Photo by Jason DeVarennes

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Baby Steps

Warning: if you read this blog for the lighthearted humorous stories of frivolous adventures on a bike, don't read any further. This is a different type of prose.   

The secret to happiness is low expectations.

For someone who just a few months ago, wouldn't have to think twice about doing a 200 mile bike ride with 20,000 feet of climbing and 70% dirt roads, it's been a real adjustment to find myself seriously challenged by a walk around the block. But this is my current reality. On September 8, I was out for a short bike ride, when I was hit from behind by a truck. The resulting spine fracture was stabilized with surgery. My latest x-rays now feature lots of rods, plates and screws in various parts of my body. I am quite thankful to the deputies and paramedics who were first on the scene, as well as the surgeon that I am still able to wiggle my toes and attempt that walk around the block. Every time my pain level spikes to 10, I do remind myself that I'm lucky that I can even feel the pain.

I don't know whether it's a result of massive data-mining of internet-fueled instant news and social media, or if we really are experiencing an epidemic of distracted, inattentive, careless, narcissistic driving; but my daily newsfeed (twitter, facebook and more traditional sources of news) has been filled with stories of way too many cyclists being run down and severely injured or killed in easily preventable circumstances - i.e. if folks would just drive as if it matters. If they would just realize that they are supposed to share the road with others, whether it is motor vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists, etc; if they would think about how lethal their 2 plus ton car can be in any collision; if they cared about their fellow human beings enough to slow down, pay attention and share the road; there might be fewer of these devastating stories.

I may not be physically paralyzed, but I am becoming so paralyzed by fear that I may not be able to get back on my bike when the physical impediments to do so are gone. As someone who defines herself as a cyclist first, this is beyond life-altering.

In the past few weeks, I have heard from too many friends, who have gone through a similar life-altering experience. Too many people have reached out to me both publicly and privately with tragically familiar tales. But I will lean on them for help to overcome my fear. I will look to them for advice on how to come back, while knowing so personally and intimately the risks and consequences.

Cycling has always been my outlet for stress, but it's not just an outlet. I define myself as cyclist first and foremost, and if I can't reclaim that state of being, this distracted driver who ran me down on September 8 will have robbed me of my identity. 


  1. Cool that you are approaching this physical and psychological trauma from the "baby steps" approach. Just learning to process what has happened when one is in a deep slot canyon of extraordinary pain, fear, disability, and ambiguity, is a daunting task. Hopefully, you are getting or will receive cognitive therapy to help you with healing and with taking baby mental steps. This blog post seems a good start.

    My brother, a practicing clinical psychologist, reminds me often of the robust, tough, sustaining resiliency of the human body and mind, evolved by nature over untold millennia, that allows the body and mind to heal despite incredible, seemingly overwhelming odds. You have that strength and resiliency in you and a singular DNA of athletic and physical gifts plus ( a real big plus) the mental hardening and conditioning achieved through a lifetime of athletic endeavor and achievement.

    I know you already know all of this but sometimes it does not hurt to hear it from someone else.

    Thank you for sharing your journey. You will always be a cyclist in your heart of hearts. That cannot be taken from you.

    I have faith and confidence in you and that you will abide.

    Jim Duncan

  2. I have been watching the accidents appear in my news feeds with increasing and disturbing regularity as well. You are absolutely on the mark when you say that all drivers should drive like it matters - it's a shame that it isn't all of our standard. I'm sorry that one of those drivers caused great harm to you and hope your road to recovery includes you overcoming the fear that came with the two accidents.

