Lost and found: Painful memories of a bike tour that shaped two lives

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I’ve had 15 years to think through this story and I still don’t know how to start it.

Perhaps I should open it with me ruminating through a sea of Saguaro under a blistering sun. Or maybe it begins with Diana curled in a ball, moaning on the emergency room floor. Or me losing the wheel for good, down close to the Mexican border.

People who ride know that once you’re in deep, cycling becomes intertwined with the most important moments of your life. I’ve always liked to tell stories that probe that intersection.

But this one is messy. It’s a story about a bike trip and a story about marriage and a story about loss. And it’s also a story about the kinds of revelations and mistakes that take years to come into focus.

Honestly, it’s still a bit out of focus. So I might as well just start at the beginning.

Prologue: Suffering

We shoved our bike boxes into the corner of the hotel room. We were in Phoenix, at a Best Western not far from the airport.

I want to say from the outset that my memories of this week are full of holes. It’s unnerving to reach an age where pivotal moments from my thirties seem as foggy as adolescence. Yet it’s true. I recall certain moments from this week with razor-sharp clarity and others feel like dreams I’ve begun to forget.

But I remember that Diana had just gotten out of the shower and thinking it was the first time I really could tell she was pregnant. I was sprawled on the bed and watching her dry herself and thinking she was beautiful. I remember hoping she’d climb into the bed so I could touch her but then she said she felt a little funky.

In a few minutes, it was worse than funky.

We had flown to Phoenix to do this weeklong ride across Arizona, from the Grand Canyon to Mexico. It was my first big feature assignment for Bicycling magazine, and I was somewhere beyond eager to make the most of the opportunity. Diana had been training for the 500-mile adventure for longer than she’d been pregnant. She’d never done a big multi-day tour before. The event organizers knew she was pregnant and had said she could jump in a sag van if she wanted to skip a day or a big climb, but her doctor had said she could handle the riding if she felt okay.

“The last thing I told her before she dropped me was that I was proud of her. I still feel that way.” 

But she was not okay. There, lying on the bed at the Best Western, her queasiness turned into cramps and then into stabbing pain.

We spent the rest of the night awake in a bad dream. She was bleeding and freaking out, and I did my best to calm her. We’d been married for a little over a year, which is a shorthand way of saying that we hadn’t yet been through shit together. We’d known each other for a few years — you could say we were friends and lovers who had a kind of faith in each other — and now we were in an airport hotel together, losing a baby.

When the sun came up, I found the event organizers. They were excited to have a journalist from a big cycling magazine on board to cover their showcase event, and there in the coffee shop, they were not exactly prepared to hear about our medical crisis. I gave them our bikes to throw in their truck — an entourage of a couple hundred riders was getting ready to bus up to the Grand Canyon — and told them I’d get in touch one way or the other. Then I hustled Diana into a cab to head to the hospital.

I thought we’d hit bottom but the contractions and the bleeding just kept intensifying. She was in agony. At the emergency room triage desk, Diana writhed on the tile floor as I impatiently gave our info to a nurse. Diana was crying out in pain; crying that she’d miscarried.

We spent half a day in the emergency room, doing a bunch of tests to confirm what we already knew to be true. There was this awkward endoscope tech who kept asking Diana if he could touch her “lady parts” and we got a welcome laugh out of that. I remember feeling preoccupied about Diana’s physical and emotional state but struggling to get my head around the loss we’d just suffered. There in the ER I already was thinking that we’d just try again, already misreading what Diana was going through.

Fifteen years ago, I didn’t own a mobile phone, so I borrowed Diana’s cell to call her mom and my family and my editor. I was prepared to get on a plane and fly back home to Pennsylvania, but I secretly hoped we wouldn’t.

In the afternoon, the hospital discharged Diana and we went back to the hotel to pack up and talk things over. The room felt enveloped in sadness. But Diana was emphatic that she didn’t want to fly home and mourn with friends and family hovering close. So we decided to rejoin the bike trip and play it by ear.

After I rented a car, we stopped at a big pharmacy to fill Diana’s new painkiller prescriptions and then started the drive up to the South Rim. Diana slept most of the way, curled up in the passenger seat like a little ball.

Stage One: The Shake Out

In the morning, I tracked down the ride organizers, and updated them on our saga. They gave me our bikes and an assurance that Diana could hitch a lift in sag vehicles for the entire week if she wanted.

The tour wasn’t formally starting until the following day, so organizers encouraged the roughly 200 participants to take a shake-out ride to the edge of the canyon. We were staying in the tourist portal of Tusayan.

