The lost and the saved

Ten minutes before the start of the Gravel Giro last weekend I learned that a friend had died by suicide.

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Ten minutes before the start of the Gravel Giro last weekend I learned that a friend had died by suicide.

It was a gorgeous morning in Warburton – bright blue skies and shining sun and the dark green peak of Donna Buang overhead. Fifty-five kilometers of gravel lay ahead, and I was excited to set off on my first ride since arriving in Australia the day before. Between jet lag and the impossibly beautiful weather, the day felt tinged with a magical unreality and that was before I nearly bumped into Marianne Vos as she was queuing for coffee. Home, in Atlanta, with its ordinary cares, seemed incredibly far away.

I had only pulled out my phone because I was hoping to meet up with Seb, another VeloClub member, for the ride. It’s odd in retrospect to think that I was excited to see an email from home and to recall my disappointment when I saw the generic subject line (“News”). I almost didn’t read it. When I did, I covered my mouth in shock, and then I wondered (incongruously and terribly) why we cover our mouths when we hear horrible news, and then I stood there in the sun under the blue sky and the green mountain and felt guilty for being so very, very far from home and so useless.

For the purpose of this story, I’ll call him Ryan. Ryan and I were not particularly close. We shared a hobby and met weekly as a part of that for more than a year, but didn’t socialize outside those meetings. Still, I knew that he was newly married and that the relationship was having some growing pains; there were concerns about their ability to conceive and fights over money. Ordinary troubles, they seemed to be.

As I read the email a second time, I heard the final call to move to the start line. I put my phone away, fumbling with my jersey pocket, and then I soft-pedaled across the grass through the mildly chaotic mass that is the start of a gran fondo. I found Seb in the start chute and we rolled off the line together, making the kind of conversation you do on the bike with people you’ve just met – how our legs felt, what we’d heard about the ride, how I was liking Australia. Soon we were climbing out of Warburton. I was feeling every bit of the twenty-five-hour trip from Atlanta to Melbourne by the time we hit the gravel a few miles later.

I have a terrible habit of not looking at course profiles before a ride, which is why I didn’t realize that the Gravel Giro packed a nasty amount of climbing into 55 kilometers. We climbed for an hour, through massive eucalyptus and gums and ferns the size of trees. My VeloClub buddy had long pulled away, and I caught up to a small group. One of the things I love most about cycling is the bond that quickly forms between strangers who fall in together on a hard ride. Other than a few words of encouragement or a muttered profanity at the sight of yet another switchback we hardly spoke as we climbed. Still, when we finally crested the hill and the effort of pedaling began to ease and gravity shifted from enemy to friend, someone cheered and I felt a pang of intense affection for my newfound companions, even though I didn’t yet know their names.

I imagine that Ryan felt very alone as he reached what would become the end of his life. I’ve had my own very bad days, and I know how vast and crushing that aloneness can seem. I thought about him as I fist-bumped my new friends at the end of the Gravel Giro, and I wished he could have felt that magic spark of connection. Maybe it would have held the dark away for long enough to make a difference.

When I signed up for VeloClub over a year ago, I didn’t think of it as anything more significant than throwing a bit of money at a podcast and website I enjoyed – like subscribing to the New York Times. I didn’t expect it to take me to the other side of the world, and I didn’t expect to find myself received there not as a stranger, but as a friend. I tried to describe Giro della Donna to my friends at home – the gorgeous weather, the endless Reefton climb, the fast, sweeping descent out of Marysville – but the thing I came back to, again and again, was how at home I felt. From the Gravel Giro to the Coppi Dinner to GDD itself, I was greeted by name more times than I could count (admittedly, being a woman with an American accent in VeloClub kit probably made me easy to pick out). I rolled off the start line Sunday morning with fellow VC-ers Michael and Ben, and after we got separated, I ran into one of the few other VeloClub women, Mich, at a rest stop and rode with her to Marysville.

I’ve had some health challenges in the last few months, so I already knew I wouldn’t ride up Donna Buang. Given that, I was a bit bummed when I hit the final stretch of my ride – the Acheron Way gravel section – alone. I pulled over for a quick snack, but I’d barely finished my stroopwafel when someone called my name: it was Ben and Michael again. We smashed the gravel together all the way to Cement Creek, and then they went up Donna Buang and I turned left for Warburton and ice cream. I’d spent less of the day alone than I might have during a gravel race back home in Georgia.

Monday night, back in Melbourne, I joined the VeloClub trails ride – putting more Slack names to faces – and ended the evening sitting on a curb outside a gas station drinking slurpies and eating cricket bars that Andy van Bergen brought back from Thailand. Afterward, Shayne and Marcus shepherded me back to my hotel (Marcus leading the way in a Snack Sponsor tee on a bikeshare bike). Sitting alone in my hotel room after they left, I finally cried.

I went for a walk the morning I started writing this. The sun was rising and the air was full of the bizarre calls of native Australian birds – I’m not sure how anyone sleeps past dawn here. Due to the vagaries of the International Date Line, a world away in Atlanta it was the afternoon of the day before, and they were burying Ryan. In the last year, bikes have taken me across the US and the world – to California, South Dakota, Iceland, and now – as I write this – Australia. I’ve showed up alone to places and cities where I know no one, and yet I’ve been welcomed as if I belonged. None of this is by my own merit: it’s grace, extravagant and undeserved, and it comes as a gift.

As we sat around the campsite drinking whiskey after Grinduro earlier this year, my friend Chris said that bikes have saved his life more than once. I used to think that it was the suffering in cycling, the refiner’s fire of endurance, that healed the broken things in me. Maybe I wanted to believe that, because suffering, and enduring, are about my own willpower and my own control, and I could believe that as long as my willpower endured, I would always be among the saved.

A few months ago, someone I loved was dying and I was very ill. From the moment I got the news, there was nothing I wanted to do more than ride the day away, staring at the road ahead of me, until I was emptied of everything except my breathing, my legs, and the rhythm of my pedalstroke. But I was too sick, and so I could do nothing but lie on my couch, stripped of my usual means of processing emotions, watching endless hours of reality shows about extravagant houses. The first time I was well enough to get on a bike, I met two of my best riding buddies at a local charity ride. They got me through it, even though I was still physically weak and emotionally exhausted. It wasn’t the effort of the ride that saved me: it was my friends. That is the gift that cycling has given me.

I do not know what it was that Ryan could not bear. I do not know what determines who is lost and who is saved, who founders under the weight of depression and who comes to rest at last on the far shores of normalcy. I am almost forty now, and power and endurance will not last forever. What remains is the community we form and the abundant grace of friendship, whether it lasts for a tough climb, or a race, or a lifetime. It cannot be earned. It is always more than we deserve. And it may be what saves us.

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