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The loneliness of the long-distance cyclist: James Golding in the place where he is happiest - in the saddle.
Dream On

James Golding: From Deathbed to World Record

  • Sebastian Ring
  • July 8, 2020

James Golding is a survivor. He has survived two tumors, depression, and a collision with a truck. He's been living for cycling ever since. The seven-day world record holder's latest goal: To become the first Briton to win the infamous Race Across America.


"If a dream doesn't come true immediately, it doesn't mean it will never come true. Sometimes you have to earn your dream first," James Golding once told the Daily Express. His own dream was shattered in April 2020. For now. The Race Across America 2020 is cancelled. James Golding will not be able to win the world's toughest endurance bike race this year as he had hoped to be the first Briton to do so.

But what does such a disappointment mean to someone who eleven years ago was given a chance of survival of just five percent by doctors? Who survived two cancers, depression and a crash with a truck?
Nothing. A shrug. James Golding keeps pedaling. He'll just win this race in 2021 instead.

Grapefruit-sized Abscess

Flashback to November 2008: Severe back pain. Visit to the doctor. Diagnosis: cancer. A tumor with a diameter of 11.5 cm, the size of a grapefruit. It is stuck between spine, kidney and intestine. Not operable. The only possible treatment is high-dose chemotherapy. The consequences: Clinical nutrition. Inflammation. Weight loss of almost 40 kg. Emergency operation in March 2009. Two weeks of artificial coma. One month in intensive care.

Hardly any of the doctors believe he'll survive. Golding can no longer walk, move his legs, lift his head.

But he can wiggle his toes. He can still do that. "At that time, my motto in life was 'One step at a time", remembers the Briton featuring in the Red Bull Documentary »The man who refuses to die«. The then 28-year-old learns again to lift his head, move his legs, get up, go to the toilet. "If I hadn't been so young and fit, the doctors would have given up on me," he says today.

The long-suffering Brit who wants to conquer America: comeback wonder James Golding from Rugby.
The long-suffering Brit who wants to conquer America: comeback wonder James Golding from Rugby.
Image credit: Red Bull Media House

Restart after Recovery

Two months after the operation, he was discharged from the hospital. In July of 2009, the doctors tell him that the cancer has been beaten. But he knows that nothing will ever be the same again. «Before that, I worked in real estate and as a plasterer. I was very materialistic. Today, I wouldn't like the person I was back then anymore», he recapitulates.

In his search for a new meaning in life, chance lends a helping hand: a bicycle stands around on his property and brings back memories: He loved mountain biking in his youth. He gets into the saddle and rides eight kilometers around the local reservoir. «When I felt the wind around my nose, I felt alive again», he says.

James Golding has not had an easy life. As a child, he hated school, collected reprimands, had no friends. He started skipping school - and preferred to ride his bike: «I got my first mountain bike when I was eleven. It was the first time I felt real freedom.» He left school at 14. His innate stubbornness told him that he would make it. «The grown-ups, on the other hand, all said, 'You'll never make it. You'll achieve nothing.» But at 22, he had his own house, a big car, money.

Not real happiness, as he realizes after his cancer. He found a new fulfilment in cycling. He rides around the reservoir twice. He rides two laps and then goes to his mother who lives 16 km away. One step after the other.

From West to East - As a Fundraising Campaign

Golding gets fitter and fitter. In November 2009, he sets himself an ambitious goal: he wants to ride right across the USA. 5,600 km from Los Angeles in California to Miami in Florida. In 34 days. His goal: to raise 100,000 Pounds for the Macmillan Cancer Support. He wants to give something back to the doctors and nurses who saved his life.

One step at a time: He does a 80-mile amateur race in Scotland, then a 120-mile race in Wales. Finally riding for several days - 1400 km across the United Kingdom, from Land's End in Cornwall to John O'Groats in the north of Scotland.

In the summer of 2010 he is ready for the big challenge and sets off for L.A.. The journey from west to east goes well - until 75 km before New Orleans fate strikes a second time. A truck takes Golding off his bike at 110 kph on Highway 90. «All I remember was a loud bang and sliding across the asphalt.» A year after being discharged, he ends up back in hospital with fractured ribs and elbows and extensive skin abrasions on his arms and legs. «Once again I had to relearn how to walk. But it was nowhere near as bad as the first time. I knew: You beat cancer, so you can also do this.»

