Staying out was not an option.
"Pain is temporary, but giving up is forever," María del Pilar Vásquez told herself to make her legs continue pedaling.
Last July, the mother of three, 40, from Caguas, Puerto Rico, tried to conquer the Tour de France, the most strenuous endurance race, as part of the inaugural Réve ("dream" in French) of 2012, an amateur team of six female cyclists who pedaled for 23 days and more than 2,000 miles to the glorious final line in Paris, arriving one day ahead of the professionals.
As if completing this strenuous distance with impossible ascents was not enough, Vasquez added the challenge of pedaling with an agonizing injury suffered when a small red car accidently hit her in a crowded gazebo during stage 13 of 20. It's as if I had gone through a process of purification out there. I am convinced, nothing can defeat me psychologically.
María del Pilar Vásquez, cyclist
Lying in a French hospital after the accident that threw her Cannondale EVO bicycle into the air and towards the hard pavement, Vásquez held her breath to endure the pain which paralyzed the lower part of his body (he had not moved his legs since the accident) as well as to prepare for the bad news that he might not be able to continue his journey. That Vásquez would resign would be a terrible blow for the Réve, since his mission was to make history with the first non-professional women's team to complete this 99-year event. (Currently the Tour de France is only officially open for male elite cyclists ).
The Réve's hopes were based on Vasquez being able to pedal, or so it seemed.
The truth is that Vásquez could have parked his two wheels at any time. She was already a hero in her home town for trying this challenge. Completing it would make her the first Puerto Rican to do so. However, the simple act of presenting for this physically and emotionally demanding experience made her family, especially her partner, Steven, whom she married in December, very proud.
They were already happy about their previous accomplishments: in 2011, Vásquez became the first Puerto Rican woman to participate in Paris-Brest-Paris, a prestigious 75-mile event in which cyclists must complete the circuit in less than 90 hours Vásquez did it, without stopping, in 89 hours. This achievement led her to be invited to join the exclusive Réve team.
Again on the bike
Although Vásquez is a spin instructor and personal trainer in her home, giving up the Réve career would not have affected her career. But staying on that path could take her to the top, considering she was relatively new to the sport.First he chose cycling, something he had not done since childhood, as a way to deal with an unpleasant divorce seven years earlier. Above all, I wanted to present a good example for your children. Mom was the kind of person who finished what he started.
And that's what he did.
When the French doctor announced that he had indeed suffered a fine fracture to the coccyx, Vasquez saw this as a sign that he should continue with the race. As long as he did not put himself at risk for permanent damage, he planned to pedal with unbearable pain while taking a minimum amount of pain killers because he could not risk losing his reflexes while driving. And with that in mind, the day after the accident, Vasquez pasted a picture of his smiling children on the handlebar and began pedaling in the direction of Pyrenees, overcoming the painful sensations in his left buttock and hip.
In a way, he became a robot, focusing only on the mechanical task by hand until he reached the famous Champ Elysees in Paris and directly towards the Arc de Triomphe, where he found Steven and his children waiting for him with open arms.
Six months later, Vásquez has not yet fully digested this life-changing experience and has not fully healed.
"The pain is gone, but sometimes I feel unexpected dry pain in the coccyx," she says. "They tell me that I will never fully recover, but it's something I can tolerate."
That's not the only thing that has permanently changed.
"Now I see things from a different perspective," says Vásquez, who is currently working to become an initial cycling coach, training for the Race Across America (RAAM) 2014 as part of the first four-person team composed only for Puerto Ricans and giving inspirational speeches around the island. "I tell you, I went to hell back and forth during the Tour de France, and now I am a calmer person, with more confidence and more mature, with stronger relationships with my kids and Steven, it's like I've gone through a process of purification out there, I'm convinced, nothing can defeat me psychologically.
Robertson / VeloDramatic