Nobody prepares you for it, you can’t even try to be ready. But once it arrives, you realise that you’ve spent your whole life preparing.
Not long ago I was re-reading Paul Auster’s book New York Trilogy: “I didn’t die there, but I wasn’t far off, and there was a moment, perhaps there were a few moments, where I had a close encounter with death. There’s no cure for a meeting of such type. Once it happens, it continues to do so; you live with it for the rest of your life.” Those are the words of the author, referring to the character; it’s fiction but I take ownership of them. In fact, I wish they were mine, because they seem very much like my own.
The rest of your life; the beginning that arrived when in theory, you’d reached the end. Nobody gets there prepared, but you have to react in some way, you can’t remain passive.
On May 16 2009, it was the eighth stage of the Giro d’Italia and I felt fully prepared. Two hundred and nine kilometres from Morbegno, with a category one climb in the opening part of the stage. After climbing to Città Alta from Porta Garibaldi, the finish would be in the centre of Bergamo. I already knew the closing part of the route from the 2007 Giro, and I knew it would be difficult. That was it: after 12 years as a professional, it would be “another day at the office” as they say in the peloton. I had no intuition as to what would really happen to me that day.
Back then, I was riding for the Rabobank team and it was my third Giro d’Italia. I didn’t consider myself to be an expert, but I knew a few Corsa Rosa secrets. I also had a soft spot for the race, given that I made my Grand Tour debut there in 1998 as a neo-pro.
My team-mate Denis Menchov had already won one of the seven stages ridden up to that point. That I know, but the reality is that I don’t really have any clear memory of it; perhaps just a little flashback where, as I’m crossing the line, I see Denis on the top of the podium lorry, receiving his prize as stage winner. Alongside another team-mate, I stop, gesticulating and shouting words of congratulations. However, Denis being the good, cold Russian that he is, doesn’t break podium protocol to give us a hug and he keeps it low-key, thanking us with a smile. I don’t know if this really happened or if it’s just a figment of my imagination, but both of those alternatives are as valid as each other.
On the way to Bergamo, Denis was already lying fifth overall. It was no secret that he was one of the favourites to win the race and we were right behind him. All of our team’s energy centred on helping him to succeed and everything was going well.
I felt ready for the stage, yes, that one’s a real memory. Sat on the team bus next to Mauricio [Ardila], my roommate, I was reading a book as we travelled to the stage start. Then, as we descended a hairpin bend to the right, a car – I swear that it was a red Fiat Panda – braked suddenly, and due to the tight nature of the bend, was forced to reverse so our bus could pass. A strange thing to remember, absurd and unimportant even, but also unique, as I don’t believe that any of the others who were there still keep it somewhere in their memory. For me, though, it remains an important recollection. Being the last thing I really remember, it carries symbolic weight. After that, nothing. Or perhaps a lot, both alternatives are as valid as each other. An indescribable blinding light accompanied by a feeling of infinite emptiness, and something white, all white. A white-stained nothingness.
We often refer to a bad or disastrous day as a dark one. The kind of dark that surrounded my family, team and friends that day, all the while ignoring the fact that I was swimming in white. And it isn’t some kind of metaphor, which is why I wrote earlier that this is something for which nobody can prepare you. A dazzling, shiny and pure white, but at the same time cold and enigmatic. A sort of deaf white, if you like, that’s if a colour can have sound.
I remember wandering around a place without a horizon beyond the whiteness, advancing without having any reference point to give me any certainty of actually doing so. White everywhere; up, down, to the sides – 360 degrees of white. A calm, relaxing white, but one that at the same time felt murky and claustrophobic; trapped in a limitless space. I moved through it walking, running – ‘what are you doing, why are you running? Don’t you realise that you move forward at the same pace running as you do walking?’ – so I wasn’t really moving. ‘Where am I? What am I doing here? Why am I here? What do I have to do…?’
I don’t know how long that whiteness lasted, although I know it was a long time, exactly the number of days I was in a coma (many days, but not even I could point to a precise duration). It could have been a side effect of the morphine dose that helped put me into a coma, just as others affirm that it’s a mystical memory of an out-of-body experience. I’m not sure now and I’ll never know with any certainty, in fact I’d rather forget it. What I do know is that the transition away from white and back to a world of colour was a gradual one. As I opened my eyes, I moved from that glacial, serene shade to one that was warmer but blinding. Like an Eskimo, I could pick out thousands of different tones of white. Colour returned when I was able to look away from the fluorescent lights on the ceiling of the resuscitation room at Bergamo hospital. My position, immobile, forced me to look directly at them, but my eye muscles disobeyed their orders. I closed my eyes, thinking that it was similar to the sun – it gives us light but we can’t look directly at it. However, when you’re blinded by its rays, I thought, it leaves dark stains across your vision, stains that I couldn’t pick out anywhere.
