For me, 2010 was the year of The Risk. I had uprooted myself from my home, work and life in Chicago, Illinois to study abroad for a year in London, England. I was lost back in the states, not knowing who I was or what I wanted, a result of several years of job burn-out and multiple, drama-ridden relationships. Some of my friends had hinted that I was actually running away from my problems; but I knew that even if that were the case, I wasn’t happy where I was. I had to risk everything for my wellbeing or regret doing nothing. And that attitude is what ultimately landed me on a bike, cycling 280 miles in 3 days, in the middle of a storm.
I am pedalling furiously on my bicycle on a high bridge in the Netherlands. Rain is hitting my sunglasses and soaking through the layers of body armor and an all-weather jacket. At 30 mph, I have only one thought: do not fall.
32 other cyclists are in various positions and speeds around me, all riding to raise money for a non-profit theatre company called Cardboard Citizens. I have worked for the Citz as an intern to fulfil a requirement for my Masters degree in London. At this moment, I am supposed to be in London, holed up in my flat, researching and writing my dissertation that is due in two weeks. Instead, I have raised £1500 to cycle to Amsterdam through a total of 4 countries and 280 miles in 3 days. We are on day 3. My breath is steady as I concentrate through the droplets. I have never in my life ridden this far on a bike.
A week before our departure, I started flipping out. What the hell was I thinking? Leaving in the middle of my dissertation for a 280-mile bike ride? I couldn’t even conceptually understand that number, much less imagine myself completing the journey. My “training” had consisted of cycling around London, visiting the Notting Hill area once a week to go up what I considered a really steep incline. I had missed my only opportunity to do a long distance practice ride due to illness. And despite taking all precautions by purchasing absolutely every item on our guide’s “to-pack” list, including 2 extra tubes of chamie cream, I was seriously doubting myself and my sanity.
As Day 1 began, I started off in the “slow” group (10-15 mph), as I wasn’t sure I could keep up a higher speed. However, by the first stop on our trip, I had moved up to the middle or “fast” group (20-25 mph). As we travelled down through southern England, I fought my way up truly steep inclines that bitch-slapped Notting Hill, and relished in the freefall of a well-earned decline. I felt the actual purpose of energy bars, gels and drinks coursing through my body, and swore never again to just eat them because I was hungry at 3 p.m. By the end of the first day, I was knackered, refusing to climb the last hill in the middle of lush Dover foliage, instead opting for a ride to our accommodations. But I had made it through the first day of cycling about 80 miles. London and my doubts seemed so much smaller.
Our agenda for the Day 2 was at least 100 miles through three countries: starting in Dunkerque, France (to which we took a ferry from Dover in the morning), through Belgium, and ending in Middelburg, The Netherlands. The journey was expected to be grueling, but the near-perfect weather softened the miles. We cycled along Belgium’s canals with a surprise pub stop by a picturesque windmill. We sang Beatles songs while enjoying the ease of our slipstreams. We even laughed at carrying our bikes through the mud and darkness to the hotel, where we finished off the last of our 120 miles with wine and chicken dinner.
Now in Day 3, we are firmly planted in the southern Netherlands. The weather is threatening rain, but we are spared for the morning. So we fly along the Noordzee Cycle Route, topping 36 miles an hour. I receive the gift of a tailwind and effortlessly sail along the path. The sun peaks out and lights up the environment around me: rolling blue ocean backed by opulent sand and lush prairie grasses. As I pedal, I remove a camera from the back pocket of my jacket, hold it at arm’s length, and snap a picture of myself. My smile is huge. I feel great. Here I am in the home stretch, Day 3, almost to Amsterdam. I don’t really care that I left in the middle of my dissertation or that I double-packed all the suggested items; nothing of that matters here. I gaze up at some thickening clouds in the distance and realize I am truly content.
Within an hour, the thickening clouds turn into a downpour, and everyone is immediately soaked to the bone. We break for a light mid-morning snack, but it’s quick. Our guides say we don’t want to stop for long, but rather try and outride the weather. I huddle inside the food van that follows us, attempting to dry out a little before getting back on my seat. As our group takes off, I realize that I hate cycling in the rain more than anything.
