I didn’t expect to get breast cancer at a young age but I also never thought I’d design a bicycle that then got made especially for me, survivors, and their families and friends. At 40, I am a young survivor of breast cancer, as well as the designer of the Liv/giant Avail Inspire, a special edition bicycle being produced by Giant and the result of a design contest for survivors. Sales of the bicycle will benefit the Young Survival Coalition (YSC), a premier organization dedicated to helping young women with breast cancer. YSC certainly had an impact on my recovery. Among many people who supported me during my cancer experience, the faces of survivors on YSC’s website helped me take up cycling and ultimately connected me with the Tour de Pink. In doing so, those faces and the Tour, and the friends I met during the Tour, all helped reconnect me with my health. I first heard about the design contest back in September of 2011, when I was riding 200 miles over three days. At the time, I wondered how one would design a bicycle that could be a powerful symbol of survivorship and hope. I had to think carefully about how to make a bicycle speak for young survivors of breast cancer and their families. This video, beautifully put together by Miceli Productions, captures the story of my final design and details of my cancer experience: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pLWsEq2XdrQ or www.LivgiantUSA.com/Inspire. Also, to support the Young Survival Coalition through the Tour de Pink East Coast Ride 2012–I will riding in the Tour again this year and will be joined by two friends that I met on my first Tour last year–please visit my personal page by on the Tour de Pink site by following the link: http://www.ysctourdepink.org/site/TR/TourdePink/TourdePink-EastCoast?px=1060433&pg=personal&fr_id=1290.
For most of my life , I have been thinking about expression, physicality, rhythms, and partnerships. In my earlier life as a professional ballet dancer, there was always the foundation of music to pair up with, to be pushed by, to provide for soft landings and energy as needed. The bicycle has its own orchestral qualities, many parts put together to create something that carries the rider along. With an orchestra accompanying a dancer, this carrying ebbs and flows from ferocious and epic to the other extreme: subtle movement combined with a pause between musical phrases that is striking to the core, as dramatic as any coda-required spin or leap. Add to this machinery, a peloton of more dancers and the full combination of people and mechanics is there in my past, and truthfully, will always remain present within me. In many ways, my partnership with the bicycle and my place within a small peloton of cycling friends has become a minimalist post-modern version of all of that past, though each phase is unique in its own right. This combination of my bicycle and new friends, along with the words of existing friends and family from all periods in my life (dancers and people from my dancing life importantly among them), and the motivation provided by images of other survivors in the Tour de Pink, all carried me through my year after cancer diagnosis and surgery.
In 2010, my body, and all of its expressive qualities, went under the surgeon’s knife. As it is for anyone undergoing such surgery, it was a terrible time in my life. A favorite poem of mine, albeit dark, is a poem titled In the Surgical Theatre. There are parts of the poem I can’t understand, it verges into a complexity that I am not quite sure of. What I did understand and take from the poem though, was the quality of flight out of the body during such trauma, of watching from a distance as the body is cut, of wondering how to go down and back in, of hands and faces gathering around to heal but also those same hands and faces wondering with me, “What now?”. A mix of the collective and my own private steps were needed to heal me, to bring me back into my body and to understand its whole power again. It required both strength and mercy on myself, rest and struggles, metaphoric wracked symphonies and heartbreaking elegies. It required many moments of breathing in my own personal difficulties and those of my family and friends who were with and around me, as is the reminder within the word inspire placed on my bicycle. The word inspire originates from ‘to breathe in.’ While we often think of it in a more distant sense, as in someone or something else inspiring us, the word is grounded in our own powerful ability. Sometimes I had to wait and be patient about breathing in but I did indeed return to my body in the year following my surgery. I came to understand its fine mechanics again and its remarkable abilities.
As positive as my recovery may sound, I will add that there is never a “good part” about having cancer. I am not a believer in “what my cancer experience taught me” since I could have come to cycling through some other means. I will say that I am glad that I found cycling. I’m glad I found the Tour de Pink and the Young Survival Coalition. I will also say that while I like to believe cancer did not change me, its impact on me was actually profound. While I lived my life to the fullest prior to having cancer, today I value every day even more, and I trust in each beautiful moment in my life unlike ever before. The chances of my cancer coming back are less than one percent but I know many people who have had their cancer return and the mad dashes in unwanted directions that life takes. Today I am taking in every great second for its full measure of satisfaction and joy, including every moment on my bike. Emily Gresh
To follow more stories about my life in cycling and the Liv/giant Inspire, follow my blog by clicking on the “Follow” button on the right of this post.
