Guest Article: Velo Love

The Croix de Fer

Even Wiggo said it’s just a bike race. Bike racing may be just that but Cycling is life. And Love is life and it’s amazing when they all get tangled up together. We first heard from @Farzani months ago; a Belgian in training. She said she had an on-going story to tell and asked if we were interested. It’s an honor we can share these stories that show cycling in the bigger, brighter light of life.

VLVV, Gianni

How it all began.

I stopped racing in 2006 due to elbow and wrist breaks requiring surgery and six months off the bike. At 46 years old I just couldn’t justify returning to road racing with all it’s time, money and pain commitments. My job requires I am able bodied and I don’t get paid if I don’t work. It didn’t make sense. However I like having reasons to train, so I always found some sort of goal to get fit for.

Prior to road racing, which I started at age 43, I had participated in a Marmotte Granfondo, did the Raid of the Pyrenees (self supported) in 96 hours as well rode through the Swiss Alps, French Alps and Dolomites. In 2009 I decided to participate in the Marco Pantani Grandfondo, 175 km and 4500 m, three epic climbs-the Gavia, the Mortirollo and the Santa Christina.

I was scared of the Mortirollo. Could I do it? It’s legendary length of steepness was daunting. Thus, in preparation I did every “meatgrinder” I could find. Once a week between clients I’d climb up the steep hills from the financial district in San Francisco to Pacific Heights (Filmore to Broadway/Steiner etc). On weekends I climbed everywhere in Northern California including some uphill TT’s near Lake Tahoe (Geiger grade and Kingsberry) as well as many epic bay area trips with ex-teammates and riding pals. I knew I could do it. And although I didn’t expect to be competitive I certainly would not be the last.

Consequently it was there in Aprica, Italy where my life was changed. I had gone up to the mountains five days before so I could recon the passes. I always like to know what to expect before race day. I rode alone and the towns were quiet. I got lots of strange looks from the locals as very few “solo” women come to these mountain towns climbing the mountains by bike. Two days before the race the town started to fill with cyclists. The sponsors began to set up booths and the town of Aprica became alive! I happily took advantage of the shopping opportunities and found myself rummaging through a barrel of vintage bike clothing. I picked up an old pair of wool bike shorts with leather chamois  and marveled. They were well worn and I wondered about their history. I then picked up a Molteni jersey and just at that point a man rode up on his bike and said to me “do you know who wore that?” I automatically quipped “of course! Eddy Merckx” and it was that moment when I won his heart. He then proudly announced he was from Belgium and I naturally quizzed him about all the classics, etc. The conversation flowed effortlessly and it wasn’t until his friend nudged him about going back to their hotel to shower and eat did we part. We had exchanged first names but that was all. I enjoyed our interaction but frankly did not think much about it. I tend to talk to whomever engages a conversation especially if it involves my passions.

Race day- We were corralled at the start line and the women (all 50 or so of us) were staged after the elite racers and before the masses of others. I looked around and saw an array of ladies mostly younger but I did spot an older one who donned rainbow stripes on her jersey. Ahhhhhh, I thought, I won’t see her for long. The gun went off, confetti strewn and the mob started. It was a complete bottleneck for the first 20 km. I was so pleased that I knew the road and did not fear the sweeping descent elbow to elbow. I knew as we approached the valley and began ascending towards the start of the Gavia it would open up. Riding towards Ponte Legno, the Belgians passed me and he slowed to say hello. I was in my own world thus smiled and said “have fun!”

The race was all it was cut out to be, but I made it. I never succumbed to the steepness of the Mortirollo. Then on the Christina, I encountered a bulging tire (turned out to be a factory defect from Schwalbe and I had no spare) so I carefully continued and prayed during the last long descent that I would not flat or rupture the lumpy tire.

