Time to confront the bear in outdoor program safety; aligning what we now know with what we’re currently doing. One practitioner’s call to action.

bear

“Curriculum development, and our collective approach to facilitating learning in the outdoors has evolved significantly in the past few decades. However, in my opinion, the same cannot be said about how we manage risk. If we are honest, we’ll see that we are still teaching, promoting and defending positions relating to predicting and managing risk that were developed and advocated several decades ago. We still largely and wholeheartedly, hold onto the perspective that a well-trained individual, the instructor, is the determining factor in the safety outcomes of a program or activity.

For us, as outdoor education managers and leaders, our questions and intentions following an incident should not be to find out, why on earth our staff did what they did, but rather attempt to understand, why did it make sense for them at that time, to do what they did”.

Are we now willing, as a profession, to consider entering into alternative dialogues in relation to how we choose to understand accidents, and identify sources of risk in our work”?


The attached article provides an alternative and insightful perspective to identifying and managing sources of risk in a way that aligns with what the wider field of safety science now understands about how and why accidents happen. Using learnings from safety-critical domains such as aviation, healthcare and transportation, the author offers practical and implementable strategies for those involved in  the design, planning and implementation of outdoor education and recreation experiences.

Download article here and feel free to share amongst colleagues and friends.

Clare-Dallat-2017-Time-to-confront-the-bear-in-Outdoor-Progam-Safety.pdf


Clare has over twenty years of field and management experience in facilitated outdoor experiences, and is currently completing her PhD in Human Factors (risk assessment) at the Centre for Human Factors and Sociotechnical Systems, The University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia (www.hf-sts.com). She is the Head of Innovation at The Outdoor Education Group.(www.oeg.org.au)

rafting

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“You’re one of us and your job now is to get better”… Remarkable words from the big boss at Bicycle Superstore to a broken athlete

Have you ever had a conversation with someone where you can look back and almost feel, smell and touch it; the relevance of every word being so impactful on your senses?

Alright alright, before you dial some numbers to check in on me, or call my neighbour to have them knock on my door, be assured that I’m completely lucid, alert and oriented and the cocktails of Valium, Endone and other such opiates have long since been ingested into my type A+ bloodstream.

I’m referring to one such conversation I had, pretty much twelve months ago to the day. One that I can still hear every word, and I can even remember what I was wearing. It’s almost strange to say it but it feels a bit like remembering where I was the night Princess Diana was killed (in a bushcamp in the middle of the Canadian wilderness. Another story for another day…).

A simple fall
In February 2014, I was firmly planted in a wheelchair (ironically called “Karma” – who the hell made that marketing decision?) with a badly broken hip, bashed up knee and a dislocated shoulder to boot. A few weeks before I suffered the above injuries after falling off my bike. I had made the normally four hour journey from Melbourne to Bright in eight after many stops, sleeps, drugs and tears. To top it all off, my mother had flown over from Ireland to look after me after my bike crash and was, bless every inch of her, driving. Let’s just say though, for a self-confessed control freak like myself, giving the keys to someone who is more used to the single lanes of Ireland and not Friday afternoon Melbourne traffic, or the B-doubles flying past on the Hume Highway, the extra Valium we packed came in handy. Surrounded by the beautiful High Country, long, lung-busting climbs awaited the rest of my Bicycle Superstore Women’s Road teammates; affectionately known as the Fluoro Army, on our first training camp of the year.

Less than one month earlier, I had been like they were now; tanned from the warm summer sun, fit as a fiddle and completely focused on my cycling goals for the year. I was more likely to think about whether I’d go for the scrambled or the poached eggs after my ride, or if I’d have that third coffee before heading home to nap off the intervals I’d just been prescribed by my coach. I’d probably be talking some rubbish just before the weekly St Kilda Criterium about how I hadn’t been training much, or how I’d had a massive week at work, thereby going some way to self-justify my likely lack of a podium even before I’d pinned on a number in the weekly trot under the freeway. Damn, life was simple.

wheelchairTwo weeks post crash visit from teammate Flick Wardlaw and support extraordinaire Dave P – with Flick’s  golden haul after recently winning the Australian National Time Trial Title.

Life had changed
Not this day. Nope. I now found myself sitting there, doped to the gills for pain-management and doing my absolute best to put on a smiling and stoic face in the presence of my afore-mentioned able-bodied, fit, tanned teamies. In reality, and not that far under the drug-induced surface of my broken body, I was wondering what the hell I was doing there. I didn’t belong to this team anymore. Surely I was now excess to requirements. The only thing similar to me and those wonderful group of fluoro-clad women was that we both were on 700cc wheels, except mine were most definitely not self-propelling (maybe on a hill perhaps). I was in my very own inner world of crap. Self-pitying, terrified, anger-ridden crap.

Although I did my absolute best at trying not to be any of these things, I was a mess. I found myself staring down the barrel of limited health insurance, bills mounting, not being able to work, having my mother have to do what she did when I was single – digit age, injections of all sorts being driven into my three broken limbs and, to top it off, the real and loud self-anger at knowing I did this to myself at 12kph in the warm up lap of the Bay Crits, with consequently no great story to recall of speed, risk taking and heroism. By my thinking, such a story might have given what happened some legitimacy.

That Talk
I can’t say enough how absolutely amazing my Bicycle Superstore Teammates, past and present, were during my injury, and they continue to be today. They say in real trials of life, you learn who your friends really are. I can say with certainty, I got what I felt confirmed. They are truly phenomenal people. The same goes for the team’s management and sponsors – and that brings me to my story. That moment, where hope returned to a woman who had, looking back now, lost pretty much all she had.

Sitting there ensconced in my Karma, the Managing Director of Bicycle Superstore, Phil Randall, came over to check in on me. Phil had driven up from Melbourne (although I doubt it took him eight hours) to meet the team and relay to everyone his support for the endeavours of the BSS Women’s Team; riders, support crew and sponsors alike. Having worked in teams all my life, the message that this type of action sends to the whole team is most definitely not lost on me.

Phil said this to me, word for word:

“You have been a member of this team right from the start and you are one of us. Know that there will be a spot for you when you come through this and are ready to put on the kit again. There is no pressure, just know you’re one of us and I make that commitment to you here and now from all of us. For now, your job is to get better”.

As someone who knows practically what it takes, both financially and operationally to run a cycling team, these words blow me away, still. It would have cost this team a lot of cash to keep someone who spent the better part of twelve months in a wheelchair, crutches or limping – and most definitely no-where near their main source of return on investment; a bike going as fast as its rider could carry it. It will most likely, take close to 20 months to see any return from investment for this hipster, if you were to use that as a measure.

