Over a two-day period in late April I nearly died, nearly killed someone, and saw another perhaps die. I’m not embellishing for the sake of a story here—it was the most messed-up 48 hours I’ve ever had.
Words: Jered Gruber
Images: Gruber Images
And I guess that might say something about the good fortune I’ve experienced through most of my life. But in a moment like that, it doesn’t mean much. It didn’t help to think that I got lucky while I cried in the shower from the pain, with my wife Ashley doing her best to wash me, because I couldn’t move. And then there was the mad dash to the bed before I threw up, and while she tried her best to lay me gently on the bed, I let out the most pathetic moan the world has ever heard—so sad that even in my state of absolute pain, a far corner in my head asked, was that me?
It didn’t help at all to think that I was lucky. I wasn’t lucky.
It all came down to a bad idea by some people who don’t ride bikes. These people put down some rumble strips on the famed Schelde Path, which runs between Ghent and Oudenaarde in Flanders, in an attempt to control the speeds of cyclists and inline skaters on the well-used bike path. But the strips didn’t work. After the skaters complained about them, the authorities removed a small part of the strips on the right and left, creating a patch of smooth pavement on the edges. When you’re riding in a group, the group splits—riders go left and right to avoid the annoying things in the middle of the path.
What happens when someone doesn’t call out that a rider is coming the other way though? What happens when you’re at the back of the group, and suddenly, you’re not on a wheel anymore, but right in line with a guy coming in the opposite direction?
It was the most violent collision I’ve ever experienced—times a thousand. I’ve started to describe it as the feeling that I imagine I’d have if King Kong smashed into me.
I always have a thought pop up in my head as I’m crashing. Usually, it’s something like—this is going to hurt, what was I thinking, what were they thinking, why do I do this to myself, stuff like that. This time though, it was—omigod, omigod, omigod, what happened?
I hit the ground, and I couldn’t breathe. I rolled over onto my back, and my left arm flopped numbly. I couldn’t breathe, so my flopping left arm only set off a quiet series of alarm bells. My breath gradually eased as friends huddled around me. I tried to act like I was okay. I tried to stand up, but promptly sat back down. I wheezed and wheezed, and then it hit me—there was another guy on the ground. I had hit him. He was face down in the grass. There was blood, and he wasn’t moving.
This stranger and I both went to the hospital. I left six hours later nursing a cracked sternum and a left arm that wasn’t just broken, but didn’t work at all. Steve, the stranger, didn’t leave for 10 days. He suffered six broken vertebrae, broke his face from ear to ear, had a broken jaw, and earned the awful privilege of wearing one of those horrible halo things on his neck/head for eight weeks to stabilize his damaged vertebrae and allow them to heal properly.
They said he had an angel with him that day. While sitting in his hospital chair a few days later, his face a mess, he looked up at me and said, “You did too.” Going to see Steve that day was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I thought he would hate me. Look what I had done to him!
And I never would have walked through that door if it weren’t for Ashley. I admit that sadly, and I’m ashamed of myself, but happier than I’d ever been before that I had Ashley to steer me in my weakness.
Steve was anything but hateful. He was kind, he was funny, and even in those first moments, I couldn’t help but think, we’re going to be friends, despite all of this. We laughed together, and our eyes twinkled with tears of pain that followed the laughter. It was a good pain.
It was only a little while later that I found out that American insurance and Belgian insurance don’t work well together. We found out that his bills would be our bills, and we sat there on our bed in Belgium—stunned. What were we going to do? What could we do? Oh no, oh no, oh no….
It was so far from why we decided to make this is our life: travel, shoot, explore, ride, meet new people, work hard, play. Maybe it was naïve of us to think that it could always be like this, but that weekend was a terrible wake-up call from the guy behind the desk at Hotel Reality.
What happens when your dream becomes your nightmare? What do you do? What do you do when you wake up the next morning, try to get up, but realize you can’t get up, and that your wife needs to lift you out of bed, and you realize that horrible dream you just woke up from was really just the memory of colliding with that other guy going the opposite way on the bike path?
It’s horrible. How could you call this lucky?
We were originally supposed to go to Provence the week after the accident to shoot for Rapha Travel. We wrote the e-mail to our good friend Brad the next day and said, there’s no way. I can’t shoot, and I certainly can’t ride, and we have some seriously pressing matters to deal with.
The response was short—take a deep breath—don’t
worry about shooting or riding. Come down here and recover. Please.
We needed an escape from the very, very real world, if only for a few days, just some moments to reset the clock, a pause between haggard breaths, and that note was a beautiful ray of light. We weren’t entitled to that escape. Most of the time it doesn’t happen like that, but we were lucky, and I’ll be forever thankful for that.
The note continued: Go to Oppedette, follow the sign for Vachères, then turn up a steep drive with a sign for Rotork. The names meant nothing, but a week on, they became familiar, friendly, and that darkened spot on the map is forever lit. I love that. I love that the Luberon, in central Provence, is a new place for us, a new world.
Much like the town names, so too the people. The names of everyone there—they’ll always bring out a smile. They are names that pop up now on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and I’ll always think back to that week in France. That’s worth something.
I was sad to head south knowing that I wouldn’t be able to ride, so of course, I had to see if it might be even somewhat possible. It turns out, the only thing limiting my bike riding was how much I could grit my teeth. I raised my stem, shortened it by half, and gently rested my still mostly useless left arm on the bars. I started slow and short, but each day, it got a little bit better. Each day, I got out of bed a little bit easier.