A few casual photos: My friends took some photos as the bike was delivered and as we did the shoot for the Giant Bicycles video. The photos also include the people that I go cycling with the most. I can’t say enough about them and especially their willingness to let me ride with them when I was first starting to get out on a road bike. They helped me recover from cancer and the devastation that it brings in more ways than they can imagine.
Giant Bicycles sent a production team to my house to capture my story in photos and the video that they produced. “Production” style photos are below.
The team getting ready for video taping at my house:
Mike Miceli and his crew did an outstanding job of helping me share the story of my cancer treatment, survival, and recovery, and especially the powerful experience of training for and participating in the Young Survival Coalition’s Tour de Pink. The best part of the day was after the taping at the house, when I set out with my bicycle, and met my friends at a local reservoir nearby to get some footage of the Inspire bike in action.
At the reservoir preparing for some Inspire action shots:
Mike put a helmet camera on my helmet to get some different angles for the video:
Off we go on camera:
Some future posts coming up will include some more photos from the filming and more of the bike and a little more about my cancer experience and design choices.
My most recent long ride was a 60 mile trek out to Granville, Massachusetts in stunning, early spring weather. Just a few months ago, I did the same ride, with the same collection of great friends, on a much colder day (see earlier post: Winter Riding). In January, we set out in temperatures in the twenties and returned with the temperatures just a few degrees higher. In March, the ride began around the 40 degree mark, still cold, but ended with temperatures near or at sixty degrees. Along the way layers came off, arms got some sun and the taste of the coming season brought a freedom that only lives in our minds in the winter.
On this beautiful ride in March, we didn’t sit inside to warm up once we reached the Granville Market, I didn’t even drink coffee, and I love coffee. We stayed outside and it was water for everybody all around. We filled water bottles and passed the time in the sun.
The ride also brought this for me: We took a detour somewhere, making the ride a little longer than it might have been, turning 50 miles into 60, but easily so, nobody sweating and nobody complaining, the day is so good. What’s not to like? Why not put in the more miles? We travel more scenic routes than usual and there is a bigger hill climb, too. I have already been laughing and having a great time on my bike for awhile when I see a horse in the distance crossing the road. It’s so far down the road that I can’t see that someone has it on a lead, that it is not actually just wandering around, and that it won’t be running along with us. But for just a few seconds, I thought that might be a possibility, that the horse had gotten free and was just roaming around the street and land. I wondered in those seconds about all of the potentially dangerous things that could happen with this horse being on the loose, but I also thought about how incredible it would be to have the horse running and racing along in the road with us. There was the strangeness of the intersection, too–bicyclists meet horse, horse meet bicyclists, ballerina meet horse, horse meet ballerina. Degas paintings started crashing around in my head in a spectacular but far more modernized way (no tutu for me thanks, just some cool Rapha-wear).
The gap between us and the horse started closing, and as it did a person leading the horse became visible, the thin line of a tether appeared and then the horse went into a corral and the person closed the gate.
Finally, we came to the fence behind which was this animal. The horse surged. There was a fantastic breath of force, a few giant hoof beats on the dirt, tail flying. It was almost as good as the dream of having it roaming free on the road–horse racing all of us on our beautiful bicycles, ballerina mindset in the midst. Animal, machines, human beings, hearts pounding madly.
