Cycling Stories

Downhill

July 18, 2020

author:

Downhill

If a dose of overconfidence could kill, maybe the name Tiger suits me, because I could have died more than nine times along this path.  

It wasn’t my first rodeo. I was thirteen years old, agile, and full of life. All I wanted to do was exert pressure on my right pedal and fade into the woods, like always. Even though I broke an arm before trying to maneuver the branches and trees along the path, I continued riding this shortcut.  

It worked like magic. I was the only one who knew about the shortcut or was bold enough to take it. That was what downhill was all about: the risk, intensity, tears, and most importantly, the path. 

If a two-mile walk home at dusk, with my bike pedals brushing against my legs, wasn’t enough to dissuade me from this sport I’d taken so much interest in, what harm could a little scolding from my mother do? “Why do you always choose to major on the minor?” she always asked.  

It was just noise to my ears. I wasn’t going to stop for any reason, whatsoever. And if she kept her promise and took away my bike, the little cash I’d saved from winning several races would be enough to get me a new one. 


“Always leave it to time,” father frequently reminded before he passed.  

Nothing taught me the reality of that expression like seven years of hard work and struggle to save money for college tuition. I worked at a book store down the road for a long time, where my attitude always earned me tips and kind remarks from customers. “For a tiger, you really are a big cotton ball,” Mrs. Martha always stressed, an old neighbor of ours who had grown very fond of me and my services. 

Although I had to stop cycling every day during work, nothing kept me from racing every Saturday. It was all I looked forward to during the week. 

This Saturday morning, my alarm sounded like a lullaby gently caressing my eardrums. Still, I immediately got out of bed, turned off my alarm, walked to the bathroom, brushed my teeth, washed my face, said my prayers, changed into my cycling kit, walked to the garage, grabbed my bike, and headed out. A mile-long walk up the hill might seem excruciating for some, but it was a simple stroll to help me warm-up for the race. 

Upon arrival, I was welcomed by the usual full house. I always found it difficult replying to the regards of more than ten people at a time, but I did the best I could.  

Racers had already started gearing up, ready to take their marks. As I began to put on my gear, I noticed a tall, handsome young man standing amongst the trees; the aura surrounding his presence was anomalously calm and collected. With his Louis Vuitton suit and expensive Hublot wristwatch, he looked more expensive than my college tuition.  

I was suddenly overwhelmed by an unusual tension, wondering, “What if he’s a scout, looking for new talents?” I knew I had to win this race by any means possible. I had to impress this man, and all I needed to do was win.  

But lately, winning races had ceased to be a walk in the park. Growing up replaces an adventurer’s spirit with fear and reason, and as such, my secret shortcut was no longer an option. I had to win this one fair and square. 

So, I tightened my handlebars grip, placed my right foot on the pedal, and inhaled the sweet summer breeze. I allowed it to displace all the uncertainty in my mind and laid it all on the road.  

Thirty minutes later, once the race was over, the man I presumed a scout walked over and introduced himself. His name was Mr. Ryan, he said, and he had a professional career planned as my manager and sponsor. All I had to do was work hard and deliver, and every other thing was going to be taken care of. There were just a few things I needed to learn and train on before going pro. 

Upon bringing her the news, my mother shattered my beautiful happiness by insisting that I put my fantasy aside and continue working at the book store. Still, her vile words and ignorant opinions were not going to stop me from achieving greatness. So, I quit my job and focused on my newfound career.  

Daily, I strived and pushed myself beyond my limits. “Focus, endurance, and stamina always win the race,” Mr. Ryan always said. So, I diligently worked on these facets and improved, regardless of the pressure my mother consistently exerted on me. I always had my eyes on tomorrow.  


The feeling was different.  

I’d raced on more intricate tracks before, but never in front of an audience like this. Although small, their screams and cheers did nothing but cripple my self-confidence. I wasn’t going to let a bunch of random strangers hinder me from winning my first big race, though. So, as usual, I tightened my grip on my handlebars, placed my right foot on the pedal, and thrust forward with explosive speed at the sight of the flag.  

At that moment, all that mattered was the path ahead. 

In no time, I’d won my first big race. The smile on Mr. Ryan’s face said a lot more than his words. I could barely hear him over the crowd’s cheering, anyway, but I was sure of one thing: he was happy. I only wished my mother could have shared in the euphoria I felt. 

However, Mother would not stand for any activity that did not put food on the table, regardless of the long-term outcome. All that mattered to her was now. Being a single mother really took its toll on her; she overworked, over-thought, and never seemed to rest. She was always on her toes, always on the road, and on this faithful Sunday morning, her body had taken just about enough and was ready to tap out.  

It broke my heart to cause my mother to suffer. All she did was look after us, and now she could barely look after herself. We all needed to fasten our seatbelts because this was going to be a long and bumpy ride.  

In time, mom’s savings began to run dry, and she was on the verge of bankruptcy. Who knew it costs so much to care for a hypertensive patient?  

I needed to find a source of income. Even though my job at the book store was still available, taking it would end my cycling career. 

There was only one other option: I had to return to downhill racing. Even though Mr. Ryan strongly warned that I should never engage in these races, as the threat of injury was too high, it was the only way I could continue with my career and make some money to help support my family.  

So, I set out the next day as early as possible, walked to the hill, and prepared for the race. But this day was different. I couldn’t tell the feeling of tension apart from my instinct, which would be my downfall.  

It was evident from the countenance on my face that I was here strictly for business. I was going to do anything humanly possible to win the prize money.  

I noticed an unknown set of faces among my opponents, who appeared confident, making me decide that my shortcut was the only surefire method to ensure a victory. I only I’d known then that I made the worst decision of my life. 

The race started, and I almost immediately realized that the path had changed a lot since I’d last ridden it. I struggled to squeeze between trees, branches, and other slim spaces. I pedaled harder to maintain my usual pace. My feet began to cramp, my thighs burned, and I felt the wind thrust so hard against my face that I could barely breathe through my nostrils. 

Still, I wouldn’t slow down until I crossed the finish line. And when I finally did, all the lights faded. I felt nothing. And for the first time that day, I listened to my heart, which said, “it was worth all the trouble.”


Two days later, I opened my eyes to a beautiful sunrise, a comfortable bed, and a metal stand with a drip dangling over my head. Unfortunately, nothing was appealing about this day.  

Even though it was unclear to me which events had led to this moment, one thing was obvious: I couldn’t feel my legs. Immediately, my memory was jogged, and I quickly pieced together the events. A heavy tear trickled from down my cheek, and even though I was unsure what my exact condition was, I knew it wasn’t good.  

A few minutes later, the doctor and my mother walked into the room. I wished I could go back in time and wipe those tears from her eyes, but it was too late. A cloud of rage overwhelmed me as I watched the doctor stand there and stutter.  

“Out with it!” I yelled in anger. Then, he said it. Those words I will never forget: “I’m sorry, Mr. Tiger, you severed your spine in the crash and permanently incapacitated yourself.” Simply put, I was told I would never walk again.  

And so, there the story ends. In trying to save my mother, I ripped her heart right out of her chest. As expected, Mr. Ryan ran off to mentor the next hot talent and took my career with him.  

If 53 years in a wheelchair taught me any lessons, it is to cherish the little things and always listen to the heart when it speaks. It turns out, it never lies. 

Onuh Joseph Okechukwu is a third-year biochemistry student from Nigeria.
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