As I crossed the finish I heard someone call my name. Who knows me here, I wondered? It was the smiling Belgian man. Oh what a coincidence, I thought and we rapidly exchanged stories about our rides etc. He had finished a good two hours before me, showered, eaten and dragged his friend to the finish to wait for me. Little did I know, after we had met he went to the race registration to find out my last name, race number and any other information they would give him. All he knew was Nancy from San Francisco. This information was divulged much later. I was clueless and elated with endorphins.

That evening the three of us met for the post-race pasta and then afterwards for drinks. The conversation flowed easily and I knew I had met a very special man. Nonetheless I had no idea he would shortly become the love of my life and husband.

Our courtship was very respectful and built on getting to know each other via twice daily Skype calls, emails and two trips to San Francisco and two trips to Belgium. We knew we were meant to be together. Because he had three small children from his first marriage he was adamant about staying in Belgium. I respected that so I made the decision to sell it all, pack it up, leave my work and friends to start a new life as a part time Mom, wife and Belgian apprentice. My work was clearly cut out for me. Thus I embarked on a journey with a new culture, new languages, new customs, new family and new life with my Belgian bike racer, proud papa and hard working man.

We kept busy. He worked full time as well as was building the house that we and the three kids would live in. Weekends he would race elite without contract. He was incredibly strong and focused on everything he put his mind to. Nothing was done without thought and nothing was done half-assed. If he had time to train on the bike he often cycled with the local Limburg pros. He not only could keep up with them but was known to drive the pace. He was known and respected by all who encountered him.

Together we shared our love of the bike, racing, as well as quest to have a simple family life. In two short years we biked in the Sierras, Ardennen, French, Swiss and Italian Alps. In addition he built our house (80 percent by himself), we got married, as well as took care of all of life’s other responsibilities.  We were a good team together.

We talked about racing the Marmotte in 2012. I was not in the condition I had been when we met. Moving, adjusting to a new life as well as embracing having three children half-time gave me new priorities. I was happy in a different way. Nonetheless I agreed and even boasted I would regain my old fitness for the race. All the while knowing how painful and focused I would have to be, I was a bit unsure.

August 13, 2011 my world changed. It was a rainy summer day. A day I will never forget. I had ridden a local tourtocht with some friends (160km and it rained for the last 50 or so) He was going to test his legs in a race as he was on the roster to race the two day tour of Antwerp with his team the next day. He had a bad feeling and decided not to. Eventually he headed out on his bike for a short training on the wet roads. He never came home. I got that phone call, the one you only see in movies. That one that tells you to go to the hospital but no details. Immediately I knew, but I wanted to think positively. Unfortunately my gut instinct was right. I was met at the hospital by his good friend (the one who was with him at the MP Granfondo) and we were ushered to a conference room and greeted by two police officers. I knew what they were going to say. He was struck by an out of control car, hit head on and died immediately. No time to react, no time to brake. It must have been a quick flash and then the light turned off for good.  Thus, I was a newlywed to widow in less than a year, in new country with different rules regulations and customs. Besides all the responsibilities of dealing with the practicalities of a death in a foreign land, there is the eventual grieving.

His friends helped me with the funeral arrangements and organized a beautiful memorial bike ride from the funeral home to the crematorium. We had polices escorts and rode two by two following the hearse. The pros rode in the front with me and his team mates and then scores of locals followed. The last 3 km the children joined me on their bikes. It was beautiful.

It was then I decided I would fulfill my Marmotte commitment. We had talked about it and I was going to honor it. I would write myself a training plan, change my diet (lose a few extra kilos) and regain my fitness. I aimed to be in the top ten in my age group. I would go to France a week  before the race to train in the mountains (Belgium is relatively flat) and spread some of his ashes on the Cols that we had ridden together in 2010 and the ones we would race in the Marmotte. I needed to honor him in the way he deserved. The goal was set.

