Rob Callard is beating cancer, and one of his docs says it’s because of cycling. Read on about one of Montreal’s best-known restaurateurs and his nascent journey on a two-wheeler.
- Name: Rob Callard
- Age: 47
- Home: Beaconsfield, Quebec
- Status: Married to Donna (22 years)
- Children: Alex (19), Chris (16) and Timmy (10)
- Occupation: Owner, Chez Nick’s Restaurant
- Passion: Cycling
I first met Rob Callard in the mid-90’s when I profiled him for CBC Radio as a fan of Formula One Racing. We sat trackside on the Gilles Villeneuve course at Ile Notre Dame, just a few days before the Canadian Grand Prix. He was a fan of sport who didn’t strike me as sporty. He marveled at the design of the cars, the smell and roar of the engine, and the blinding speed.
So, when I recently renewed my acquaintance with the affable host and owner at Chez Nick’s restaurant on Greene Avenue in Westmount, I was surprised to learn he was about to complete the Gran Fondo Gatineau (May 22, 2011) – his first ever road cycling race. I also couldn’t help notice how much thinner, and leaner he’s become.
Nearly twenty years after we first met, his fascination with race cars has faded, replaced instead with a curiosity of just how much speed he can generate himself by pedaling his Trek Madone 4 series, full carbon frame.
In this Good4sports exclusive interview, I begin with a question about the race in the hills outside of Ottawa.
The First Race
G4S: You’ve just completed your first-ever road cycling Grand Prix. How does it feel?
RC: Well, I did it. It was the toughest physical challenge I’ve ever done. But I feel so great that I was able to complete the event. The course had to be altered due to a road being washed out, so the route was lengthened to 103km, up from the planned 94km. It was hills the whole way, two in particular that were 2km-plus climbs. We had to do two 51.5km laps. The first lap I was doing great and had settled in with a peloton that I stayed with for the duration of the race. On km 60, my left thigh seized up and I started really struggling with standing climbs so effectively did the rest of the hills for the remaining 40km doing climbs in the sitting position. It was brutally painful but I just kept pushing to stay with my group so I could at least benefit from drafting as much as possible.
G4S: Where did you finish?
RC: In the end, I finished in 70th out of 122 riders (66/102 in the men’s category), in a time of 3h34mins. My personal goal was to do 94kms in 3h30, so with the extra 9kms added, I guess did what I went there to do! What a great experience. At the end, I have to say I broke down a bit, it was just so emotional for me to complete something like this. Never in my life had I challenged myself so much. It was pain and elation all at the same time.
G4S: You’ve been through your share of challenges recently (and I will ask you about the cancer in a moment), so in what way did you challenge yourself more than ever before?
RC: The challenge was to compete in an amateur timed-event that would push me beyond what I had done up until this point. I chose the Gran Fondo Gatineau as I thought it would be a good training run for the Ride to Conquer Cancer in July. I was not expecting the caliber to be so high but I feel I really held my own against some very experienced cyclists. This race challenged me both mentally and physically to a degree that I have nothing else to compare to. But I was fortunate to be in a group with one particular cyclist that kept motivating me to push on. It’s amazing what we can do when we put our mind to it. The two 2km-plus climbs really tested my will to push on. All I kept thinking about was that finish line and how I so wanted to cross it with my group.
G4S: What did you learn about yourself in challenging yourself so intensely?
RC: I think what I came home with on Sunday was that the inner will is strong when we are motivated to succeed. I did the race with only one goal and that was to complete the whole thing. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do something like this when perhaps three years ago I would have had every excuse in the book to not do it. I have learned that I should always take a shot at something if there is a will, even when in doubt as to the outcome. Since my health issues last year, I really want to live and do my best to do what I really love. Not every day is a stellar day, but I sure have a lot more great days than I used to have.
The Birth of a Cyclist
G4S: Two years ago, you went from being a busy Dad and restaurateur who didn’t exercise, to an almost obsessive cyclist. In the process, you lost 65 pounds. What happened?
RC It was May 31st 2009, I was 265 pounds, in bad shape and didn’t feel good. I was sick of making up excuses for not getting into shape. That night, at my son’s high school graduation, I was so uncomfortable as I was sweating profusely, and my clothes didn’t fit etc. The next day I got on my bike, and did 5kms. I thought I was going to die but stayed with it and haven’t looked back. Now on a good week I will do 300-400kms. I have always loved cycling and it was that that kept me motivated. As the weight started to come off, I then began making better choices in my diet. I realize now how important the whole package is – diet, exercise, balance..
G4S: You could have picked any number of sports, why cycling?
