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Ana Orenz in the Hospital

Descent - Ana Orenz

Following a near fatal crash in 2021 that left her bed-bound and unable to walk, Ana Orenz could think of only one correct course of action - to return to the race that nearly killed her just one year on.

23 December 2022

One of the worst feelings in the world is answering a call from a loved one’s phone, and hearing someone else’s voice on the other end. Last August I saw a text arrive from my friend Ana, who as far as I knew, was currently racing around Spain. It said "Hi Emily, I’m David from Transiberica and friend of Ana", and in the split second before I read the rest of his message, I felt that horrible surge of dread that you’ll know if you’ve ever been given really bad news.

The news was only slightly less awful than it could have been. Ana had had a bad crash, and lain on the road for two hours before anyone found her. She was in hospital in Pamplona, unable to move her legs. When I spoke to her on video her face was almost entirely swathed in bandages, with missing teeth, and a gory hole where her nose had been.
 

As the news sank in, and I informed our mutual friends, and sat around my house weeping as the successive waves of grief and anger and realisation hit me, I kept thinking – no, not Ana, please not Ana, anyone but Ana.

There was a particular cruelty to this. Ana was not only – as far as I was concerned – one of the most talented cyclists of her generation. She was also someone who seemed to have been brought to life by cycling long distances, who had found her people and her place in the world by bike, had worked crazily hard to get where she was, and who had little to fall back on if it were taken away.

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I first met Ana in January 2017, when she arrived at a Girona training on a scholarship. According to her application she was a single mother, who had got into cycling less than a year previously, when she and her nine-year-old daughter Ruby bought second-hand bikes in Lisbon, to get them along the pilgrim trail to Santiago. Photos she sent me showed a scruffy pair in jeans and hiking boots, accompanied by a pair of unwieldy shopper bikes.

She told me she and her boyfriend had entered the TransAtlanticWay Race the following summer. I thought this was wildly overambitious, but was charmed by her enthusiasm, and stories of squeezing her newfound obsession in around the edges of her job as an exercise rider for race horses, and what she called “the late mother time trial”, sprinting to finish her rides in time to collect Ruby from school.

We went out for a ride together on her first day, and half an hour in, as we tackled the first long climb, I gradually realised that our pace had not dropped, and neither had her incessant chatter. And, in fact, that I was glad of that, because it was all I could do to keep climbing, conceal my heavy breathing, and emit the odd grunt in response to her endless tales of bikes, horses, boyfriends, her daughter, her extended family, and anything else that happened to cross her mind. We stopped for coffee in Besalú, and I picked up the bill, conscious that she had scraped together the funds to get herself here. She said she’d pay me back when we met on the road in Ireland, but in the end it was the following autumn when we caught up, after Ana spotted on Twitter that I’d be passing through Cheltenham, her closest city, and insisted that now was the time for her to buy me that coffee she owed me.

By this point the trials of the Irish race were behind us. I showed Ana the picture I had taken when we crossed paths on Achill Island. The two of us grin at the camera, windswept and glowing with the delight of running into each other, and the absurdity of the strong winds we’ve been trying to ride through. Alex, Ana’s boyfriend, is a dot on the horizon behind us, already struggling with the injury that would force him to quit a couple of days later, leaving Ana to complete the route solo, albeit disqualified from the race. She arrived at the finish ahead of the woman who officially took first place, and the following year, racers reported that the local people were still talking about her.

This story, as well as being a spectacular testament to Ana’s determination and natural athletic prowess, demonstrates her peculiar likeability. For someone who proudly identifies as an antisocial weirdo, and spends a huge chunk of her life alone on the bike, she has an uncanny ability to forge and maintain friendships. Alex and she are still close, although they broke up shortly after TransAtlanticWay, and he chuckles as he recalls her first year on the bike, and how her doggedness occasionally clashed with her innocence of all things cycling.

Ana Orenz Rides

She began training on a steel-framed Croix de Fer, which he estimates must have weighed around 12kg – “and there’s not much of Ana!” – before graduating to a carbon road bike, having sold a lot of her horse paraphernalia to be able to afford it. She and Ruby had regularly taken home injured racehorses, to rehabilitate them, and the most recent patient had become very ill.

 

“We tried to save him and we couldn’t, and in the end, when he died, I thought – that’s it, I don’t want to have anything to do with this any more.”

Their Portuguese pilgrimage came at a time when Ana was looking for something new to tether her life to, and it was perhaps inevitable that it would be cycling. She rapidly found friends, riding with the North Cotswold Cycling Club, and being taken under the wing of Jim Bartholomew, who runs Independent Bikeworks in Cirencester. Jim eventually became a sponsor, supplying Ana with bikes and equipment, though he emphasises that this decision pre-dated most of her notable race wins.