Belgium winters are not conducive for cycling unless you are a tough cyclocrosser. That I am not. However I trained on my rollers, did my strength training and ate clean. Whenever I could, got out on the bike. Out of necessity, I learned the art of layering, woolen hats, double gloves with black pepper sprinkled on my hands. It was a journey I needed to take in order to reach my goal. When the weather finally got warmer, the rain did not give in. Every weekend I participated in as many of the “Classics” I could. I did the Walse Pijl (Fleche Wallone), Philippe Gilbert, Maxime Montfort, Liege Bastonge Liege (all 240 km in rain, thunder, lightning and hail), Tilff Bastonge Tilff, La Choufe and many other non-famous tours to prepare. I had planned to race the Trois Ballon in the French Vognes in June as a warmup event, but unfortunately was sidelined by bronchitis. I knew I needed to rest as not to dig a deeper hole before the Marmotte. The following weekend I did a weekend recon trip there just to test the legs on longer and higher climbs. I was pleased with my feeling. I was as ready as I could be for the Marmotte.

June 30th I left for Bourg D’osains to begin part 1 of my dual-fold journey. Ashes and photos would be left on the Col d’ornon, Col de Croix de Fer, Telegraph and the Galibier. I carried his ashes in my cycling pocket and laminated photos tucked under my jersey. It is something I never expected I would ever do in my life and especially with my new found soul mate. But such is life. It was the least I could do for him.

July 7, 2012 part 2 was about to be fulfilled. At 7:30 am I was cued up and ready to go. Me, the friend (who was with me when we met and when he died) and his father had all taped a photo of him on our top tubes. My goal was to equal if not exceed my time from my first Marmotte eight years before. I wanted to be top 10. In 2004 I was 10th in my age group.

Eight hours and thirty-one minutes later I crossed the finish line. I was 30 minutes faster than 2004 and now fifth in my age group.  As I crossed the finish line on Alp D’Huez, I kissed the photo on my top tube. I knew he was with me and was proud.

My love for the bike and my short stint of true love will always stay safe in my heart. I hope one day the children can see where their Papa left his heart and where mine will always be.

[dmalbum path=”/velominati.com/content/Photo Galleries/[email protected]/Farzanis photos/”/]

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77 Replies to “Guest Article: Velo Love”

  1. all I can say is ‘wow’

    inspiring, tragic, inspiring again.  Best to you, truly.

  2. like the sport of cycling w/its highs and lows, your writing too captured this so well.  Thank you for sharing so well!

  3. Wow, I don’t have much to say other than your story is very inspiring. I had a knot in my stomach reading because I sensed before you said it, exactly where it was going. I’ve has the call to the hospital as well and nothing can prepare you for that new reality.

    Glad to hear you’ve continued to live in a way that would have made him proud.

  4. I’m speechless. Stunningly beautiful – it will take me all day to stop grinning and crying at the same time.

    Chapeau.

  5. Well written! Sorry for your loss, but congrats on the achievement. Thank you very much for sharing this with us. =)

  6. Speechless and in awe of your remarkable strength and composure to carry on. Inspirational is sometimes used with too much frequency but this story is an inspiration to me, thanks very much for sharing.

    This community is an amazing place, restores my faith in the human race.

  7. Thank you for sharing this. I am usually, fairly hardened to tragic stories that you may read or see on the news, but I read your story with a few tears. Truly inspirational.

  8. Even though you told us this tale when you introduced the idea of doing a guest article on this, your writing has moved me to tears reading this.

    Tragically beautiful story, beautifully told. We would all like to be remembered this way if the worst should happen. Thank you.

  9. Your story has captured me — a tragedy and triumph. And the two of you have truly changed my perspective.

  10. You might as well shut velominati.com down Frank because you’ll never get one better than that.

    Amazing.

    I would hate to meet @Farzani on a climb and yet I would love to meet somebody that had a passion so deep for the bike that it got her through the most tragic of circumstances.

  11. @Cyclops

    Yeah, I would hate to meet her on a bike anywhere, she would leave me in the dust so fast. Maybe a cafe, I can keep up in the espresso drinking.