Getting ahead of the weather starts to seem like an impossible task. The showers won’t let up, and we approach a long stretch of a tram bridge. The rain has made the concrete slick like glass. Deeply embedded tracks run down the middle of the bridge. I feel anxiety rise up in my chest. I bring my concentration back to pedalling and breath, settling into a tense, meditative state. The rain starts coming down harder as I work to keep pace. With each spin of my feet I chant, Do not fall, Do not fall, Do not fall.
Everyone around me is struggling. We should stop, but there is no cover. One of our guides has ridden further up and doubled back, shouting to let us know that the rain is clearing near the end of the bridge. Only a couple miles or so to go. I register his words with a slight nod of my head. I don’t want to chance any unnecessary movement.
I watch our guide position himself in front to lead our group to safety when I feel my handlebars twist sharply out of my hands. In mere seconds I realize my front tire is caught in the tram tracks, and that I am hurtling towards the hard, wet cement. Then there is no more thinking. The left side of my body hits the ground, chest first, with a jarring impact. The bouncing of my helmet follows as I slide a few feet from my bike and lay motionless.
I cannot breathe. My first coherent thought is that I’m having a heart attack. The second is that a rib has punctured my lung. I am paralyzed. Our guide and several other cyclemates surround me, asking if I can hear them. I lie there telling them I am having trouble breathing and they say the doctor is on the way. They tell me to stay with them, talking to me about anything. I learn I was the first of four cyclists to fall independently; we went down, one after the other, like dominos.
The doctor comes. I am able to breathe a little more easily, but still feel numb. Shock and disassociation are strong, and I only respond with mumbles and nods, staring up at the clouded sky. Rain falls silently on my face and it is cold. After a few minutes, my fellow cyclists carefully move me to the side of the bridge where I can sit and be further evaluated. The doctor finds some bloodied scrapes on my legs and arms, but not many. My layers of clothing saved my skin from being shorn off. There are no broken bones or unbearable pains when moving my limbs. I just feel stiff and achy. The doctor says the worst thing I seem to be suffering from is shock.
They put me in the doctor’s van and wrap me in a blanket. I shiver violently, unable to generate any warmth. Outside the van our guide discusses the multiple accidents with the doctor. The other cyclists are back on their bikes – I was the worst fall of the four. They decide the weather has cleared up enough, and the group should continue on. I am told to rest as much as I need, eat a lot of sugar and drink water.
I ride with the doctor in the passenger side seat. Eventually, I start feeling grounded again, back in my body, but I am exhausted. About 3 hours go by and we arrive at a dock where we need to take a ferry into the northern Netherlands. I get out of the van and slowly walk to what looks like a nearby restaurant to change my clothes. The restaurant turns out to be a combination casino and strip club, but flashing lights and naked women are the least of my concerns. I’m focused more on removing my clothing that I haven’t changed since the fall. In the bathroom I begin to peel the layers of body armour off my skin, inspecting the newly formed bruises and abrasions. Along with a dry set of clothing, I brought talcum powder to soak up any wetness. The white powder scatters all over the bathroom floor, spilling out from underneath the door. A woman enters, pushes the powder suspiciously with her foot and leaves. She must have thought it was cocaine.
Back in the van, I fall asleep as we cross on the ferry. When I wake up, I feel tested but resilient. I want to get back on my bike and ride the rest of the way to Amsterdam. The group is taking a lunch break while the doctor checks me over and gives me his approval. I wander back into my cycling group, greeted enthusiastically by my friends. Our guide hands me a peanut butter sandwich and a banana, both of which I devour immediately. The food makes me feel somewhat human again. My friends are concerned about me riding, but I assure them it’s ok, that I can do it. I shake off the last of my fall and push off with 32 other bikes, 32 other comrades who had stumbled, fallen and gotten back up again just like me. And when we end our ride in Dam Square that night, I cheer with everyone, ringing my bell, knowing the risk was worth the fall.