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The agony and the ecstasy of bike racing – Blog by Clara Hughes

By Clara Hughes

This blog is a long time coming with the events of the past week.  I’ve wanted to write and share the agony and the ecstasy of racing the Exergy Tour in Idaho with my Super Team, Specialized lululemon.  Quite frankly, I’ve been unable to type.  Not only that, I’ve been unable at times to pull my skinsuit up, get my socks on or even get off the bike.  The moments of elation have been a plenty, too, and these pockets of joy kept me rolling through all the pain.

Quitting was not an option.  I kept thinking what it would be like to be back at home reading on the internet about my awesome team killing it in the races.  I wanted to be a part of the action and contribute not only to my own satisfying days on the bike, but more importantly and poignantly, to the results of the Team.

What a week it’s been.  From the pain of crashing in Gatineau on the the 21st of May to the embarrassing spill I took while warming up for the prologue a few days later in Idaho, I was in a world of pain.  I still don’t know what happened.  It was in the same place where local hero Kristin Armstrong took herself out spectacularly in the race a few hours later, breaking her collarbone.  It’s fair to say that Kristin and I are both pretty darn good on the bike.  It’s bizarre to think we both slid out on the same turn….a bad corner for old ladies or something.  I was lucky, coming out with scrapes, bruises and some nasty whiplash, not broken like Kristin.

Had it only been this crash I would have been fine.  On top of the searing pain I had in the middle of my back while doing simple things mentioned above, I have to admit I was a little concerned.  The only saving grace was that while on the bike, it wasn’t too bad.  Accelerations hurt and sent the knife in my back, but thankfully the race courses were not overly technical.

As the days went on, brushing my teeth and eating using the fork at meals with the right hand became an impossibility.  Peter was there for the races as Utah is so close.  He planned on a nice camping trip and hot spring soaking.  Instead, he ended up in the race hotel with me all week, helping me do the simplest things.  I was happy to get out of the room I was sharing with Amber.  To be grimacing with pain in front of my teammate over and over was not something I wanted to do to anyone, let alone Amber who had some big pressure to perform in the tour, specifically in the time trial.  It hurt so much when the pain came I couldn’t hold it in.  It was nice to be able to let out shouts of agony without holding back when in the room with my husband.  Allowed me to express my pain in a ridiculous way that I think, in the end, helped the healing progress.

Not to mention Beth, our soigneur EXTRAORDINAIRE.  Without Beth’s calm, cool and collected dealings with my injuries, no matter how bad things felt or seemed, I know there would be no continuing to race.  Beth is a true healer and I knew I was in good hands.

We stayed in contact with Doctor Chow who assessed me after the Gatineau crash at a hospital in Ottawa.  Dr.Chow is a phenomenal surgeon and the team doc for the Ottawa Senators (hockey for the non-Canadians reading…).  It was funny getting input from him because it all related to hockey injuries.  Apparently what I had was likened to getting cross-checked in the back with a hockey stick.  Only my bike did the cross-checking.  Damn bike.

Dr.Chow said he would normally recommend 15-20 minutes on the stationary bike to his athletes with this type of injury in the days following.  I think he was a bit bewildered with the fact that I was doing epic bike races with the damage.  I suspect his hockey players are in for an ear full when they face similar injuries that are so common in the sport (torn muscles) and he shares what I did on the bike.  Still, I can’t imagine getting on the ice in such a rough sport with what I have, surely to get hit again.

Each day I went through the pain and tried the best I could to be a force in our powerhouse team.  Not an easy feat when your teammates are the best in the world.  With so many memories of racing in Idaho in years past, the thought of quitting was simply not an option.  The worst day was the time trial in the pissing rain and cold.  With a knife in my back and whiplash pulling the neck at full force, in combination of shivering like I was walking to my death in the arctic, I can’t say I’ve ever felt that bad and blocked up in a race against the clock.  Still don’t know how I managed a decent race result.  Maybe all the pain in my body distracted from the pain in the legs, not allowing for the usual sensations of suffering in such a race I’ve accustomed to.  No need for me to fly, however, as Amber and Evie took care of business for the crew.

And it only got better from there.  All the cheering and the love poured out to us lady bike racers made the copious amounts of pain dull.  To have been a part of something so special like those five days in Idaho makes me feel a sense of value for what I do in my sport.  We were wildly celebrated and I send a warm thanks to each shout, cheer and bit of encouragement along the way.  I actually got stronger and more motivated after that time trial day.  Each day I would remind myself of just how lucky I was to still be in there.

In retrospect, my favorite memory was day two, road stage #1.  We had to make some tough decisions on the road and burn some fuel chasing down breakaways that were just not quite right for us.  I’ll never forget being at the front of the peleton, rolling through at a painful tempo with the three ‘little young ones’ on the team: Ally, Loren and Emilia.  I was the runt of the four of us at only 5’9”, Loren the tallest at 6’.  I kept thinking how awesome it was that us four strong, tall and beautiful girls were killing it on the roads of rural Idaho.  As many people commented to me after, ‘you raced like dudes and it was cool’.

And now, instead of sitting here in our mountain home in Utah with disappointment if I had to quit, I sit here with a sense of deep satisfaction after having been a part of this magical week for our team.  I had the chance to try to win the race and took it, pouring myself into each pedal stroke that last day, knowing all along that it really didn’t matter if the breakaway I was in got caught.  I felt strong because of the jersey I was in and what our team represents.  We don’t sit back and let others dictate the race.  We give it our all.  Each and every one of us has the chance to shine, whether it’s winning or working.  We all continue to be a part of these impressive successes.  That I get to contribute lets me sit here and smile.

And the body?  Well, the whiplash is all but gone, scrapes are healing, bruises turning from black and blue to purple and yellow, and the knife in the back is less often and less intense.

Needless to say, I’m taking a day off the bike.