This is not a story you would have expected to have a happy ending. In February 2008, 28-year-old James Golding was diagnosed with cancer and later was given less than a 5% chance of survival.
Now living in Loulé, James is an endurance cyclist and a world record holder – in 2022, he plans to become the first British rider to win Race Across America (RAAM). How did this remarkable turn of fate come around? James’ relationship with bikes started at an early age. “I wasn’t a kid who wanted to play football but riding a bike gave me something that was mine.”
James didn’t get on at school, he didn’t have many friends and he felt he didn’t fit in, he was one of the first kids to be signed out of school early to embark upon an apprenticeship scheme. He trained to be a plasterer and, at 15, he was released from school prior to his exams.
In 1998, tired of being a plasterer, James walked into an estate agency and asked if they had any jobs. He progressed from a sales negotiator to office manager to owning his own investment company and then a new-build sales and marketing company. “From about 1999 I didn´t own a mountain bike. I became very materialistic,’’ he says about that time.
When the market collapsed in 2007, he went back into plastering. In early 2008 he started to experience back pain. Doctors found an 11.5 cm tumour next to his spine, kidney and bowel. By February 2009, James had dropped from 14 stone to just six; he was soon being rushed into emergency surgery where four surgeons spent six hours working through the night trying to save his life before putting him in an induced coma for two weeks. He says, “If I hadn’t been so young and fit, they would have sat me in a corner and made me comfortable.”
James learnt a lot from the experience, “My strapline is one step at a time. I couldn’t move my legs, but I could wiggle my toes, then slowly I began to be able to lift my head up – every day I made a small improvement.” During his convalescence, there was an unused mountain bike in the corner of the house. He couldn’t walk to the end of the road but setting off for a five-mile ride around a reservoir with the wind in “what hair I’d got” gave James a sense of freedom after six months in hospital. “It made me feel alive,” he recalls.
His recovery period was memorable in one other respect; James met his now-wife Louise. Remarkably, one year later, he decided to cycle across America to raise £100,000 for Macmillan, the idea being to finish in Miami a year to the day that he got the all-clear. Things did not go to plan.
Just outside New Orleans, he was hit by a truck at 70 miles an hour. He received three broken ribs, a smashed elbow, lost all the skin off his legs, and ended up having an MRSA infection on his elbow. “I was back in hospital a year after I left, unable to move,” he says. However, he knew having recovered once, he could do it again.
Post-recovery, James had unfinished business in America and embarked on a self-supported trip with just his bike and a mate driving an RV. He completed his 3500-mile journey ten days quicker than expected. He continued with his charity work for MacMillan, cycling across Mexico and completing a challenge in Mallorca. After a week with friends in France in 2011 and shortly after finding out Louise was pregnant, something they were told would never happen, he was diagnosed with a tumour for a second time.
“People might say I’m unlucky because I’ve had cancer twice and I’ve been hit by a truck, but in hindsight, cancer is probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” In fact, it was the “darkness” that came after the cancer that nearly floored him. Some days he found it hard to get out of bed. Louise remembers, “Cancer we could deal with, but when it’s depression, it’s almost worse.”
The turning point came when James found a picture his son Freddie had drawn of the whole family and everyone was smiling in it apart from Daddy. He then started talking to someone and realised, “Things won’t change unless you make them change.”
Coming back from that remission, he started looking at doing an around the world trip. But the company he was working with on that project wanted to see him complete another challenge, so he built in a seven-day world record attempt. They said if he did the world record, they would look at the other challenges he wanted to achieve.
His first attempt in 2014 failed, but in 2017 he became the Guinness World Record holder for the most miles covered in seven days. He shared the data from that ride with a number of successful high-level coaches who said, “If you can ride that far at that speed with that heart rate, you can become someone who can win Race Across America.” It was at that point he realised he had the potential to go a long way with his talent.
In 2019, James completed Race Across the West and finished in third place to qualify for RAAM, which was cancelled in both 2020 and 2021. The aim now is to do the race in 2022. Red Bull Media recorded a movie about the journey, which has had 150,000 hits on Youtube and more on Red Bull TV. They have just started making the second film which will come out after the race.
James is now 41 and, on 12 September, it was ten years since he had his second tumour removed. He puts his love of cycling down to being able to “make changes in people’s lives” by what he does, but there is also an element of therapy in it.” He has raised an incredible £3.5 million for Macmillan, Cancer Research, UK Youth, the Buffalo Foundation (of which he is a trustee) and Action Medical, to name but a few.
James started coming to the Algarve ten years ago when his Dad bought a house over here. He began visiting more and more as he loved the cycling conditions. Louise and Freddie also loved being here. “It got to the point where we were spending so much time here it started to feel like home.” They bought the house from James´ Dad and have lived here for the last two-and-a-half years with the latest addition to the family, daughter Laila aged three.