  3. First off I'm glad it wasn't more severe, and it really could have been, so let's be thankful for that!
    You make a good point. I'm a life-long motorcycle tourist as well as being a cyclist. I've always kept a mileage log of some sort for my m/c mileage as well as my cycling logs.
    Since age 18 I have approx 287,000 accident-free miles on motorcycles, not even a tip over. And I've given that up and am in the process of selling off all that equipment and dedicating all efforts to bicycling. There are several reasons for this, but there is one main, overriding thing that has driven this decision. The scourge of distracted, texting, cell-phone yapping drivers that I observe on the roads today. In my opinion it is far worse than drunk-driving ever could be.
    Not to be sexist about it, but what I see is teenage girls texting/talking with their friends, in a constant state of partial attention paying, and other women talking with I don't know whom, their friends, their mothers? I see guys doing it too, but the conversations seem shorter and more direct.
    When you see a car in front of you weaving from side to side, you know what it is. Texting, eyes off the road, instantly connected, perpetually distracted.
    I have regular discussions with friends about avoiding all roads carrying any significant amount of traffic, especially at rush hour or at lunch, because a lot of people are just not paying attention. They are too busy, talking, texting, drinking, eating, operating the radio or sat nav, and in the most extreme cases, reading books while operating a motor vehicle.
    We are blessed in New England with great roads with decent shoulders, but more traffic. I've ridden in other states, NC among them where this nothing to the right of the white line but a drop off onto gravel-not worth it.
    It sounds like, in your case, it was a freak occurrence with a flat tire, and an unfortunate coincidence. But just another reason to avoid, as much as is possible, any road with any amount of traffic. We can't live our lives in fear, because we're all headed to the same place, but exercising good judgement-since nobody will-is not out of the question.
    Hope you have a speedy recovery, and we'll all look for you out there.

  4. This is a wake-up call for all of us.

    To know that this life-altering accident happened to you, Pamela, brings the reality of it home to all of us. We thought you were impervious to peril. Now we realize, none of us is safe out there.

    I ride every day, in the bike lane. Suddenly, a car will pull over into the bike lane. The driver will answer a phone or text. I want to pull up to the driver's window, tap on it, and say "Hey, this is not a "texting lane, it's a bike lane." But then I realize, it's futile.

    Your accident has made us all be more vigilant on the bike. And while it takes some of the freewheeling pleasure out of bike riding, we will not deny ourselves the simple delight of being out in the fresh air and sunshine, getting some exercise, clearing our heads and pedaling.

    Right now, we do it for you.

    And, when you are ready, we will do it with you.

    Love to John, Izzy & Cocoa.

    - Jennifer

  5. Dear Pamela,

    First, I want to wish you a quick and complete recovery. I have been following your blog a little while now. I confess that a small part of my good wishes for your quick recovery is so that I can continue to enjoy your stories of riding, discovery and camaraderie.

    You say you are distraught because your very identity is at risk. Knowing what I know of you from your blog, if I were to describe who you are, the word cyclist does come to mind. But that would not be the first and foremost thing I would think of.

    I would describe you as the forever optimist, encourager and sharer of dreams. You’re like the perpetual sun in the northern summer. It just so happens we find you atop a bicycle a lot of the time.

    The recent events that have happened are cruel and you don’t deserve that. But in so far as it causes you to redefine yourself, perhaps that would be worthy of the suffering.

    You ride from your heart, not from your legs or head.

    Fast journey to your courageous recovery.

    J from Philly

    1. Wow. Reading this did more to help my pain than any pain pill could. Thank you J from Philly

  6. fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.
    thats about all i can muster. and i guess i should put it in all caps.

    so sorry pamela. so sorry.
    wishing you a speedy recovery.
    and words from a friend, when i was really upside down after our first child, and not finding the legs, nor lungs, nor even heart to ride:

    'where are we?'
    'right here!'
    'no, where are we, how much longer?'
    'right here, however long it takes.'

    we are all more than our bikes, and jobs, and families.
    don't let the identity rule you. but also don't let it be stolen.
    leave it or love that identity on your terms, not the terms of this sad (and all too frequent) occurrence.

    baby steps, little circles, round and round we go.

  7. Ten years ago, I witnessed a murder/suicide in my workplace. It left me suffering from chronic low-grade anxiety, punctuated by moments of sheer terror. At that time, I sought the help of a doctor who suggested I keep what he called a "transitional" object in my pocket to touch when I was feeling anxiety. He explained that every culture has them: worry beads, religious medals, rabbits' feet. They are like the blankets that babies drag around. They are really hanging on to the security they feel in their beds.
    Now this many years later, the panic attacks are fewer and farther between. but I still keep a medal in my pocket for when I need it. I am wondering if you could stuff one of the medals you have won racing into your pocket, or maybe a necklace of your mom--something than when you touch it could give you back to yourself as the brave and fun-loving woman you are.

