When David Watts sustained a major stroke at the age of 74, it looked like his cycling days were finally over. Even into his 70s he was regularly out on his bike, cycling up to 20,000 miles a year. But after his stroke in 2013 he experienced significant difficulties including dysphagia, right-side paralysis, neuropathic pain and loss of speech – which he never recovered.
Four weeks later his wife Sue could tell from their communications that he wanted to confront his new situation head on, she says, “just as he’d always done for any challenge he thought he could win.”
After 12 weeks he was back home with his physio using an elbow crutch. At 16 weeks he began climbing the steep steps outside their house with the support of his physio and, a month or so later, he decided to walk up a steep footpath with 12 deep steps using just his Zimmer frame. “He did that without telling me,” says Sue.
David riding in a 1960 time trial on the A1 near Worksop © Sue Watts
Despite his love of cycling he had no idea about the possibilities for people like himself with balance and fatigue challenges. Fortunately, his physio happened to mention Sheffield Cycling 4 All at Hillsborough Park, one of over 50 inclusive cycling hubs in the UK.
David at Sheffield Cycling for All © Sue Watts
Sue says: “He discovered within 10 minutes of arrival at the Park that he could pedal one of their cycles. Suddenly, we had identified the key thing we wanted to fight for, getting him back on his own wheels. Within 6 months of sustaining his stroke he was cycling again.”
The search for a bike of his own began a month later. They had a day at Get Cycling in York who were very helpful but none of the many designs he tried there felt quite right. Then Kinetics in Glasgow loaned him a demonstration bike, a recumbent Scorpion that had to be propped up on bricks before he could sit down on it safely. Within a few minutes he was off at speed up the road.
The Scorpion was built to his specifications with all the controls on his left-hand side, a raised seat post, comfortable suspension and a wide range of gears as electric assist was not available in 2013. It folded up and Sue could lift it into the back of their smallish hatchback car.
On Christmas Eve 2013 his new cycle was delivered but on the same day he was admitted to hospital with a pulmonary embolism. The next day he was given a photo of the ‘Christmas present to himself’ that was waiting at home. Three weeks later he was riding it in the local park with their grandchildren.
David in his local park with grandchildren and new cycle © Sue Watts
Sue continues “Again he began to build up his stamina and strength, with a twice-weekly local 1.5 mile circuit mostly on wide pavements. He would ride up to 9 miles per session with me providing motorised back-up at 4mph. Our petrol consumption rocketed but he made friends with every dog and small child on the way!”
Sue supporting David from her car © Sue Watts
And so his cycling continued, with a different rhythm to his earlier years, but no less enjoyable.
“You know he couldn’t wait for Thursdays riding with Sheffield Cycling 4 All at Hillsborough with the freedom to explore the park on his own. This suited me as I was able to make new friends in the group.
“He carried an ID bracelet and information on his bike flag explaining that his stroke had left him mute. My contact details were there too if he got into difficulties while temporarily out of my sight.”
David in 2017 on Sheffield’s City Ride, supported by his oldest son © Sue Watts
David using his cycle as a mobility aid © Sue Watts
Sadly David passed away in late 2017.
Sue says: “The challenge then was what to do with his bike. I didn’t want to let go of it but despite not really seeing myself as a cyclist since the 1950s, I decided to return to Hillsborough.
Sheffield Cycling 4 All welcomed her back and with their friendship and practical help Sue “re-discovered the freedom of cycling for myself, the joy of feeling wind in my hair.”
In July 2018, she was invited by the group – together with four generations of the Watts family – to celebrate David’s life and achievements by riding in his memory with Sheffield Cycling 4 All at the annual Sheffield City Ride, a cycling festival where roads are closed to motor traffic. She continues to ride with the group, maintaining the physical and mental wellbeing benefits it offers. She volunteers with them too, raising awareness of cycling for people post stroke at outreach sessions.