Completing the cycle: boyfriend's death keeps biker going

Julia Keenlyside gets up at an insane hour to train as a tribute to her late boyfriend, who dreamed of riding a Tour de France course, writes Rachel Jacqueline

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 June, 2013, 10:29am

When Julia Keenlyside's alarm clock goes off at 5am, she no longer rolls over and goes back to sleep. Ever since her boyfriend Dan Bagshaw collapsed and died at the finish line of the Hong Kong ITU Triathlon in October, she has adopted his passion for cycling.

"I'm a lot more motivated these days," Keenlyside says.

For the past six months, she has been waking up at dawn to log a couple of hours before going to work.

"I never used to like cycling. It seemed like a lot of effort," she admits.

But now she's planning to complete Bagshaw's dream - to ride a Tour de France route. So next month, she and 35 of his family, friends and colleagues will cycle 989 kilometres over seven stages near the end of this year's race, up and down the Alps for a total elevation gain of more than 15,000 metres.

The challenge is part of the charity event called Tour de Force. Funds raised will be shared between the event's official charity, William Wates Memorial Fund, and the Daniel Bagshaw Memorial Trust, which Keenlyside and Bagshaw's two brothers set up in October.

"I was going to support Dan and go on a holiday in France," says Keenlyside, a corporate lawyer at Linklaters in Hong Kong. "But I was never that serious about it."

Even before she began taking riding seriously, Keenlyside was already an accomplished athlete, winning her age group in duathlons and triathlons in Hong Kong. Since deciding to commit to the Tour de Force, she has focused all her energy on being the best cyclist she can be.

She's taken some serious falls in the process. Three months ago, she collided with a scooter during a morning ride, catapulting off her bike and breaking her wrist.

"All I could think - apart from the pain - was how am I going to train now?" she says.

For those who know Keenlyside, her positive approach and making the most of life's challenges come as no surprise. "Julia is an intelligent, fun and vivacious young lady," says training partner and lawyer Sam Brown.

Throwing herself into the charity project has proved to be a therapeutic outlet for Keenlyside, a way of dealing with her tragic loss.

It's also a way to indulge her competitive streak - something Bagshaw had always encouraged. "She has a steely determination," says Brown, 29.

It was a quality the pair shared. Despite coming from a less-than-privileged family background, Bagshaw, 27, worked hard at university before going on to law school and then becoming a lawyer, also working at Linklaters.

Bagshaw was always training with a goal in mind; he trekked to Everest base camp in October 2011, ran two marathons, competed in several triathlons and twice cycled the Etape du Tour, an annual one-day amateur race over a stage of the Tour de France.

The exact cause of Bagshaw's death is unknown, though it is presumed Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome is to blame.

The rare heart condition caused by an irregular heartbeat affects three young people a week in Britain and 4,000 a year in the US. Those most at risk are healthy adults aged 30 to 39, according to the British National Audit of Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome.

The syndrome is relatively unknown in Hong Kong, says Shirley Chan, founder of Sads HK Foundation, which is being formally launched this month. Chan lost her 31-year-old son, Dwayne Chow, almost a year ago because of the condition.

"After my son's passing, it took me a few months to find out about the syndrome," says Chan. "If we had known about this condition earlier, I wonder whether more lives could have been saved."

The foundation's mission is to raise awareness of the syndrome in the community and within the medical profession, as well as conducting research.

Under the Daniel Bagshaw Memorial Trust, Keenlyside and Bagshaw's brothers plan to hold two fundraising events a year - one social, the other a physical challenge - reflecting both his gregarious character and adventurous sprit. In March, they held a charity ball that 250 people attended, and raised HK$125,000. The memorial trust will allocate most of its funds to raising awareness of the syndrome in Hong Kong.

"The syndrome is not widely known, especially in places like Hong Kong," says Keenlyside. "There is a lot of scope for trying to increase the number of young people tested for rare heart defects, especially those at high genetic risk, and for advancing the medical treatment techniques when something like this does happen."

The trust will also provide financial bursaries for children from Bagshaw's hometown to help foster talent like his.

"What happened to Dan seemed like such a pointless waste of such a talented guy with everything to live for," Keenlyside says.

Mark Thompson, one of Bagshaw's best friends at work and law school, is taking part in the Tour de France. Bagshaw had bugged him to join in.

"I had been on the fence about it because it required such a huge commitment, both physically and financially," says Thompson. But upon learning of his friend's death, the decision became obvious.

"I couldn't shake the idea that I needed to do it. On a personal level, it is quite cathartic to go training and just ride for hours. I didn't want his death to be a complete waste, so raising money for the charity and for the memorial trust means at least something good can come of his death," he says.

Keenlyside agrees. "I think about him a lot when I'm cycling, and it really helps. I can imagine what he'd be saying and what we would be doing together," she says.

Although the Tour de Force journey next month will certainly be emotional and challenging, the riders will approach it in Bagshaw's signature style.

"Daniel was always of the view that there was nothing that could not be achieved through perseverance and commitment," says Thompson. "I'll keep that in mind when tackling those hills."

Check out Julia Keenlyside's blog here and support her cause here.