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  • Sharon Laws: Defying Convention

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    The determined former Olympian on coping with chemotherapy and making the most out of life

    Photographs: Benedict Campbell
    Sharon Laws

    Waiting for Sharon Laws in a car park. A small rider in a white and black long sleeve jersey darts across the rear-view mirror.

     

    She has already been out for an hour, dodging showers and early season tourists in the picture postcard Cotswold town where she now lives. She’s often out, she says, either riding or on walks through the local lanes, listening to her ‘teach yourself Spanish’ audiobooks and letting the attempted pronunciations blend in amongst the birdsong, breeze and bleating sheep. It gives her personal space, time to breath.

     

    Sharon Laws is no stranger to early morning rides. It was by cramming in a couple of hours on the bike with the local groups each morning before rushing to her nine-to-five as an environmental consultant in Melbourne, Australia, that she set the wheels in motion for her most unlikely professional road career.

     

    Then, just seven months after she finished second in the Australian national championships road race in January 2008 at the age of 33, she was in Beijing with a Team GB tracksuit and a supporting role in Nicole Cooke’s gold medal triumph. She was also recovering from a broken fibula sustained while filming in Wales with the BBC, but like many anecdotes from Laws’ career, that’s another story.

    Sharon Laws

    Balancing a career with her off-road racing prowess before that, Laws is nothing if not determined: determined to make a career out of riding at a time when women’s cycling was very different from today, determined to defy convention, and determined to make the unlikely become the possible.

     

    Determination makes the change from working in South Africa, Australia, Zimbabwe, Uganda and the UK for the likes of the UN, Rio Tinto, Kew Gardens, various NGOs and the Civil Service to professional cycling, riding an Olympics, winning a World Championships medal and two national road titles.

     

    Determination makes the most of splitting her recent years between Girona and South Africa, often disappearing off on long solo hikes into the wilderness, once quickly calling off mountain rescue after descending into a little town in the Pyrenees, picking up mobile signal for the first time in days and discovering a concerned friend had called them out (“I had to explain to her, there is no mobile reception up there!”)

     

    Now, determination is helping her ride upwards of 60km per day while undergoing chemotherapy. Determination is looking on the bright side of giving up her long-awaited retirement, returning to the UK for treatment and living with her mother in a little one person retirement flat in the Cotswolds, doing yoga on the living room floor. “It’s a bit like bikram yoga cos my mum has the heating turned up so high!” she smiles.

    Sharon Laws

    We’re in definite hill country, Sharon Laws’ home turf since she’s barely five foot tall and built for climbing, though the Queen of the Mountains in the inaugural Women’s Tour and winner of the Cape Epic mountain bike race has a laugh and a voice that suggests someone double her size. Zipping left and right down a myriad of narrow lanes, we roll up and down over the soft hills and down into the valleys, villages and fords, losing all sense of direction except for the constant westerly spring wind and driving drizzle. Laws loves exploring and stumbling across the little quirks of village life in rural England. With her fold up rucksack in her rear jersey pocket she buys vegetables from a little cart on the roadside along with locally roasted coffee from a café in Stow-on-the-Wold. Up the road is a local distillery, although the thought of drinking has recently lost its appeal. When her former teammate Emma Pooley recently came to visit, the two diminutive climbers strolled down the Cotswold Edge to Stanway, filled their bags with apples and walked back up several kilos the heavier.

     

    Professional cyclists are used to flirting with ill health. It’s not always a healthy job, travelling and racing. Laws saw nothing particularly out of the ordinary about a succession of colds and a period of sluggish recovery in 2016. It was just her age, or something tropical she’d picked up camping over the winter in South Africa, or just bad luck, she thought.

     

    However a check up with the team doctor between RideLondon and the Tour of Norway at the start of August – she was only in the UK because her team didn’t arrange a flight back to Girona between the two races – referred her for further tests. After several biopsies and a full body scan she learned she had stage four cervical cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes, necessitating surgery and in October the start of a six-month course of chemotherapy.

    Sharon Laws

    It was as improbable an about-turn as anything in Laws’ life. She had an active lifestyle, she didn’t smoke and she drank little. Her only addiction was to exercise, to feeling fit, and to living a life outdoors. “I just didn’t feel right, and I couldn’t figure out what exactly was wrong. I could tell it was something, I wasn’t riding as well. But it wasn’t anything I thought of, I mean… cancer at 42…”

     

    With just one six letter word her plans vanished. Rather than travel and explore a new world of opportunity opened by casting off the shackles of the pro’s life, she returned to the UK to make regular, three-week visits to a hospital in Cheltenham. There she went to sit in a tiny room with patients in their sixties and seventies; so much older than her that during one of her first visits her mother was mistaken for the patient and she was mistaken for her carer. From 8:30am to 4:00pm she was imprisoned in her chair, hooked up to a machine that slowly pumped poison into her body. Forget the challenge and grim endurance of racing and training.