Diana surprised me and said she wanted to try the ride. So we kitted up and spun north through a Ponderosa pine forest toward Grand Canyon Village. When I look back on it now, I’m amazed that 24 hours after suffering a miscarriage (with many hours of horrible contractions and bleeding) that Diana slid into spandex and unto a bike saddle for a 30-mile ride, but that’s exactly what she did. I’m not sure that my younger self, new to marriage and existential loss, fully absorbed the tenacity she was displaying. I was just so happy to be outside with her, pedaling towards the future.

When we got to Grand Canyon Village, we headed west on the largely car-free road out to Hermit’s Rest, where we stopped to stare out at the abyss. We held hands and looked out at a couple hundred million years of exposed geology and watched hawks float overhead. Then we retraced our path back to the hotel, riding slowly as people in our group raced past us.

When we got back to the room, Diana said she’d enjoyed the ride but needed a nap. Her chamois was covered in blood.

Stage Two: An Early Escape

Diana woke up and said she wanted to sit out the first big day of riding and my first emotion was relief. We had a big breakfast together and then said goodbye.

That day we rode from Tusayan up to the canyon, and then followed the entire length of Desert View Drive. I rolled out with a group of maybe 50 riders and we noodled eastward along the South Rim, with hillsides dotted with pinion and juniper trees on our right and an enormous, multicolored, 6,000-foot-deep chasm to our left.

As the rollers got steeper, the group started breaking up, and I did my best to hang with a crew of a dozen serious roadies who had floated off the front. On and off throughout the day, I thought about Diana and what had happened, but I was grateful to have moments to chat with strangers or grind out of the saddle without thinking about anything but holding the wheel. Though I’ve always loved how cycling helps me process challenges in my life, I also appreciate the way a hard ride allows me to step out of my head. It can be a useful escape.

Our little peloton stopped at the Desert View Watchtower for photos — this was the era in which cyclists tucked little digital cameras in their jersey pockets — before we hit the road. The next stretch was all downhill, dropping 3,500 feet in 35 miles, and for 45 minutes it was a big-ring blur. I had a powder blue LeMond Buenos Aires with 105 back then, a fun bike that came out of fast turns with a whoosh.

I dug pretty deep to keep up with fast guys, the kind of thing that wouldn’t seem like a mistake for a few days. When the descent ended, we turned right for this final drag to our hotel in Gray Mountain. It was eight or nine miles on a gentle uphill with a cross headwind, and it only took ten minutes of riding with those guys before I just blew to bits. In retrospect, I suppose that I wanted to destroy myself there.

The last 15 minutes were ugly, as riders I hadn’t seen in two hours spun past me. I pulled into the hotel parking lot exhausted and hungry and thankful for the respite I’d been given.

Stage Three: Gruppo Compatto

Diana wanted to ride part of the following day, so she met me an hour from the hotel to join me for a 35-mile spin through the Wupatki and Sunset Crater Volcano National Monuments. We rode through a burnt-orange landscape and past 800-year-old housing sites built by ancestors of the Hopi people. There were tons of friendly people riding our speed and aid stations stocked with mountains of peanut butter sandwiches and big tubs of Gatorade. The sun floated high in a cloudless sky, but because it was breezy and we were at 6,000 feet in October, the conditions felt idyllic.

The whole thing felt idyllic. Our conversation floated between the immediate settings and how she was doing and the random stuff that pops up on a bike ride. I had bought Diana this awesome steel Bianchi with a Cinelli-style quill stem and a lovely cream paintjob, and people kept rolling past complementing her on the bike. She didn’t feel great, but she felt a lot better than she had a couple days earlier, and she seemed empowered to be out on the bike. She had trained hard enough to do the whole ride but obviously the circumstances had changed.

When the quiet road though the monuments hit US 89, Diana got in a sag van and I rode the rest of the way to Flagstaff. I found a good group — there was this really fit guy who was a Canadian pharmacist and this dot-com guy from San Jose who had a souped-up Bike Friday — and we crushed the last hour. I felt really good about things, like I had spent a big chunk of the day being an attentive partner and sharing a gorgeous ride, and now I was getting to attend to myself with a thorough cleansing.

That night we left the group for a couple of hours and went out to dinner with a friend who happened to live in Flagstaff. And as we ate Pad Thai with Annette and the conversation veered toward what had happened in Phoenix, it became clear to me that Diana was processing a deeper trauma than I had yet come to terms with. I don’t think I had the maturity to understand what it would feel like to be a 38-year-old woman who had just lost a baby, and I honestly had not foreseen that marriage would involve profound moments of disconnection. I just tried to listen and take it all in.

