Author beats his cycle of despair
Author Chris Cleave knew the world of competitive cycling was tough before he wrote his novel ‘Gold’ - but he didn’t know that a ‘method acting’ approach to the sport would lead him to a breakdown.
Cleave, whose debut novel ‘Incendiary’ was made into a film starring Ewan MacGregor and Michelle Williams, had taken on a hugely challenging cycling programme to research the story, which focuses on two British female cyclists fighting for one coveted place in the London Olympics.
Two months into an intensive training regime, on a 120km ride in the pouring rain, he was left sitting on the roadside a gibbering wreck. He explains: “I just completely cracked. I didn’t have the energy to turn my legs around any more and I just found myself in tears. I just couldn’t get my head together.”
A taxi took man and machine home but he adds: “For about a month afterwards I was really ill. I’d over-trained and destroyed my immune system to the point where I didn’t have the energy to fight things any more.
“It was like I’d flown close to the sun and come crashing back to earth. I could hardly walk down the street.”
This ‘method acting’ equivalent of writing saw Cleave, a best seller with ‘Incendiary’ and also ‘The Other Hand’, follow a similar training regime to elite level cyclists for two months. As he got into the second month, things went wrong. “I really started falling apart, not just physically but mentally. I just started to crack. It’s incredibly difficult and painful.”
With a wife and three young children, his methods had a serious impact on family life, even though his nearest and dearest were used to his extensive research for novels.
He explains: “I found myself getting listless and uninterested, getting completely cut off and becoming utterly obsessed with the training. I was very difficult to live with. When the training was going well, I was really elated and when it was going badly I was really morose.
“I managed to convince myself that I was some kind of athletic hero and that even though I was a novelist I was going to become a pro cyclist. I totally deluded myself,” he reflects.
Although he’s learned the hard way about his own limits, Cleave has a new found respect for sports and the Olympic Games in particular.
He says: “Before I wrote ‘Gold’ I was really cynical about the Olympics but the more I got under the skin of it, the more I realised that sport is a beautiful, dangerous and complicated thing. I ended up being hugely positive. When I got sick, I understood the angle I had to take. By that point I understood athletes are more interesting than we give them credit for and their interior battles are psychologically fascinating.”
Taking the point of Rebecca Romero, who won silver in Athens in 2004 for rowing and a cycling gold in Beijing four years later, he explains: “I wanted to find out what it was about her that means winning an Olympic silver was one of the worst rather than one of the best days of her life.”
The good news is that Cleave enjoys his cycling again, after a year out of the saddle.
“After I managed to get a more humble idea of the athlete I could be, I started to enjoy it a lot more,” he says. “I’m a suburban dad, I’m not riding the Tour de France.”
Having said that, the 38-year-old is still putting in the hard yards. This month he’s riding from London to Paris over three days to raise money for Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research.
He was keen to raise money for the charity after a spell researching the subject as a subplot for ‘Gold’, during which he shadowed consultants at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London.
“I don’t take one minute of mine or my family’s health for granted any more. I’d come home from hospital in the evening and hug the kids extra tight. It made me realise that any health and happiness you have is such a fragile state of grace.”
‘Gold’ is available at Book World by Kinokuniya in Dubai Mall.