Yet, that day, and every day since I’ve been involved with this team and its wonderful sponsors, the financial return has never been the sole measure of investment. The human factor defines this team; the care, respect and kindness with which it acts. It values the fine balance of give and take – the importance of all involved to do their bit, and not take what we do and have for granted.

Today
Phil’s words and more importantly, his and his entire team’s actions have helped me get through some of the toughest moments in my rehab journey. I’m at a stage now where I’ve been able to get back on a wonderful Liv bike; the Avail – provided to me so as to help with my decreased hip range for now and after a bike fit from Osteohealth (Tom Barry certainly earned his keep with this altered body!), I’m riding again. The support and gratitude I feel at this can barely be put into words. I’m working my backside off…literally, to be able to get my body right to attempt to join my teammates on the bitumen again one day soon. I hope I can go some way to repay the faith held in me.

When we think of sponsors and team owners, it’s easy to see the logo only; to forget that behind that logo, the Facebook pages and Twitter handles, are incredibly committed, kind and supportive people. I am one lucky woman, both to have been wearing the kit I was wearing that fateful day and, to have been there for that conversation.

It seems almost trite to say it but it’s important for me to say a public and most sincere thank you to the most wonderful team I’ve ever been a part of; broken or fixed, walking or not; the Bicycle Superstore Women’s NRS Road Team and all who are connected with it.

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Back in the arms of an old friend: Beach Road through a very different lens

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Today was a day that I’ve been thinking about for a very long time. Almost seven months in fact. That was the last time I was able to do something that was so normal I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. It had always just been a simple bike ride. Today though, I wasn’t only taking along my very clean and unused Liv/Giant Envie bike and my water bottle full of TORQ nutrition; both of which have been well locked away for the past half year. Today I carried for company, something I can only describe as pure, white-knuckled fear.

It was only my third time out on the open road since the addition of a fair whack of surgical steel into my left hip; a necessary elixir to my bone after breaking it badly in the warm up lap of the Bay Crits in January this year. The difference in both my physical body and mental frame of mind since last making the journey to Beach Road couldn’t be starker. I prefer to think of my life these days as pre- January 4th and post- January 4th.

For those non-cyclist readers or indeed, those not from the Melbourne area, Beach Road is to cyclists what bikinis are to Bondi or what tourists are to Times Square. For the Northern Irish, it’s perhaps a little like what Garvaghy Road is to the Orangemen. It’s our sacred turf. At 27kms long, some 8000 odd lycra clad bike riders have been counted getting up close and personal with her on a Saturday. In fact every day of the week, riders in large and small groups or on their own, from complete beginners to Olympic and World Champions have ridden along her length and had the blue waters in Port Philip Bay for company on their left or right shoulder depending on which way they’re headed.

Route 33 or Beach Road, as she’s known, can whip up a mighty north-westerly in a heartbeat, making it a long, tough ride home. She can also be perfectly calm and a real joy to experience. Along her route are some well known Bayside landmarks which in turn become common meeting points, coffee stops and intersections with major roads to enable her weary travellers navigate their way back to their home suburbs of Melbourne when they finish their ride.

Commonwealth Games
My experience with this iconic stretch of tarmac commenced eight years ago at the 2006 Commonwealth Games Time Trial. Back then, I was a 28 year old country girl living in the hills a couple of hours north of Melbourne. I rode a little back then but there was definitely no thought of actually pinning a number on my back and doing something as silly as actually racing on one. That was until March 21st, 2006.

That beautiful blue spring day is etched in my memory ever since. I watched Oenone Wood take the win for Australia and ironically in the men’s race, Michael Hutchison, from my homeland of Northern Ireland, narrowly missed a medal. As I watched the athletes fly past my vantage point on Beach Road; clad in tight skin suits, their time trial bikes with disc wheels and their bodies contorted into a specific position – the ‘sweet spot’ – where maximum aerodynamics and the ability to breathe, intersect, I remember thinking that I’d found my thing. I wanted to give it a go.

It turns out that the body and mind knows a thing or two as fast forward a few years where I’d taken a leap and found myself a fantastic coach in Brendan Rowbotham, bought a road bike and some lycra and was now on an official training program. Over the next five years, I’d be slowly turned into a bike racer and soaking up everything I could that came with such a pastime – nutrition, race tactics and the mental side of getting yourself past the point where you think you’d rather dismount your bike, get in the foetal position and cry like a baby on the side of the road, rather than try to follow the wheels of some very fast girls going up a long steep hill.

That feeling changed though when I got my first time trial bike, put on a skin suit and an aero helmet and started off a ramp with the main goal to go as fast as I could. No tactics at play except not to blow up, or get off and cry. No wheels to follow – just me and my head. I absolutely loved it. Hurting like a dog and no choice but to feel it fully.

Every race I’ve won has been in a time trial. Some of my most memorable achievements have been wearing the aero helmet and hard to breathe in skin suit, including winning a stage at the 2011 Ras na mBan, the Women’s International Tour of Ireland and taking the leader’s jersey in front of my family, made all the more special as it was only months after losing my Dad. Finishing a few seconds off a top ten in the Australian Time Trial (TT) Championships in 2013 was a real highlight, especially sharing the hotseat for a while with my great friend and teammate Flick Wardlaw, who would go on to become National TT Champion the following year. Finally, from that day watching the Commonwealth Games in 2006, a spark was lit in me that saw me aim for Kathy Watt’s record at the lumpy Kew Boulevard TT course, something I eventually achieved in 2013 (The little pocket rocket Miranda Griffiths now holds it).

Rehab
This day was vastly different though. There was no aero helmet, race number, or time trial bike for that matter. The same road that served as my early morning training ground only seven months ago, the road where intense intervals and exhausting effort had sometimes mixed with horrendous headwinds, today served a very different purpose. Today, Beach Road was functioning as a healer.

Since I crashed, at the very slow speed of 12kph with not a soul near me in January, I’ve been extremely lucky to have received great medical and psychological care, from both professionals and friends. I spent the first eight weeks primarily on my back or in a wheelchair. I’ve had close to 30 injections of various chemicals into my left hip, knee and shoulder. I’ve hobbled around on crutches for four months, limped into hydrotherapy pools with 90 year olds and am on first name terms with the x-ray and MRI folks from Olympic Park Sports Medicine Centre. I’ve fully exhausted my $5000 medical limit on my racing insurance, my health insurance card now comes up with a zero in the machine and I’ve put my house on the market to help generate some cash flow for ongoing medical expenses.

All this though was a distant memory today as I pumped up the tyres, filled up the water bottle, found a plastic bag for coffee money and headed out the door.

Mind games
This simple sequence of events didn’t just happen though. One of the biggest challenges that accompanied my crash has been my head. I’m absolutely terrified. Terrified of falling again, terrified of the physical pain that may occur again if I fell, but honestly, I’m even more terrified of allowing that to stop me from getting back on the thing that I love. Scared to death of a life not fully lived. Losing my Dad and five close friends in the space of four years brings that home.

