Claire Lomas: Motorcycle and motherhood - a special feature

Claire Lomas 'I'm not stupidly brave. I'm not the bravest person in the world." PICTURE COURTESY OF DAVE HUGHES EMN-151112-095525002
Claire Lomas 'I'm not stupidly brave. I'm not the bravest person in the world." PICTURE COURTESY OF DAVE HUGHES EMN-151112-095525002
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Claire Lomas has met some extraordinary challenges since a riding accident left her paralysed from the chest down.

But the latest test could yet be her most outlandish as she bids to become a motorcycle racer.

Claire Lomas at Mallory Park PICTURE COURTESY OF DAVE HUGHES EMN-151112-095539002

Claire Lomas at Mallory Park PICTURE COURTESY OF DAVE HUGHES EMN-151112-095539002

Here Claire talks to Melton Times sports editor CHRIS HARBY about balancing miles per hour with motherhood, and explains why she’s no daredevil.

“Once I’m on a bike and away from my launchers, no-one would know I’m paralysed.

“When I see pictures of myself on the bike, I can’t believe that it’s me.”

Life has taken many extraordinary turns for Claire Lomas since May 6, 2007.

Claire with husband Dan approaching the finish line of the London Marathon EMN-151112-131007002

Claire with husband Dan approaching the finish line of the London Marathon EMN-151112-131007002

The Eye Kettleby eventer had been bombing around another cross country course.

But that afternoon at Osberton Horse Trials changed everything.

Claire hit a tree, dislocating a vertebra which ultimately left her without feeling from the chest down.

The freak accident shattered her life as a chiropractor and an ambitious horsewoman good enough to compete at Burghley.

Claire lighting the Paralympic Torch with Seb Coe, David Cameron and Boris Johnson EMN-151112-131055002

Claire lighting the Paralympic Torch with Seb Coe, David Cameron and Boris Johnson EMN-151112-131055002

But it also kickstarted a new one.

Through a series of audacious fundraising challenges, she has met her fair share of heroes and A listers.

Befriended a few, earned the respect of all.

She lit the Paralympic cauldron in Trafalgar Square with Seb Coe and the Prime Minister.

She met her husband Dan and had a daughter Maisie.

It’s not false flattery to say Claire has launched the phrase ‘making the best of it’ into another stratosphere.

But there have, of course, been dark times and tears.

There wouldn’t be a moment that she didn’t wish her paralysis away.

Opening the throttle down the finishing straight at Mallory Park and negotiating the Devil’s Elbow provides fleeting liberation when the daily confines frustrate.

“I know I can’t put my feet down so that makes it different, but once you’re out there on the track you are just another rider.

“You don’t feel hugely disadvantaged.

“When I had the accident I could never have imagined I would be doing this. The fun hasn’t had to stop.”

Claire’s first nerve-shredding revs came in April after an invitation from Bike Experience, a charity which aims to teach disabled motorcyclists to ride again, pricked her insatiable imagination.

Having never ridden a motorbike before and with a schedule packed to bursting, her initial reaction was muted.

“I wasn’t mega keen - my life is pretty full with fundraising, Maisie and public speaking.

“I wasn’t desperately seeking out something new, but I like to take opportunities. And I found it quite challenging.

“The first bike had stabilisers. I scraped along for what felt like forever.

“Then I got my balance point and they took off the stabilisers and I thought ‘oh no’.

“I was fine with stabilisers because you know you are alright, but then it’s scary.

“Someone holds the back of the bike to make sure you don’t lose your balance at the start. Then you pull away and ride towards the other person, brake and then they catch you.

“I skidded all over the place to start with, and I fell off - I ended up far away from the bike!”

Initial progress was slow but, after four sessions, a rare offer from Mallory to train alone on their famous track was too good to refuse.

Dan’s bike was fitted with hand-controlled gears and “a bit of Velcro”.

“I’m having to learn everything about the sport because I didn’t know anything about it before.

“You couldn’t put a price on what Mallory Park have given me. It’s an amazing opportunity.

“I thought I would be on some side bit when I turned up. I didn’t realise I would be on the main track. But that’s how you get better.

“I do some bits going quickly and some bits slow. But if you’re going slowly you need more balance.

“It feels very similar to mono-ski-ing. When you move, the bike moves with you; it’s very responsive.”

Claire is gradually building cautious confidence but still admits to wrestling with her nerves before every session.

The falls haven’t helped, particularly when you can’t brace yourself to cushion the impact.

But as she knows from experience, you have to get back on the horse.

“I have fallen off a few times, but I’m certainly getting better.

“I have Velcro on, but only lightly because if I fall, I need to come clear of the bike.

“I get very nervous before I go and think ‘why am I doing this?’, but I’m not dreading it quite as much now.

“It’s good fun while you are doing it, and afterwards it’s really worthwhile.

“It gives you a good dose of adrenaline and self-esteem.”

