Cycling for 201 kilometres over river valleys and with 11,000 feet [3353 m] of Pyrenean ups and downs thrown in, albeit through stunningly beautiful scenery in France, would likely leave anyone with aches and pains. But, it was Brian Twohig’s aches and pains that led him to take part in the 2003 Líetape de Tour; a sanctioned bicycle ride on one of the Tour de France mountain segments, which takes place on a rest day in the middle of the famed race.
As a young boy, growing up in Cork, Ireland, and then Toronto, Brian was always active, climbing trees, building forts and only returning home when he was hungry. “High school sports were there at the boarding school I went to,” he says, “we played sports seven days a week." Over the years, his love of skiing led to a job as part of a ski patrol in Ontario, and he became an avid rower.
Brian’s physical activities went hand in hand with his studies. He qualified as a teacher and accepted a position at a Montreal high school. His class consisted of 13-17-year-old students who, he says, didn’t fit in with the other students. Nonetheless, he was determined all his students would pass their exams every term – he taught Latin!
“I told them they were all going pass,” smiles Brian, and they did.
Encouraged by his success with the students in Montreal, Brian went to York University, where he received an honours degree with a specialty in psychology. Later, he read for his master’s degree in Edmonton, and his teaching career took him to Ottawa, where he set up a secondary program in the Royal Ontario Hospital Psychiatric area. Further work saw Brian involved with setting up learning assistance centres for those with learning disabilities, and a unit within high school for autistic adolescents.
For a while, Brian and his family moved to Australia, but eventually returned to Canada and decided to live in Victoria. It’s here that his daughter started rowing and Brian, always a keen rower, coached at a local rowing club. In 1992, he was awarded Coach of the Year for Women’s Crews in Canada. Life was busy and Brian just couldn’t fit everything in so, while he continued rowing himself, he gave up the coaching.
Activity-wise, a big change happened in the late '90s when Brian’s youngest daughter asked him to join her in a fundraising bike ride out of Parksville. He’d been thinking about getting a bike and borrowed one for a couple of weeks.
“I fell in love with cycling,” he says. “When I was out riding it struck me, at this point, the world is so simple I am just a cyclist, life couldn’t be simpler.” Being in the moment and being active was like a form of meditation for Brian. “That got me hooked,” he laughs, “and I joined the Sidney Velo Club and have ridden with them ever since.”
But, life hit a snag in the late '90s when Brian was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. At first, he thought the stiffness in his hands was because of his rowing, and thereafter followed many visits to the doctor and many tests. Brian tried to avoid medication, so, after his teaching, he’d go to the gym and work out, “if I didn’t, I would feel it in my joints,” he explains.
In the meantime, Brian was working long hours renovating a house. He recalls being “locked up” with arthritis for 10 days to two weeks when, sometimes, he’d be unable to get out of bed and would fall to the floor and heave himself up gradually by using his elbows.
A rheumatologist put Brian on one of the standard medications, but over the next nine years or so, the symptoms became worse, “flare ups” would last longer.
“When it was really bad, I couldn’t hold a water bottle or ride my bike,” he recalls.
He cut back on his teaching load, eventually got rid of the house he was renovating and tried to push through it.
“I’d swim and do anything just to get moving again and, when possible, I’d get on my bike ride again,” he says.
At this point, something, he says, just hit him, “some kind of attitude I brought to play in sports - to put my head down and keep on pushing. I didn’t spend a lot of time feeling bad about myself.”
The previously very active Brian recalls a poignant time when his daughter moved and had bought a new couch.
“We went to pick it up and I couldn’t do anything. Me, who was always been strong and capable, and now I was watching my daughter and her girlfriends moving this great big couch,” he says.
But, he kept teaching, part time, and would hobble to work just to keep moving. He says he needed to move, since, after lying dormant all night, the arthritis was always worse in the morning.
Brian’s retirement in 2003 was partially caused by his rheumatoid arthritis. Sometimes, he would be symptom-free and it was during one of these respites that a fellow cyclist was talking about the Líetape de Tour, where a mountainous stretch of the Tour de France would be open to non-competitors. This piqued Brian’s interest and he registered. “As soon as I got my ticket, my arthritis flared up!” he laughed. But, by the time ride came around, he was able to take part.
Attributing his new lease on life in recent years to a new medication, Brian’s activities increased to include near annual travel ventures where he took on some of the most challenging competitive cycling routes in France, Italy and Spain. His latest exploit is Le Mont Ventoux, the highest point in Provence at 1,912 metres, which he undertook last year, along with a few cycling colleagues. “I am built as a rower,” he laughs when looking at a photograph of him and his teammates, “but all that aside, I love the challenge of it and the beauty of it.”
Although he claims not to be an expert on the clinical aspects of arthritis, he says he is an authority on how to live and deal with the disease. “People think it is an old people’s disease, but it affects young people too,” Brian says. “[My form of arthritis] is an autoimmune disorder, and when I became aware of that, I was my own advocate and I was persistent in knowing what is right for me, and I have been able to find people and work with people who have done the right things for me,” he says.
Brian encourages anyone who feels they have any symptoms of arthritis to be their own persistent advocate in seeking diagnosis and treatment.
Facing mountains, both health-wise and by way of his cycling choices, is nothing new to Brian and, true to form, he will tackle another peak this year: cycling in Abruzzi, Italy, east of Rome on the Adriatic side and, naturally, in the mountains.
In the meantime, he’s taking French at the University of Victoria, volunteering at the Belfry Theatre, leading a Spin Class at the Y, spending time with his three grandchildren, indulging his love of music and reading and is thinking about “doing something professional” with his voice.
MARCH 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER ISLAND
The Arthritis Society www.arthritis.ca
Sidney Velo Cycling Club www.sidneyvelo.ca
Tour de France www.letour.fr
Brian’s travel Blog http://www.travelblog.org/Bloggers/RAcyclist/
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