My physiotherapist has, for the past month, gently listened to my reasoning as to why I might not be ready to go out by myself (I’ve come up with some crackers to justify it), she hasn’t judged me but has inserted just the right choice and timing of words or achievable challenges along the way, to appeal to my competitive side. My ride today was consequently, in our agreement, three weeks ahead of schedule. It might have been the yoga session earlier – something that I’ve discovered since my crash that I really enjoy – that limbered me up as well as the magnificent blue sky which helped me with the motivation to face my fears.

My two outside rides prior to today have been surrounded by people who have cared and looked out for me. I’ve had a teammate on my left shoulder when I couldn’t get my foot out and have had steady pushes up the small rises whilst carefully nestled in with the folks on the Saturday morning Liv/Giant ride along Beach Road. I haven’t had to do it myself.

Today was different though. It was time to fly solo. To ride from home, negotiate traffic, take my own foot in and out and fully trust my left leg to support me every time I put it on the ground. Up until today, I hadn’t ridden from home. I wasn’t ready to cross the gauntlet of traffic and didn’t trust my ability to react to situations that may need immediate action and bike handling skills. I still don’t but the reward was, and still is, worth the risk.

On the same weekend as my teammates were racing their guts out at the National Road Series event on the Murray River, I felt like I needed to honour their and our wonderful sponsors belief in me, as a teammate still, to take the next step in my recovery. I badly wanted to thank the people who have supported me in so many ways, from near or afar, in person or on-line, by doing the only thing I could – taking the risk. Jumping off the cliff.

My old mate Beach Road was there to catch me. On a stunning blue-sky winter’s day, where except for the temperature, it was not all that different to the day eight years previously when I first came into contact with that tarmac. I rolled there this time though with an altered perspective, of both the road and the rider.

I initially was riding along wishing that a huge protective bubble was placed around me, making me ‘crash-proof’. Failing that, a large sign on my lycra-clad backside alerting anyone within 500m of me that there was one very nervous, vulnerable feeling captain on board, would have sufficed. “Don’t stop Clare. Keep going. Relax your arms – you can do this”. These mantras would be perfectly normal in a race preparation context yet they became my gentle guide as I rolled on past Brighton Beach and a new set of traffic lights just past South Road. I noticed whilst passing Sandringham that Caltex Fuel has rebranded their logo. For some reason I don’t notice that detail in a car but on my bike, it becomes so apparent.

Old School
Seeing the big groups of riders come back the other way, faces grimacing trying to desperately hold the wheel in front, or the small groups of riders casually chatting and enjoying the beautiful winter’s day. Or the guy tootling along with the helmet on sideways, wearing wool ¾ length knicks and an old steel road bike. That’s Beach Road – she doesn’t discriminate; there’s enough room and a welcome sign for all.

I’m smiling like a Cheshire cat as I roll along and I’m also glad for my fluoro sunglasses as I also shed a few tears. They are however, for the sheer sense of joy and freedom I once again feel at being able, no matter how slow, to rejoin my old 27km long friend again. On my own terms and after slaying the head demons that tried their hardest to keep me from pumping up those tyres and getting back there again. I also think about the Doctor who told me with no emotion that I’d never be able to carry a backpack or walk properly on uneven ground again; something not that appealing to a professional outdoor educator. I’ll prove them wrong yet. The tears also for the most humbling seven months of my life where I’ve met, in my various phases of recovery, the most wonderful and inspiring people I could ever hope to meet. Some were new to me, but many were previously known. Through the adversity that a friend experienced, they stepped up and shone through with support and kindness. Getting back on my bike by myself was the least I could do to thank them.

At this stage, whatever happens next isn’t important. Whether my head and body permit me to don a skin suit again will reveal itself it due time. For now, as many who have been injured before have also experienced, its about the steps and milestones along the way. Today was one of those.

A famous bike rider once made a lot of money on a book where he suggested in its title that, “It’s Not about the Bike”. Lance, I beg to differ. And I reckon, if pushed, you just might too. Thank you Route 33. I’ll be visiting again soon.
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Northern Ireland; a dirty sore and a soothing balm… Reflections from an exiled child of the Troubles

Mussendon
I remember lying in bed one night, probably at the age of eleven or twelve, working out in my head an escape plan for how our whole family could exit the house if a bomb went off. The plan though would need to be altered if the exit was necessary due to direct entry by un-welcomed guests and the use of guns. In that case, my plan had big holes in it. We had these nice yet completely non-functional windows in terms of escape (unless you’re the size of a mouse, or maybe a really small kitten…).

Even though we lived just under an hour away from Northern Ireland’s capital city of Belfast and the widely accepted ‘epicentre’ of the Troubles, I can vividly remember going to bed as a young child many nights terrified that the ‘bad men’ would come to our house and shoot my dad. I often reflect on why I felt that and why I didn’t talk about it then. I don’t have an answer but I think perhaps that I wasn’t alone in feeling such fear as a child during the Troubles; a period from the late 1960’s until the Good Friday agreement in 1998 officially ended the conflict (to what extent this has been achieved is highly debatable however). Some 3500 people were killed and 3000 murders remain unsolved.

When you are in an environment however loving and supportive as my own and many were, yet where violence, intimidation and killing are commonplace and where media coverage was saturated daily with such images, it would be naive to suggest that it wouldn’t impact on young people.

I can personally recall two significant events as a child that affected me deeply; a bomb exploding in the bustling market town of Magherafelt that instantly killed one of my mum’s dear friends Noel. I was five years old and one of my brother’s is now named in his honour. The second, eleven years later, was a mass shooting in the Rising Sun pub on Halloween night in the sleepy little village of Greysteel, a few miles down the road from home. That night eight innocent people; ironically a mix of both Catholics and Protestants were murdered in cold blood; one of the killers shouting ‘trick or treat’ as they opened fire. I remember a few days later, on a freezing and wet November night, my whole family driving to the pub and laying a bunch of flowers in respect for those eight lives lost so senselessly. Not a word was spoken on the way home. I was sixteen.

2014 represents a milestone year for me, one that many of my fellow country people have also reached; that of being away from Northern Ireland for as long as we were there. I’ve now been away half my life. Since shedding the obligatory airport tears of a very nervous yet excited eighteen year old, I’ve been lucky enough to have lived in the mountains of upstate New York, the agricultural rich valleys of mid Wales, the outskirts of Toronto, and I currently call the leafy south eastern suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, home.