    The two by two procession of cyclists after the funeral. I want that too. Everyone in V kits. Remember that brothers and sisters.

    @Farzani   It is an amazing story. Thanks for coming to us to share it. Maybe a ride with us next spring in Belgium during the Spring Classics 2013 Keepers Tour. You can drop Brett for me.

  12. Lovely story. Thank you.

    Ome question – whilst I am pretty sure I will never have the need for it iin Australia without an egregious Rule #5 violation – whats the story with pepper in you gloves? Sounds about as old school as using a steak as a chamois? n

  13. What a moving story. Thank you for sharing. I hope I’m as tough as you when I get older!

    Having recently gotten married this has me thinking about how lovely & how fast life goes.

  14. ik denk met heel miijn hart aan jou , Yves zal er altijd zijn in onze harten!

  15. @Cyclops oh no, the bike is my therapy, my long time friend and never lets me down. Without it, I would have never been able to cope. we will have many more rides together and I am just a slow old lady with a big passion for the mountains :)

  16. @Marcus one of my Belgian cycling pals a world champ downhill mtn biker and national cyclo cross champ showed me this tip while we were out training in the freeeeeeeeeezing Belgian winter like spring…my hands would get so cold I could not use them (this was with gloves) so she showed me the pepper trick and it helps!

  17. This has had me thinking all day; the VMH always say, “be careful” as I walk out the door to go for a ride. I always am and I always try to be, but I also brush it off and joke that I won’t be.

    But this is exactly what I never want to have to put her through. Its a terrifying aspect of our sport, and an unpleasant reality. We love riding our bikes, fairness would say that we should be able to survive doing it.

    I could easily imagine you throwing the bikes in the dust bin after an accident like this. But this is a much better approach, to honor him like this. Its beautiful.

    @Gianni

    No kidding, mine two. Double paceline procession. Beautiful.

  18. @farzani

    @rolanda mangelschots Bedankt Rolanda. ik mis Yves heel hard maar ik zal mijn beste doen voor de kindjes

    Oh good! And we’ll even get to talk about Brett and William in Flemish so they don’t know what we’re saying. (Alex is too lovely to speak behind his back.)

  19. Lovely, tragic, beautiful story. In a small way I understand. Those of you that have met me, or @gaswepass and have seen the number 112 on our team kit may know. But that’s for another time.

    So sorry for your loss, yet you remain so inspirational. I’m moved.

  20. @frank yes we always take it for granted, however it could happen anywhere/anytime not just on a bike! I saw no other way than to honor him with our shared passion. Riding/racing those mountains is a necessary pilgrimage for us, thus it was natural that I should do what I do for the love of my life. I have found real love, pain, frustration, confidence, and epiphany all through the wheel and though I may be getting older and slower, I am not done!

  21. @farzani

    @frank  vast en zeker. wij kunnen vlaams praten :)

    Ik spreek Nederlands, maar dat is bijna hetzelfde – wij kunnen elkaar althans verstaan. Tenminste zijn wij geen Kiwis!

  22. @frank

    @Gianni

    It is decided then, this is what we must do for one another. What a beautiful way to celebrate one’s life.

    @farzani – Thank you so much for sharing your story of love and passion. You sound like a risk taker which is to me as admirable a character trait as being compassionate. Although some would say I put the ‘ass’ in compassion. We cannot ever know happiness (in love or on the bike) without accepting risk. Chapeau and all the best to you. I hope you’re still being a wonderful figure in the lives of your stepchildren.

  23. @marko life is one big risk isn’t it? I just follow my heart and yes I intend to be in the children’s lives as allowed. The 9 year old loves his bike and at this point I can still beat him when he wants to race me, but I know that will not last long. I hope one day 1 or all 3 will want to ride to the spots in the alps where their Papa rode and is. thank you for your kind words

  24. Thank you all for reading and your kind words and thoughts. I never thought I would be living/writing a story such as this one. Although it pains me, I feel extremely fortunate that I got to have such a fairy tale come true. I was/am a VERY lucky woman. Many people will never get that…short as it was, I GOT IT…

  25. @farzani

    Thank you for sharing your story.  It moved me to tears.  That you honoured your love, and honoured yourself in such a way reveals the beauty and strength in your life.

