“There isn’t much I can do,” the orthopaedic surgeon said. “I could cut away your meniscus, but you’ll develop arthritis in 10 years. I don’t want to do that.
“The best you can do is alter your lifestyle. If it hurts after an hour of cycling, maybe just stop cycling after an hour.”
I walked out of that consulting room deflated. For several months, I’d suffered a mysterious pain in my left knee. I’d barely ridden, giving it every chance to recover. Whenever I hopped on a bike, the pain returned within 30 minutes.
And so, it seemed, I’d just have to live with it.
No more racing. No more long rides. No keeping up with clubmates. Forever confined to slow, painful shuffles to and from the shops. Life in a cycling straitjacket.
On one level, it was a relief to identify the problem. The meniscus is a piece of cartilage that sits between the femur (thigh bone) and tibia (shin bone). It acts as a cushion where two bones would otherwise be rubbing and rattling against each other.
My meniscus was torn towards the outside of the knee, known as a lateral tear. As a related problem, I also had fluid-filled cysts in my knee, which showed up as white patches on the MRI. Knowing what was causing the pain gave me some closure.
More confusing was how I injured it. Torn menisci are usually associated with the twisting forces of sports like basketball, oztag and hockey. The linear up-and-down motion of pedalling doesn’t strain the knee in that way. In fact, physiotherapists usually recommend cycling to patients recovering from knee injuries. I’m only 27 years old—surely too young to have knee problems?
When I put this to the surgeon, he answered: “This tearing is degenerative. You have a defective meniscus.” In other words, hard luck—you were born with a weak knee and you’ll die with one.
So, what now? Nothing could be done medically. Could I ever ride again at the same level?
You know, cyclists can be stupidly single-minded. Hence these stubborn exchanges with my wife, who is a doctor:
Wife: You’ll just have to accept you won’t be able to ride competitively anymore.
Wife: You need to look after your meniscus so you don’t get arthritis in 15 years.
Me: I’d rather ride for 15 years and get arthritis than spend the rest of my life not riding at all.
Me: What’s the point of having a meniscus if I can’t use it for cycling?
Wife: So you can use it for other things, like walking.
Me: I don’t need to walk, I’ll just cycle everywhere.
Wife: I think you’ll find you walk more often than you cycle.
Me: Walking is just a means of getting to and from the bike.
Now that I knew surgery wasn’t an option, I thought about adjusting my riding to manage the pain.
Three things came to mind:
- Get a professional bike fit. I’d make sure I was pedalling the bike correctly and not twisting my knee, which could exacerbate the pain.
- See a physio. They could help me with leg strength to stabilise my knee and reduce pressure on the joint.
- Gradually build back into cycling. I’d take it easy at first, then increase duration and intensity over time to see how far my knee can go without hurting.
That was three months ago. I’ve had my bike fit and started seeing a physio. I’m happy to report that so far, things look good. I haven’t raced yet—that will come with time—but I’ve been commuting several days a week and tried a few harder group rides, all pain-free.
It’s too early to know how far I can go, whether I can still reach my cycling goals. Perhaps the pain will return. But I won’t let my enjoyment of cycling die in that consulting room.