"Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose."
Walt Whitman - Song of the Open Road
Words by Jenn Wicks
Cover photo by Em Gatland
It was an otherwise unremarkable day when my husband, John, and I decided to register for joBerg2c, just in time for the early bird deadline.
Unremarkable except for the fact that John was unable to sit up for more than 10 minutes at a time, was only allowed minimal screen time, could barely walk, and would not be allowed to ride a bike for at least three more months.
Even for athletes in top form, we knew the beautiful but gruelling 900 km stage race from Johannesburg to Durban, South Africa would be a challenge. Could we do it? Would John be ready? Would I? An unremarkable day, but the energy was palpable as the questions swirled unspoken.
A Near-Death Experience
On 28 April 2016, John was nearly killed in a freak head-on collision with a motor scooter while training on the road in Qatar, the country we currently call home. He suffered multiple injuries including a traumatic brain injury, fractured spine, short-term memory loss, and a fractured wrist. He also broke every bone in his face, except for his lower jaw, and suffered vision problems due to broken eye orbits. His face was simply unrecognizable.
I got the call at home and at first, didn’t answer. My friend texted to say, “pick up your phone," and my heart stopped for a moment. “Jenn, it’s John," our cycling mate Natali said gravely into the phone. “There’s been an accident, there’s a lot of blood, but he’s awake and moving."
When I arrived at the trauma unit, a familiar face, Shane, an army paramedic and cycling friend who had himself been critically injured the year before in a sand dune accident, stepped out of an ambulance and walked with purpose towards me, doing a job that he was clearly born to do. He put a reassuring hand on my shoulder and at that moment, I caught a glimpse of my husband on a stretcher, only recognizable by his hair. His face was swollen and bloodied. I braced myself for what Shane was about to say.
He told me the extent of the injuries they could assess in the ambulance. John was stable but had suffered a serious blow to the head and face, and it looked like he had encountered full impact with the scooter, the scooter passenger, and then the road. Shane informed me that John was talking but not answering their questions - he was fighting, trying to sit up and get out of the ambulance, saying he was fine.
Shane instructed me to help get him talking in order to facilitate the doctor’s assessment. I now had a job to do, which helped me focus and stay present. It was clear that John had no memory of the accident and he was confused about where he was.
A true cyclist, it didn’t take long for him to start asking about the condition of his bike. It was a write-off, snapped into several pieces, the carbon frame cracked like a tree branch. For that first long night while doctors and nurses tended to his various traumas, every few minutes he would wake up asking the same three questions, “What happened? Where am I? How’s my bike?".
When John went in for the surgery to put his facial bones back together with titanium just three days after the crash, we were both so nervous we could barely speak to each other. Instead, I held his hand tightly and talked about things we would do when he recovered. After eight hours - some of the hardest hours of my life - I was allowed to see him.
Still, under the effects of the medication, he recounted vivid dreams while I sat like a scribe next to his bed. “Write this down," the bossy patient kept saying. I don’t remember ever seeing him so enthusiastic. He had me take notes on all the ideas about things he wanted to do with his ‘second chance.’ I was exhausted after the trauma of the past few days, but his ideas just poured out and he was so excited. I wrote pages and pages of the book we would write together, his ideas for a new blog, the design of our future home, and how we still had to cycle around the world.
Recovery, For Two
After only a week in the hospital, I brought him home, worried that I would not know how to take care of him. Not that he needed much, but it was the first time I had ever had to take care of a sick person, and I felt clueless and exhausted.
His recovery was extraordinary. Each injury gradually healed itself, and his strength and determination were inspirational to me. Most of all, his positive mindset and persistent passion for cycling amazed me and supported my own recovery from the accident.
John was back on the bike in less than three months, and riding normally within just four months. Some lingering effects of the crash, like some worrisome ‘electrical’ currents down his legs, disappeared like the hiccups - one day they were just gone and we didn’t talk about them anymore.
At the time of his crash, I was at the height of my cycling fitness. As a lifelong recreational cyclist who just started racing in 2013 after meeting my cycling-crazy partner, I was feeling strong and had started working with a professional cycling coach. I was seeing big improvements on the bike and becoming more confident and capable. But the crash changed everything, and my first indoor training session after the accident brought me to tears. I was traumatized, and not sure I ever wanted to ride again. His life-changing trauma was also mine.
But after watching the film, The Crash Reel, documenting the accident that altered snowboarder Kevin Pearce’s life forever, and having many conversations about how everything we do carries risk, I started to come around. Watching some joBerg2c videos and reading the website back to front helped me to visualize myself mountain biking in such a beautiful country, and soon I was ready to take the leap.
I have come to know that feeling well. The moment where fear grips you, yet you know you want to push yourself towards it when you could easily run the other way. That is how I felt in those moments before clicking ‘submit’ on our online registration form for the race. It was a pivotal moment in our lives and in John’s recovery. And it also changed my life for the better in so many ways.
Preparing for the Race
I had never done any endurance riding prior to joBerg2c, and I had no idea whether my technical skills were up to the challenge. I watched all of the videos on YouTube from previous editions of the race and tried to imagine myself riding those same trails.