  8. Wow, Pamela, what a horrible thing to have happen to you! I'm sorry I didn't know till you posted on tandem@hobbes, and I am grateful that you did so. I don't think I've ever corresponded with you directly, but on tandem@hobbes I have followed, and been inspired by, your adventures for many years now. Like you, the bike has enriched my life and helped keep me sane, and the tandem has enabled my wife and me to share adventures in ways that were deeply satisfying and fulfilling. I am just so glad to know that you're not paralyzed, and based on your posts I'm sure that you'll eventually be back on the road and adventuring again. Regaining your confidence is another matter, of course, but that's a bridge to be crossed later. I hope you are heartened, as you cross the various earlier bridges that are now set out before you, by the good wishes of many of us with whom you have shared your adventures over the years. I encourage you to keep those of us who are on tandem@hobbes informed about your progress with a simple link when you post to your blog.
    Best wishes,
    Scott (stek at post.harvard.edu)

  9. Having been away I hadn't caught up with your blog for a while. I was truly horrified to hear of your accident.
    Not only do I wish you a successful recovery (no matter how long) I do hope you get back on your bike. Perhaps the tandem might be an option?
    Perhaps those of us who have been inspired, encouraged and entertained by your writing might spare a thought or two for you as we ride along. I will for sure.
    In the meantime keep taking the baby steps and lets hope they start to get bigger and better.

  10. Thanks so much for posting the tandem packing instructions.

  11. What a difference a year makes! Here are the most inspiring words I can think of in these circumstances, written back in July of 2012 by a cyclist I've admired for years : "June 7, 1992 is one of those dividing lines for me. I lost a dear friend on that day, one who taught me to seize the day and to have the courage to try to overcome obstacles in my path. I changed the way I approached everything after that day. I now know that life is indeed short and random. I'm much less likely to put things off, or to be afraid to try something new and challenging and outside my comfort zone than I was before. And I don't save stuff for special occasions. I make every effort to live in the moment and appreciate exactly what is happening at the time."

    Best wishes for a full recovery of body and spirit.

  12. I rediscovered my love of cycling again these last five years (with great help from your website - before this blog was started) after over twenty years off the bike following a driver's careless moment while on a training ride. I am grateful for your inspiration on top of the practical advice.

    Indeed, the hardest scars from which to recover are the psychic ones. After several surgeries and much physical therapy, it took longer and was a bit more difficult, to overcome the occasional, irrational cold sweat and sense of dread when approaching an intersection as well as nurturing other aspects of a self identity firmly rooted to cycling. However, as with a long brevet, patience, perseverance and spirit will see you through.

    I remember the absence of cycling in my life following my accident left a significant void. Friends stay friends, but occasions for camaraderie taper off a bit. Time, energy, motivation and resources that formerly, so naturally were occupied by cycling needed to be channeled elsewhere. It is difficult, but can also be quite rewarding. You are a cyclist and will come back to it in your time and at your pace.

    I am happy to rediscover cycling and, from half a world away, feel I owe you gratitude for providing some spark for this. I think I love and enjoy cycling more than I did in my 20's when thoroughly obsessed by all things bike racing.

    Stay positive. Thankfully, you are no stranger to a long road ahead. Wish you a speedy recovery on all fronts.

  13. I had one leg removed below knee by a bus driver who didn't see me (pedestrian) when I was a child. I am 50+ now, and sometimes I still get panic when I walk close to a bus - it's random. I am dealing with some issues now that come from longevity as an amputee.
    Please remember that some of your emotions may be affected by medicines.
    I live in the triangle, and I knew 2 people who were killed by drivers while biking. My choice for dealing with this is advocacy and becoming an LCI. I don't agree with everything that LAB says, and I may join up with the CyclingSavvy group instead. I do wish that AAA would run their PSA about how it only takes 3 seconds of inattention to create an accident way more often.
    Recovering from a serious injury is really hard work. There are ups and downs. I know that it is frustrating to have been so active, and now to struggle to walk a short distance. Hang in there. You will succeed at recovery.

