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A World Class Cyclist- and Haemophiliac!

I recently read Alex Dowsett’s fascinating biography Bloody Minded. It starts out with Alex’s attempt on the hour cycling record in 2015 at the Manchester velodrome. He makes you feel what it is like to go round and round in circles for an hour, in an uncomfortable position, while consistently putting out prodigious amounts of power. He also describes how the pain kept increasing until he finally got in a state where he was detached from it. This was enjoyable but dangerous reading for me, inspiring the part of me that likes to push really hard.

Only after the story of this attempt is complete does he let us know he was born with haemophilia, and is the only elite pro athlete in any sport with this condition. Haemophilia is also spelled hemophilia, but I am using the British spelling in honor of Alex, who is from Great Britain. The remainder of the book takes us back to his childhood coping with the disease, how he got into cycling, and his career on the world cycling tour, which included finishing the Tour de France and winning stages on two separate occasions at the Giro d’Italia. He was also British National time trial champion six times, and won a gold medal in the time trial at the Commonwealth Games. In addition to being a time trialling specialist, Alex was also an exceptional lead-out rider for sprinters, and gives an inspiring description in the book of what that is like. The story of his pro-career is not all happy, as he had problems with management on some of his teams.

But his career culminated with another valiant attempt at the hour record. This time he did not have much financial support from the pro team he was riding for at the time, so he and his wife Chanel exhausted themselves with arranging sponsors and logistics. The attempt, along with his entire career, was an inspiring story of overcoming adversity.

I also learned a lot about haemophilia from this book. The bodies of people with this condition cannot manufacture factor VIII, the last critical step in the blood clotting process. By the time Alex was a child, doses of factor VIII were available but they were manufactured from blood from blood banks. Unfortunately there was contamination in the banks at this time, including HIV and hepatitis-c, and recipients of blood transfusions in general and factor VIII got infected. Fortunately for Alex, his physician was conservative in administering factor VIII so he never had this problem. By the time he was cycling in earnest, safe artificially-produced factor VIII was available so he could take preventive doses of it before events. The story of how his parents managed keeping him safe and healthy but also encouraged activity is another inspirational part of this book. Alex continues this legacy of encouraging children with his condition through the charity Little Bleeders.

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