It's July. Three months ago, the greatest sprint cyclist I've ever seen was diagnosed with an illness from which I've twice recovered.
Simon Vandore

Cycling Central
5 Jul 2017 - 1:28 PM  UPDATED 5 Jul 2017 - 2:07 PM

Infectious mononucleosis, called "mono" in the US and "glandular fever" in Australia, caused mostly by the Epstein-Barr virus, is no sprint, even for Mark Cavendish. The same illness dogged Aussie cycling star Michael Rogers for years.

When I first got sick, I was riding a hilly 14km to SBS and back every day and doing weekend rides of more than 100km. It was 2011. I had a 20,000km history of cycle touring in Europe and Australia. I’ve crossed France twice.

And then I overdid it. That's what gives the illness a chance.

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Judge me if you like. I would cycle home from work, drive to my new girlfriend's place and sneak out in the early morning to drive home so that I could cycle back to work. I wasn't getting enough sleep.

At her friend's wedding, I drank far too much. But I felt unreasonably rough. What a hangover. A week later, it was my birthday and we went out. The next morning, I was signed up for a 100km ride, but quit at 50km. I thought I had a cold.

The following weekend, again we stayed out late, and again - after two hours sleep - I rode a 110km community event "to prove I'm not old". My friends expected me to overtake them, but I lagged behind. On my left thigh was an angry area of red spots, like insect bites.

"Have you ever had shingles?" asked my girlfriend.

"Shing-what?" I replied. "Isn't that what old people get?"

In fact, anyone who's ever been exposed to chicken pox can get shingles at any time. Especially sleep-deprived marathon cyclists with glandular fever who just don't stop. Shingles arrive with an extremely painful red rash of inflamed nerve endings somewhere on the body. I was lucky they were just on my leg, not near my heart or brain.

To cut a long story short, blood tests also found I had Epstein-Barr virus. After initially recovering from shingles, which is bad enough in itself, I faced an additional three-month glandular fever recovery. In the meantime, I lost that relationship. Don't feel too sorry for me today, or you'll offend my wife.

Alone in my one-bedroom apartment, I lived infectious mononucleosis. It removes almost all of your energy, puts you through some flu-like symptoms, and gets you down. For weeks I lay there, allocating what I would be able to do: get up, make a sandwich, put on a load of washing, collapse back into bed for four hours.

There is one way to recover: learn the limit of your energy and don't cross that barrier. Do too much and you reset your recovery. But stay below the barrier for long enough and your reserves increase. Keep doing this and you can return to work part-time, then full-time. Setbacks are common: after two weeks back at work, I was suddenly back in bed and had to do it all over again.

On the upside, I read the whole Game of Thrones series. Those are some big books. I loaned my cycling stuff to a friend and together they completed the Gong Ride (Sydney to Wollongong) without me.

One year later, I was commuting to SBS by bicycle again. I did a 110km weekend ride and felt good. I took up running with workmates and ran the City to Surf (14km Sydney to Bondi). And after two years of health, I met my wife.

In 2014, we took a trip overseas and really pushed our itinerary. I did all the driving. The jet lag seemed to last forever: no energy, flu-like symptoms. Back home, my doctor said: "I know what you've got. Do you know what you've got?"

And there I was, back at zero again, off work and then recovering for another three months. Infectious mononucleosis takes a long time to go away. The GP reckoned I'd been 90 per cent recovered and then pushed it too far, crossing that invisible barrier and giving the illness another opening. Michael Rogers, too, had a relapse after several years. But he's fine now and so am I.

The crash that forced Mark Cavendish out of the 2017 Tour de France was horrific. I wish him all the healing and recovery in the world. He's a bloody legend.

But in my experience - and I have some - tackling a Grand Tour just three months after a diagnosis of infectious mononucleosis seemed a huge mistake. I hope this unfortunate opportunity for a rest gives Cav all the recovery time he needs, and that we see him return in top form.

One final anecdote: in early 2011, in person, I saw Cav race the Tour Down Under. Only… I thought it wasn't so much racing as cruising, sitting up and chatting. He had a gut and stubble. I thought he was done. Six months later, he won five Tour de France stages, including the finish on the Champs-Élysées. Never count Mark Cavendish out.

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