Riding what cyclists call “the hardest road in the world” in Kazakhstan. Photo courtesy of Derek Boocock.
Derek Boocock, 59, from England, is no stranger to adversity; he’s faced it his entire life. He’s a round-the-world cyclist and in remission from cancer.
Derek’s story begins in the small town of Huddersfield, West Yorkshire. At the age of 15, Derek rode his bicycle to get to and from friends’ houses, school, and just about everywhere else. At 21, Derek joined the British Army and took up mountaineering, eventually leading his regimental climbing team to the summit of Europe’s highest mountain, Mont Blanc.
Throughout his twenties, Derek went from bicycling as transportation to competitive racing. Operating at the extreme edge of the sport, he competed in many Polaris Challenges in the UK and in the Swiss one-day race, the Grand Raid Cristalp – which crosses the Alps from Verbier to Grimentz.
Derek’s successes in cycling took a sledgehammer blow when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2005, leaving Derek with little choice but to step away from competition. However, he didn’t relinquish cycling entirely. “I became a cycle trainer and coach, both in the UK and leading groups in the Alps/Pyrenees for events such as the Marmot and Etape du Tour,” he recalled. In 2007, Derek’s wife of over twenty years, Caroline, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Caroline fought her breast cancer hard, “like a tiger”, according to Derek. Though when the cancer returned in 2009 following remission, it was stage four – terminal. Caroline was given between twelve and eighteen months to live so the couple made a bucket list of ten things they’d do together before Caroline would pass away.
They did the top three things on Caroline’s list: she was baptized, the couple renewed their wedding vows, and finally, holidayed in Scotland. “It was her favourite place in the whole world,” Derek recounted. Caroline passed away just nine weeks following her new prognosis. This sent Derek into a deep, dark depression. For more than two years, a dark cloud hung over Derek. Then in October 2012, Derek’s life began again, anew – when his prostate cancer was discovered to have spread and declared terminal. Upon hearing the news, Derek made a life-changing decision. He would ride his bicycle around the world, until he was no longer able to.
It took three weeks for Derek to sell or give away everything he owned, buy a Surly Long Haul Trucker touring bike, panniers and all the other equipment necessary, and set off, in November 2012 for what he thought would be the last ride of his life. As with every long-distance bicycle tour, there are challenges aplenty and, given Derek’s medical condition, these challenges were compounded. Derek crossed Northern Europe with relative ease, before heading for Africa. Then he hit his first major hurdle: a mugging in Senegal left him badly beaten and without a passport. Though the thieves stole little, no passport meant that Derek had to fly home to get a new one – taking time and a large chunk of his funds.
Wild camping in the mountains of northern China. Photo courtesy of Derek Boocock.
After returning to Africa, new passport in tow, Derek continued his journey onto the Middle East and Southeast Asia. In Tajikistan, on the Pamir Highway, Derek faced yet another setback: a collision with a 4×4 vehicle. The crash left Derek’s bike obliterated and himself in worse shape – several broken ribs, lacerations to his hands, and temporarily blind in one eye. Thankfully, Tajik medical staff were able to care for Derek while his wounds healed and Surly replaced his bicycle. With the help of friends from all over the world, Derek, once healed, was back on the road again.
And so Derek continued on into Southeast Asia, riding to Vietnam. While in Hanoi, he became a minor celebrity. He gave talks and appeared on the English-language TV show Talk Vietnam. Derek’s most treasured memory of Hanoi is that of Liem, a young cancer patient he met who lost his leg to bone cancer. Liem died of cancer in August 2015.
“Having lost his left leg, the disease had spread to his lungs and his prognosis looked grim, yet despite all this, Liem Chu Duc had a zest for life I have rarely seen before – he put my own efforts to speak out about fighting cancer and inspire others to shame. His work with youngsters blighted by this terrible disease was truly astounding and a stark reminder of the difference between my homeland and his. Had he been born in the UK, would he have lost the leg?” Derek said, in a blog post on September 11, 2015.
Derek’s ride continued to Canada, travelling from West to East. Along the way, he experienced incredible hospitality; one man paid for his motel room during a particularly rainy ride. He was even interviewed by CBC Radio in Manitoba. But then the wondrous ride through the world’s second-largest country came to a grinding halt. Derek’s accident happened descending a hill near Rimouski, Quebec on August 15, 2014.
No stranger to long hills, Derek was travelling at a speed of 80km/h, when “with what sounded like a gun going off”, his front tire exploded. Derek careered down the hill; the tarmac scraped inches of skin off his torso, arms, and legs. He recalled the immediate aftermath:
“I knew it was serious as my left arm was in an impossible position – dislocated. I also had severe facial injuries. I have never experienced pain like this (and I have previously broken my hip!) and I think I passed out. I lay at the side of the road trying to signal vehicles with my good arm but it seemed like ages before someone finally stopped. The ambulance crew could not give me anything for the pain and I remember feeling I just wish I had been killed outright. I felt this way afterwards too for quite a long time.”
Derek was taken to hospital where he underwent treatment on his badly dislocated shoulder and a significant head injury. Unfortunately for Derek, pre-existing conditions meant that he was ineligible for Canadian health care coverage. He knew he would have to fly home to England for more extensive treatment. But that would happen in the coming weeks. First, due to the involvement of the media in Derek’s story in the aftermath of his accident, Derek reluctantly became something of a celebrity with the help of his friend, Jean Madore. A local bike shop in Rimouski – Vélo Plein Air – also fixed up Derek’s badly damaged Surly for free. “Their kindness helped stop me from completely falling apart. I owe them so much more than my insufficient gratitude.”
Derek had several remarkable things happen, seemingly all at once. While in Canada, Derek had met a woman named Hilke and, after a while, the pair had fallen in love. In England, much to the astonishment of his doctors, Derek was free of lung cancer and his prostate cancer, while still present, was no longer life-threatening. Along with Derek’s newfound romance and medical prognosis, there would be yet one more incredible discovery: Hilke was pregnant.
Derek and Hilke’s daughter Natascha Grace was born on September 7, 2015, seemingly bringing the last decade of Derek’s life full-circle: from love and hope to pain and loss and back again.
Jack Hawkins is a freelance writer and touring cyclist from New Brunswick, Canada. When he’s not writing up a story, he’s usually on his bike and you can follow along at jackonabike.ca
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