Meet our members: Alex Needs

Alex in December 2022 on his e-MTB on a ‘Dirty Santa’ ride
Covid has faded from the news but 1 in 50 people in the UK have it according to the latest findings. While around two million people, like Cycling UK member Alex Needs, have something worse: long Covid. He talks about how it affects his cycling

I’m five days into my second Covid infection. I’ve had four days of temperatures over 102°F and now a day of feeling like I’ve been beaten up. There are two loaded touring bikes sitting in the garage ready to ride onto a ferry to Holland for a visit to my cousin, a trip that won’t happen until next year.

The first time I caught Covid was in March 2020. I was a fit, healthy 46-year-old. Following that infection I never quite recovered. I have long Covid.

I am a lifelong cyclist. My earliest memory, aged five, is the time I first rode without stabilisers. When I moved out of London to the Surrey/Hampshire borders in the Noughties, I joined local mountain biking groups. Before long I was entering MTB races and events like the Gorrick series, the Bear Bones 200, the Pedalhounds Enduro series, and numerous Dorset Dirt Dashes.

In 2017 I cycled the South Downs Way in a day with two other masochists. We picked a heatwave and nearly died. But we did it!

That was then. Since March 2020 I’ve not been quite right. After the initial Covid infection, and three months of furlough lying around in the glorious lockdown sunshine, I managed to get back to full-time work. I lead what appears to be a normal life. Yet I can’t cycle far without triggering what is unofficially known as the long Covid hangover (more officially: post-exertional malaise or PEM).

It’s a feeling somewhere between jet lag and a stinking hangover, which kicks in a day or two after the ride and lasts anywhere between two hours and two months. Cycling now makes me ill.

There is still little information about the mechanisms behind long Covid, or indeed PEM. Back in 2020/21 there was nothing. All I knew is that, while I had the initial energy to ride for 60 miles across the Surrey Hills, I would then get ill and be barely able to work, let alone be a husband or father.

Thankfully I came across two resources that gave me sanity and a little hope. The first, the Long Covid Support for Endurance Athletes Facebook group, is a no-nonsense collection of previously fit and driven people trying to make sense of the latest research and understand the condition.

Members are permitted to freely moan once a week (Friday), which keeps the group from wallowing in despair. There is a kind of Blitz spirit among people who used to spend hours sweating though mud, rain and the pain barrier but now find it difficult to get to the shops.

The other resource is a chap called Gez Mendinger, a long Covid sufferer and (now) ex-runner who creates informative videos and undertakes research among various long Covid groups for his YouTube channel. As it’s a generally invisible condition, knowing how others are getting on has been of great emotional support.

I’ve managed to adapt my riding and lifestyle so I can still enjoy my sport. Riding multiple days is impossible so I always factor in rest days. I travel to London for work a few times a month and bought a folding bike so I can slot in small rides to and from sites around the city.

To allow me to cycle with my friends, I’ve bought an Orbea Rise. It’s a lightweight e-bike that offers a lower level of assistance than most e-mountain bikes. It means I can manage my energy output while riding to ensure I don’t overdo it.

It has been a game changer both mentally and physically. The combination of an improved lifestyle and the e-bike means that I’ve been able to ride without the PEM, which has been glorious.

Over the past three years I contemplated giving up cycling a couple of times. I hope it doesn’t come to that. For now I’ll carry on hoping and try to slowly improve my health. For all the damage long Covid has caused, it has given me a healthier lifestyle, a better understanding of myself, and a good excuse to go to bed early.

More info

The April/May 2022 issue of Cycle features a Knowhow article giving advice on returning to cycling after a milder Covid infection. You can download the PDF.

For NHS advice visit Your Covid Recovery.