Alix Popham might not be a name recognised in the world of cycling, but for those into rugby, they’ll have certainly heard his name crop up over the years, having won 33 caps for Wales and played in two World Cups in a distinguished career spanning 13 years. However, in 2011, at the age of 31, Popham retired from professional rugby due to a shoulder injury. The sport he played for so many years had undoubtedly left its mark on Popham, but not quite in the way he had expected.
In 2019 out on a 25-mile bike ride, taking the route he had done countless times before, Popham had a complete memory blank. He didn’t know where he was, how to get home, or how he got there. “I rang Mel [Popham’s wife] and we decided the best way to come home was to go back the way I had directly come,” he told Rouleur. “That led me to go to the doctors the following day, and then that led to nine months of testing and receiving the diagnosis of early onset dementia.”
The consultant told Popham that it was likely that in his professional career he would have suffered from a minimum of 100,000 sub-concussions, and that is only within his professional career. Popham explained that he had been playing rugby since he was four years old – tackling at full force in several training sessions every week, and then playing in big games every weekend. The result of the early onset dementia and probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy, at just the age of 40, was the build up of every single contact causing slight damage to his brain.
Popham now has lost large chunks of his career from his memory and his home life with his wife Mel and three daughters has changed dramatically to deal with Popham’s diagnosis. Having heard from fellow teammates that they were experiencing the same symptoms, Popham and eight other former Rugby Union players filed a claim against the game’s authorities for negligence. He also started his campaign, Head for Change, after realising that there was little information or support for those going through the same diagnosis as himself at such a young age, leaving people lonely, confused, and without purpose. The campaign’s aim is to create a safe space for those in sport, past, present and future, and connect with leading scientists and researchers to make positive and important changes across all different sports. This is where his love for the bike comes into play.
While he does most of these challenges to raise money and awareness of Head for Change and sports-related brain injuries, there is so much more to cycling than just riding for him. “It gives me a lot of emotions. If I am just going to go out and do a quick spin for an hour by myself, it just gives me that time to switch off and enjoy some stunning scenery, or if I go out with a group of friends, you can just chat rubbish and take the mick out of each other, and that was what rugby was a lot of the time. Once you lose that, you miss it,” he said. “I never thought in my life that I would start talking to people about how nice this tarmac is but that is where I am at.”
When he was a pro rugby player, Popham would cycle as a way to keep fit, but would only go out for short, sharp sessions rather than long endurance rides. However, since his retirement and the start of his campaign, Popham has taken on a number of challenges on two wheels, where distance has been the main focus.
“When I finished [rugby], I did a ride called Battle 2 Brive and that is where the bug for long distance, 100-mile bike rides comes from,” he said. Since then, he’s completed a number of challenges, including Ride Across America three times, Ride for Doddy, organised and completed a brutal 24-hour cycling challenge in lockdown that saw him on Zwift for hours on end, as well as, most recently, Ride to Lyon with cycling superstar Geraint Thomas, who has supported Popham’s campaign since its inception.
The goal of having a challenge ahead of him has helped him to navigate his diagnosis, but he is quick to note that he is not a professional athlete. “I don’t want to know my wattage or my FTP. All I want to know is how far I have gone and how many calories I have burned, and I'm happy. You can get too caught up in the data and I did that for 15, 14 years as a rugby player, so I don’t want to go into that detail now. And with my mindset, I know, if I know the figures, I will just want to beat them, and I don’t want to be losing sleep over it.”
Thankfully, Popham has never experienced the same “pretty scary” memory blackout he experienced when he went out on his bike before his diagnosis, but he noted that there was a lot going on at the time with a stacked diary and a lot of confusion of not knowing what was happening inside his brain. Now Popham has worked out what works best for him and his symptoms, alongside the help of a five to 10-year management plan supplied to him by the doctors and consultants he has worked with since his diagnosis.
Raising awareness of brain-related injuries in not only rugby but all other sports is vital for him, and working with athletes such as fellow Welshman Geraint Thomas is an important factor for driving change and educating different governing bodies about the impact of concussion and other head-related injuries. Only recently did Popham himself suffer another concussion from being kicked in the head during the swim leg of an ironman in Tenby. “You couldn’t write it. I was raising awareness and funds for Head for Change and I got bloody concussion,” he said.
“It was quite hard after though as I really had to practise what I was preaching by not coming back to training too quickly and implementing the return to sport protocol. Thankfully, I didn’t have any reaction.”
Concussions are sadly commonplace in sport, especially sports such as rugby and cycling. It shouldn’t be something that is overlooked and left until it becomes a worst case scenario like Popham is now having to live with, having his future plans and dreams taken away from him. With Head for Change, however, Popham has been able to not only help himself but others who are experiencing the same thing by offering them support through friendships, challenges and research.
Now 43, Popham may not be able to prevent his condition from worsening in years to come, but he is preventing tomorrow’s athletes from just having to deal with concussion and its potentially devastating consequences. Instead, he will have given athletes, governing bodies, and those working on brain-related sporting injuries the knowledge and drive to protect our sporting heroes.