Profile Series: Paul Whitlock - From Rugby to Resilience
As a prop forward in his club, county and the army rugby team, Paul has always been used to taking knocks and being a lad with some meat on his bones. Which is one of the reasons he turned to Fat Lad At The Back for his cycle wear as he says “you seem to have realised that if you have a 48” chest there is a good chance that your arms may be a bit bigger, and that just because you are big-shouldered, it doesn’t mean you are also 6’4”.
As the case is with many rugby players, the injuries were relentless and the recovery times between injuries took longer, as it takes a toll on your body no matter what size you are. Paul managed to endure a dislocated shoulder and knee, breaking a vertebra in his neck and several concussions and after this it became time for Paul to hang up his kit for good as his body could no longer take it. Ceasing his rugby glory days, he found it difficult and struggled to make the lifestyle shift needed no longer having his main source of exercise. Drinking and eating like a rugby lad that no longer played rugby meant the weight crept up and up.
He decided he needed to do something to combat the weight gain and turned to cycling. The struggle was that he was 17 ½ stone and didn’t look like how he pictured a cyclist should look, which was difficult to get over. But he purchased a mountain bike purely because it looked more like it would take the weight of his naturally stocky frame and began cycling. It didn’t come without its challenges though not just physically. One of the biggest challenges he had was overcoming the confidence of being an unconventional and novice cyclist - “that knocking of confidence you get when you first try and join a road club, and find that after 30 minutes you simply can’t keep up with the whippets doing 22mph, but once you realise your limitations and your strengths, and that actually sometimes when you’re riding into a 30mph headwind being a big lad has its advantages…”. He says he’s been lucky because despite the fact that he was slow and struggled to keep up, his ‘terrible’ (his words…) sense of humour and riding with a good bunch of people meant they would wait for him at the top of the climbs. “Ultimately if you find the right events and group of friends, you can push yourself harder than you thought.”
When he moved to Norfolk to be with his wife, the mountain biking wasn’t possible anymore and he packed away the mountain bike. Not happy with siting around, he bought himself a road bike and the miles he could ride gradually got higher and higher util he managed his first 100-mile ride, a real achievement for him. Not long after this, Paul’s 4-year-old daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes which was a real knock to the family. Paul wanted to challenge himself even further and dedicate this challenge to charity. “I had it in my head to ride 10 of the toughest bike events I could find to raise money for Diabetes UK,”. This challenge included Paris-Roubaix Sportive, the 186 mile, 4800m of climbing Dragon Devil in Wales and it culminated in me riding the 310 miles from Newcastle to London in 24 hours! “I found that whilst I might not be the quickest, I was really stubborn, so could ride decent distances.”
Although Paul struggled with gaining weight after coming out of his rugby career, it’s clear that though this might have been his initial motivations to cycle, it ended up being his determination to challenge himself both mentally and physically that allowed him to complete such gruelling and impressive rides. A real showcase of how cycling can start as a weight-loss tool and become something far greater; testing and growing our mental strength.
Paul has now found a new love for gravel bikes and bike packing. Some of the images here are from his trip, riding the Torino-Nice rally over the Italian and French Alps high gravel roads, which I’m sure was breathtaking.
What's your favourite piece of advice you've ever received/your personal mantra?
Like most big guys and gals, I’ve had all the comments about my size whilst out on the bike, the secret is not to care. But I realise many are scared or worried to ride with others who they will think are faster or fitter and will apologise for being slow. The best piece of advice or comment that anyone said to me was a friend telling me just after I’d apologised to him for being slow up a hill when I first started out - “no need to keep apologising, have you ever thought we actually enjoy riding with you?”
Which bits were the most rewarding parts?
I like events and routes that feel like I am going somewhere and seeing something new or with stunning scenery such as the high gravel roads over the Col de Fenestra on Torino-nice rally, or just putting together a local route that takes in the best bits of off road and scenery in the area, then sharing that with others. Or that feeling that of being totally wiped out physically but ultimately knowing you’ve managed to ride from Newcastle to London or Manchester to London in 24 hours under your own steam and that perverse sense of having achieved something even if you can’t see straight.
What do you like to do after a gruelling ride?
I love events where I get to bivvy out in a field or half way up a hill with friends and just talk about what you’ve done that day, or when you can have a steak or a beer knowing that you have thoroughly earned it.
Huge thanks to Paul for sharing his story with us, really is an inspiration to hear someone so relatable get on a bike and achieve all of that. Hat’s off to you!