Stage Four: Distraction

By this point, I’d figured out there were about 40 fast riders on the tour and they basically split into two crews. One would get up and out early, reaching the next hotel hours long before anyone else. And the other speedsters lazed around the hotel for an hour after the rest of the group had left and then picked off almost everyone else during the day. These were my people.

Diana decided she’d alternate riding and rest days so she jumped in a van for the 90-mile drive to Payson. I spent the day riding in a steady rotation with the Team Late Start.

I had never done any riding on the high plateau south of Flagstaff — an enormous swath of conifer forest dotted with lakes and bogs. It wasn’t the Arizona I was used to. As we ticked through the miles quickly, everyone in the group got to know each other. I talked to these two dudes from San Francisco, who had just helped launch the social-network web site Friendster. This was two years before Facebook existed. They were explaining their excitement for social media and I remember being unimpressed.

“People who ride know that once you’re in deep, cycling becomes intertwined with the most important moments of your life. I’ve always liked to tell stories that probe that intersection.”

Soon after we rode through the small town of Strawberry, we reached the southern edge of the Mogollon Rim, a massive escarpment that runs east-west across much of Arizona and divides the high country like that around the Grand Canyon and the lower elevation deserts that fill much of the state. The road corkscrewed down a cliff-like hillside, from deep forest to open desert. Suddenly it was hot.

This weeklong tour, run by a Tucson-based group called the Greater Arizona Bicycling Association, was not one of those luxury operations with high thread-count hotels and dinners with wine pairings, nor was it designed with superfast roadies in mind. But the tour was providing scenic roads, tough climbs, friendly people, and a hearty slice of Arizona weirdness.

That night in Payson we ate a buffet dinner at the local American Legion hall, where an old lady wearing a nasal cannula dished out Swiss steak, green beans, and mashed potatoes to all the hungry cyclists. This uncontrived local color was a welcome distraction for me and Diana. We’d have plenty of time to mourn and regroup when we got home; out here, with the wounds still raw, being on a quirky adventure seemed to help.

Later that night, Diana and I sat in the motel hot tub with the Friendster guys, a banker from Connecticut, and two women who worked in the Oregon wine industry and joked about the weird dinner and our preferences in chamois cream. I saw Diana laugh out loud for the first time in a few days, and I felt a weight leave my body.

Stage Five: The Slow Climb

Diana decided to join me for most of the day. We got a late start and it already was hot as we started the ride from Payson toward the city of Globe. And in the first hour of riding, I blew a front tire. We sat exposed on the side of the road until a support vehicle came by and hooked me up with a new tire. At noon, we still were 75 miles from our next hotel.

But eventually we got back in motion and had many hours of peaceful riding and easy conversation. Diana talked about her sense of loss and I tried to digest her grief. I also tried to cheer her up, which is something I tried to do too much early in our marriage. Over time, I’ve realized that in many cases the best thing I can do is just listen.

Truth be told, our leisurely pace was taking a toll on me. At this point, I really didn’t need extra hours in the saddle in the desert sunshine. I could feel the early signs of a saddle sore coming to life. I’d like to think I kept my impatience to myself but I bet Diana could feel it. She’s always been able to sense my impatience.

About halfway through the ride, we came to the shores of Theodore Roosevelt Lake, a reservoir of the Salt River, a long strip of blue framed by a series of brown and tan mountain ranges. A road crew was laying fresh jet-black asphalt and the air smelled like tar.

As we ate sandwiches and sucked on orange sections at a rest stop overlooking the lake, Diana said she’d almost had enough for the day. She knew that one of the nastiest climbs of the trip loomed a half-hour up the road. We arranged for a sag vehicle to grab her at the bottom.

It already was late in the afternoon when she climbed in the van and I rolled up to that five-mile climb. The air was still and hot and the grade kept getting steeper. My Buenos Aires had a triple and I was in the little ring. At one point, I turned my head to the side just as little yellow butterfly passed by my right shoulder on its way up the hill. I was climbing slower than a butterfly!

I felt emptied and discouraged at the top of the hill, but a volunteer had a big beach umbrella and an ice chest full of orange Fanta. I remember rolling a can across my forehead. I still had 20 miles to go — we were staying at a Casino hotel run by a local Apache tribe — and I felt beat down, but over the next hour I passed dozens and dozens of cyclists who looked as bad as I felt. It’s weird how on a bad day, passing people going slower than you can feed you with confidence.

Stage Six: Emptiness

The penultimate day of the trip had been touted as the Queen Stage — a 106-mile slog to Tucson. Diana wisely sat this one out. I set out with the speedy Canadian pharmacist guy long after most everyone else had left.

