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The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.

- Alexander von Humboldt

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Athletes

Dec 01, 2017

For Love of the Bike

A cycling group visits a cafe in Colorado every day and takes a young barista under their wing.

WRITTEN BY

Kelly Magelky

Now a professional cyclist, Kelly reflects on the moments that got him here.

 

I always wanted to fit in. One of my first memories as a child was being overly agreeable to try and please other kids just so I could be included in their friendship circle. I’m not exactly sure where it came from, but that character trait was present in me for a large part of my life far before I realized I love bikes.

I would say the most telling (and traumatic) moments of that trait for me were in junior high and high school when the dreaded call to sign up for sports arrived. ‘Sport’ was seemingly the most important measuring stick of worth in a small town like the one where I grew up. At least that’s how I felt as a young man.

Situated next to the Badlands of North Dakota, Dickinson was a football and wrestling town. My build and athletic ability (or lack thereof), didn’t allow me to even think about trying out for football – and I was definitely not cut out for wrestling. I did find a small group of like-minded allies who were into skateboarding, which became my de facto ‘sport’.

There I could find acceptance and freedom to try and be myself. I loved every aspect of skateboarding even though I knew I would never be good at it. However, the community aspect was really what kept me around that circle until I graduated from high school. Just two days after I walked across the stage in our school’s gymnasium to grab that coveted diploma, I packed my bags and left for Colorado.

Kelly racing at MTB90 in Brazil. Despite not even running on his own bike he took third place. Image: MTB90

Being naive has its benefits. When I rolled into Denver at the age of 18, I was wide eyed and ready to take everything in. I hadn’t run away from my home town as much as I had chosen to try a new adventure in life. In fact, I’ve always been very close with my family and it was a difficult decision to leave them in search of a new and unknown chapter in my life.

The first order of business was to get a job. It turns out that graduation money only goes so far when you have to get your first apartment in a big city. I look back on those days with bewilderment that I actually didn’t even think about a financial plan. I just sort of assumed it would work out. And it did.

Soon after getting into town, I got a job at a coffee shop where a tight-knit group of cyclists would meet up post-ride and hash out the gritty details of how much they had just suffered, all the while laughing about it. Some of them were bike shop employees, some were just serious cyclists, and some were Olympians. I quickly befriended them – or more accurately – they befriended me.

I was a completely unknown kid who was working as a barista and had no athletic ability, but they were treating me like a part of their group. I had expressed interest in learning how to mountain bike after I had seen my first full-suspension bike and I was quickly set up with the gear and the people to teach me how. It was love at first pedal stroke. That was 1998.

Kelly racing at Maah Daah Hey. Image by Chad Ziemendorf.

Just yesterday, I was mountain biking outside of Golden, CO and couldn’t help but feel a little nostalgic about the good ol’ days, shortly after I moved here, when I was on the same trail with a friend of mine. She was an Olympic cyclist from Australia and she took me under her wing. There was no ego, no pretension, no feeling of “I’m wasting this woman’s time.” She and I had great conversations which led to a solid friendship. What I remember most was how professional she was, but also how ‘in the moment’ she was.

That always stuck with me. She guided me along until I ultimately grew into a bike racer, sharing with me what hard work and discipline looked like and what the outcome would be.

If I take a 30,000-foot view of how I became a ‘professional’ cyclist, I’m completely blown away at how lucky I was to fall into such a great group of people. There was never a need to try and fit in. We all love bikes and shared a potent love for being outside on two wheels. Sure, some of us loved pushing ourselves harder than others, but that was something each of us respected about one another.

One person in particular, Josh, became one of my closest friends and teammates. Of all the hours we spend training together, our conversations rarely revolve around racing. We cover everything from family, kids, work, food, movies, beer and travel. Some of the most formative years of my life happened to be in the midst of my growing love of the bike, so most of my major life-changing events have specific rides and people attached to them. Those moments, those rides, are invaluable to me and I’m so grateful for them.

 

Kelly and his twins after winning Maah Daah Hey 100 for the third time in a row. Image by Rachel Sturtz

Ultimately, I realized that I race bikes so I can use it as an excuse to ride. I rarely record any data from my training rides and the most technologically advanced piece of gear I wear is a watch with a second hand (and yes, I deservedly get ridiculed by other athletes). This is not to say that I don’t work hard nor take my ‘second job’ seriously. I’ve always prided myself on being professional when I realized I had an opportunity to excel in a sport, but I was taught by my peers that winning and losing is fleeting.

My coach told me to realize the ‘now’, because soon enough it will be the ‘back then’. Bike racing will be done one day so I certainly make sure to enjoy it, but I also know the longevity of the sport lies in my love of being on a trail, high up in the mountains. No number plate needed there.

As with any relationship, sometimes it takes a while to find one another. I was into my 20s before I really started to understand how important cycling was to me and it became a sort of therapy. If I ever needed to get away, the trails were always going to be there. The mountains were always welcoming and the air was ever inviting. Cycling has given me a calmness that I believe I was longing for from a young age and I will forever be grateful to the people who went out of their way to take me in.

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 Featured Image by Chad Ziemendorf

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Features

Feb 20, 2019

The Death Zone

World champion free-diver Pierre Frolla sinks without air to depths unreachable by most scuba divers. One day he nearly didn't make it back to the surface.

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WRITTEN BY

Pierre Frolla

This story originally featured in print, in the fall 2015 issue of The Outdoor Journal

Deep down under the sea, so far away from where you live, I have been through the last seconds of my life.