“Riding is just really good here and the weather obviously helps. The roads are fantastic and not too busy with a good selection of gradients. You can get a really good day out on the bike with lots of options for rides.”
James has been relaxing over the summer and enjoying time with his kids. For pure enjoyment, he continued to ride his bike four times a week but turned off his heart rate and performance monitor.
“I love riding a bike and if you don’t remember why you love what you do, the training becomes harder.”
RAAM starts on 14 June 2022. “You have to have the confidence to believe you can win it and that’s not being cocky; it’s having the mindset and belief that anything is possible – which it is. If you believe you can win it, you train to win it, you eat to win it and you sleep to win it. If you don’t win it, someone was better than you on the day, but you have to believe you are the best. The amount of money and time this project has taken, I´m going there to win, not just make the number up.” Normally, only 50 cyclists a year enter the solo division, which you have to qualify for. James is riding in support of the Buffalo Foundation.
When James resumes his training this week, he will be out six-seven hours a day. He stops eating junk food and gets back into the routine of going to bed early and getting up early. He will be developing a training schedule of between 300 – 600 miles per week and that is no easy ride. He burns 700 calories an hour, which he says is low and the result of his low heart rate, something his trainers believe sets him apart from other athletes he is competing against.
James admits that such is the level of the challenge he now faces that he’s prepared to do what he’s told. “What I do isn´t really up to me,” he admits. These days he has a large entourage of experts behind him including; Paul Morton – crew chief, Dean Downing – coach and road manager, Charlie Ward – physio and massage therapist, Lee Prescott – on-road nutritionist and biomechanics, Mark Sinclair – manager and best friend, along with a sports scientist and the drivers who accompany him on his challenges. His nutritionist tells him what to eat based on his training. “If Deano tells me to do a five-hour ride, I do it. If the sports scientist tells us we’re pushing too hard, we adjust.”
The challenges are made possible by a range of sponsors. Morgan Stanley Bank, Brewin Dolphin Investment Management, Babble Technology, Trek Bicycles, Santini Clothing and a number of people from within those businesses help them run the events. There are 18 sponsors in total and a team of around 20 people working in the background. “This is a huge project now because of the goals I set myself, because of the ability I seem to have of eating miles and spending big days in the saddle. You now have people involved who say you can ride 900 miles in three days with an average heart rate of 106; why can your body do that? We need to know. I pay attention to what’s going on, but I don´t analyse it anymore.”
RAAM is not James’ only big project. Part of the reason for moving to the Algarve was to set up a cycling camp and cycling cafe. When Monchique cycling café Velochique opened, he started chatting to the owner Lee and business partner Neil. “We were on common ground with what they wanted to do with Velochique and what we wanted to do. We all got on and we were all on the same page but with different attributes. We all complement each other and we have a shared vision.”
The trio want to create multiple outlets that form the base of a cycling community here. Their vision is to provide a go-to for people who want to come to the Algarve to cycle and to showcase what is on offer here. “It baffles me that so many people go to Mallorca to cycle but not the Algarve when we have an infrastructure here that supports cycling. The airport offers easy access to Loulé and Boliqueime, where some of the best cycling conditions in Europe are on offer. Volta ao Algarve is getting bigger and bigger each year and is a good way to showcase what we have to offer and bring people together who have a shared common interest in riding a bike.
“There is also a huge enthusiasm for cycling among the Portuguese, but it´s not shouted about in the same way Mallorca does. I think the Algarve is missing out on a huge source of potential income. In the Algarve, we focus so much on the summer months but if we did more with cycling we would be busy throughout the year.”
A lot of James’ passion for the sport is now more about sharing his experiences and knowledge as well as creating change in other people lives through his charity work. He also runs two group rides a week on a Wednesday and Friday at 8:30 a.m. from Vilamoura. If you join Velochique´s page you can sign up to ride between 45 and 55 miles with James. “I like to share what I have learnt from some of the best cyclists in the world and tell them about endeavours they can only dream of doing. That is more important than the personal satisfaction of getting on a bike.”
James´ story is the stuff of legends; after listening to his achievements, drive and enthusiasm, I feel like I have cycled up a very large hill! I can´t help wondering how his life could have been very different if he hadn´t seen an unused mountain bike in the corner of the room. As he says, “You can change your life on a bike – it will break you down, it will make you cry, it will make you the happiest you have ever been.”
You can view the Red Bull Media movie about James’ remarkable journey to completing Race Across the West and stay in touch with his progress on: james-golding.com
Join James’ bike rides by signing up on Strava