  14. Hello, I tried responding to this post many times, so here's another attempt! I too see evidence of distracted driving, and aggressive driving: someone recently got hit at my road whom was honked and forced off the highway, slipped on gravel and crashed. The truck did not stop. I really want a little camera to photograph all the plates of drivers whom are texting, on their cell phones, speeding or being aggressive towards cyclists. When you give reports to the police, they do keep track and such drivers get 'flagged' in the system. So, if they do get stopped by the police for speeding or texting etc they will already have a notation on their file and it is more likely they will get fined instead of a warning.
    Even my husband whom had been hit by a truck while cycling years ago and was never afraid is more and more nervous these days.
    As I have commented before, a major car accident has to this day left me half the cyclist I used to be. Recovering from major injuries is a massive undertaking and relies on determination, steel will and courage. I was given a poor prognosis but refused to accept it and recovered, regained use of my arm which was potentially going to be a useless limb. I could have at least qualified for the paralympics cycling team with some sort of appliance at that rate, ha ha. I was back on my bike as soon as possible which probably wasn't a good idea in terms of the court case and insurance, but as I was forced to move back home to another part of the country might not have dealt with spies. Anyway, I quickly discovered that I could not manage drop bars without lots of pain, long rides I used to do were torture on my back as well. The nerve damage in my arms and hands etc etc. Even with all the physio, swimming, weight training and yoga, I was hit with the same barrier. I kept on riding my bike, commuting by bike, but eventually gave up on rando and long road bikey rides. I gave in to owning a car for a few years. It was discouraging to want to go on long bike rides or go touring and find I was always in pain, and still have not found the right set up or properly fitting bike(I am pixie sized). And that's been another problem...upright bikes do not handle well, so I am wiggling around alot, tried various bikes, tried slow clunky 'hybrids' or mountain bikes, could not afford a really good road bike.
    It was bad enough that I was terrified of being in cars, buses and driving after the accident, but at first I was okay with biking, although I became much more cautious riding in traffic and constantly could imagine potential accidents. It may have improved my cycling skills in being more assertive or finding back routes that avoided traffic however challenging. I moved back to the west coast and moved to an area where the twisty roads reminded me of my accident, I became more and more nervous on bike. The area I live in has one major road going up the coast, a 2 lane twisty highway and it's scary. That and the fact that I did get hit from behind one dark and rainy night after work added to my fearfullness. The driver who hit me must have been going very slowly and luckily my panniers were loaded down, so I was not hurt, but it was a shock. I kept on cycling, but was definitely fearful. I was too afraid to ride with any sort of speed on a road bike. Riding on the highway, I cling to the shoulder, slow down on descents, and will not go for long rides up the coast because I consider the highway too dangerous even though it is a well known cycling destination. I biked it a few times to humour my husband and refuse to do it again, which really limits where I can ride as I essentially am on an island. But part of me so wanted to ride again, long distances, see new things and earn my cafe stops!

    1. As for your identity as a cyclist, it may have to change, as you will change. You might become a cycling safety advocate, or you may retreat to riding only areas you consider safe. You may not physically be able to do what you used to do, but you will likely to continue to be a cyclist on some level. If you do wish to get back to your recent level It will take a very long time to build back up and get over the fear.
      At least you and your husband are experienced tandem riders! I only wish I could get over control issues and fear, but my husband and I fought on our tandem try out.

      It does sound like you had good care and surgery which may help with your recovery, or perhaps not? Say hello to injury arthritis and being a human barometer which you likely know from past injuries. My car accident had been in a remote area and the nearest hospital didn't know what to do, so I did not have the generally required surgery to repair things, had to let bones heal as is.
      Continue to heal, accept help, and in no circumstances listen to nonsense about learning experiences, karma or fate. I cannot tell you how hurtful that was for me to have friends try tell me it was my karma, meant to be, my doing, or that I could learn from it. I was a passenger in a vehicle that was hit by a speeding out of control truck, in no way was that my doing!! Nobody needs to learn about trauma, pain and spending years in physio, face the short to long term loss of work, opportunities and much loved activities. The subsequent isolation from being too injured to go out, and lack of understanding for why you continue to grip anything while in a vehicle and yelp at any sign of danger. Or freak out while riding on a busy road, or do not want to 'try' doing something. Nobody deserves accidents, especially cyclists whom cannot defend themselves against massive death machines. An accident is just that, random, the fault if any was with the driver, not you.

  15. Thinking about you and hope that you are doing well today.


  16. Pamela,

    My 7 month old boy could not take his eyes off of you when we met at the cafe last year. You thought it was the bright vest, but I think he just knew that you are someone very strong and special.

    Baby steps evolve to bigger steps. Best wishes to a full recovery.

  17. As a fellow cyclist from the opposite side of the world, I am aghast at the tragedy... I sincerely hope that your attitude towards life will ultimatly push you towards what you yourself define yourself... a cyclist first. Wishing you increasingly better health...