Northern Ireland is in me though. I can’t shake her. She’s like a dirty sore and a soothing balm, all in one tube. My life’s choices in relation to the work I do; educating young people in the outdoors, stems from the opportunities I was given as a teenager during the Troubles. Whether it was paddling our canoes down some of Ireland’s stunning canal systems or camping in some farmer’s field and telling stories around a fire, we learned that our differences were not nearly as significant as our similarities; that we were in fact, the same. We were just kids being kids. Sound simple? It was. And it was life changing.

One such trip I was lucky enough to be selected for involved a stay at ‘Corrymeela’, a residential centre that brought young Protestants and Catholics together. This centre was perched high above the exposed limestone cliffs that separated the water from the land. Stories of the mighty mythical giants of yesteryear who braved these waters and risked life and limb to defeat the evil foreign invaders, are still fresh in my mind to this day. What I now realise though, is that there are no evil invaders threatening the country of my birth or its beautiful, storytelling, kind and witty people. The fight and the threat has always, and will continue, to come from within. It’s in us and for anything to change, that’s where we need to look first. Ourselves.

Two further experiences stand out during my youth where I realised that I needed to leave, to travel and gain a wider perspective on life, otherwise I feared I would become a hater, a bigot and a victim. I would develop a lasting sore that no ointment could heal. The first was when, as an almost eighteen year old, my friends and I made the long train journey south to Tipperary, and the famous ‘Trip to Tipp’ music festival; three days of music, rain, muck, cheap beer and a tent for shelter that you wouldn’t give to your worst enemy. It was magic. One interaction with a Gardai (Irish Police) remains vivid. Upon accusing us of smoking marijuana which we actually weren’t and when we assured him in probably not the most respectful tone that we weren’t, he raised his voice and told us to, “Get back up to the fu*%ing North where you belong”. His eyes and his body language displayed nothing short of hatred for the young people in front of him; kids who just happened to speak English with a strong Northern accent.

A year later, as a first year University student, I was making my way home for the holidays and flew out of the English city of Birmingham. About to board the plane to Belfast, I was stopped and questioned by a Metropolitan police officer. I honestly couldn’t understand why he was asking me where I was going when the only place I could have been going, was to Belfast (the plane door was literally two feet in front of us at the time). I may have provided a somewhat cheeky, yet in my mind, witty response; something I’m quite proud my Northern Irish heritage provided me with. He didn’t quite see the humour however and pulled me aside where the questioning continued. Where was I was from, going and why I was in England. For some reason he was also interested in what was I studying at University, to which I incorrectly answered, ‘conflict resolution studies’. I couldn’t help myself. I had found my voice, however smartarse it sounded. About to finally let me board the plane, he left me with, “You people from Northern Ireland have caused nothing but trouble. You’re scum”.

I find it somewhat ironic that here we were, a small country of less than a million people, tearing ourselves apart and causing so much self-inflicted suffering to belong to either Ireland, or remain part of the United Kingdom. Yet many of the very people we wanted to either join or stay joined with, were not entirely the most welcoming.

Even as I type these words, I can feel some strong and critical rebuffs. What would I know? I haven’t lived there in eighteen years and things have changed. All that stuff is now in the past. It’s true. I haven’t lived there but I have been back twelve times in the past ten years. I’ve also got the benefit of a now global perspective and it’s through this that I offer these views. I speak also as a child who now has now gladly found her voice, whatever the consequences of using it may be; a language or courage not able to be found by me and many of my peers during those dark days.

Through this lens, it feels to me that both a lot and yet, not much has changed. The Army barracks’ are long gone. The British Army no longer patrol with loaded weapons pointing at you, in order to protect themselves. The Northern Ireland departure gates of England’s airports are no longer situated at the very ends of the airport, for fear of terrorist attack. Some truly courageous and visionary people are transforming their communities. At a local level in many towns and counties, children from both sides of the divide are being provided with opportunities to connect with each other, initiatives that will absolutely have a lasting impact.

However, there remains an insatiable hunger for power in the echelons of leadership at Stormont; the location of the Northern Irish government. It almost seems that one of the only things that has changed in the main chamber is the greying of the hair of its legislative assembly members. Many of the same people are still there. Although the leaders of the opposing sides are now photographed together and can be even seen shaking hands; something that would have been inconceivable twenty years ago, there remains, at least, in the public persona, an atmosphere of attack, of fighting and of ‘I win, you lose’. The tone of the news is much the same as it was fifteen years ago. There is, it seems, a constant referral to the past. An inability to move on. Like a toxic relationship one can’t let go of.

How do we actually move on? I feel strongly that we need to both listen to our young people, as well as truly hearing what they have to say. We need to help them find their voices and use them to connect with, rather than disconnect from the same young people who just happen, by virtue of birth, to be from the other religion. We must also understand that just because they may not speak, does not mean they have nothing to say.

We need to acknowledge that just because there are not as many bombs going off or as many people being killed today, that the youth of Northern Ireland is ‘healed’. They are still children of conflict, however buried that conflict is. The air is still stained with mistrust and suspicion. Our job as responsible adults must be to really address the cause and not the symptoms.

Connection, compassion and honest negotiation need to be normalised. We need to find a way to lead with vulnerability and with courage. Where the starting point is not, ‘what can my side get’ but rather, ‘what would a successful outcome be for all involved’, and work back from there. This might sound somewhat naive and simplistic but then again, let’s reflect at where the other options have got us. For forty odd years, we have separated ourselves because of the fear we had something to lose.

Ten years from today, what would we like the now ten year olds to be saying and more importantly, doing to lead a new Northern Ireland? I don’t think we would be answering with the status quo. For those thousands of people, home-based or exiled, who were and continue to be impacted by her Troubles, as well as for those too young to remember them, they and we all deserve a new start, an opportunity to inhale a deep and lasting breath of North Atlantic peaceful and prosperous air, free from self-imposed bigotry and hate.
Fields

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Magic in the Metal Rods; Rehabilitating the Mind and Body Following a Bike Crash

Flick pumping chair

If someone had told me four months ago that I’d soon be the owner of a valid disabled parking permit, that I’d have become a keen meditator or that instead of getting up at 5 am to ride my bike for a couple of hours every day, I’d instead be sharing a warm and smelly rehabilitation pool with people fifty years my senior while attempting to recover from a broken hip, I wouldn’t have believed a word of it.

2014 was planned out. I had it sorted. I would be working and training as normal until April 30th and then, in what I consider to be one of the best things about Australia, I was to take my reward for ten years service to a job I love and fulfil a life long dream of riding my bike 7000kms across America. It was all lined up, the panniers were dusted off and the tickets were about to be booked. This trip had me purposefully choosing to travel east to west; against the prevailing wind. I wanted to feel the freedom and the adventure of going west, even if the trade off was to be increased head winds. I was doing it this way because I wanted to experience just a little of what my Irish ancestors before me would have gone through. Even though in this day and age, I knew a lot more about where I was going, I would have had reliable maps, a tent, enough food and water and sporadic internet access, I still wanted to feel a bit of what they felt. The unknown, the anxiety and the freedom that those emotions bring. I even had a plan to write about it along the way by visiting the small town graveyards and respectfully tracing the human stories of endeavour and courage, as they followed the setting Sun and headed West.