Shortly after registering, I booked myself a trip to Canada for three days of MTB coaching in North Vancouver with Craig Findlay at Endless Biking.
I learned some new skills, worked on improving others, tested a Rocky Mountain Altitude and a Thunderbolt (the bike I later bought for the race), and raised my tolerance for fear. That trip, although short, was pivotal for my skill-building. Craig was a great coach who reminded me that even the pros make mistakes.
With joBerg2c as our goal and other supports in place, John and I were both racing again in local MTB and road events by October. Our coaches in Qatar, Szymon Wasiak and Pia Sundstedt are both elite world-class athletes. Szymon is a UCI certified coach, founder of Tawaf Cycling Academy, former professional road cyclist and Polish national champion. Pia, now retired, is an MTB World Champion and Olympian, and helped us with practising MTB-specific skills in the very limited environment we had to train in.
Our training sessions, along with races and group rides, had us riding about 10+ hours a week. I was also doing gym sessions for strength-building, focusing on core and leg exercises. From September to April, I averaged over 700 km a month on the bike, in addition to working a full-time job and managing a side hustle of building my own leadership coaching practice. In September, when we were just getting started, I cycled less than 300 km, and April’s distance (which included the race in South Africa) was 1196 km, a four-fold increase in the space of eight months.
One of the hardest parts of living in Qatar is that it is a flat desert with very few hills, let alone mountains, for training. We had to get creative with our long MTB rides, routing them around a fenced-in conservation area. It was a 25 km loop containing some ostrich and oryx and very little else for entertainment except for the odd tree or garbage bag blowing in the wind. Even the Strava segments couldn’t hold our interest by the end. Try riding loops around a fence for a year and see if you don’t start to question your sanity!
We followed our coach’s training plans and arrived in South Africa with our small Qatar contingent, excited to see firsthand all those beautiful scenes from the amazing videos we had watched for at least a year before.
The race is on!
Those first two days in South Africa were intense for me. Altitude played a role as well as my asthma. Once I established a rhythm and settled into the race, I grew stronger, but each day was still a herculean effort.
Our Pedal Powered Adventures blog posts from each day of the race give some indication of how challenging the race was for me. Riding together was both motivating and frustrating, since our abilities are very different, and I always knew I was holding John back. By the time we turned up at the start line in South Africa, John was pretty much back to his peak fitness, whereas I had had some minor setbacks with motivation and nutrition in the weeks preceding the race (the fence had finally taken its toll, and I learned that I thrive on shorter, interim goals to keep me focused before a big race).
But we stayed together day in and day out (the rules state that paired racers must stay within two minutes of one another at all times during the race). John’s support was integral to my finishing the race. Each time I felt myself wanting to quit, when the hot tears came welling up in my eyes at the sight of the next climb, or when my legs just did not want to push anymore, I found a comforting hand on my shoulder or an encouraging, “Come on Jenn!" to help keep me going. And when John was hurting too, we rode along silently, sharing the occasional energy gel or water bottle when the rest stop felt too far.
The joBerg2c route was stunning, and while some parts were long, torturous slogs through bumpy farmlands, there were always high points (figuratively and literally) in the day to make the effort worth it.
The panoramic views of mountains rising up from the plains, the volunteers at food stops cheering us on, the awareness of surpassing my wildest expectations of myself, and sometimes the very smallest of comforts - a fun downhill into camp, a cold beer in celebration of finishing a stage, a ripe avocado already peeled, or a hot shower to mark the day’s effort and prepare for the next.
There were so many things to be grateful for. It made us wonder how we can spend an entire day in front of a computer, institutionalized and unhealthy, and not have much to show for it. One day on your bike in a race like this gives you a feeling of accomplishment, and also a sense that there are other ways to live life. Connecting with nature and with other people in ways that feel more real, more meaningful, and more colourful.
As we finished much later than the pros, our finish was slightly anticlimactic. The finish line was chaotic with racers and supporters embracing and savouring the moment. John and I celebrated with one another, hugged and high-fived, had a few photos taken, and clinked our miniature champagne bottles whilst I shed some tears of joy and relief.
We then made our way to the Indian Ocean for a quick dip to rinse off the dirt and mark the finale with a well-deserved cool-down. We quickly dismantled our bikes and packed them up for the trip home. Only later did the significance sink in. Our journey from John’s accident to the finish line was now marked. It provided closure to the trauma we had both experienced, and more than that, it gave us something to feel proud of and it made us stronger as husband and wife.
As Juliana Buhring says in her book about her incredible record-setting circumnavigation of the world as a novice cyclist:
“We can do things that are greater than ourselves [...] The most extraordinary acts are accomplished by ordinary people doing something a little extra and stepping outside their personal comfort zone..."
The experience of John’s accident brought a lot of learning and a new perspective on life for the both of us. It made us want to make more meaningful memories.
So, the time has come for our next adventure. Our next challenge will be the hardest yet, the Bikingman Oman in February is an unsupported five-day 1000 km sprint with 9000 m of climbing. I will attempt it on my own - my first solo ultra cycling adventure. It is something I see as ‘greater than myself,’ and yet I seek to accomplish an extraordinary act and something that is more than a little outside my comfort zone.