In some ways, motorcycling does share similarities with equestrianism, aside from the obvious horsepower pun.

Chief among them are speed and the fear-fuelled buzz. Track days recapture a little of the speed and drama which was a daily fix in her equestrian days.

“Being in a wheelchair, everything in life is slow; you miss that feeling of being nippy.

“This gives me a sense of freedom and feels really sporty.

“It’s an amazing feeling, particularly if you’re wheelchair-bound.”

Long term, Claire plans to race and a team has already expressed an interest.

Next spring, she is targeting an ACU licence which would allow her to join track days with other riders and further her development.

But for now her motivation is enjoying the novelty.

“I’m doing it for fun. There’s no pressure for me on how good I get or quick I go.

“Motorbiking will not be at the top of my list - I’m not trying to fill a gap in my life.

“Maisie is my priority and then my speaking work comes high-up because I need it to earn money and I enjoy it. Then I have to do my health and rehab stuff.”

Claire grabbed the public’s attention by the lapels in 2012 when she walked the London Marathon in a pioneering robotic suit.

The 26 miles took her 17 days, many of which were accompanied by TV cameras and celebrity supporters, and raised £210,000.

The superhuman feat, she is the only paralysed person to walk it, was in part inspired by motherhood.

The new mum made a tongue-in-cheek wager with her newborn baby to see who between them would walk first.

So when you consider what Claire has achieved in the last eight years - her fundraising total recently broke the half-a-million mark - it’s easy to casually stow motorcycling away in a cluttered pigeon hole marked ‘inspirational’.

But consider the practicalities. It’s pretty remarkable.

Riding a motorbike successfully, as a push bike, is mostly about balance.

Attached by backside, feet and hands, we swivel our hips to point the bike where we want it to go.

Claire can only feel the bike through her hands, meaning her shoulders and arms must do all of the steering work.

“Physically, it’s quite hard work. I’m injured from the chest down so the only bit of the bike I can feel is the handlebars.

“It’s weird that that’s all I can feel.”

Able-bodied riders also have the luxury of the feet to re-establish balance and right a wobble.

The leap of faith to let yourself hurtle along with none of those reassurances must be enormous.

“It’s the psychological thing that you can’t put your leg down to balance.

“If my foot does come off there is nothing I can do.

“When I first started I felt like I was paralysed from the neck down rather than just the chest. I was so sore.

“But I’m building up and not as tense now.”

Although the winter rain and winds are now reducing track time, Claire recently hit a new top speed of 82mph and wants to go faster.

She hopes mentoring from Isle of Man TT rider Maria Costello will help shift her through a few more gears.

The thirst to add more mph to the speedometer is typical.

The legacy from that final cross country ride ignited an energy to wring out every available drop from life.

But Claire baulks at the daredevil label, putting her feats down to a stubborn streak not to be beaten or deterred rather than raw courage.

“I’m not stupidly brave. I don’t think I’m the bravest person in the world.

“I need to learn properly. I’m going to get better at Mallory, and then in groups.

I won’t be in a race situation before I’m ready or until I’m good enough or experienced.

“When I did horses you have to do the preparation and that’s what motorcycling is like.”

It’s easy for admirers to forget that behind the public face, she is a wife and mother with the accompanying responsibilities.

She cannot afford a devil-may-care approach to life even if she wanted one.

“I do care what happens to me.

“I have Maisie to pick up from school; I’m not going to be reckless.”

But few would doubt Claire’s resilience, and her will to meet life and its challenges head-on.

Extreme adversity and trauma can have this positive effect in some, as much it can embitter and tragically darken others.

Life has changed - she has had to adapt to keep her life moving forward - but not her character.

“I think I was like this before the accident,” she reflected. “I was very focussed and ambitious with my eventing.

“But I feel I’ve had much more variation and met so many more people in different walks of life than I would have done.

“The schools I have spoken at, meeting kids with disabilities and deprived children, I wouldn’t have done any of that. It has opened doors.”

And remarkably, her love for equestrianism is undimmed.

It remains lifelong, untainted by what is permanently stored in her memory banks.

Her reflections give us all a reason to hang our heads when we grumble about a late bus or a bad day at the office.

“I love that relationship you get with a horse; it’s a very special sport.

“Anything can go wrong like it did.

“When you have a fall you might lose your confidence for a bit, but you have to consider your horse’s confidence is down as well.”

The ‘inspiration’ label is bandied about a lot these days and it’s something Claire must have heard a thousand times.

But even walking out of our interview into the drabbest of late autumnal afternoons, it’s difficult not to feel invigorated and eager to follow her example.

To retrieve that long-term ambition from its dusty backburner and attack it head first.

“A lot of people thought I would go back to riding.

“I have very fond memories, and I missed it at the start.

“I loved it and wouldn’t have changed it, but my life is too busy now to miss it. Especially now I have Maisie.”