     

    “It’s horrible, I hate it,” she says. “If I make myself tired in the days leading up to it, I find I can sleep through it.”

     

    Cycling is Laws’ salvation. Building back up in the wake of the first few days following a chemotherapy session, she clocks two hours a day in the first week before riding more often and for longer distances. Besides helping her sleep through treatment, the bike gives her the personal space she craves in her condensed world. The hours spent in the fresh air, thinking of nothing in particular but the sound of the wind in the trees, the quaint cottages and country houses and the animals peering through the thickets; being on two wheels gives her back her life.

     

    “There have been studies that have shown that exercise [during chemotherapy] actually reduces fatigue. And I’m never really pushing myself, my heart rate doesn’t go above 125 bpm.

     

    “I’m happy just riding my bike. It’s easy to get down if you don’t do anything, if you don’t get out, you don’t get fresh air.”

     Sharon Laws

    Inside the café in Stow-on-the-Wold and Laws has already picked up some coffee beans and said hello to a dachshund puppy belonging to a local. Sunshine pierces the gloom and the warm rays of spring begin to bake dry the fine honey-coloured splattering of grit onto frames and into fabric. She pulls out a freezer bag full of date and walnut energy bites – a recipe of Emma Pooley’s, who we establish would make an excellent contestant on the Great British Cycling Bake-Off (you heard it here first). Yet to make it into energy bars is turmeric, although not for want of trying: Laws has been experimenting with the spice after she learned of its purported cancer fighting and chemo-alleviating properties.

     

    One of the toughest aspects that Laws has had to grapple with is that cancer had not made her feel particularly unwell. Before she knew she had it, cancer wasn’t responsible for the fatigue, the nausea, the loss of appetite or the loss of her hair. Yet cancer is a thief. It steals possibilities. It steals opportunity. It turns the everyday into the impossible. Laws avoids public transport, busy public places, the theatre, the cinema and the gym, where the risk of picking up an infection with her weakened immune system is too high.

     

    Cancer doesn’t stick to routine; often Laws’ white blood cell count has been too low to cope with the drugs and her treatment has been delayed. Yet the treatment still means travelling far is out of the question. When her course is over, cancer will limit her horizons to the boundaries of the European Health Insurance Card. Even her voracious appetite for reading has for the moment been dulled by the regular chemical cocktail she has to consume.

     

    Cancer threatens to overshadow a glittering career at the top of her game, both inside and outside cycling, although Laws hopes her story can raise awareness of the disease and encourage women to have regular smear tests. Cancer has a wicked and twisted sense of humour. Laws told herself that she wouldn’t dip into savings during her time as a pro rider but splashed out at the end of last year on an iPhone and a coffee machine, the latter taking up a vast chunk of space in her mum’s kitchen. Alas, glittering machine primed and ready to go, cancer has taken away much of her appetite for coffee, too.

     

    “Often I wouldn’t treat myself to things, but I wish now I had been a bit less frugal…” she rues.

     

    Drinks back in her mum’s flat. A glass of water isn’t just poured from the tap; a freshly cut wedge of lime is dolloped in a highball before a chilled bottle of water from the fridge is put in a soda stream and a jet of carbonated water is summoned forth. It’s much more environmentally friendly than buying bottle after bottle of fizzy stuff from the shops, she explains.

     

    Steve Hewlett, the journalist and broadcaster who recently documented his fight with cancer on Radio 4 and in the Observer, remarked that his circumstances let celebrate the simple things in life: spending time with family and friends, eating together even if Christmas dinner tasted like ‘wet cardboard’, and no doubt if he had a soda stream, drinking sparkling water with fresh lime might have had a mention too. His frank record of his battle with the disease before passing away in February – its idiosyncrasies, its cruelty, its humour and its unpredictability – has been a source of inspiration and comfort to many, Laws included.

     

    “I’m definitely more chilled now,” she says. “Things that were important to me definitely aren’t now… I used to just worry about loads of stuff, but I don’t any more.”

    Sharon Laws

    With a disease that is currently treatable but not curable, her own future is uncertain. This summer Laws will continue her consultancy work, commentate on the Women’s Tour and blog for Voxwomen, and continue her search for a small cottage in the Cotswolds. Whatever life offers, however unlikely, Laws is determined to make the most of it. She is determined to make enjoying it possible.