RC: Loved it as a kid and have always had some kind of bike. The choice to ride on a road bike was really to be able to cover longer distances in the time I had to cycle. I love the freedom and the solitude of being outside, and at the same time the camaraderie of cycling alongside others. I do a lot of my thinking while riding and it always sets me up for a great day when I ride into work. I have played sports all my life, namely badminton, hockey and football,but nothing compares to my passion for cycling. As for why I chose it in recent years, I think it offered me the best shot to get back into shape without losing interest.
G4S: A lot of people say they are going to get fit when they experience the same emotions you felt at your son’s graduation, but don’t follow up. Why do you think you were able to do it?
RC: Something just clicked. Sounds cliché, but I think I just hit rock bottom and was fed up of feeling lethargic, tired, out of shape, overweight, low self-esteem. As for why I was able to stick with it, I think that the early weight loss helped motivate me further and the bike I had purchased (Trek 7500 hybrid aluminum) really took me to a different level of enjoyment. I had never had a bike like that, and the pleasure of riding it made me want to make time in my day to exercise. Once I got into a regular routine, I then started to look at the art and science of cycling and how I could really improve as a “cyclist”. At that point, it became fun off the bike as well! I have a library of books and videos on cycling now.
G4S: How did you manage to build from zilch to 400k/week?
RC: In the beginning, I set a goal of increasing my weekly rides by 5km. Within the first month, I was able to do 20km rides which at the time I thought was monumental. By the third month I was able to do 50km rides but I won’t say it was easy. Then I started to push myself more by driving and cycling routes that I mapped out on the internet. One of my favourites in the Mississquoi rail trail in upstate Vermont. Last year, with a new road bike and post-chemo, I would average 60-100kms on my days off and about 60kms when I would ride into work, which I do now 7-8 months of the year. There are very few days when I have had “enough”. It’s the external factors that limit my rides, not physically being too tired to ride anymore.
G4S: What is your typical training schedule during the spring-summer-fall?
RC: Spring is strength building, intervals, spinning. Summer – longer rides, hills, endurance….As per schedule, during the outdoor season, I cycle 5-6 days a week. In the fall and winter I do indoor spinning at the gym 4 days a week. In the morning I do core exercises year round. Push-ups, planks, stretches, etc… And, I eat much better now.
G4S: You mentioned your trail in Vermont, what are some of your other routes?
I always track my routes with a GPS and keep them diarized. Also, I keep track of distances, calories burned, level of effort. I Have some cool apps for my iPhone that allow me to track my rides. I have several rides but the three that I do most often are:from my home in Beaconsfield:
- to work , round-trip 62 km
- Ile Perrot round trip about 65km
- Lachine Point back to Senneville and back river 85km
- Oka – Deux Montagnes 90-100kms.
G4S: You discovered you had cancer just six months after starting to cycle. How did you discover you had the disease?
RC: It was thanks to the weight loss. I was lying in bed late in the summer and felt a lump in my abdomen. It was strange and I had a feeling that this was something different and serious. I had already scheduled my yearly physical with my GP, but managed to bump it up. I wanted to see if he would find it before pointing it out, and he did. When he felt it, his composure changed and I knew something was not right. After an ultrasound that same morning, I was sent right back to my GP and he basically had called ahead to the hospital to say that I needed admitting. They suspected lymphoma in Stage 4. The lump in my abdomen was only one of many lymph glands in my body that were enlarged. On a positive note, my Hematologist said that the weight loss from cycling might have saved my life as I would never had found the lump when weighing in at 265 lbs. My life changed that day, but in a way it had to. I was in bad shape and didn’t know it.
G4S: How long from diagnosis to end of treatment?
RC: About 6 months till the end of chemo, but I am still on a post-chemo maintenance program for 2 years. Every three months I spend a day at the hospital and they administer a monoclonal antibody which helps to prevent any recurrence of the one particular cell that causes my type of lymphoma. I am told that my type is incurable but treatable, so I try and really make the best of every day. The long-term prognosis is cloudy but I have made the choice to beat the odds by leading an active, healthy lifestyle. I feel great now and am very strong both physically and mentally. Having to go to the hospital every three months for an injection reminds you that you’re still in the program, but I really try and not let that get the better of me. I try and cycle the same day I have my treatments. It keeps me strong and focused.
G4S: Cancer survivors commonly talk about the initial shock when hearing the “c” word. What do you remember about the first few hours (or days?) as the news sank in?