  26. @frank @farzani This too has had me thinking all day. While my VMH is a Badass, there are occasional times that I ride without her. She is never far from my thoughts, but particularly when I am on the bike. We’ve been together for 30 years now, but been cyclists together for only about the last half dozen. “It” can happen anywhere, anytime, but I never feel more vulnerable than when I am on a bike. This story just touches on something so…human…that I’m having trouble with perspective.

    So, in an attempt to do so, may it please the Keepers, I propose the following as a newly discovered Rule:

    “Rule #92: The Bike is an Eternal Committment: Love the VVork. The ride you are on now will never come again, while at the same time it is preparing you for the next ride.”

    The Ancients occassionally work their wisdom in ways difficult to understand.

  27. farzani – Definitely one of the best “how we met” stories I’ve ever heard! Climbing in the mountains.

    Can I inquire about the old woolen shorts you picked up? I ask because my maiden voyage into cycling shorts were $1.50 Performance shorts in royal blue off the rack at a thrift store, used chamois and all. It seemed like a good way to break into the Lyrca ranks at the time. Now I think I prefer first-hand kit!

    Frank – yup, my VMH always reminds me to be careful as I head out the door. I too joke with her. This story reminds me how fast it all can change. I’ll definitely try to not leave in a huff ever again. She’s been commuting more and more and now that I’m on the other end it makes me very nervous some days to see her leave on her bike, knowing how poor many drivers are at sharing.

    This is an excellent story to share on the Friday before Le Tour finishes. A wonderful reminder about how important cycling is to many of us, but how it is just one part of life.

    Thanks again for sharing, farzani!

  28. What a wonderful thing to read.Heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal measure! And ultimately inspiring. Those children are fortunate to have such a role model as you. And we are privileged to have shared your story. Thank you.

  29. A powerful story, powerfully told.  Thank you very much.

    Hits home, as I met my SO climbing, and climbing was a shared passion for a number of years, and we’ve had a few tense moments together, not least of which was the time I hit the deck at her feet as she was belaying me, and she figured I had to be dead.  And she sometimes still (we’re getting old) goes mtb’ing alone, sometimes hours away during overnight trips, and I sit up thinking all kinds of scary painful shit.  But what can you do?  You love and support each other while you’re both here to do so.  And you know that nobody and nothing goes on forever, and it’s probably better to actually live while you’re alive.

    Thank you again.

  30. @farzani I am in tears.  I don’t cry often.  I am so happy for you that you found your truest love because of the bike.  Thank you for sharing this beautiful story. 

    @frank @Gianni
    Can y’all leave this guest article up for a while?  I want to share this one with a lot of people I know, both in and out of cycling.

  31. @Farzani – Amazing – moved to tears. I thank you for letting us experience the joy, love and strength that you have shown and continue to show. My best to you and family in the future.

  32. Yes, thank you for sharing your story. You told it beautifully.

    Stories like this remind me that I need to savor every ride, as should we all.

  33. Thanks for the story, it’s a lovely story and a lovely way to remember your husband.

  34. Thank you for sharing. It was a hearbreaking, but beautiful story.  You honor your husband with your words and the way you rode.  Best wishes.  Thank you!

  35. Beautifully well told tale of poignant tragedy. Thanks so much for sharing it with us. Now if I can just stop my eyes from welling up.

  36. Farzani, you did have something special only way way too short. Thank you for giving to us in such a personal and beautiful way. We all can relate on some level with your strength but not all of us would go on so gracefully. Thank you.

  37. wow… amazing story. Thank you for sharing.  Not sure exactly what else to say, maybe I will after I grab a Kleenex.

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