of you reading this will be in the same position as I am. You hopefully do not have a heart condition. Before I comment on getting back to fitness, i need to outline the medical bit just so that you are aware so as not to make false comparisons. I am 59, now overweight coming in at 12st 6lbs. I need to take the following for the heart: Clopidogrel (only for 12 months following the angio as a blood thinner), Aspirin (same but now for life), Bisoprolol and Ramipril (to slow the heart and reduce blood pressure) and finally a statin to reduce cholesterol. My resting heart rate is 50, and my blood pressure has been reduced to about 125-75.
The challenge is training using heart rate zones. Normally we can estimate my maximum and threshold heart rate to set up a training plan using something like training peaks.com. Grant (Cycle for Fitness) provides these structured plans using training peaks. A problem is that my heart rate zones have been reduced by 30 bpm by the the NHS’s cardiac rehabilitation team due to the medication I am taking. My new zones are 64-101! This in practice results in a very very slow regime of exercise. You might already know what level of movement will take your heart up to 80-90. believe me, it is not much.
I am now finding cycling to those zones to be a nonsense. It is for me a non starter as far as training goes. The plan now is to complete the 8 week very gentle exercise regime given to me by the medical team before I make plans to whizz up Mont Ventoux.
A lesson here is that we should not under estimate what having coronary artery disease is, the effect of having a stent inserted, the effects of the drugs and the time it will take to recover. I have heard stories of bravado – men rushing back to work only to find fatigue setting in. Honestly, just don’t do it.
At one point in January, before I had seen the cardiac team to set down new heart rate zones, I thought I’d go for a cycle. Feeling great along the flat, I pushed the heart rate up to 135-140. I suddenly felt dizzy and had to stop for 10 minutes. Knowing now that my new upper limit should only be 101, it is not surprising that I felt ‘off’. I have had 1 more episode of dizziness while merely sat at the table.
So, for all you macho types that want to blast away getting fit again..great. Just don’t rush it. Discuss this first with your cardiac rehab team…then access Cycle for fitness to co create a training plan right for you but you must do this with your medical team.
Having a stent, an angioplasty, is not the end of your life on a bike. Well, I hope so because I have plans to return to France. First, I have to lose the weight gained and get fitter. I’ll be posting progress.