I found a video of a horse breaking out of a fence during a real bicycle race and joining the cyclists in their pursuit of the finish line. I’m sure many people have seen this video before, it must happen with some frequency, but for my dancer’s brain–a brain that is after such a convergence of athletes and beauty–I love this. Emily Gresh
Watch the finish of Lieuwe Westra in stage 5 of the Paris-Nice race and you will see the sublime crossing unfold in all of its perfection. For all of the finishes I have seen, this is one of the purest. He looks to be victory himself proclaiming the day a good one. There is a gesture of gratitude and pride as he wipes his hands across his chest where his team’s name is displayed. Then, even more beautifully, he opens his arms to take in all of the sweet glory that is winning. For him, how can we not help rising to our feet? And what a delight that he opens his arms and takes us with him. “Hey, c’mon in, here is my win, isn’t it delicious? Taste.” “Ah, so good.” We lick our lips. We turn and lift our faces just a little,”Mmm, yes, it is really good.” Yes, we all know that texture, that flavor on our tongue. “This my friend,” he nods, “why, this is winning.”
Now watch the curtain open again as dancers come out to take a bow after a performance. Watch the very best open their arms to the audience with the same purity and presence. They know the night is theirs, that they too have won. Do you know that as the curtain is falling, they are awaiting a bounce back open? Like Westra, the best are in front, they feel the power of the race behind them, that they have been pushed every day by the people behind them and are better dancers for it, and that together they have all in some sense won the race. So you see, it is not just that the curtain closes or that the cyclist gets his fraction of a second over the line that is marked finish, it is the bounce of the curtain back open, the confident letting go of the handle bars even before the race finish time has been clocked. It is knowing that this is not one race–this win is only one amongst the many behind it and, even better, the many wins ahead.
In an X-ray somewhere far away from where I live, not so long ago were the post-crash, smashed collar bones of Swedish cyclist Emma Johansson who was recently hit by a car while training. Johansson is one of the world’s great women cyclists at age 29. Yet there in that X-ray, lines crossed and re-crossed the film. Here is a break, and here another. Here, Emma, is where force decided to take the game. Here is where your bones lost. But Johansson is no loser and her body has a mind of its own in all games mind over matter. These lines were only the curtain coming down where she knew there would be the bounce back up, the opened armed glory that awaits. There was victory herself, just around the corner. Not long after those X-rays, she proclaimed the day a good one (specifically, a podium finish already on March 10, 2012). In fact, just five days after her crash and curtain drop, she climbed on an indoor bicycle trainer and began training again. A sublime crossing this one, a netherworld that is sweeter than winning.
If Shakespeare’s Polonius had many conniving ways about him when he said, “…unto thine ownself be true,” then there is a little of this mix of false truth and seeming earnestness in the story of the ballet dancer Sergei Polunin. Polunin recently decided to quit his profession at age 22, after years of difficult training. His claim is that training is boring, he has conquered dance, and it’s on to tattoo parlors and whatever else for him. He is playing a game of winner take all forever, drawing a game-over line for himself in which the game becomes a dare to not cross. The truth about Polunin, the one that we have to at least hope he will find for himself, has yet to come out. It is one of Hamlet’s questions, “…to be or not to be,” not a Polonius-like cover story for a pretend face. Yes, for Polunin…let us hope it is “to be.”
As Polunin was quitting, Westra was beautifully winning, and Johansson was getting back on her bike. Imagine, Westra riding all that way and stopping one fraction of a second before the finish line and stating, “I am bored, training is boring. I quit.” In the face of win after win, there is sometimes this crunch between the race behind and the race ahead. To let go of the handle bars just before the race is won, to climb back on the bike, to take the stage over once again, these moments carry us to the next and the next and the next. If we are smart, if we are lucky, we keep crossing and re-crossing before it’s too late and the curtain is down for good. Emily Gresh
Here is a surprise: Have you seen Japanese keirin racers come out of the gates? Have you seen them approach the starting line? Are you unsure of the colored kits and bicycles and the gambling going on? Here is the cyclist and bicycle as horse and rider, here is 21st century Edgar Degas leaving the theater and finding the stables in a beautiful short video by Jonathan de Villiers, Inside the High-Octane and Lucrative World of Japan’s Cycling Spectacle:
There is a backstage view in this video that is the same as a behind the wings look at ballet dancers. Cutting back and forth between bicycle and the body we see the fine-tuning going on, face, leg, stomach, hub, wheel, fork, in the same way we would see a professional dancer’s eyes, shoulders, leg, ribbons, shoes. An up-close and candid view of the beautiful machine shows us a calf glistening with sweat and a shin wrecked with scabs and scars. Evidence of pushing along that line of faster, stronger, better. Surely, in a studio not far away there is the intensity of the professional dancer who is stretching, too. The feet, you would see, are similarly scarred beneath the pretty pink ballerina shoes, like the pink bicycle that appears in the very beginning of the video clip or the pink jersey there. Faster, stronger, better in the ballet studio, as well.
