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.
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).
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.
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.
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.