With that colour came the angst and will to escape. I didn’t know who or where I was, nor what was happening. The only thing I knew was that I had to get out, without knowing where to or why. My only objective was to escape, but not a single part of my body reacted to the orders I gave.
Days beforehand, in a ravine on the side of the Culmine di San Pietro, Doctor Alberti had been attending to the victim of an accident. He later told me that although he’d had to intervene in dramatic circumstances before, he had never had to work in conditions as poor and precarious as those he found that day. Tied to ropes to prevent him from falling down the mountainside, with a seriously injured, yet conscious patient who was asking him for help to get back up onto the road. A cyclist fully immersed in his role, getting up in order to continue pedalling. “An idiot who was ignoring that what was at stake wasn’t a bike race, but his own life and who was talking to me without realising that he could have been uttering his last words.” That patient, conscious but unaware, was me. The Italian doctor who saved my life, unknown to me until then, is now one of my best friends.
All this happened almost ten years ago, and now I realise that I’ve still not described how it happened. Quite simply, I fell down a ravine during the stage. There, on that left-hand bend where I ended my professional career, is where everything began. I must’ve misjudged it, perhaps I went into it too quickly. What does that matter now? The result was that I crashed into the guardrail at the side of the road, and was catapulted into the unknown. After a ten to 12-metre fall, I hit the first rocks; my bones were breaking as I continued to travel down the precipice, causing severe internal injuries. Each rock that I hit along the way added more fractures to my medical chart. A few seconds and another 80 vertical metres later, after being slowed by the vegetation, my body stopped moving on a rocky ridge. Doctor Alberti described it as “a miracle of nature, a ledge of flat rock in the middle of the mountainside, two metres long and a little more than a metre wide. It lay just above a cliff drop of more than 20 metres, high enough to kill you if you’d rolled over once more”.
The 45 minutes I lay there awaiting rescue gave me more than enough time to look down into that abyss. I’m not sure what I did then, I don’t know what I felt or thought. I only know that I’d like to find out.
It’s both ironic and curious at the same time that I don’t have any memory of the most intense moment in my life, some kind of defence mechanism in the brain decided to eliminate it. If a memory of it exists, I can’t find the way to access it. The doctors explained that it’s actually a product of hormones: it’s not as if I was conscious, but adrenaline kept me awake until I felt safe once more.
I consider myself lucky, and I’m sure that in that moment, I received the biggest slice of luck in my life. Circumstances conspired in such a way that now I’m here, writing this, and enjoying life. I like to compare that lucky moment to the start of a pool match: without holding back the power, the player hits the cue ball and sends it towards the others, sitting all racked up. Most of those balls end up scattered around the table, apart from one in particular, which goes straight into a pocket. The same pool player could repeat the break ten, a hundred or even a thousand times, but he wouldn’t be able to put them all in exactly the same position as he did the first time. He might produce something similar, but there will always be a slight difference, perhaps by millimetres, but enough for it not to be identical. That’s what happened in my case; if there’s ever been a time in my life when the stars aligned in my favour, then that was it. It’s thanks to that, I’m still alive.
In the Basque Country, the area where I live, and in the mountains where I spend a large part of my time, there’s something that fascinates me: the watershed. I live in front of steep limestone mountains, my mountains, full of peaks along which I walk, with sheer drops on either side. Those peaks are modest, a little over 1,000 metres high, but they feel like high mountains. When it rains, the drops that fall to the north turn into streams that become rivers, flowing out to the Bay of Biscay, part of the Atlantic. The vast ocean that joins us to the Americas seems so close when you’re looking at it from all the way up there. However, the raindrops that fall to the south, just a few centimetres away from where the others land, continue their journey towards the Ebro valley and end up flowing into the Mediterranean Sea, 700 kilometres east of that point. The Mediterranean, that bit of closed off water that closes off Europe to the south east and joins us to Asia and Africa. It’s curious how half of the world can be connected to one small mountain ridge. And this is a concept that leads me to think of myself and my ravine on the side of Culmine di San Pietro. My fall left me next to a stream. The water flows down to the Brembana valley, where San Pellegrino spring water is bottled. Water that comes from a natural source, emerging after 30 years of natural filtration. So in around twenty years, somebody will drink water from a bottle that contains a little bit of me, because I know that some part of me was left in that ravine and I hope that a bit of it managed to filter down. Stupid, absurd, but also true.
Despite leaving competitive cycling behind, I’ve kept my links to the sport during all these years. It’s a world that’s mine, that I can’t and don’t want to abandon. I managed to cover two Tours de France as a journalist, even though it felt strange writing about my former colleagues. That feeling wasn’t brought about by a lack of involvement, not at all. The problem was that it didn’t feel legitimate for me to be talking about others, and put into words events about which I didn’t possess enough information. I watched the race as an observer and even took advantage of the fact that I could get out and ride the race route on my bike. But that wasn’t enough, I knew that I could never experience the same thing as the riders. All this usually meant that I ended up not writing race reports and instead shone a light on aspects of the event that fell outside the gaze of the main camera lens. It was a beautiful, enriching experience, but I never managed to lose the feeling of being an impostor in the press room, that feeling of being out of place. My world was, and still is, on the other side of the barrier, even though I’ll never have the chance to return to it again.