RC: Oh boy. I remember having to go back to my GP’s office from having the ultrasound and instead of going into an examining room he pulled me into his office. I knew it wasn’t good. When he told me they suspected a malignant lymphoma, I didn’t really react but the walk over to the hospital was surreal. It was like I was floating. I remember calling my wife, sounding very confused, scared. At that time, they couldn’t confirm for sure what it was until administering a ct-scan, so there was hope, but I knew it wasn’t good. Just had a feeling. When they finally confirmed the diagnosis, they gave me hope in that they said it was treatable, so I decided at that point to really focus on how I wanted the outcome to be. In hindsight, the disease has allowed me to have a different, more positive perspective on life.
G4S:In what way did your new-found interest in cycling impact your attitude in dealing with the cancer?
RC: It has allowed me to remain both physically and mentally strong, especially in my recovery from the chemo. Getting on the bike as soon as I could really helped me get back into shape so much quicker. It was an awfully good motivator to try and get through the treatments, knowing that when I got the clear from the doctors, I could ride again. I tried to use my stationary bike during chemo but it was tough so I walked as much as I could. While I was off work, I spent a ton of time reading up on the sport. That in itself fuelled my interest even more in the sport.
G4S: You are in remission. What is your prognosis?
RC: I have a non-aggressive type of non-hodgkins lymphoma that has no cure, but is kept under control with the use of a monoclonal antibody. I am told that there is a high probability of relapse but that there are ways of treating it if that were to happen. So the long term prognosis is cloudy, and I prefer to not spend too much time on the internet researching the disease. It always leads me to something I don’t want to hear. On the other hand, I thrive on the success stories and love to hear when people overcome the odds. So, for now, I do my best to make every day count. I feel great, I’m strong, I cycle a ton, my family is healthy and I live with hope and gratitude.
G4S: How long did you stay off the bike during treatment?
RC: I actually used a stationary bike during chemo, although I was not that strong, and I tried to walk as much as I could. I wasn’t able to ride outside as my balance was a bit off. I was off the bike for about 6 months.
G4S: You were just getting started with the cycling when the cancer hit, how did you continue making contact with the cycling world?
RC: During my chemo, I started researching the science and art of cycling, went to the Montreal Bike show then when I was given my all-clear in March 2010, joined the Beaconsfield Cycling club. I also love the cycling magazines from the UK so they kept me company when I was at home between treatments.
G4S: Running a restaurant is a demanding line of work. What happened to your work during that period?
RC: I didn’t work during the day as I had to be careful that my immune system did not get compromised, but I did all the paperwork and went in after hours to check on things. My staff were wonderful and my business partner ran the day-to-day. I went into the store a few days a week but in general I was working from home. The one thing I never got to do while working was to read the paper in the morning. While off work, I really looked forward to that and doing the daily crossword with my wife. A good friend of mine who is a marathon runner met me once a week at Starbucks to get my mind off things. That was nice.
G4S: You are a well-known figure on Greene avenue, with hundreds of regulars at your restaurant. What has their reaction been to the changes you’ve been through?
RC: They have been so wonderful. I can’t tell you how supportive they have been during my treatments, and since getting back to work. I get constant encouragement from them for the progress I’ve made, which certainly is a motivator. It has also helped immensely with my self-esteem.
G4S: Your family has also been deeply affected. What changes have you seen in them?
RC: We all decided when the prognosis was made that we would try to lead as normal a life as possible. There was always hope so we let our kids know that. As for changes, I think we all eat better and are aware of the choices we make that can affect our health. They have been very supportive of my cycling, and I truly believe we are all leading healthier lifestyles now.
G4S: A lot of people define themselves through sport and exercise. In what way has your cycling changed the way you see yourself?
RC: I see myself now as someone who is able to have the strength to take on challenges without backing down. It has also helped me immensely in overcoming a feeling of low self-esteem which I had for years. It is a connection to something I truly love that luckily has incredible health benefits.
G4S: I want to go back to the Gatineau Grand Prix, and the fact that you pushed yourself to such an extreme. Why do you think you did that, and why do you think you were able to push through?
R.C. I was not going to come home without crossing the finish line. To me, there was no other option. Never once did I want to give up, so I had to find ways to deal with the pain. Once my thigh started to seize up, I kept thinking about that last 2km climb. All I had to do was get to the top somehow and then I knew I could finish the race. So I kept telling myself that all I had to do was get up that hill one last time and then I could handle the pain until the end. Why did I push myself so hard? I guess I just had to prove to myself that I could do it. No excuses this time. I was going to do it. I set out with a personal goal, not necessarily to win. I exceeded my goal. I’m ecstatic with my result. It was the most pain and elation of any sporting event I’ve ever participated in. I’m already looking for my next cyclo-sportive to do!
Robert Callard is taking part in the Ride to Conquer Cancer, July 9-10, 2011. If you want to know more about the event, and how you can support the cause, please visit his personal page and blog: