‘I've Been Through Hell - But Cycling Saved Me!'
Bikes Etc|April 2017

The horrors of war left Dave Bickel mentally scarred and teetering on the brink – until the day he discovered the simple joy of riding a bike…

David Kenning

In 2010, Dave Bickel reached a crisis point.Caught in a self-destructive spiral of drinking and weight gain, his physical and mental health were in tatters. Furthermore, as he struggled to cope, his relationship with his wife and three kids was deteriorating. He couldn’t go on like this.

His problems had been years in the making. Now managing health and safety for a construction firm, Dave formerly spent 23 years in the Army. ‘I was 18 when I joined the Royal Engineers in November 1983,’ Dave tells us. ‘I was primarily in bomb disposal but finished off in an air assault unit in 2005. I’ve seen active service in many countries including the Falklands, Bosnia, Kosovo, the Gulf…’ But it wasn’t until after his retirement in 2006 that the horrors he had seen really started to haunt him. ‘A few years after leaving the Army, I started getting anxiety attacks, and getting angry with myself and with my family. I was drinking a lot, too. That’s when I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).’

‘I can trace the PTSD back to a particular event. I’d been in Iraq and seen the devastation that’d gone on there, but there was one incident in Kosovo that really stuck in my mind,’ confesses Dave. ‘We were running a refugee camp in Macedonia, just next door to Kosovo. The refugees were held in what we called the Hole for 4-5 days. Once we’d got the refugees set up in tents, myself and a couple of other people were put on first aid cover for 72 hours non-stop. We encountered a woman whose baby – no more than a couple of weeks old – needed attention, so we took them to the Medecins Sans Frontières people. But it was too late. The baby passed away. I was there with the baby, and the mum was sitting in a Land Rover all night, totally out of it with grief. Even today I can’t bear to look at stories on the news of kids suffering or even things like Children in Need.’

Fortunately for Dave, though, he was not left to deal with his torment alone. ‘I was lucky enough to have the support of SSAFA, the Armed forces charity,’ he told Bikes Etc. ‘And the president of the British Legion where I live in Norfolk is the clinical director for Walking With The Wounded and a psychologist, so I got help from him as well.’

HITTING THE ROAD

But it was to be his family who really helped Dave find some inner peace again, especially his son, Joe.

‘About five years ago, I was sitting at the cricket club in Norfolk where we live. I’d been watching Joe play when his friend’s dad mentioned that he’d started a cycling club. Joe just looked at me and said, “You should get a bike and go and ride with them, Dad.” So I thought, “Alright then, I will!” I had been very active. I’d played a lot of football, rugby and cricket in the Army until my back and knees had started to go, but I thought: “I can still ride a bike.”

‘I got a bike on the cycle to work scheme – a Specialized Allez, a nice starter bike. I remember picking it up on a Sunday and thinking, “Yeah, I can do this.” But 38 miles later, I was absolutely hanging out of my hoop! I’d just assumed I’d be able to keep up with people half my age and half my weight…’ Despite this rude awakening, Dave wasn’t deterred. ‘I just set off on this journey,’ he explains. ‘When you suffer from anxiety and panic attacks and the dark days, and you can’t sleep at night, it’s very hard to motivate yourself.’ But with the support of friends and family Dave kept on going. ‘I met a friend who I was in the Falklands with in 83-84. He took me on board, I did a bit of training with him and his partner. And I started to conquer some demons.’

Getting motivated to ride the bike was only half the battle, though. ‘I started riding with a club but I was always wondering what I was going to wear. I had a nice bike, but what am I going to wear? They’re all there in their smart gear but I’m a big lad, I’m 6ft and 20-odd stone, and when I first started riding you couldn’t find any clothing for men my size. I could buy a XXXL Castelli jersey and it would only fit half my chest!’

It’s a problem many of us can relate to as image conscious cyclists, painfully aware how unforgiving Lycra can be. ‘I started off with mountain bike gear,’ Dave reveals, ‘but if you pitch up to a club ride in a baggy T-shirt and shorts, with a pair of trainers, it’s hard to feel really part of it.’

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