Head For Change
Even with upwards of 74,000 baying fans packed into a rugby stadium, the sound of two giants coming together in a full-blooded tackle is enough to make you wince. But in a silent, Covid-era ground, that crunch becomes almost unbearable. It’s as if you can feel the air being smashed out of a player’s lungs as he’s hit by an opposing 17-stone monster.
Back in his day, Welshman Alix Popham was renowned for his ferocious tackling. Just ask Wasps’ Johnny O’Connor, who collided with Popham in the 46th second of a match in 2006, a clash that saw the end of O’Connor’s contribution.
With his mop of bleach-blond hair, Popham was one of the most recognisable stars of his era. Captain of French side Brive. Capped by Wales. It was a fantastic career in a sport he loved. Injury, as with many pro-rugby players, cut his time in the sport short.
“I recognised when I retired that I needed to do something to keep me in shape,” Alix says, when we speak on the phone. “Not just in the body, but in the mind. One of the things I missed from rugby was the banter and cycling gives me that. I go out with a couple of groups and it’s more about the chatting and enjoying the ride than the speed."
Around 18 months ago, however, Alix discovered the true damage of rugby’s brutality. His wife, Mel, noticed his concentration slipping and that he was forgetting things, mixing words up and not able to read books. Matters reached a tipping point in September 2019, after Alix got lost on a bike ride.
“It was a loop that I’d done a hundred times,” he says. “Suddenly, I just didn’t know where I was and it was quite a scary moment. Mel insisted I go to the doctor.” Following tests, Alix was diagnosed with early onset dementia. Along with a group of other former players, he has since joined a landmark legal case against the Welsh Rugby Union, RFU and World Rugby, for alleged negligence. Maybe it’s the determination needed to get to the top of elite sport that has helped, but the 41-year-old is not dwelling on the impact of this disease that will no doubt end his life far too early and will have a profound impact on his remaining years.
A lot of this positivity he puts down to Head for Change, the charity he has helped to set up providing support to players, in both rugby and football. The charity is inviting anyone to join a 24 hour Zwift event to raise awareness for the cause, riding alongside Geraint Thomas, and host of rugby stars, The Rugby Ride Challenge.
“I’ve cycled ever since finishing rugby,” Alix explains. “As somebody with early onset dementia, the neurologists and all the research out there say it’s really important for the brain to keep active. Ballroom dancing is also supposed to be good – but I’ve not been asked to go on Strictly yet.
“When you cycle you feel good, you eat better; if I miss a day, I don’t feel as good or as positive. I have to go out with a group now after getting lost, and so indoor training on Zwift has been brilliant. Living in Wales, we have amazing countryside around us. The fresh air is amazing, listening to the birds, all stuff I would have probably poked fun at when I was playing but not now. It’s all the little one percents that will help to keep me here a little longer.”
Alix is frank about his condition. “My prognosis is a little unknown, the trajectory of how the symptoms get worse is unknown. My doctor gave me a 5–10-year management plan. But with the exercise, the diet, and all the other things, that should slow down the progression and that’s why I’m keen to do everything I can, to be here for as long as possible.
“Everything revolves around the disease for our family now,” Alix says. “The bigger picture for me is whether the events and the testing can prove I’ve slowed down the progression of the symptoms, which well then hopefully help the wider public. Exercising three times a week and enjoying a healthier lifestyle will help everybody live longer with a better quality of life and improved mental health.”
Mental health issues are not a new thing for people ending careers in elite sport. In 2018, an investigation titled State of Sport found more than half of former professional sportspeople had concerns about their mental or emotional wellbeing following retirement. Chris Cracknell is another professional rugby player who was forced to retire due to injury – and cycling has become key to him staying fit, both physically and mentally.
“Speaking to a lot of the guys,” Chris says, “we can’t really go to the gym or go running, because our bodies are so broken from rugby, but we can go out on our bikes. We all found it gave us clarity and peace away from things, and some thinking space. Cycling has become a mainstay for a lot of ex pros.”
Chris’s career saw him play for Cornish Pirates, Bath and Worcester Warriors before focussing on the sevens format, representing England at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Like a number of former professionals, he was given the chance to move into coaching but that didn’t take away his desire to train.
“When I quit rugby there was part of me that wanted to prove I could be as fit as I was when I was playing,” he explains. “While coaching in Fiji, I got to the point where I was trying to compete with all the guys. Eventually, the physio told me to slow down as my body just couldn’t take it anymore. Cycling gave me a balance of ticking that box and going out every day, but it took me a long time to find that.
“Two or three years ago, I would be more neurotic about how much exercise I was doing, the times and distances. Cycling gives me the freedom to wander. I can just go and switch off, find that head space where I feel free.” To that end, Chris recently borrowed a Pearson Off Grid, to experience the additional freedom a gravel bike offers.
“I spent one hour of a two-hour ride with my brother, just trying to go up one section of a hill,” Chris says, “falling off, repeating it and never succeeding. We lost all sense of time and came home covered in more mud than I ever did in 80 minutes of rugby.”
The 24-hour Rugby Ride Challenge, in aid of Head for Change, is taking place on 6th and 7th March. It will be led by Alix Popham, who plans to ride the full 24 hours. The event is also supported by 2018 Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas OBE, as well as 100 former rugby internationals, including Chris, and other celebrity and sporting ambassadors.
Find out here how you can join the Rugby Ride Challenge on Zwift.
Contribute to Alix's JustGiving page here >