As I write this, I’m still part of the scene, although in a different way: I design the course for the the Itzulia, the Tour of the Basque Country. I look for roads, examine climbs and descents, and I imagine different routes in my head, the setting in which all the action will take place. I ride each and every kilometre of the stages on my own bike, thinking of what will happen in each moment of the race, attempting to guess what the riders will feel when they pass by a particular spot. And when the big day arrives, I sometimes enjoy seeing what plays out being exactly what I thought may occur. On other occasions I allow myself to be surprised when what actually happens has nothing to do with what I’d imagined. I’ve also returned to the Tour a few times as a VIP driver, entertaining, guiding and sharing anecdotes with corporate guests. It’s the same world, but it brings new experiences.
Becoming a professional cyclist isn’t easy. What many don’t imagine is that it isn’t easy to stop being one, either. For years you live in a hyper-protective bubble where your biggest worry is to get out and train. Get up, go straight to the window to check on the weather conditions – a routine which I’m still programmed to repeat each morning – then have breakfast and tick off the kilometres. One day that life ends, and the impact with real life is often traumatic. The normal thing to do is to gradually prepare for it, but in my case, things didn’t run their normal course.
“Get used to the idea that you won’t compete again,” the doctors at the hospital told me. That didn’t matter to me much at a moment when my only dream was to walk again. As a rider I had aspirations for the future. It was easy to renounce them while I was immobile in the hospital, with my bones still fusing back together; my only ambition was now just to be a normal person. I invested so much time and energy in that task that I’m still recovering from it.
It’s not an easy debt to pay. Even though it might seem that the trauma has been overcome, it’s still there, a bit like a dripping tap. It’s difficult to explain, like an invisible shadow, constantly there, and with the gravitational pull of a black hole. After having been so close to the abyss, any daily occurrence can easily remind you of what you’ve seen. If you’ve ever read Maus, the graphic novel about the Holocaust by Art Spiegelman, you’ll understand why I identify with Vladek, the author’s father.
Additionally, having a second chance makes you change your own values. The bit of you that was left in that ravine is something that you don’t want to reappear, it’s no longer part of you. Family, friends, material things, time… everything now has a different value. You become polarised, which means that you also isolate yourself. What you enjoyed doing before, you now enjoy more, and what didn’t matter to you then, now matters a lot less. Good things are now better, whatever was bad is now worse. You fall into the ‘less is more’ paradox. You often feel stronger, and that you can overcome anything, but at the same time you feel increasingly vulnerable, and the balance is so unstable that it can be upset at any time. You and your life are travelling at different speeds, which becomes difficult to accept. At the beginning you feel that it’s something that will pass, but no, as time goes by you begin to understand that this particular feeling will accompany you forever. Consumerism, society, social networks are all trains that pass you by far too quickly. If you try to board them, when you think that you’ve managed it, you realise that you aren’t able to hold on. Often it’s immediate, sometimes it takes patience, and time.
Time is the key word. Time that you now have and that you value in quite a different way. You value it so much that it’s difficult to sell it, although you know that you need to earn something to live off. I read in a book once – by Ryszard Kapuscinski, I think – a reflection on an African’s concept of time: “An African sat under a tree isn’t wasting time, he’s making it”. That’s what I’m getting at, that you don’t feel like time is objective, something exterior, or that exists as its own entity. No, it’s yours; subjective, flexible and capable of being shaped by your own actions.
I wasn’t prepared for all this, nor am I right now. But this experience has helped me to understand that despite spending a whole life getting ready for it, when the moment of truth arrives, the unforeseen possibilities are endless and that whatever happens, you must improvise. It’s wonderful, and it makes you feel even more alive.
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Read The Winch, by Andy Hampsten – Essay from Mountains: Epic Cycling Climbs
Read Teeth, by Allan Peiper – Essay from Mountains: Epic Cycling Climbs
Read Passo dello Stelvio, by Ivan Basso – Essay from Mountains: Epic Cycling Climbs
Read The Climber, by Paul Sherwen – Essay from Mountains: Epic Cycling Climbs
Read My Greatest Day, by Andy Hampsten – Essay from Mountains: Epic Cycling Climbs
Read Day In Yellow, by Sean Kelly from Mountains: Epic Cycling Climbs
Read The Watch, by Tao Geoghegan Hart from Mountains: Epic Cycling Climbs.
Read Just Like Home, by Philippa York from Mountains: Epic Cycling Climbs.
Read High Life, by Greg LeMond from Mountains: Epic Cycling Climbs.
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