How to Triumph in the Face of Adversity

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Sometimes it can seem like the whole world is against you, and perhaps no one would bet a penny on you. And so sets the scene at the 2010 Tour de France:

My teammate Andy Schleck was sporting the yellow leader’s jersey, and we started at the bottom of the Col de Peyresourde, with a whole lot more climbs to follow. We expected fireworks—cycling language for attacks from the other competitors.

We had immediate attacks, and went into survival mode for the first climb. My team leader was in the first group with another teammate, and I was in the second group with my Danish teammate, Chris Anker Sörensen. We were about 30 seconds behind the first group, and I thought we would catch them. As we crested the hill, we could still see the group ahead of us, and descended fast, to catch them. Then it happened. My front tire blew, and all I could think was, “Uh-oh, this is gonna be bad.” And then, thump!

Once I stopped sliding, I lay on the left side of the road. I knew I would have to cross the road, because the UCI (International Cycling Union) rules require riders to receive mechanical assistance on the right side of the road. (That’s so other riders and team cars can safely pass on the left.)

As I picked myself up, I followed the typical post-crash routine: I first checked my bike and there was no good news there. My front wheel, frame, and derailleur were all completely broken; the bike was beyond repair. I reached for my race radio and contacted my team car which had passed me, and told them via radio that I needed my spare bike—not just a wheel.

The good thing about our race radios is that they are small and lightweight, but that comes with the disadvantage of them only working on a short range. All that came back was: “Change with neutral service, change your wheel with the neutral car.” The rest was just that typical noise a radio makes when it’s out of range. Static.

I yelled, “I don’t need no f$%&%§ ing wheel. I need a whole bike!” But I was sure they could not hear me anymore. Then I remembered the next step of post-crash protocol: Check your body to see if you are able to continue the race. No good news there either: I had a pretty bad cut on my left elbow, with blood spilling out. My knees and shoulder weren’t feeling great, and I had lost skin on my knees, hips, and elbows. The only piece still untouched was my right ankle.

I started to look for a little gap between riders and groups coming down the mountain, so I could cross the road. The medical car was already waiting for me, and by now the blood from my elbow was running down my lower arm and even my fingers. (I later received five stitches in that spot.)

I walked across the road with my broken bike in one hand, and watched the blood drip down my other hand, leaving a trail of red behind me on the road. I remember thinking, “This is like a bad movie.”

Once to the other side, I received proper medical care. They also asked me about five times if I remembered my name, the date, and the name of the race. I laugh at it now, because every time I told them I was OK. I said I was just a little banged up, but fine.

While I sat in the open trunk of the race doctor’s car, fewer and fewer riders rode past me, and then I realized I was dead last in the race. All by myself, with no teammates, and no team car.

Finally, I saw Robbie McEwen, one of the fastest riders in the world ride by. He’d won multiple green sprinter jerseys in the Tour de France, and about 15 stages in sprints, but as fast as he was on the flats, he was the exact opposite going uphill—and I am sure he would agree with me.

I figured Robbie must have been the last rider coming over the mountain, and I started to think, “What now?” There were a few spectators left, the medical car, and the famous Broomwagon that collects all riders who abandon the race.

There was no question whether I would get in that car. Not ever.  

Just then, something I once read came to mind: Terry Pratchett’s book from the Discworld series about Cohen the barbarian. (Yes, that’s right, Cohen and not Conan.) Cohen sets out to steal a whole kingdom with his handful of friends—and to make it even funnier—they were all way over 60 years old. Still barbarians…but old barbarians.

After successfully stealing a kingdom and declaring themselves the new rulers, they face an army of tens of thousands who show up the next day to reclaim the kingdom. Cohen looks at his mates and says, “It will take a day to slay ‘em all.”

Cohen didn’t doubt for one second that they were capable, and never thought of failure—and that’s how I felt in that moment. I knew there would be a way for me to finish the stage and finally get to Paris.

I looked around then, and noticed a car with three yellow kids’ bikes on the roof rack. So I asked the driver if I could borrow one for a while and he agreed. I put the seat as high as possible—which was still way too low, and slipped my feet into the caged pedals.

The little yellow bike had limited junior gears, too. I was used to cycling with a 53-11 maximum gear ratio, but this bike only had a 50-14 maximum gear ratio. In other words, I could cover 10.23 meters (33.55 feet) per pedal stroke with my own bike, and could only cover 7.47 meters (24.5 feet) per pedal stroke with the kids’ bike.

A seeming disaster, but I rode about eight to 10 miles downhill on that bike, and another five miles through the valley before my team boss realized I needed my reserve bike. He passed it to me with the help of a police officer who was there to control traffic, and in the next climb, I managed to catch Robbie McEwen, and later Mark Cavendish. We then caught the bigger group, and finished safely within the Grupetto. (That’s cycling slang for the last group of riders who struggle to survive the stage—usually sprinters, or riders who are sick or have been sick—and then together, they all try to help each other finish).

When I returned to the team hotel, our doctor stitched my elbow and re-bandaged my wounds. He then determined I had two fractured ribs. I knew the doctors in the local hospital would advise me to abandon the race—which wasn’t an option after riding a kids’ bike for nearly 15 miles, and with only three days left to Paris.

When I look back now, I am pretty amazed. I mean, really, who can say he did something like 15 miles on a borrowed kids’ bike—in the world’s biggest and hardest cycling race?

So, why do I share this story? Simply to show you that sometimes “mind over matter” really works. And even when all the odds seem to be against you, there is still a way to make it work.

Imagine you were one of the spectators who saw me crash and bleed…and then lose time while the doctors cared for me. And then of course, if you saw me get on that kids’ bike. I started from dead last and chased the peloton. Would you have put one single penny on me making it to the finish line? I’m pretty sure not.

Back then, I didn’t care about odds. I simply focused on the next small step I needed to take. And then the next one. And the next.  

Don’t look at the overwhelming challenge ahead of you, or let yourself get discouraged by its size. Break any challenge down into small—and most importantly, manageable steps. Set mini goals you can achieve that will help keep you motivated, and help you stay on track.

Sometimes life really is about having self-belief beyond reason, and hey if things don’t work out, at least you go down fighting. In a moment of crisis of any kind, look back at moments where you did come out on top, and remember how you did it. Then try to copy some of the things you did, which helped you back then. Don’t waste energy on things you cannot influence, like the weather or, in my case, mountains. Instead, focus on your next step.
Overcoming the odds delivers an enormous sense of satisfaction. It gives you a confidence boost like nothing else. So please dear readers: Start your next adventure with a “never give up” attitude, and believe in yourself. There is always a way to make it.

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