Instead of that, I now find myself ironically, in a somewhat similar place. I’ve more uncertainty in my life that I’ve ever felt before and I’m very certain that if I allowed it to control me, it could quickly become disabling and counter productive to my healing. Although a fall at slow speed on my bike resulting in a broken neck of femur (hip), the addition of a fair bit of surgical metal and significant soft tissue damage to my knee and shoulder, has delayed my plans of touring the US and the goal of uncovering the stories of my ancestors across small town America, I’ve nonetheless discovered some valuable lessons of my own and obtained an unusual lens into some wonderful human stories closer to home. Through unplanned misfortune, I’ve seen a rainbow and maybe even a glisten or two of gold.

Five Lessons a Fall on my Bike Taught Me

1 Surrender or Suffer

‘What you resist, persists’. Someone said that once, probably a long time ago. I’ve learned that they were right. My own situation didn’t hit me for a few weeks after, until the initial acute pain management through a cocktail of opiates, became more stabilised. In those early days, I remained convinced that life would continue along the trajectory I had originally planned. Apparently (I have no memory of this), I was adamant to my mum (on the phone while lying in Geelong Hospital) and friends that I would be up and about, back riding my bike and still heading West in April. I was convinced this wasn’t so bad. It wasn’t until week number three, while lying on my best friend’s couch that I lost the plot. I cried. For 48 hours. I couldn’t stop and I didn’t know how to get out of it. No one could do anything. It had finally hit me how big this was and it wasn’t until I realised in a flash of awareness, around hour 49, that I had a choice. Accept my situation or don’t. My healing (and probably my friends) were thankful I chose the former.

2 Take off the mask and surround yourself with great people

Things are pretty crap when you break a big bone, smash your shoulder and chip fragments off your kneecap, causing it to be the approximate size of a watermelon (in contrast to the diameter of the leg which disappears at a rate of knots due to muscle atrophy). You’ll become an instant expert in the bucketload of drugs you’re ingesting, you’ll be constipated for weeks, you’ll need to inject yourself in the stomach to avoid getting blood clots, and be required to spend days and weeks lying flat. Doing nothing. You’ll be too out of it to use that time for anything other than thinking and staring at the ceiling. Not surprisingly, morale will be somewhat low.

It’s back to choice time. I could be grumpy and sad and feel sorry for myself about the situation I found myself in. Or get angry at anyone and anything. I was even shitty at one stage at the rain because I crashed on a slippery wet road! That’s just plain stupid and it’s living in a place I can do nothing about.

What I could do though and am really glad I did, was surround myself with people that were so good for me and my healing. They were simply amazing. I had to let go of my ego and ask for help. Realising that being ‘strong’ was actually about letting go of the need to control and do everything myself. I have phenomenal people in my life who I am so lucky to call friends.

I had friends whose expertise wasn’t just their kindness but also their professional knowledge. Some who, in their day jobs were doctors, surgeons, physios and psychologists, were so helpful with their time and advice. It helped and continues to help enormously once I gratefully accepted it.

3 We all have a voice, no matter how we may look

I spent the first couple of months in a wheelchair when I ventured out of the house. One evening, my colleague Ben got me out of the house and we headed into the City to eat dinner before going to a lecture being delivered by Professor Martin Seligman, the ‘father’ of the Positive Psychology movement.

As the wheelchair couldn’t block the aisles, we were relocated to the very back of the room, behind the 1300 able-bodied attendees. After negotiating the chair to its spot, the usher at the venue looked directly at Ben and asked, ‘Would she like a glass of water?’ Ben, a good friend for many years, didn’t miss a beat and responded with ‘I’m not sure, perhaps you could ask her’. I’m convinced this lady was well meaning and kind. She was trying to be nice. I wonder though how many of us make assumptions, me most definitely included, as to what others are capable of simply due to how they look or speak. I remember how this comment, well meaning as it was, completely disempowered me. I was angry and even my smartarse response of ‘No, but I’ll take a beer’ didn’t quite shake me out of it. I’m glad it was at the start of a talk on positive psychology though.

4 Good can really come from bad. You just have to look for it.

It would be easy to just look at the negatives. On a weekend when my fluro-clad Bicycle Superstore teammates and friends are racing their legs off and killing it in Adelaide at the first National Road Series event and I find myself surrounded by my crutches, disabled parking permit, Panadol Osteo tablets by the truckload, rehab tools and attempting to muster the energy to go get in a warm pool and attempt painful exercises that I would have very much taken for granted four months ago, life and my thoughts could get bleak.

I then try to remember to recall to front and centre of this little black duck’s brain, the experiences I have been lucky enough to have during this time. Experiences and insights that I have no shadow of a doubt, I otherwise wouldn’t have, had it not been for the not-so-soft landing I endured.

I got to witness firsthand what it is like to be an elderly person in a hospital ward. The spark still there for some and for others, the hopelessness at the situation they found themselves in. Yet through everything they were going through, they wanted to know how I was and showed genuine care and concern. That experience in the oldies ward affected me deeply.

I had my mum arrive from Ireland for a month to look after me. As you would probably understand, it’s not the easiest thing in the world as an independent 37 year old to give up all control and have your Mum look after you. Without hesitation though, I would break a hip again for the positive change that accompanied her trip and I’m not just talking about the deep cleaning that my little crib received or the amount of food in my fridge whilst she was here. We were blessed with time together. She was here to look after me and when I let go of the need to be argumentative, be ‘independent’ or stubborn, we both won. More than won, I had the most valuable time with my wonderful mum since I left the troubled shores of Northern Ireland to travel the world at 18. Actually, probably better as back then, I wasn’t grateful for what my parents had done for me. Now I am. I can picture my Dad looking down at me and approving of those last three words.

Due to the injury I experienced, I’ve also been privileged to spend time talking with and hearing the stories of many older people who I share time with in the rehabilitation pool. I’ve met people fifty plus years my senior who are still committed to getting the best out of their lives, who understand the importance of social interaction and physical movement. One experience will stay with me forever; a day when life was not looking all that rosy to me, I was hobbling into the tiny pool with my knee and back all taped up. Most people normally assumed those two areas were my primary injury points.