In 2005 or 2006 (oddly I don’t remember), I had the worst accident of my freediving career. After being world champion in variable weight apnea with a dive at 123 metres, where I used a weighted sled for descent and returned to the surface by pulling myself along a line and using my fins, I was training to go deeper.

“No matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.”

In my sport, risks are quite important. Imagine you’re running a 400-m race. You start way too fast, and after a few hundred meters you’re out of breath and you just can’t go anymore. What do you do? You just stop, walk a bit and slowly catch your breath again. When you’re free diving, no matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.

The basis of my sport is quite simple. Going beyond 100 meters is mythic. Only a few hardcore specialists, including the “no limit” guys can go beyond that. Athletes use a weighted sled to dive down and an inflatable bag to return to the surface. This means that the free diver reduces his energy loss to the max, and that’s exactly why he is able to go so deep. The world record is held by Austrian Herbert Nitsch: 249.5 metres on June 6, 2012, in Santorini, Greece. The problem is that at those depths, water pressure is unbelievable! At 100 m, for example, the pressure is about 11 kg per square centimeter of your skin. Consequently, the volume of air inside the human body is pressured and reduced too. Take an empty but sealed plastic bottle: If you get to this kind of depth, it’ll greatly deform. That plastic bottle is a metaphor for your body. This also means that if water manages to seep somewhere inside you through your mouth or nose, it will do so with such force that it’ll destroy everything in its path. Drowning is inevitable, and no Apneist can be saved in such case, even if experienced help quickly intervenes.

At great depths, nitrogen becomes narcotic and leads to what is called nitrogen narcosis. This kind of intoxication from staying in great depths for too long is the same as when you drink too much. In other words, you lose total control of your body and mind, and you become unaware of potential dangers. Acting like that underwater can kill you, as the slightest mistake will have incredible consequences. In my personal training, I mix apnea in variable weight and other constant weight dives, where I dive only with the force of my arms and legs.

Today, my team and I decide to put the weight to 118 m. I know I can go down 115 m, but we want to push a little, as it’s part of training. Once down, I’ll have no choice but to go back on my own. I also know there will be a small parachute and an oxygen tank hooked to the sled, but neither will be for me. The bottle empties very slowly and inflates the balloon. Both serve only to return equipment back to the surface. It’s easier for us to work like that rather than starting a counterweight system.

If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water?

I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material.

I begin my descent. I pass my midterm diver. Very soon, it gets dark. I do not have glasses because they would serve me for nothing in this environment. So I stand, with my eyes closed. I’m relaxed and sinking slowly in the water like I’m used to. I feel the pressure now, but I also suddenly feel the sledge slowing. Then it stops, softly. Usually it stops dead. When I realize that something is wrong, I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material. It is almost as if moving sands are closing in on me at 112 meters below the surface. It is actually a mixture of clay and silt, a mound a few meters higher than the sonar onboard the boat. It wasn’t identified even though it stood in the stack axis of the descent of my sledge. It’s nobody’s fault; sonar is not so precise.

In no time, I understand what’s happening to me. I’m stuck. I cannot get my feet outside the box, and I know there’s no exit door. I simply do not have enough oxygen to both work my way out of this with strength and go up as I have expected, swimming, with my hands and fins. If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stopped, stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water? I’m dying; that’s it. Today is the day. In 15 seconds, I will have consumed all the remaining air I was keeping for my ascent. I am also a few seconds away from being caught by nitrogen narcosis. I will go crazy right before dying.

“Did I become a vegetable?”

Suddenly, I have an idea. The parachute. Yes! I trigger the opening of the small air valve, which then rushes into the parachute. It’s working but it’s slow and long. So I wait, very still, with my eyes closed. I have no other choice. I try to relax. Everything at 112 m is multiplied by 10. One consumed oxygen molecule at the surface is equal to 10 or 12 molecules consumed at that kind of depth. One second is equivalent to 10 seconds. Time and life are both very cruel at the bottom of an ocean. I am now barely conscious. Finally, I remember feeling the chute tearing me away from my trap like a champagne cork. The ascent back to the surface, back to life, is way too long. When I reach the surface, I have strangely not entirely lost consciousness, but my body no longer responds to my brain. Did I become a vegetable? My team, frightened, retrieves and saves me. If I had not been so well-trained, I would not have survived this scary adventure. Instead of the planned 2 minutes and 40 seconds that I went down under water for, I stayed 3 minutes and 50 seconds. In the boat, I gradually recover and quickly regain all my abilities.

Pierre Frolla reascending to the surface, following the guideline with the sled and parachute attached to it.

A few years later, I’m on a movie set doing 60-m free diving over and over all day long, and an air bubble is created in my brain on one of these repetitive dives. But instead of being redirected into my lungs, it remains stuck in my head. When ascending, inevitably, this tiny compressed air bubble suddenly decompresses and its size gets multiplied by six. I immediately lose consciousness. Later, I wake up in a hyperbaric chamber. I stay there for eight and a half hours. But when I wake up in that box, I cannot feel my body. I’m unable to move. For hours, I do not know if I will stay quadriplegic or not. This awakening in the box is one of my worst-ever memories of free diving. I do not understand what is happening to me. It takes me 30 minutes to remember that I was free diving and to deduce that I certainly had a bad accident.

Apnea is an extreme sport. I’ll remember it always. Yesterday I dived to 113 meters. I’ll do it again tomorrow.

Photos by Franck Seguin

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