Race your bike for long enough and you’re sure to have a few bad days. I’ve certainly had my share, but I set a new high score (or, rather, low score) on stage 20 of this year’s Vuelta a Espana. I never wrote about it, though, in part because I didn’t fully understand what happened until this week.
Stages 19 and 20 of the Vuelta were on familiar roads — they visited the WorldTour’s favorite European training base: Calpe and the Costa Blanca, now notorious as the place of the crash.
The drive to the start of the stage 19 time trial was bizarre, since the last time I’d seen the landscape along the highway, I had just been discharged from the hospital and was intensely focused on the scenery to distract myself from the fear of the traffic zipping by all around us. I was so motivated for the time trial, however, that my return to the region didn’t seem to affect me. I managed a top-20 finish despite tired legs and allergies that had settled in my chest, and was encouraged to find that those roads weren’t an emotional trigger.
As a result, I let my guard down ahead of stage 20, which would pass just a few kilometers from the site of the crash. The race started and I was in trouble rather quickly, then dropped as soon as we reached the first climb. I was barely able to cling to the chase group, which didn’t regain contact with the main bunch until the feed zone. Just an hour later, the race exploded again and I suffered in the gruppetto for the remainder of the stage before eventually finishing a further 10 minutes back. That stage was the most I have ever suffered in a race — I spent six hours battling the urge to stop pedaling and get in the car. After crossing the finish line and finding my soigneurs, I stepped off my bike and immediately broke down, which is a surefire way to confuse people. After a few minutes, I was recomposed and able to ride down the mountain.
In my post-mortem of what went wrong that day, I credited most of the suffering to going too deep in the time trial, which killed my legs. Maybe I didn’t eat enough, and it had been a very tough year and my capacity for suffering was simply less. I didn’t put much on the idea that these roads were my Kryptonite — that they had a power over me.
That is, until our training camp this week, when I returned outside the bubble of a bike race.
Our arrival at the hotel kicked off a flood of memories: the driveway where I’d been helped into the passenger seat of the van; the stairs I’d used for rehab; the bike room where I’d found my shoes just where I left them before the ride; the dining room where I’d endured the first of many sidelong glances.
There was a very real sense of deja vu on the first training ride, and I was on an emotional compass. Aside from generally being on edge around traffic, I discovered after a couple of hours that every time we started riding toward the crash site, my heart rate would spike and my throat would begin to constrict. The engine room was shutting down, just as it had done that day in the Vuelta. The closer we got, the more it consumed my thoughts. I knew I needed to go back there, to unmask the boogeyman. Rationally, I knew there was nothing special about that section of road, that it had no sinister qualities, but there is no logic in emotion.
With my mind so fraught with these thoughts, it’s funny that it still managed to sneak up on me. We turned onto the road in an unusual place, disorienting me a bit. I thought I recognized the road, but wasn’t sure. Then we swept around the corner and all I saw were the images of the crash site superimposed over the scenery passing by me: that’s where the helicopter landed, the car was there, that’s the ditch we landed in. With that realization, I was covered in goosebumps.
Just as quickly, it was behind us, but that brief moment was all I needed to be free of that emotional baggage. The veil had been lifted — it was only a road where a terrible thing happened, and I finished the ride (and the camp) feeling a bit lighter. The next day, I returned once more, along with Max and Ramon. We stepped down into the ditch, reconstructing what happened, then picking up and dismissively tossing aside the pieces of a car headlight that had been left behind. I walked to where I’d lain for 45 minutes before the helicopter took me to surgery, relieved myself, and felt better in more ways than one.
Since then, I’ve passed by there a few more times. Each time, my head turned in a brief recollection as we rolled by, but those thoughts disappeared around the corner. I’m moving on, one step at a time.