Alex Petter uses pedal power to be a source of inspiration at Cambridge University Cycling Club
When Alex Petter won a British Universities & Colleges Sport award prior to Christmas, it was about far more than just the accolade.
The 22-year-old Magdalene College geography student earned the Dan Porter Award, which recognises an individual or group who has faced and overcome adversity and/or disadvantage to positively impact others, and that followed having collected the services to sport prize at the inaugural University of Cambridge sports service awards.
It was in recognition of his work with Cambridge University Cycling Club during his time as president but that only just touches the surface.
In many ways, what Petter has achieved defines sporting endeavour and illustrates what sport can provide for both physical and mental wellbeing.
“I haven’t had much success cycling, I’m definitely more of a club level cyclist than a racer,” says Petter, which probably rings true of so many people across the country – not reaching elite levels but just loving what they do.
It also started just down the road from his digs in Cambridge, as the former Perse School student is from Linton.
Being outdoors had a calling from a young age, getting out and about on his mountain bike when returning home from school each day.
But things got a bit more serious in his mid-teens.
“It wasn’t about fitness or sport until I was about 15 or 16 when I was just about big enough to fit onto my dad’s road bike,” he explains.
“I could suddenly go so much further and faster. Then I got my own road bike and really got into road cycling and hooked on it as a sport.
“Cycling is my No 1 sport and passion and hobby in life.”
Having dabbled with Haverhill Cycling Club, it was not until going to study at Cambridge – a decision made entirely by the geography course on offer – that Petter raced for a club, and that was CUCC.
“The club is such an amazing community,” he says. “If you go to any cycling club anywhere in the country, it’s going to be full of like-minded people because it’s full of people that appreciate the same things.
“With a university club, because pretty much everyone is at the same stage of their lives I’ve just found myself amongst a group of such like-minded people that I could just really get on with.
“CUCC is a very successful club so there are a lot of very fast guys, so you are always riding around comparing yourself to very high achieving racing cyclists.
“I found it very motivating to be around so many people that can be role models for me to get into racing.
“I have been a serious road cyclist for seven or eight years now, but with my medical history I’ve had a series of setbacks in my fitness and speed.
“It has definitely impacted what I’ve been able to achieve on the road.”
It is just a fleeting hint at the obstacles that Petter has had to overcome, and it is only on deeper questioning of the comment on his medical history that you realise it is a huge understatement of what he has faced.
Just before he was due to sit his A-levels, Petter was diagnosed with aggressive fibromatosis.
He had surgery to remove the tumour – which was about the size of a grapefruit – from his abdomen, and also about two-thirds of his bowels and intestines.
“The hope was that they had removed every single bit of it, and every last cell and then it is totally gone,” explains Petter.
“They thought they had got pretty good margins around it, they were pretty ruthless with the stuff they took out.
“For a couple of years I was under surveillance and having scans every three months to make sure it wasn’t coming back.”
He had taken an emergency gap year and sat the A-levels over the course of the period.
But at the start of his second year at university, a scan discovered a recurrence in the same spot so the tumour was coming back.
As the tumours are very hard to deal with, and very rare, it may have only been one or two cells left over initially.
“I’m always treated like a bit of a medical oddity and a bit of a case study,” says Petter.
“It grew back and they spent a year monitoring it, but then this relatively new type of treatment, proton beam radiotherapy, became available on the NHS.
“My oncologist put me forward to be considered for this treatment.”
In the meantime, Petter had been elected as president of CUCC.
He had already been the club captain, sorting out all the rides and training, but the role of president was about the general running of the club.
It means organising a training camp in Spain, the club’s kit order, hosting one of the BUCS time trials and making sure the committee runs smoothly.
This is usually a full-on task, let alone while having proton beam radiotherapy.
It is delivered at the Christie Hospital in Manchester over a six-week period – and a Cambridge term is only eight weeks. Petter was living in the north west during the week and returning home at weekends.
“I had quite a lot on my plate that term because I was having my daily treatment, trying to keep my academics at least somewhat ticking over, and then with the club as president most of the work was in the first term,” he says.
The cycling work was unseen, it was about allowing the club to function.
It involved the bureaucracy of sorting out national governing body affiliations, the risk assessments, the regulatory compliance, third party liability insurance, the list goes on.
But throughout all the treatment, Petter stayed on his bike.
“The doctors said to me that keeping exercising can help with side effects and fatigue, so I thought ‘great, I’ll keep cycling',” he says.
“For the first two weeks, I did a lot of cycling and was doing 150 miles per week. Then they reviewed my care and said have you been keeping active.
“I told them what I had done, I said I went out for 40 miles that morning. Their jaws dropped and they were shocked. It transpired that their recommendation of exercise was more walking up the stairs, rather than taking the lift.
“I ended up having to really knock off what I did because I became more and more tired and by the end of my treatment I was feeling pretty run down.”
With so much on his plate, it did beg the question as to whether it would have been easier not to have been president of CUCC?
Petter says that was not the case, with the role giving him an opportunity to take his mind off the treatment and medical circumstances.
“Most of the people that have been cycling since their mid-teens end up going into racing and pursuing cycling very much from a performance side of things and my personal experiences have somewhat put a competitive racing career off the cards for me,” he says.
“My relationship with cycling I have redirected into trying to encourage other people to take part, and that has transpired into me trying to grow cycling while I’m here.
“In all my various experiences, medical and not, I have always had cycling as this really valuable escape and really valuable thing to focus my energies and efforts on.
“Going out on a bike ride is such an amazing form of therapy. If you are ever in a bad mood, it only takes 10 minutes on a bike and I will have forgotten all of that.
“Cycling has been so key to me getting through all the things that I have had to get through that I really want to show that to as many people as possible and have as many people as possible experiencing that.”
Being able to positively impact people and encourage them to take up cycling was very important to Petter.
During his time as CUCC president, he helped increase the membership from around 70 members to 220, and from maybe around 10 out on weekend rides to between 60 and 70.
The role helped provide fulfilment in a different way to winning races, but cycling has been such a huge factor in how Petter has helped cope with everything thrown at him and it just shows how sport is vital for both physical and mental health.
“I know that being very fit for my cycling has helped me in my physical health,” he says.
“I know that it has helped me pull through surgeries quicker and get through my radiotherapy with as little fatigue as possible, and everything in between.
“But definitely the area that it has helped me the most has got to be my mental health, for sure.
“Although other people might not have such a pressing need to have their physical health in good shape as you do when trying to get through an operation, everyone can benefit from looking after their mental health.
“We’re realising as a society more and more the importance of mental health.
“As someone who has been through my fair share of experiences with my physical health, I don’t think physical health is any more important than mental health. But cycling can obviously help you with both of them.”
Petter credits the support and help from many others in their investment of time and effort to grow the club.
It is a very modest approach, and that even comes through when asked what it meant to win the national award.
“So many of my cycling peers have won things from a performance perspective, I’ve not been able to do that, so it was nice to be recognised in a different way,” adds Petter, who is now the club’s social secretary.
This is the typical sort of response that you get from someone that puts more into a club than they will ever take out, which is definitely true of the inspiring Petter.