In the Wild West: James Golding 2019 at the qualifying race for the Race Across America
In the Wild West: James Golding 2019 at the qualifying race for the Race Across America
Image credit: Red Bull Media House

No Surrender!

After just a few weeks he is already back in the saddle. Macmillan has invited him as an ambassador to a charity event in the French Alps. And how does James Golding get there from his home town of Rugby? Certainly not by plane! He gets taken to Calais, gets on his bike and in five days pedals 1000 km to Bonneville in south-eastern France. At the event he meets many bicycle-loving cancer patients. After the mountain arrival in Alpe d'Huez, he knows: For he has to return to the USA for them. He has to finish what he started.

In January 2011, he once again starts the adventure of crossing the USA in Los Angeles - and reaches Miami 24 days later, ten days faster than planned. Halfway through the journey, he also receives a surprising and joyous phone call from his wife Louisa: "She was pregnant - although the doctors told me after the chemotherapy that it was more likely that the moon would hit the earth, than that I would have any more children", as he told Cycling Weekly in 2013.

If you don't like something in your life, change it. Nothing changes if you don't do it yourself.

From Up to Down

The elation is followed by another blow on the back of the neck: the cancer is back. The doctors diagnose a tumor in the abdomen - this time, after all, only the size of a ping-pong ball and removable by means of a minimally invasive operation. Golding cannot be stopped by this. He's beaten cancer before: «I could deal with that pretty well.»

He stays in the saddle, swims, runs. He completes the Great Swim Series, cycles from London to Paris, takes part in two triathlons in London. In September 2011, Golding flies back from the Alpine Challenge in France on a Sunday and goes to hospital on Monday morning to have the tumor removed. Chemotherapy follows. In May 2012 he is cured.

Nevertheless, he often suffers from depression during this time. «Sometimes I couldn't cope with anything anymore, didn't want to get up or ride a bike. There were days when I wanted to give up.» The turning point came with a picture his son had painted: «There was only one person on it who wasn't smiling. That was me.» He had treatment after that. And he learned, «If you don't like something in your life, change it. Nothing will change unless you do it yourself.»

 

Shimmering heat: James Golding at the Race Across the West 2019
Shimmering heat: James Golding at the Race Across the West 2019
Image credit: Red Bull Media House

Living Life to the Fullest

«In some ways, cancer was one of the best things that ever happened to me because it taught me a lot about life and allowed me to meet important people,» Golding recently commented on Red Bull UK said, «I used to be alive. Now I'm living.»

And just how he lives. He's putting together a team and setting himself new goals. In 2014 he narrowly fails to set a new seven-day distance world record in France. In August 2015 he finishes ninth in one of the toughest bike races in the world, the Haute Route Triple Crown. The following year he finishes in seventh place. In 2017, he breaks the seven-day world record by riding 2842 km around Rugby in a week. In all these years, he keeps raising money for charity. Over £3 million in total.

Race Across America - the Tour de France is a cinch against it!

After the world record he sums up: His heart rate was exceptionally low, he is in top shape! Golding feels ready to tackle his next dream: To be the first British driver to win the Race Across America! A bicycle race in a maximum of twelve days over almost 5000 km from the West to the East Coast, from San Diego in California to Annapolis in Maryland - one of the toughest sporting challenges in the world. For comparison: The Race Across America is about 30% longer than the Tour de France. The cyclists have to cover the distance in about half the time - without a single day of rest, almost without sleep breaks.

In June 2019, Golding makes the qualification. The father of two becomes third in the Race Across the West...1500 merciless miles from Oceanside, California to Durango, Colorado. Participants must complete the distance in 92 hours. Sleep is hardly a consideration. The race runs non-stop. The fight against lack of sleep, heat and the inner bastard makes many participants give up prematurely. One of James Golding's first words after this ordeal is, «There's still a lot of work to be done!» As before, one step at a time.

Golding has given up a lot for his dream of the Race Across America. He sold his house in Great Britain, moved with his family to Portugal, where he can train better. He has a goal, and he pursues it stubbornly: «You can't let something that came over you out of the blue determine the rest of your life.» And he's happy with what he's doing: «Riding a bike is magic for me. It can change your life. You can recover from an illness. You can make a new beginning. It can make you cry - but it can also make you the happiest person you've ever been.»

The next Race Across America is scheduled to start in June 2021. Golding knows what he will do until then: ride a bike. Riding a bike. And cycling. Because one thing he believes in, as he tells his sponsor... Trek recently reaffirmed: «Everyone can achieve any goal they set for themselves.»

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