Except this Grandma. In her black old lady style swimsuit, she asked me how many weeks post hip operation I was. After replying with nine weeks and asking her how she knew, she said, ‘We have matching scars. You’re just a baby dear. Me, I’m five months!’. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry -cry because if I’m still there in five months, confidence will get really really low, or laugh, as she was just spot on with what I needed that day. She made me see that all is never lost and that we all have our stories and challenges. As this beautiful old lady slowly exited the warm water, she touched my shoulder and left me with, ‘You’ll be ok dear. You’ll get through this’. Magic.

5 Face your Fears and Stop Overthinking

I’ve had a number of people ask me if I’ll race at the level I was at prior to stacking. My internal response to this question has unnerved me. Honestly, I don’t know. I can’t tell if that’s because I’m too scared to say yes or whether I don’t have it in me anymore to make the sacrifices to get back there. I have enormous respect for the people I have raced against and the team I am privileged to belong, to know what they put themselves through to race at such an elite level. Or, maybe I’m unnerved because it’s that I don’t trust my body anymore. Or that I’m scared it’ll happen again. Both those thoughts horrify me.

I am though, really glad I can acknowledge and express those fears and talk them through. It doesn’t mean I’m a raving lunatic for feeling them and it also doesn’t mean that I’m subverting them. I’ll deal with them in due course. Right now, as my phenomenal Physio has helped me see, I don’t need to. I just need to keep taking the little steps to healing and when the time comes, we can deal with that head stuff. I know I’ll ride my sexy Giant bike again. No one can get close to stop me doing that and I have absolute goals in my future that I want to achieve in bike racing. Right now though, I don’t need to get all obsessive about them. I just need to heal and do what’s right for me.

I credit three major additions to my daily routine that I feel have really assisted my recovery, mentally and physically. I’ve embraced and taught myself how to meditate. Although I’m an outdoor educator, I’m no card carrying hippy and had previously struggled with such endeavours into cross legged silence. For obvious reasons, the cross legged position is still a ways off but I have found tremendous value in keeping myself in the present moment, in stilling the mind chatter and in being kind to myself and my situation, through daily silence. As an analyst, I’m happy the research is there about the benefits associated with meditation but as a recent convert, I’m sold. It’s been transformational.

The second major factor I think has really helped me is in being in contact with others who ‘get it’. From the first week, I had young people who also broke hips after coming off their treadley’s, contact me to offer empathy and support. I was and remain, incredibly humbled by their kindness, Specifically Grace, Mat, Josh and Brian. If I have to be in a club I didn’t choose, I’m glad I’m in yours.

Finally, it’s about the food. Now, I’m no Nigella or Martha but I have taught myself a lot more about what I’m sticking in my pie hole these days and have, through my nutrient intake, increased my best chances of healing. Anti-inflammatory foods are the norm these days, lots of veggies, good fats, lean protein and heaps of fluids. Sugar is gone but not sweet, tasty food. I’ve just expanded my larder of ingredients. If I’d have seen a picture of me sitting drinking peppermint tea and eating cacao balls on a nightly basis after a dinner of cauliflower rice, steamed kale and broccoli and lemon myrtle kangaroo for example, I’d have checked my temperature.

What I’ve learned over the past thirteen weeks, I wouldn’t swap for a fully functioning body pre January 4th, 2014. Although I may end up with some permanent side effects of the injuries I sustained, whether that be a limp or a heel lift due to a shorter leg, I’ve gained enormous insight as the trade off. I know there’s a fair bit of challenge ahead of me and that there’s a long way to go. I also know that somedays are just crap. But at least I know that. And I’m grateful.

One day I will ride across the USA. But for now, I’m travelling at my own speed, albeit still heading West, into the unknown.

Perhaps the last words can best be summed up by this little gem. Apologies as I have no idea where they came from or who to credit; they just arrived on my desk in my handwriting. I’ll put that down to the morphine.

“I have no fear of the depths, but the idea of an unexamined, inauthentic life spent in the shallows horrifies me”.

Wheelchair helpFluro Girls

Phenomenal teammates and friends, on and off the bike. In both the good and the tough times.

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40 years too young: What sharing the hospital ward of the elderly taught me

wheelchairHolding the Australian National Time Trial Jersey and medal my Bicycle Superstore teammate Flick Wardlaw had won the same week I broke my hip

Two weeks ago I suffered a cyclist’s worst nightmare. No, it wasn’t a MAMIL (for my non cyclist friends, that’s a middle aged man in Lycra) with cable ties coming out his helmet riding up next to me and informing me, in a Tony Abbott-like tone, that my cycling knicks were see-through (that already happened for real about two months ago).

Nope, it was a crash. A bad crash. A crash in the warm up lap of the third of a four race series, known as the Bay Crits. I had been getting my no-longer see through rear end well and truly handed to me in the previous days by riders from teams such as Orica Green-Edge and Wiggle Honda who had world and national champions dominating their rosters. I was just glad to be lining up against them with some of my new Bicycle Superstore teammates and our new team boss, Chris Savage. We had been having a blast and one of our team, Kristy had been smashing it in the top ten everyday. It was a hoot.

Crash
Then came the first corner at Portarlington, normally a nice little sleepy bayside town which for a January day most years, hosts one of the toughest races in the Bay Crits. Down I went negotiating a corner at slow speed when my front wheel lost traction. All at less than 20km/hour. Unfortunately my left hip took all the impact and I knew immediately that I wouldn’t be eating the dinner of my choice that night. A couple of green whistles of Penthrox later, my by now new paramedic besties (at least in my temporarily very happy morphine induced eyes), pulled into what would become my new home for the next five days, the Geelong Hospital.

After some X-rays and a whole lot of cutting clothing, inspecting and hearing words I didn’t understand, I ended up with a badly broken hip and quickly jumped to the head of the queue for immediate surgery. Four screws and a nice big plate later to hold them in place and a nerve compression to boot, I was wheeled into the general orthopaedic ward. As I kept being reminded by most professionals I came into contact with over the next five days, I was very unusual. I’ve been called that many times but this time it was to do with the fact that 90% of people who break their hip are over 60 years old. I’m not in that category for another couple of decades at least.

My Granny Bradley broke her hip when I was about 15. I felt like I was going back in time when I was discharged with my wheelchair, crutches, walking frame, special raised toilet and shower seats. I never ever understood how difficult it must have been for an older person to deal with such a debilitating injury. That would explain why the mortality rate associated with hip fractures in older people is extremely high. Approximately 20% of people who sustain such a fracture die within 12 months of sustaining the injury. Only 1 in 4 make a complete recovery.

These words aren’t meant to be about the crash or indeed, cycling. They’re about the images and stories I’ve been unable to get out of my opiate-assisted mind since entering the ward where my fellow patients well and truly fitted the 60 years plus category and the view that I have that somehow we’ve got this stuff all wrong. If it were about school dinners, I’d already have found a way to contact Jamie Oliver and ask him to help sort it out.

