Cycling surgeon ready for slice of American pie

Dr Chris Oliver and his daughter, Catherine get in training for their cycle across America. Picture: Toby Williams
Dr Chris Oliver and his daughter, Catherine get in training for their cycle across America. Picture: Toby Williams
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Dr Chris took ‘physician health thyself’ to heart and lost more than 12 stone – now he and his daughter are ready for 3000-mile US journey

THE ten steps leading to spectacular views from the Great Wall of China had Dr Chris Oliver completely defeated.

Puffing his way around one of the wonders of the world, frustrated and angry at how his 27-stones bulk was holding him back, he knew something needed to change.

“I thought, I’d rather be dead than be the way I was,” he admits. “I couldn’t get up ten steps without being exhausted. I was so unfit.”

Ten steps today, however, pose no problems for the superfit cycling surgeon. For he has a much bigger distance to conquer, one which just five years ago would surely have been impossible.

Early next month, the orthopaedic surgeon at Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary will arrive in Los Angeles with his daughter Catherine, ready to embark on a staggering 3415 miles trans-Am journey, from east to west, all of it on a bike.

On the way, father and daughter will tackle the intimidating Rockies and the searing heat of Death Valley, they’ll pedal across the Midwest and soak up the glorious scenery of the Great Lakes. A final thigh-burning push will take them over the Appalachian Mountains before coming to an end in Boston, Massachusetts.

It’s a breathtaking endeavour, made all the more remarkable to think that just five years ago Chris was barely able to walk upstairs without getting out of breath.

Even more amazing is that he’ll be doing it – burning up at least 6000 calories a day – while still restricted by the life-changing gastric band which dramatically curbs just how much he can eat.

It means that while Catherine, 22, is looking forward to enjoying extra large American portions on her way across the States – vital fuel for the 80 to 100 miles they’ll be covering every day on their bikes – Chris, who is left feeling full up after the smallest of snacks, will be desperately trying to take in the calories to see him through.

“I know I’m going to have trouble managing to get the calories I’ll need every day,” says Chris, 53. “At the moment, I’m struggling to eat more than 1000 calories a day – 6000 is going to be really difficult.

“The main problem I’m facing is not so much worries about injuries or climbing up the Rockies, it’s running out of energy.”

The consultant trauma orthopaedic surgeon underwent gastric band surgery in February 2007 after his weight soared to more than 27 stones, leaving him struggling to move. He was so large, his blue surgical gown had to be specially made in a 2XXL size to fit his 56-inch chest and waist.

It was a far cry from his younger years as a medical student, when he ran marathons and enjoyed thrilling action-packed sports like kayaking and white-water rafting – all sidelined as his work demands took over.

Acutely aware of the health risks he was facing, the doctor – whose body mass index was 50.6, twice the recommended level for a man – made several attempts to diet down the years, only to become increasingly frustrated as nothing seemed to make much difference.

“I couldn’t get diets to work,” he recalls. “It was around 2006 when I went to China for a business meeting and ended up at the Great Wall of China.

“I was so unfit that I couldn’t manage to get up ten steps.”

Back home, he organised surgery to have a laparoscopic adjustable gastric band fitted. The inflatable silicon belt-like device fits around the top of his stomach, creating a small pouch which greatly reduces how much food he can eat at any one time.

Within months he was on his way to shedding more than 12 stones, transforming him from ticking health time bomb to being unrecognisable to patients, many of whom still arrive at his clinics expecting to see a far more rotund figure.

As the pounds melted away, Chris rediscovered a fresh love of activity and exercise, in particular, cycling.

Today, he is one of Scotland’s leading cycling champions, has pedalled across the country, taken part in a series of triathlons and even biked from Lands’ End to John O’Groats in 19 days during 2009 to raise money for charity.

However, it’s his latest venture with Catherine that is his most impressive – and intimidating – yet.

“I met someone who’d cycled across America last summer and I liked the sound of it. The problem wasn’t so much whether I felt I could do it, it was getting time off work,” he recalls.

“Once I realised I could get the time I said I’d do it – and Catherine decided she’d like to do it, too.”

For Catherine, who is studying environmental geography at university in York, cycling is a change of sport. For years she was more likely to be found rowing at international level than pedalling.

However, her training for the gruelling road trip on two wheels has been slow to start – she’s just back from a six-month stint in Fiji for marine research and diving with sharks. “It’s difficult to train in Fiji other than swimming,” she says.

“But rowing and cycling actually sit quite well together, they’re reasonably similar in that you use similar muscles for both. So I’m not too worried about it.

“I know there will be bits that will be quite tough, but I’m confident that I can keep going. I’m sure I can do 100 miles easy.”

Father and daughter are breaking up each stage of their journey into 80- to 100-mile stages, cycling for six days a week with a single day of rest, and spending nights in hotels or hostels along the way.

They’ll be taking their own bikes – an 18-gear Giant road bike for Catherine and 30 gear Scott CRI for her dad – with spare parts. A support team will accompany them throughout the marathon journey.

Keeping them focussed will be the hope that they can match every mile of their 3415 journey with at least a pound donation from supporters which will go to WaterAid UK, a charity that supports the provision of clean drinking water and sanitation for millions around the world.

First though, father of two Chris is upping his training and hoping to have his gastric band slightly relaxed so he can at least manage a few extra calories every day to help fuel his daily marathon cycle trips.

“I’ve struggled a few times in training because I’ve simply run out of energy. I’m lucky that it’s an adjustable band, so I can have it relaxed a little and hopefully be able to take in a bit more calories.

“But I’ve no plans to have it removed,” he stresses. “Having it changes your behaviour, it alters your relationship with food completely.”

But while having the band has helped him shed weight, he believes the real message in his success story is that anyone can turn their life around.

“Obesity is such a massive societal problem and people do need support,” he adds, “but anyone who really turns their mind to it can lose weight if they are motivated and work to sustain it.

“Life these days is too easy. We get food too easy and it’s too easy to jump in the car rather than walk or cycle.

“I knew what I could do when I was younger – I ran marathons and went kayaking. Having the band was a tool to help me change my life and to help me realise I could go back to doing all that great stuff.

“But if I can do it, anyone can.”

n Dr Chris Oliver and daughter Catherine will be blogging about their journey on Follow Chris on Twitter, @CyclingSurgeon.

To support their fundraising, go to or TEXT TBAA49 to 70070 with £1, £2, £3, £4, £5 or £10. Chris will also Tweet from @CyclingSurgeon.

Feast for the senses, test for the sinews

FROM Los Angeles to Boston, it’s a bike ride that promises spectacular scenery and a lot of pedal power.

Dr Chris Oliver and his daughter Catherine will set off from California on May 11, travelling through the Golden State in temperatures expected to hit the high 70s.

The pair will cycle through gold rush country of Arizona on their way to Gallup in New Mexico, on the famous Route 66, before heading for Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Vegas, Nevada.

That route will take the father-and-daughter team through the Mojave Desert and the imposing Death Valley, where temperatures in May are usually around 85 degrees.

They’ll then head through Texas and Oklahoma, bound for Dodge City in Kansas and a week-long journey through the state on their way to the Midwest and Missouri.

They will cross the 2000 miles mark in Quincy, Illinois – 300 miles from Chicago – before heading through Indianapolis, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The final stage will take them through New York state, bound for Vermont, New Hampshire, and finally Massachusetts.

Their journey ends in Boston, after 50 days travelling.