The word velocipede is rooted in the French terms “swift” and “foot” and is the early term for the word we use today for the actual machine that is the bicycle. With the term velocipede, the line blurs as to which is is the swift footed: dancer, cyclist, or bicycle? In the roots of language, they are almost one and the same. Linguistically, a pack finish. Emily Gresh
Here is a story for you: Tom Simpson died at the age of 27 while racing in the Tour de France in 1967. Read just a tiny bit about him and you know that his story is about the body reaching its limits and him refusing to know them. The body does have limits. This is not news. We all know it. In old film footage, it is possible to see Simpson curving from one side of the road to the next, the crowd lining the street standing nearby, friends and medics rushing in. Finally, we see him fall and get a view of him being carried off by helicopter, out of his own internal chaos which was at full throttle with body giving out and mind going on, going on. The footage can be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtAyGvZqiwk.
And have you heard of the ballet Giselle? It holds the romantic’s version of this scene: Giselle dies because she can’t keep herself from dancing, or loving, despite a weakened heart. She must dance, in the same way that Simpson was compelled to keep riding his bicycle almost 100 years later. Giselle falls in love, is then betrayed by her lover, making her dance even more. Villagers gather around as her body fails her. Just before her collapse, she wavers dramatically across the stage, no longer dancing but stumbling, believing otherwise–just like Simpson…only with Simpson there is the terror of reality, his falling while famously saying, “go on, go on.” With Giselle, there is a rising from the grave–she succeeds in saving her lover from eternal condemnation by dancing from midnight until dawn for a dark hearted fairy queen. The premise is just short of ridiculous. I say just short because we know that there is the unstoppable in each us.
To watch even a few moments of professional cycling is to know that here is the body pushed to its extreme, here is the body in partnership with a very efficient machine that is the bicycle, here is the body looking to match angles, aerodynamics, grams, rigidness and flexibility of frame. The cycling body is never an illusion. It bears weight and power, kilojoules, and every kind of measurement one can imagine these days. It is never rising out of the mist, never looking to appear as if it is not bearing weight. Unlike ballet, races are won by fractions of seconds, there is a clear winner (although splitting seconds is not always so clear), and there is always the threat of crashing. Results are posted, finishes are exact, great rivalries are not hidden, whether gentlemanly or ferocious. The sport at its most extreme levels is unparalleled, its reality literally speeding by us on display.
There is indisputably some of the same “go on, go on,” within ballet dancers, but a greater game of illusion. There is the same fire-playing with the limits of the body. But we can’t see very much about what it is to be a dancer, about what the dancer’s body lives, feels, breathes, weighs, thinks—there are no kilojoules and weight is a well kept secret despite its prominence as a topic of conversation, always around it but the precise numbers never really revealed. Here we have the body and not the machine–not the bicycle weight for a won-by-the-split-second time trial. Would it be different if dancers disclosed their weight readily before their seasons at respective theaters the way one can weigh a bicycle? Would the mystery of dancers fine tuning dissolve–a 5’6″ dancer would know definitively where she stood compared to her peers at one weight or another? Less easily unveiled is the impossibility of endless hours of class that are kept behind the scenes. Daily class can’t be as easily boiled down to a number or metric. It is simply difficult and challenging, everyday. We know about this ritual of class, but few ever really get a look at it or can actually comprehend that this is everyday life for a dancer. To do it takes a certain unstoppable-ness, the just short of ridiculous kind.
At the end of Giselle, the lover wakes by Giselle’s grave stone and it has been perhaps all a dream to him, except that Giselle is still dead. We wake everyday to our own limits, from the dream that we might be like Giselle or Simpson, unstoppable. Lest we forget, there is the jolting reality of one and the dream-like illusion of another to remind us. Emily Gresh