Ride diaries – BJ McIntosh: for Jennifer Barnes
Even the toughest ride can be one to savour. BJ McIntosh picks up the story of his travels and share his thoughts about a dear friend who is suffering… but motivating him to ride without complaining.
Day 23: Maribor, Slovenia to Vienna, Austria
(235km and nearly 3,000 metres of climbing)
“Today I Rode for Jennifer Barnes”
– By BJ McIntosh
Before I start my usual blog about my cycling adventure I want to tell you about a close family friend, Jennifer Barnes, who I have known since the late 1990s. I grew up racing against her two boys, Dougy and Morgan, who were both gifted cyclists as juniors.
It has been a tough time for Australian cycling recently, losing Steve Wooldridge, Gary West and a few others, all under extremely different circumstances.
Jennifer is also part of the cycling fraternity.
She has stage four Glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive, terminal brain tumour.
A few days ago I was reading through the comments on photos in my Facebook feed and one immediately gave me a lump in the back of my throat. Over the last few days I could not get the comment out of my head.
It was from Jennifer and this one simple line has stuck with me since. It simply read:
“I will never be able to travel to these countries again, but I look forward to reading your posts and looking at your photos every day as my final adventure seeing the world through your eyes.”
I never realised that my own little adventure could mean so much to someone who was terminally ill and was living her final part of her life through my journey and she was enjoying it.
Now we don’t know how much longer we will have Jen with us, but the general life expectancy after diagnosis is between 14 to 18 months. Jen is 16 months in.
She is one tough cookie and I made her promise me that she would fight until I got home as so I could come to visit her.
Jennifer is a beautiful Lady, wife to Ken and the mother of three perfectly mannered children, the two boys I mentioned and daughter, Laura.
As I was drinking my coffees this morning, I sent Jen a message just to say hello and check in. She told me she was stable “at the moment” and, apparently, “all good”.
She asked what my plans were for the day and I told her.
I was in for a big ride, 235km with some decent climbs and the last thing that Jen wrote to me was: ‘No matter how tough it gets, make sure you do it with a smile on your face!’
And then I packed my bike and headed off on my next adventure with my destination: Vienna, Austria.
It was going to be a really tough day, both physically and emotionally.
Jennifer (above, with Ken Barnes) we all wish you the biggest support from the bottom of our hearts.
The moment I crossed the border into Austria the climbs got steeper and more regular.
What started out as a perfectly sunny day – cold, but sunny – quickly turned sour. Big black rain clouds were rolling in.
After about 135km – and still with 100km to go – I was half way up a 35km climb and, as I had done for the entire day – I thought about Jen and how beautiful and cruel life can be.
The mountain really started to get harder, steeper and it was getting colder all the while. I was really suffering, but then it dawned on me: my pain and suffering was absolutely insignificant in comparison to what Jennifer was going through, I was tired and my whole body ached. And then I cracked.
While thinking about Jen and her reality of what life has given her, tears started to stream down my cheeks, and I was thinking how unfair life can be.
Then I remembered the last thing that Jen had written to me: “No matter how tough today is, make sure you do it with a smile on your face.”
So there I was, in the middle of Austria climbing this huge mountain with tears rolling down my cheeks – and doing my best to put a smile on my face.
I got to the top and it was absolutely freezing, I pulled over and opened up my bag and put on every piece of clothing that I had brought with me.
I backed up all of my lights to full charge as from 3.00pm it was already so dark because of the thunderstorm rolling in.
Over the top I could hear the rumbling of thunder and see the lightning strikes and was convinced I was going to get drenched. I began to worry; I was already freezing and it was still dry.
But the message from Jennifer kept going over and over in my head so I stayed strong and pushed on.
I descended the mountain and, at the bottom with 85km to go, I had this cross/head wind like I have never experienced before; it was difficult to even keep my bike upright.
By now it was 6.00pm and pretty dark so I took the lights off the charge, strapped them all around my bike and pushed on, constantly fighting with my bike to keep it on the road because of the wind.
By 7.30 it was pitch black and I was just following the white line on the side of the road looking for potholes with every flash of my flickering front light.
At this stage my right knee was starting to get a bit sore so I stopped and stretched it a few times, but it didn’t really seem to make the pain go away.
By 8.00pm the wind was getting ridiculous, it blew me off the road three times having to take my foot out and stop, put my bike back on the road and get going again.
My hands and wrists were sore from holding onto the handlebars so tight whilst fighting with my bike to keep it on the road.
The last 40km were one of the most brutal conditions I’ve ever ridden in…
I was in the pitch black darkness of the night, riding on what felt like a 45 degree angle against the wind… and my knee slowly getting worse.
I was constantly checking my rear lights to make sure they hadn’t gone flat as I had them on full beam lit up like a Christmas tree so I wouldn’t get collected from behind.
The irony was, the last 40km was next to a train line with a stop every five to 10 kilometres.
It was like I was being tempted.
But I had made a commitment to myself that morning that I would finish the ride for Jennifer as a tribute to the pain and suffering she is going through. I wasn’t taking any short cuts.
With 15km to go, I was completely spent. Struggling to hold 11km/h into this wind.
I had run out of water, all I had left was a bag of jelly babies, so I pulled over and sat on the side of the road in the dark and ate the whole bag.
I tried to stretch my leg out to give my knee some relief which triggered a cramp in my hamstring. I was just a buckled unit lying on the side of the road in agony.
Slowly the cramp went away and I was able to stretch it out.
I got up and dragged my bike back onto the road and battled forward.
With just eight kilometres to go my knee completely blew out. I couldn’t put any pressure on it. I couldn’t turn the pedals. I was cooked.
Even with the temptation of the train stations I was passing I knew that I was too close to give up.
I un-clipped my right foot and put the inside of my thigh on the seat and did the last section pedalling only with my left leg.
I was not going to give up on what I’d started and I still had the thoughts of Jen running through my head that this was nothing compared to her battle.
* * * * *
I arrived at my hostel at 10.15pm and limped in the door; thankfully the guys at the reception were amazing. They immediately got me a bottle of lemonade and a sandwich to eat.
They didn’t even ask me to check in, they gave me the keys to my room and said go and have a shower and when you are ready come back and we can check you in.
I said to them, “I only have one problem.”
I had no clothes left to wear as it was so cold – I was literally wearing everything that I had and everything was wet.
They said, “Don’t worry, we will find something and bring to you.”
So then I went up and had a shower, and this was the best shower I’ve ever had in my life! I had it so hot it was burning and I just sat on the floor watching my feet turn from black back to a remotely normal colour…
The boys brought up a mixture of clothes from lost and found along with one of the boys own jackets.
I wasn’t the coolest guy in town, but at least I was warm.
I limped next door, had some dinner and then straight to bed…
* * * * *
Jennifer, without your message, I would not have arrived in Vienna tonight and be able to spend tomorrow exploring the city.
Today I dedicate to you.
Tomorrow I will walk around and take as many photos of Vienna as I can for you.