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14 Jul, 2016

Riding Changed My Life

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Four years ago Charles Zeelie found himself newly divorced, weighing in at a very overweight 142kg, and on a downward spiral, where all he seemed to want to do was eat and drink. Low on self-esteem, he knew he needed to do something to turn things around, but he was struggling to find the solution. It turned out that a bicycle was the answer, and that started him on the journey to claiming back his life. – BY ROXANNE MARTIN

Charles had always been healthy and enjoyed a sporty lifestyle. Living in Cape Town, he was always out and about and did the occasional cycle on his road bike. “I had a very healthy lifestyle,” he says, but when his marriage fell apart after just 18 months, his now ex-wife left him with the words, “You gross me out,” and with that Charles lost the drive he had to keep going. “I had given up on life,” says Charles who had found the comfort he had needed in food and alcohol.

Walking in shopping centres he found himself being looked down on by others, hearing them talk as he walked past, and he dreaded having to go anywhere. Even when he thought, “I need to start changing,” and made the step to go to Dis-Chem to look for supplements to start him on his journey, he was met with disapproving looks. “I felt like even the staff were looking at me and saying what are you doing here?” says Charles, and he battled to find the motivation he so badly needed to start the journey he so desperately needed to undertake.

 

The First Step

Then two months before the 2014 Momentum 94.7 Cycle Challenge, his cousin said to him, “You need to do this. Even if you start and don’t finish, you need to do this.” So Charles made the decision that he would give it a go, and with little time to get ready for a 100km ride, he thought, “To hell with it, I just want to finish this race.” Training at the gym on a spin bike in his PT shorts, he worked hard to get ready for race-day. To say he was unprepared was an understatement – he only bought his cycling kit the day before the race! So while he had taken the first step, Charles wasn’t fully committed yet, and he hadn’t left his bad habits behind, like eating pizza every night.

Nevertheless, Charles lined up for the ride, starting in the second-last batch of the day, and he knew it would be hard, especially as he was racing against the clock to make the cut-offs. However, something happened out on the route that changed not only how Charles saw life, but how he saw himself. “I had so many people encouraging me on route, it opened my eyes and showed me that people will support me no matter what,” says Charles. It was the first time that he was supported and encouraged because of his size, and it changed his outlook completely: “I made the decision that I need to change my life now!” Finishing the race in 6:35 was impressive, considering how little training Charles had done, and with that he decided life was going to change for the better.

 

A Complete 360

Now training began in earnest, gym being the first step as Charles wanted to get his weight down before he got back onto the bike. Six months later he joined the Eden Glen Cycling club and began with club rides. “I am really competitive,” explains Charles, and when he began with the club rides he found he was still too heavy and slow to be able to compete, but not disheartened, he went back to the gym with the focus to get his weight down still further. A few months later, Charles decided to give mountain biking a try, so he bought a bike and began riding and competing in races. This proved to be a good decision, as he began to drop the weight quicker that he needed to lose to get back on the road, and when he got to 110kg, he felt he was ready to make his comeback.

Every weekend he joined the club rides and it was here that he found the support base that he still calls on today. “I met some fantastic people and they encouraged me, gave me advice and helped me to keep going,” says Charles. It was a process of finding friends who would support his new lifestyle, to replace the bad friends that wanted to keep him out late and in the downward spiral. These new friends made on those first few club rides are still with him today, encouraging him and supporting him.

 

Undiscovered Talent

When Charles received an invite from a friend to ride the MTN Panorama Tour, his first big race, he was incredibly excited. “The camaraderie was excellent – on some of the really tough bits, the pro’s even came back to help, talked us through, encouraged us the whole way,” says Charles. He and his friend finished in the middle of the pack, and while this race had been about the experience and not so much the result, the bug had bitten and Charles wanted more. He also decided that he wanted to do this properly, which meant becoming a licensed rider.

A few months later he started the Lost City Cycle race as a VA Licensed rider, but what he expected and what actually happened… well, they were two different things. “I saw my ass completely,” laughs Charles. Over the next year he competed in more races and got his weight down to 97kg – a massive 45kg loss – but he realised that if he wanted to be more competitive in the category, he would need to lose still more weight, so he made his goal weight 78kg, which meant he had just under 20kg to go.

Today Charles weighs 79kg, having lost a staggering 63kg, and his favourite joke is to tell people that in relation to his weight-loss, “I have lost my ex-wife!” Seeing him today you would never equate him with someone who was so grossly overweight… the image just doesn’t seem to fit. He recently raced the Kremetart, a 175km road race in Louis Trichardt, placing 10th in the VA category and 17th overall, giving him added confidence an impetus for his competitive racing. His goal for the day was to stick it out with the big boys, and when they made the break, he went with them, to really see what he could do. “It really showed me that I can compete against the best in the country,” says Charles, “and shows that hard work pays off.”

 

Giving Back

In terms of future goals, Charles says his plans are simple: Ride a fast Amashova and qualify for the World Champs in his age category! Still, as lofty as his cycling goals may now sound, Charles has not forgotten where he came from and how hard it was not only to start, but to get where he is today. It is because of this experience that he wants to give back, and inspire people who are where he was just four years ago. When he is on club rides and he sees the slow riders, especially those that are just starting with the sport, he is always the first one to slow down, go back and give them encouragement to keep going. He always remembers how much help fellow riders gave him in his early days, and says, “You can change a life, so we should all do it.”

When asked what words he has for those that are just beginning their journey, he says he always comes back to a saying that he shares with those that he wants to encourage to keep believing in themselves: “Silence your critics through your actions and achievements.” Just as he did.