Each afternoon, James worked on my back, which responded in kind to the pain on the opposite side. It knotted and twisted, but he patiently took to my back. I dreaded those sessions, because they always followed with getting up. I did my best to be as smooth and gentle with my body as I could, but there was nothing I could do to stave off the pain that followed when I stood up. Heat flashed through my head, I broke into a sweat, the world got fuzzy, and I’d sit down. The feeling would pass, and eventually, I’d be okay.
The next day, Team Sky’s former Belgian soigneur Stefan Szrek—we called him “Szreky”—saw this process, and laughed. He laughed and laughed and laughed at my awkward, painful, standing-up ritual, and instead of this making me feel bad or angering me, it made me laugh. If it weren’t my pain, I would’ve probably laughed the way Szreky laughed. It was objectively hysterical. I wish I had a movie of my awkward writhing. In my misery, I couldn’t see how funny it was though; but Szreky’s laugh was all I needed.
I laughed, and it hurt. It felt like a knife through my sternum. Tears welled up in my eyes, because it hurt so bad to laugh. I cried, because I couldn’t stop laughing. I cried, because I was so happy.
I was lucky.
Rapha’s retreat center, high in the Luberon hills, is a private hamlet of ancient stone buildings known as Le Grand Banc. It is everything you’d expect from Rapha—one big fat “wow!” after another.
“We took the turns slowly, we talked about nothing in particular, and all was right in the world.”
The property was pretty throughout the day—in the morning, at noon, as the sun set. I loved it the most at
night though. Christmas lights of sorts lit the stone path from above, and it was magical in the dark. Walking back from dinner each evening, I felt like I was in a movie. It was beautiful.
We ate on the property each day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We never left, and I loved it. Each evening, we ate food that sounded as good as it tasted. If I were a good travel writer, I’d know the names of the dishes. I would have written them down, and I’d dazzle you with lovely sounding French words. But I’m not.
I ate the food as quickly as it was placed in front of my mouth, and I loved it. It wasn’t fancy stuff—it was simple, country cooking. As a guy who calls Georgia home, I have a soft spot for country fare. This was my kind of food.
On the final night, we ate pork and potatoes and carrots, with giant fresh baguettes to slather up the juices. Like I said, almost impossibly simple, but outstanding.
The simplicity continued to a level that would normally drive me insane—it even extended to the wi-fi and cell coverage, which were virtually non-existent. And it was a gift from the heavens! I put my phone and computer away entirely, so when Ashley asked me—“Do you want to go for a walk with me?”—I said yes! I said yes to a walk, and it felt like I said yes to going to the moon. We walked in the late afternoon light, we found a tree house, we found a swing, and we played. I was no less hurt than I was in the days before, but I was happy. We were happy.
I remember a ride early on that was so simple, so perfect, the stuff of my dreams: just small roads through beautiful countryside. We came upon this giant field of red poppies—a sea of red. We marveled at it, and as we clicked-in to roll onward, Ben rolled up alongside me, smiled, and said: “Thank you, Nature.”
We left the lake of poppies behind, but that simple thank-you stuck with me. I say it all the time now. Sometimes, you just need to say thank you.
Later that evening, we told Ben the whole story. He followed that with a story not all that unlike ours, except worse—and he was at the bad end of it. He finished it simply, like a great kung fu teacher, as he has a habit of doing. He said don’t worry about anything else, just work on getting better, and then: “If you’re healthy, you’re wealthy, mate.”
He was right. Each day, I felt a bit richer. Each day, I rode a little more. They say that time heals all wounds, but I can’t help wondering if a healthy dose of good people and food and bike rides can’t help it out a bit.
The week of rides was crowned with a big day to the mountain that looms over everything in Provence: Mont Ventoux. I ended up with six hours on my bike that day. I saw one of the prettiest roads I’ve ever had the chance to coast down—the Gorges de la Nesque—and I suffered like I haven’t suffered in many, many years climbing the Ventoux.
For the first time in a long, long while, I wondered if I’d be able to make it to the top. I fell to pieces. I knew I was trying to do too much, but I didn’t want to stop. The disaster that was happening to my body felt good in some weird way, and there was no way I could imagine stopping. For the first time ever, I think, Ashley and I were in the same physical place, side by side, over the last 6 kilometers that climb between the white rocks that mark that mountain’s fame. It made me smile to share that with her—twisted though that might sound.
We hurt together, winced together, and watched the kilometers slowly tick by. We got to the top, we put on every piece of clothing we had, and then we started the long descent back toward warmth. We took the turns slowly, we talked about nothing in particular, and all was right in the world.
Somehow, that feeling began to come back—the feeling that it would be okay. Whatever happened, we’d be okay. I was going to be all right, Steve was going to make a full recovery, and what else was there to worry about?
Nothing. We were all lucky. I know that now.
How do you tell a story without saturating it with excess and bloated words? How do you tell it simply and powerfully? How do you describe happiness that’s so strong, you grab the one you love and you hold her as tightly as you can, and you know that no matter what, it’s going to be okay? How do you describe the fresh green wheat of spring? How do you describe hope? How do you describe pain like you’ve never felt before? How do you describe the most amazing field of poppies you’ve ever seen? How? How do you do it without the words getting in the way of just how awful or terrible or perfect or awesome or just right it was?
I don’t know.
More importantly, how do you say thank you? How do you say thank you to a group of people that turned our world from the lowest of lows to the top of Ventoux? Is there a way to do that and really get your point across that they were all vitally important to your wellbeing as a human?
I don’t know.
I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to tell the story the way it should be told. I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to properly say thank you, but we will keep trying.
From issue 32. Buy it here.