First of all, I am no expert. I certainly don’t profess to be. All I can and am offering is the first hand insight from a younger inpatient into what is mostly an older person’s world. I’m also a systems thinker in my day job so I can’t help but think about this stuff. These musings are not about blame or pointing fingers; in fact, I want to know what I can do to help and am determined to find some way with the time on my hands that I now have. I also feel strongly that this isn’t just one ‘issue’ with one solution. To really address some of these challenges within our health system requires us to not get fixated on one aspect. In my uneducated view, it’s prolonged and involves all aspects of society – education, parenting, health, welfare, government, communities and individuals. It’s a question of values.

With that out of the way, the staff at Geelong hospital and especially the nurses were amazing. Truly amazing. They work their absolute backsides off, have empathy and are very good at what they do. But they work within the confines of a broken system. And I don’t think they’re alone.

The amount of times I heard comments from the staff to do with budget cuts, hours of pay and the associated impacts that had in patient care was eye opening.

The people in my ward had phenomenal stories to tell. Ian checked in feeling unwell and quickly underwent surgery to remove his foot. He was trying to cope with what lay ahead for him in his now vastly changed life. The old man opposite me who unfortunately was too ill to ask him his name, became weaker and weaker throughout the day and when he was taken away for further treatment, he never returned. The man diagonally opposite me fell in his garden and seemed to have given up the fight. He never got out of bed the time I was there, even with the repeated and gentle attempts by the great Physio staff.

On my trip down to Physio to get some practice on ‘stairs’ with my new crutches, Agnes, a lady in her 80’s who also fractured her hip was ripping it up on the parallel bars. She was almost interested in a race. I hope she bucks the 12 month trend.

The time to listen
What struck me most in my stay in hospital was that these old folks all had stories. They had chapters of books to tell, families and loved ones to talk about. Past careers and adventures to share. But there wasn’t anyone to listen. Like as in really listen. Sure they had a few visitors for an hour or so a day but the rest of the time, it was just them.

The nurses and staff were just too busy to have time to let them tell their stories and just listen. What was interesting was even how the old folks were spoken to; lots of raised voices and a tone that resembles how we address children. My old mate opposite me before his breathing became too laboured to continue speaking even told the nurse he wasn’t deaf! Again, this isn’t about belittling the wonderful job nurses or hospital staff do but I do feel I witnessed a form of institutionalism in both the staff and the patients. Assumptions are made perhaps too freely about the mind frame and ability of patients. They are treated as one and not as individuals.

When my father was ill and spent months in hospital in Ireland, I saw the same thing. Well meaning staff yet significant failures at systemic levels in training, leadership and effective and compassionate communication with the families were present.

I personally had technology out the wazoo. The iPad to find out who won the damn race anyway and to have a check of the next day’s horoscopes. The phone to receive and make calls to friends, families and receive beautiful texts of support and love from well wishers. I couldn’t help but feel bad that my fellow patients didn’t have such methods to communicate. What hit me though, was that when I reach that age, I probably won’t have the number of people in my life to send and make such wishes of support that I do now. Many will be gone. I may not still have friends who brought me my favourite homemade quinoa porridge in a real bowl, or Fro Yo yogurt from down the street and fresh, juicy nectarines wrapped in nice paper. Friends who cooked me three days worth of fresh food because they knew how important it was. Teammates who had driven eight hours the day before and who had kids at home who stopped by and ‘kidnapped’ me for fresh air and a few hot laps of the streets of Geelong in the wheelchair. Other amazing people who just dropped in on their way home from work to say hello. People who just rang to say they were thinking of me. I was in a city an hour and half from my home and I’ve never felt so close to home. Because of them.

What’s the answer?
I don’t know is the short one. What I do know though is that we all need to drop the egos, the blame game and start from a place of respect. Respect for these wonderful people who gave us life and air. These frail men and women who, just like us, want and desperately need to have social connection and to be heard. We need to start listening with our hearts and our time. We need to free pressure from our hospital staff.

What if for instance we re-modelled our school curriculum to include visits to hospitals and nursing homes for young people to hear oral history directly from our elders of society? What if, the big corporates and government actively encouraged and provided time release for an hour a week for staff to visit hospitals and nursing homes? What if, we had bus pick up and drop off spots for the public to go and visit on the weekends? Of course, there would be the necessary security checks and all that stuff but that’s something a smart team can come up with a way to work through. What if, we each gave $5 a year to buy a bunch of flowers for each old person in hospital just to tell them we’re sending love and thinking of them? I’d gladly sacrifice my plant that was given to me upon receiving my Aussie citizenship.

Two interactions will stay with me forever whilst I was in Geelong hospital. I had a rough night, vomited all over myself and I don’t mind saying, was in pretty excruciating pain. I had one of the most beautiful souls I’ve ever met in my life not bat an eyelid at having to clean me up, talk me gently through the pain and tell me I’d be ok. She spent time with me, held my hand and told me about her kids. I’ll never forget it.

The following morning the pain has subsided and for the first time, I had my appetite back. All I wanted was some toast. My breakfast arrived and these two slices of bread were in a plastic bag, with what looked like cereal in a plastic bowl and a cup of water with a tea bag in a plastic cup. I asked the service lady if I could please have the bread toasted, to which she replied ‘The policy has changed, we don’t toast bread anymore’. I was too upset to even respond and ate nothing. I actually cried from frustration.

I don’t know about you but as an athlete and a person, I am acutely aware of the connection between good, nutritious food and healing. How the hell can we expect our elderly, who as we saw above, have enormous odds against them anyway for survival, let alone recovery, to heal if we can’t even give them what any reasonable person should expect and for them, probably have had their entire life: a slice of toast and a cup of tea in a normal cup. It’s the small things after all that make a difference.

Melbourne has endured its hottest series of days on record this week – four days over 41c. In a news program this week about the heatwave, a nursing home was visited and it gleefully showed the residents being served ice cream. What did they get it served in? Polystyrene cups and plastic spoons. I’m not sure about you but how many of us eat from such vessels at home on a normal basis from such things? The very message I believe this sends, however well meaning and subtle, is of ‘throwaway’ and a strong sense of temporary.

I’ve learned a lot in these past two weeks. I’m no saint and I don’t have any magic wands. I’m also not naïve to the challenge and the financial cost of any long term solution. However, if we ask ourselves the question about the type of country we want to be and if we subscribe to the view that you can tell a lot by a nation, as to how it treats its elderly, then we have some real work to do.

