Jane Tomlinson was first diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 27 in 1991. Nine years later in 2000 she was told that the cancer had spread and was untreatable. She was given six months to live. Like many people with a terminal diagnosis she wanted to travel and to create memories for her husband and children to cherish when she could no longer be with them. Unlike most people that urge to travel turned into seven years of performing feats of great physical endurance all over the world to raise money for charities. She competed in marathons, Ironman triathlon events and undertook several long distance bicycle rides including Lands End to John O’Groats, ‘Rome to Home’ (from Rome to Yorkshire) and her final big expedition to cross the USA from the Golden Gate Bridge to Brooklyn Bridge. It’s that final ride which features in this book How Good is that?
The book was written by Jane and her husband Mike and covers the summer of 2006, starting just a few days before they flew out to the USA, through their 9 week ordeal and up to just after they arrive back in Yorkshire for the birth of their first grandchild. A brief but sad epilogue then informs us about Jane’s last months. I don’t think we can call it a plot spoiler to reveal that Jane died because I doubt anyone can imagine any other possible ending to her story or that anyone will buy this book unless they already know a little about this remarkable woman.
The structure of the book is very simple and consists of alternating accounts from Mike and Jane which chart their progress across America. Very cleverly they avoid the mistake that too many people sharing authorship make which is to both write about the same thing at the same time. It’s horribly frustrating when one person tells you what happened and then the other chirps up to repeat it. Instead the ‘plot’ (if you can call it that) keeps moving forward. Sometimes it’s Mike who tells us about how bad Jane is feeling, occasionally it’s Jane herself. Mike gives us the view from the support vehicle whilst Jane’s is from the saddle.
There’s a remarkable lack of saintliness about the pair of them and their account of the expedition is refreshing in its honesty. This really is a warts and all account of how things went and both are honest about the anger, frustration and pain of the experience. It’s easy to think every big charity fund raiser wakes up with a smile and a happy glow and goes through life beaming at everyone. Jane is not like that. She’s real, she gets angry, she gets irrational, she gets stroppy – and is all the more endearing for those character traits.
One of Mike’s posts made me stop and think. He was writing about the blog he kept during the expedition and how he tried to stay on top of all the emails that came in. There were a lot of cranks – some of whom got his ‘two word’ answer – but more disturbing were the mails from a guy who lost his wife to cancer and was angry that Mike and Jane were bringing back the pain (easy answer to that one – nobody’s forcing him to read the blog) and another from a healthy woman asking Jane to stop her charity work because she was making her feel ‘inadequate’. It’s amazing how some people can twist any good deed into something they can be personally offended by.
“In total Jane’s charity work raised £1.85 million and events since her death have brought her appeal funds to over £3 million.”
The expedition starts with Jane and another of the riders giving interviews in New York for the media before they fly on to San Francisco and join Mike and their son Steven. With two other cyclists and a small support crew, the group made their way across the country in two RVs (recreational vehicles – those big camper van things). We get to know the other riders – Ryan and Martin – and Cindy, the dippy ‘facilitator’ who keeps booking them into disgusting camp sites and forgetting to buy food and who can get lost on a straight road with a Tom Tom. We also – very sadly – get to learn a lot about the darker side of the American dream. There are drivers who hurl abuse at the cyclists, cut them up as if they are invisible and drive so close that the bikes are almost sucked under the wheels. Jane has a phobia about dogs and lives in terror of dog attacks which as so upsetting that she carries pepper spray. They pass through the seedy parts of cities where both the riders and the support crew are scared for their safety. Some of the RV sites are absolutely disgusting and in one of the motels they suspect a drug overdose has happened in the room next door. In many places they’re reluctant to park the RVs for fear or them being stolen or broken into and they meet repeated ignorance and prejudice on the roads.
There are lighter moments along the way – the museum of barbed wire stands out as one of the highlights – and they do meet some nice people amongst the weirdoes who look like they stepped out of a cheap horror movie. There are other groups of cyclists whom they meet who subsequently give them tip offs about road conditions and dangerous places, and not all the locals are inbred half-wits (though sadly more seem to be than not). Mike spends a lot of time bonding with their son but sadly finds his aspiration to go off now and then for a couple of days of father-son fun are curtailed by how much support Jane needs.
Jane’s health is always in our minds when reading this. At the beginning of the trip she can barely walk after the long distance flights. Throughout the trip the cancer in her liver makes her sweat through several pairs of pyjamas every night and leaves her lying in damp bedding. The cancer in her bones makes every bump in the road an agony. Her health makes the altitude sickness in the Rockies almost unbearable and by the end of the expedition she’s talking oral morphine and in agony. I have no idea how a fully fit person could get through such a ride but for someone whose body was so full of advanced cancer, it’s an absolute miracle that she got to the end.
I always thought that Americans were supposed to be very charitable people but there wasn’t too much evidence of that charity in Jane and Mike’s experience. One person gives Mike $50 after hearing about what Jane is doing – but he’s an ex-pat Yorkshireman. They get to day 55 before Jane gets a donation, transferring a few dollars of lunch money to a small purse she carried for donations after a café owner says it would be a bad world if she couldn’t give a coffee and a cake to a woman with cancer cycling across the USA. That’s the only donation Jane received on the trip – just a few dollars.
The entire expedition raised a very poor total of around £100,000 and was a great disappointment to all concerned. I can only assume that the land where so many people want to block Obama’s plans to offer healthcare to the less well off, is full of people who have no sympathy for the medical charities that Jane and Mike support – or maybe they just can’t get a tax break on a donation.
In total Jane’s charity work raised £1.85 million and events since her death have brought her appeal funds to over £3 million. Her friends, family and supporters are working towards a target of £5 million and her husband and daughter set out to cycle 2500 miles from Istanbul to Leeds in 2010 to add to the total. Walks, runs, swims and cycle races continue in Jane’s name.
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