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Long Covid cyclist completes Etape Loch Ness carrying oxygen tank

63-year-old Gerard McLarnon spent 70 days in hospital with Covid, but battled through the 66-mile route with the help of "a healthy dose of sheer bloody mindedness"...

A cyclist who spent 70 days in hospital with Covid-19 in 2020 finally achieved his goal of completing the Etape Loch Ness, riding the 66-mile sportive with an oxygen tank on his back.

Gerard McLarnon completed the route, alongside friends from County Antrim club Creggan Wheelers and his two younger brothers in a little over six hours, after event organisers had arranged for him to have access to oxygen, which he carried on his back.

"Although I am pretty much back to normal, I do still need oxygen for intense physical activity like cycling," he told event staff at the finish of an emotional day. 

"I am grateful to the organisers for assisting me and I am indebted to and proud of my fellow Creggan Wheelers who stuck by me today, as they have over the last two years."

The father of three was training for the 2020 event when he was admitted to hospital on March 31 having caught Covid.

Gerard's hospital stay lasted 70 days, 57 of which were under the care of the ITU (intensive therapy unit) and included 40 days on a ventilator.

"I firmly believe that training for the Etape in 2020 saved my life. Had I not had that level of fitness to fight Covid, it would have been a different story," he explained.

"This is a really emotional day for me. I had planned to do the Etape Loch Ness along with my fellow riders in Creggan Wheelers back in 2020 and had been training for it. Then I was admitted to hospital on March 31 where I was to remain for 70 days.

"We set out together and we finished together. It is this team spirit and a healthy dose of sheer bloody mindedness that has got me through!

"This was the big one for me and it shows how far I have come. The final stage of recovery will be losing the oxygen supply – that is my next goal, but I know I have to be patient."

The 66-mile (106km) event started and finished in Inverness, and saw a record 6,100 participants sign up this year. It features 900m (2953ft) of vertical gain, boosted by the timed King of the Mountain checkpoint out of Fort Augustus – a 4.8-mile (9km) climb up 380m and peaking at 12 per cent.

Gerard had to relearn basic tasks, such as walking and talking, following his discharge from hospital, and his younger brother John, who also completed the ride as one of the 14 Creggan Wheelers representatives, said there were times when they feared the worst.

"There were many times when Gerard was in hospital in Belfast that we were told he wasn't going to make it, so to see him complete the Etape today is absolutely incredible," he said.

In the summer of 2020, Gerard returned home from hospital to crowds of fellow Creggan Wheelers, as well as neighbours and friends from Kickham's Gaelic Athletic Club.

Dan is the news editor and has spent the past four years writing stories and features, as well as (hopefully) keeping you entertained on the live blog. Having previously written about nearly every other sport under the sun for the Express, and the weird and wonderful world of non-league football for the Non-League Paper, Dan joined in 2020. Come the weekend you'll find him labouring up a hill, probably with a mouth full of jelly babies, or making a bonk-induced trip to a south of England petrol station... in search of more jelly babies.

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