Jim and Alex watched, as Ana became more and more serious, following the TransAtlanticWay Race with a very respectable 16th place in the National Hill Climb Championships, and finishing first woman in the 2018 Race Across France. Jim remembers her talking of nothing but her training, and Alex recalls affectionately how she backtracked on early vows that she would never use clipless pedals (she referred to them as “claustrophobic pedals”), never train indoors, never go to the gym. Speaking to them, I realised that I had done Ana a partial disservice. I have always proudly informed people that she is one of the most innately talented riders I have ever seen, but this praise diminishes the colossal amount of work she has put into optimising her strength and fitness, her diet, her set-up and her lifestyle. She has worked within much tighter margins than many, to balance her cycling around the need to earn money and overriding priority of building and maintaining a comfortable life for her and Ruby.

Ana Orenz Rides

The pair moved to northern Spain in late 2019, and had barely found their feet when the pandemic hit. Two years later, her crash, during the first night of the Transibérica, “destroyed Ruby’s and my hard work”.

Ana had never been considered one of the superstars of ultra-racing, despite winning almost everything she entered. She seemed too busy to bask in the limelight, more interested in the ride itself than the accolades that might follow. In 2019, shortly after being the first woman to finish Paris-Brest-Paris (during which several people assumed her to be Fiona Kolbinger), she told me that she would never ride the same race twice, preferring to explore new roads than revisit old ones.

 

"My crash during the first night of the Transibérica destroyed Ruby’s and my hard work."

It was in the terrible aftermath of her crash, as Ana lay helpless in a hospital bed, that the impact of her five years in the cycling world began to show. A crowdfunder, set up to support her and Ruby through the long recovery period, raised over €50,000, with donations pouring in from people who remembered Ana’s kindnesses during races, or been helped through a long night on the bike by her endless chatter. People thanked her for her advice on their own journey in cycling, or for offering them a bed the night before an audax. The Two Volcano Sprint, a 1,000km race in Italy, that Ana won in 2020, raised money via their entry fees to pay for the treatment that reconstructed her teeth, gums and jaw. When I visited her in Spain, a month after her crash, she was still in hospital, but one of her extensive network of Spanish friends put me up near Santander. Ruby was being looked after by a local family in their hometown of Mioño.

It is because of all these people, Ana frequently reminds me, that she has managed to get back on her feet, pick up the reins of her life, and carry on. Thanks to the money that was raised by the crowdfunder, she was able to take time off work to recover, she didn’t lose the tiny attic flat that she and Ruby were so pleased to have found, and she has been able to cover the extensive treatments needed to reconstruct her face, and to pay for supplementary rehab. Her neurologist tells her she will need treatment for the rest of her life.

A couple of days after our first harrowing call from her hospital bed, Ana phoned me again, in tears.

Ana Orenz in the Hospital

“I’ve moved my foot!” she sobbed, causing me to break down in turn. Her arms and legs, unresponsive since the crash, had started to come back to life. And when I opened the door of her hospital room in Santander, she grinned broadly at me, shakily stood up from the bed, and staggered towards me. She had been practising in secret, hiding her progress from the nurses. The day before I left, a doctor told her she would soon be able to go home.

Ana’s recovery has been remarkable, but not miraculous. Although she escaped being paralysed, and within a few months was able to ride a bike again, her body is not the same as it was, and probably never will be. She still has problems with her hands and feet, and her balance, and she walks, in her own words, “like a puppet”. Her trademark humour and chattiness waxed and waned during the long months – she was far from the ideal patient, and I witnessed bouts of anger and depression, as well as bitter arguments with Ruby, and diatribes against the nurses who took care of her.

To my relief – and probably everyone else’s – she has managed to keep hold of cycling and, quite improbably, in the year after her accident she rode Granguanche (slowly), was first woman in the Spanish 24-hour time trial championships, and made another attempt on Transibérica. It’s impossible not to worry about her, but I think I’d worry more if she was still lying in a hospital bed.

“Cycling brings movement into your life”, insists Ana, “it moves your thoughts and it moves your brain and its makes things happen. I mean by now it’s actually become a necessity for me, to feel happy, to feel smooth, because through the spinal cord damage I suffer if I don’t move. I think stagnation is not healthy for the body or the mind.”

Difficult though it is, watching a friend turn herself inside out during races, there is a huge difference between the suffering briefly entertained during a bike ride and the unremitting, open-ended purgatory of the months she spent in hospital.

“I highly enjoy what I do”, says Ana, “Every single bit of it – the training, the endorphins, there’s no self-punishment. I’m not someone who ever uses the bike to punish myself. Of course [difficult] things are going to resurface, but it’s not that I make myself suffer, it’s just that I let them resurface – because you grind yourself down through all your layers, until you’re at the bottom layer, which is actually you. That’s you.”

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