Livgiant cd Bay CritsBetter days…Carly Williams from Liv/giant and I racing on Day One of the Bay Crits at Geelong

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From Corsets to Caffeine: What Annie Londonderry did for Women’s Cycling…

Annie skirt
Summer in Australia. The aroma of sunscreen and barbeques coupled with the background commentary of the cricket on the TV. For those of us who enjoy our cycling, summer also means shocking tan lines – strangely enough a badge of honour amongst fellow cyclists yet a source of embarrassment when we find ourselves flying solo or in the company of non-riders (or at the swimming pool..). 

Summer to those of us who race our bikes also means a very full calendar of competition. We’re blessed here in Victoria to host several of the big events – including the Mitchelton Bay Series Crits – four days of lightning fast racing where in 2014, the elite women’s race will welcome two times World Champion Italian Giorgia Bronzini, several national champions, a host of Olympians and top international and domestic talent within the 80 odd starters.  A few days later, the travelling elite circus moves to Ballarat for the annual Australian National Championships before travelling west to Adelaide for the first UCI World Tour event of the year – the Santos Tour Down Under. For the first time in 2014, there will also be a Santos Women’s Tour paralleling the men’s race; again highlighting the tremendous growth and developing talent within women’s cycling Down Under.

These three events will draw thousands of people to watch some fantastic racing. The 2013 Santos Tour Down Under for example attracted close to 800,000 spectators during the week of racing. The regional city of Ballarat during the week of ‘Nationals’ is a sea of roof – rack laden cars, Gatorade and pasta consumption and those afore-mentioned shocking tan lines. And that’s just the spectators to the racing.

There is no doubt that cycling; recreational and competitive has exploded. Estimates suggest that there are about 1 billion bicycles currently rolling around the world. In Australia, 11 million bikes have been traded in the past ten years; that’s two million more than the number of cars for the same timeframe. One half of the population in the UK and the USA owns a bike.

It would be perhaps easy to view this growth and the current healthy status of cycling and specifically women’s cycling in isolation. Quite frankly, I never really gave it a second thought. I was too caught up in my own self-importance; the pre- race nerves, ensuring the correct tire pressure or adhering to the post-race thirty minute golden recovery window for example.  That was, until a couple of weeks ago when I met, through the pages of history, Annie ‘Londonderry’ Kopchovsky.

Annie Who?

Simply put, this 160cm and 48kg Jewish mother of three from Boston is a major contributor to the reason my fellow competitors and I will line up at the Bay Crits later this week. And no-one has really heard of her. Annie undertook what one New York Newspaper called “The most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman”. Travelling only with a set of clothes and a pearl-handled revolver, Annie became the first woman to circle the world by bike. The year?  1895.

What makes her story even more remarkable is that up until she farewelled her three children and husband at a time when a woman’s place was most certainly not aboard a 20kg bike dressed in the full Victorian garb of the day, is that she had never ridden a bike in her life. Annie was settling a bet between two wealthy businessmen; that no woman could match the same feat achieved by Thomas Stevens the decade previously. The wager required Annie to start penniless, accept no gratuities and complete the trip in 15 months. Additionally she was required to earn $5000 above her expenses en route. Should she succeed, a $10,000 prize awaited her on return.  For a woman of the 1890’s to abandon her family responsibilities and undertake such a mission was immense. The records tell of her own brother even refusing to say goodbye.

Prior to a pedal ever being turned however, was a signal that although this woman may have been somewhat diminutive in physical structure, she was no lightweight in the entrepreneurial arena. Annie secured her first corporate sponsor; the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company of New Hampshire, placing a placard on her bike as well as showing some real dedication by changing her last name.  As she made her way around the world, this married mother capitalised on her being blessed with good looks and covered herself, for a fee, virtually from head to toe in advertising billboards and placards selling what her biographer refers to as “everything from milk to perfume”.

Even to undertake such a journey in the present day would be a considerable undertaking. The isolation, fear and physical toll would be significant. Annie however, was a special breed. “She seems made only of muscles and nerves and in spite of her petite size, gives the impression of remarkable energy”, commented one French newspaper on meeting her.

Cycling and the Suffrage Movement

Annie’s journey did not happen in isolation. She was undertaking it at the intersection of two of the most dominant social phenomena of America in the1890’s; the women’s suffrage movement and the burgeoning cycling craze. More than two million bicycles or ‘wheels’ as they were known initially, were sold in 1897 – that’s one for every thirty people. It is estimated that some 3,000 American businesses were involved in one way or another in the bicycle trade. Cycling in that decade was “nothing less than a general intoxication, an eruption of exuberance like a seismic tremor that shook the economic and social foundations of society and rattled the windows of its moral outlook” (Leonard, 1983).

Annie Londonderry seized on that fervour and reinvented herself as one of “The New Women”; a term used to portray the modern woman who broke from the conservative and traditional role of both a wife and mother. She used the bicycle, “…a much needed want for women in any station of life”, stated a cycling periodical in 1894, “…it knows no class distinction, is within reach of all and rich and poor alike have the opportunity of enjoying this popular and healthful exercise”.

Perhaps the most significant statement regarding the legacy of Annie’s contribution comes from one of the leading suffragists, Susan B. Anthony, who credited that “…Bicycling has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world”. 

The two round wheels, not vastly different to what we recreate, compete, commiserate, gossip and celebrate on today, became a major symbol of freedom.

Fast Forward

120 years on, things are vastly different. And they are also relative. Debates continue around equality in prize money at the elite level. Representative groups such as the Women’s Cycling Association have been formed from those inside the sport. Women, recreational or competitive, are demanding better service and more consideration to be given to our different shaped bodies and the designers and makers of both bikes and cycling apparel are listening.

The Australian National Road Series; the racing series for elite women in Australia has expanded to eight tours in 2014. Women’s Teams are growing in both numbers and talent. Cycling peak bodies are becoming much more interested in attracting more women at both recreational and competitive level. Just this week, Cycling Victoria commenced targeted surveys requesting feedback on how to attract more women to the sport. Women’s Commissions within these bodies are doing a fantastic job at increasing racing, training and social opportunities for women. This trend seems international. Recent research shows that 60% of bicycle owners between the ages of 18-27 in the USA for example, are women.

We have much to both celebrate and to continue to achieve.

As my Bicycle Superstore teammates and I jump aboard our lightweight and incredibly comfortable Liv/giant Women’s specific carbon race bikes to compete against some of the best in the world this summer, we’ll have placards of our own, albeit much more subtle than Annie’s. We’ll be piloting amazing machines and sporting relaxed, functional clothing speaking their own tale, all quietly whispering a story of evolution, of immense courage and of freedom – set in motion by the direct actions of our Wheelwomen sisters many years ago.  There won’t be a tight fitting corset in sight. Only tight fitting women’s specific lycra.

To the woman who shares her last name with my county of birth, Annie the first lap of the Bay Crits is for you…

New Team

Now, what was the new AIS recommended temperature again for my ice bath?

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