That was not a wise decision. Suddenly we had entered territory where the fast riders who had hit it at 7am (and had 40 miles in the bag before we clipped in) seemed pretty smart. I felt dehydrated from the start. Riding hard for four straight days had taken a toll on me, as I repeatedly and foolishly burnt matches with pointless hard efforts. I was about to pay for my mistakes.

The fast pharmacist half-wheeled me up the first big climb. I should have let him go then, rather than 25 miles up the road. After a long and fast decent, we settled into a nice groove that I had no chance of sustaining all day. We were riding south into a gusty headwind but it was so hot out — it was like that feeling of opening an oven door. We parted ways at a convenience store. After he rode away, I went inside and bought a big bag of Doritos and then sat outside next to the ice machine and talked to strangers.

For hours after that, I just churned southward into the headwind. The road was lined with the largest and most magnificent Saguaro cacti that I’ve ever seen, two stories tall with arms shrugging toward the sky. I’m pretty sure I didn’t imagine them. I couldn’t find anyone to ride with. I would roll up on groups of three or four riders going slow, and I’d sit in for a minute or two, and then push on.

As I tend to do when I’m suffering alone on the bike, I started drifting inward. I had spent the previous few days trying to attend to Diana without really processing my own loss, so as I pedaled into that headwind I tried to tease it out. I replayed the acute fear I’d felt at the Best Western, the helplessness of the emergency room visit, the sad reality that I wouldn’t be a father in six months. I might never be a father.

It was like that for hours. The saddle sore had blossomed and my shorts were caked with salt and the wind ripped so hard that I had to pedal hard on downhills. I found a group to ride with and sat on. For 20 miles I didn’t say a word or take a pull. I just hung on and let my anxieties fester.

“We’d known each other for a few years — you could say we were friends and lovers who had a kind of faith in each other — and now we were in an airport hotel together, losing a baby.”

When we finally got to the hotel in Tucson I was empty in every way. It was this bizarre relief to run into Diana and see that she was in a pretty good mood, relaxed and ready to attempt the next day’s 90-mile finale. I sat on the carpet of our room in my salt-stained shorts, encouraging her that she could crush that ride as I dreaded it myself.

She went out for a walk. I filched two of her Percocets and limped out to the pool with a beer. I think I might still have been in my kit but I’m not sure. I sat in the water and drained the beer, and I remember shivering and floating in the pool, looking up at palm trees and the unrelenting sun. I was used to feeling fucked up after a hard ride but this sense that marriage would involve unspoken turbulence was unfamiliar. I just floated there for a long while and tried to get it together.

Stage Seven: The Breakaway

We got an early start the next day — the forecast called for a scorcher — but we both punctured before we were out of Tucson city limits. Then with a friendly group of riders, we stopped for breakfast at this awesome combination tire shop/taco joint called Pepe’s. We ate burritos with egg and chorizo at little tables as guys in overalls balanced tires 10 feet away. Arizona’s weirdness can be beautiful.

Diana had started the day all nervous, but with each passing mile she seemed to get more confident. I set a steady pace for her and made sure she stuck to my wheel. We talked about flying home the next day, and all the attendant conversations and realties we’d face there.

It had been hot for the past couple days, but nothing like this. It was way over 100 F. As we spun south from Tucson toward the Mexican border, the soil turned to sand and the sky kept getting bigger. There was no shade for hours.

With about 25 miles to go, we took a nice long break at Mission San Jose de Tumacacori, this adobe Spanish colonial church that was built in the 1750s. The compound was surrounded by pomegranate and other fruit trees. A volunteer handed me a tall bottle of Mexican Coke, and I slumped in a shady inner courtyard and drained it. After almost 500 miles and one of the stranger weeks of my life, I just didn’t have a lot left to give.

Diana and I didn’t exchange words when we got back on our bikes, but she seemed to understand I was in bad shape. She pulled in front of me, and I got on her wheel. I could tell that my weakness was feeding her confidence.

As we neared the outskirts of Nogales, I really struggled to find the will to turn the pedals. I knew we were only five or six miles from the hotel and a massive Mexican buffet, but I was blown. Diana kept opening gaps. She looked back a couple of times and I just waved at her to continue.

The last thing I told her before she dropped me was that I was proud of her. I still feel that way. Fifteen years later, it feels like a pivotal moment in our lives, a memory that at once feels painful and redemptive. We were out there in the unrelenting heat, each of us struggling and suffering and prevailing alone, sharing a hard ride as best we could.

Note: The author and his wife have two boys now, who recently turned 11 and 13.

About the author

Peter Flax, former editor in chief at Bicycling magazine and features editor at The Hollywood Reporter, currently works as editor in chief at The Red Bulletin. He is the proud owner of a Strava KOM on the Jersey Shore, and he only wears leg warmers when he feels like it.

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