Redemption in the Dolomites

Share This

Thanks in advance for spreading the word!

Three years after being hit by a car and breaking his neck in the Dolomites, Evan Christenson recently returned to Italy to rewrite his story on the same stretch of road that nearly claimed his life. Find the first installment from Evan’s ride from Italy to Armenia and a spectacular set of photos here…

Words and photos by Evan Christenson (@evanchristenson)

Three years ago I was finishing my last ever full season of bike racing. I was about to let go of the one thing that had dominated my livelihood and my identity for the past decade, but not that I had known it at the time. Rather, I was readying to dive deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole. My coach asked me to do two final hard weeks to set myself up for a big build into the winter after a long and exhausting summer of racing. I’d made some money and like always was excited to spend it.

Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites

My riding partner Peter and I packed our bags and flew to Austria, planning on riding from Vienna to Milan via the Dolomites. We planned little and rode mostly highways, and I giggled for days as we rode from village to village, stumbling through language barriers and flying up climbs. We climbed passes I had long dreamt of and even harder passes I’d never heard of. We even climbed the Zoncolan by accident one day just to get to the other side.

  • Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites
  • Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites
  • Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites
  • Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites
  • Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites

A couple of days later, our all-too-short ride was coming to an end. We were a day and a half out of Milan and already looking back at the mountains and the incredible memories we left up there. I was riding just ahead of Peter that September morning, listening to music and dancing on my bike. I entered an intersection, one of a thousand on the trip, and watched a car drive into the side of me. Everything slowed down. The world went quiet and I flew off the front of the car. I landed on my head and immediately couldn’t feel my legs. I couldn’t move. The rain started to fall and with it my life, my plans, my future, and my one true love started falling apart too.

I had a broken neck and couldn’t move my arms or legs. Amid the yelling bystanders and paramedics and the driver and all the noise and pain and confusion, a helicopter arrived and flew me to a hospital. I had a displaced burst fracture C6 and an emergency spinal fusion. I could barely talk to my doctors. I was carted around the hospital completely out of control and crying from the pain. I lay awake long into those first few nights dreading the passing hours, wondering if I would die. I had just turned 20 years old. I was far from home and away from my family. I was young stupid and naive. I couldn’t die now, I had just started to live.

Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites

A lot happened during those first few days and throughout the years since. I had to re-learn how to walk, aided by a set of bike pedals mounted to the ground to raise my blood pressure and get me on my feet. I wasn’t able to eat for five days and lost a lot of weight, and it took me almost 10 days to laboredly walk on my own. The feeling slowly came back thanks to my doctors, and I eventually flew back home to California. I started school shortly after and let the bike drift out of memory for months while I walked to class in a neck brace.

Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites
  • Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites
  • Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites

I got back to racing the next season, training obsessively, desperate to prove to myself I had overcome the injury. I found the podium twice at Nationals seven months after the accident, but after a few more races and a couple of scary crashes, I Ieft bike racing behind. In those accidents, I was forced to reckon with the questions left unanswered back in that hospital bed. What had I given this sport? What had it given back to me? I had just left the bike racing college I attended for two years in favor of a state school back home and lost my racing community. My new friends were into fashion, partying, and academia. I drifted through identity crises, looking to fill the gaping void left by a decade of racing. One night, a friend introduced me to bikepacking, and everything changed again.

I tell this story now because it’s been on my mind these past two weeks. As part of this confusing, twisting path of life, I find myself back here in Italy. In fact, I just rode through the same valley that almost claimed my life, but on a completely different bike and with a very different kind of partner. And this time, the world looked entirely different.

Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites
  • Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites
  • Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites

My girlfriend Bo and I are now riding through Northern Italy through the Alps and Dolomites on our way to Armenia as part of an assignment for Rodeo Labs to look at putting on a bikepacking race there. I’m riding one of their steel bikes, loaded with camping and camera gear and a book and a frisbee because the way I ride a bike through the world has changed since the last time I was here. Last time, I rode my race bike and carried a change of clothes, a razor to shave my legs at night, and little else. Peter and I rode 250 kilometers our first day from Vienna to Graz, hotel to hotel, and averaged around 200 kilometers a day through the mountains. This time around, we’re riding 100 kilometers a day, and at night it aches and burns. It feels way harder. We’re stumbling through the bike part now, Bo and I are shockingly out of shape, but we camp and frolic and take gondola lifts and I stop and take photos all day long.

  • Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites
  • Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites
  • Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites
  • Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites
  • Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites

Still looking back, the accident threw my body and my whole life into the air. It made me lie down, stare at the roof, and question everything. I questioned my purpose, my sport, and my identity, and maybe just now, three years later, I feel like I’m finally getting those pieces of my identity sorted. They’re cracked and dirty and disorganized, but at least I still have the bike.

This bikepacking trip is now my 20th or so. Mostly weekenders or overnighters, some solo, some with friends. Some around the world and some from my front door. Finding bikepacking after leaving bike racing replaced so many of the good things racing had brought me. Community, fitness, and an arena to just play. And bikepacking and its chosen pace agreed so much more with my growing stress about speed and fast corners in groups and overlapping wheels and symphonies of shattering carbon. Bikepacking sounds like fat tires, music in the background, and the lulling sound of crunching gravel. If you push, it pushes back, but there’s no pressure. You can take your time to finish a thought or your sandwich. When racing, or even when we rode here last, that concept is blasphemy.

Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites
  • Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites
  • Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites

We left Milan, chosen for its logistical convenience (we had a place to leave a car), and aimed to ride the Trans-Dolomiti bikepacking route. We would get there mostly through a bike touring route that makes use of the surprisingly formidable bike path system here, diverging to make an attempt at the Passo Stelvio. On the way, we would accidentally climb the Gavia as well, not knowing it was our only way to the base of the Stelvio. These miles have mostly been on roads and bike paths, and our gravel bikes feel hugely unnecessary so far, but hopefully they pay off soon. We’ll connect to the Slovenia West Loop next on our continued push east.

Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites

Bo and I finished the Baja Divide a couple of months ago now, and since then we both pressed snooze on bikes. I went surfing, read a ton, and worked on developing a photo business. Bo got a job and went home to Amsterdam. Our relationship now seemingly only exists in bikepacking, and we seamlessly picked up where we left off in La Paz. As we left Milan, I cringed and swore and felt the memories of the accident rush back. I had nightmares for months after it happened, and now, seeing small Fiats and mopeds racing through narrow city streets makes my heart skip. I can feel that day in every honk. Italian drivers are mad. Nuts. Insane. I love Italy, but I hate the driving. I tell Bo I won’t ride with her if she doesn’t have her helmet on. I grip the bars a little tighter, hold off on the dancing, and scan the intersections one more time.

  • Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites
  • Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites
  • Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites
  • Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites
  • Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites

But the Alps. The Dolomites! Even the countryside! We’re in Trieste now, a city on the Adriatic, once again looking back at those epic mountains towering into the clouds and looming over the lowlands and remembering what a ride we’ve already had. We played frisbee on the Passo Gavia. We slept in a very kind man’s garage when the rain wouldn’t stop, and he fed us some of the best food I’ve had in my life. We rode back through that valley and I told Bo the full story, from that morning to the end of the time I spent in the hospital. Only this time we kept on riding.

Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites

We stayed off highways and camped on the side of the road and on hiking paths and hillsides and made rice and beans and oatmeal and coffee in the tent, to shortly be followed up by more espresso at the next refugio. We’re dirty and slow and happy. We break no records, we think of none, and we listen to more podcasts. Bo and I are both reading about Armenia on our way there. We’re excited to get there, but not enough to sacrifice this leg. Is it bikepacking or bike touring? Does it matter?

Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites
  • Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites
  • Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites
  • Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites

There’s a lot more to come on this ride. We missed more of the Trans-Dolomiti than I would have liked, but in lieu, Bo had her first-ever day at a proper bike park, and we screamed when descending off the backside of those epic Italian passes. So far, I wouldn’t call it bikepacking. It’s more touring if you’re nitpicking. But it’s certainly not blowing by beautiful mountains with our heads down, aiming for the next pass. So far, this ride has been my redemption from that last trip through Italy, and a redefining of that life I almost lost.

  • Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites
  • Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites

I’m slower now and I’m happier that way. We try to meet the locals and really see the mountains. More than just eat the food, appreciate the food! Pay your respects, fall in love a little more, pick up some trash and ride even slower through the beautiful sections. It took a couple of years and a couple epiphanies, but Italy, you have my heart. And still a piece of my neck.

  • Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites
  • Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites
  • Evan Christenson, Bikepacking Dolomites
Evan Christenson

About Evan Christenson

Evan Christenson is a burnt out Cat 1 road racer from San Diego who is transitioning to a different side of the sport. He studies Mathematics at UCLA and writes in his free time. Read more about what he’s up to on his website, Evan.Bike, or on Instagram @evanchristenson.

Related Content

Make sure to dig into these related articles for more info...

FILED IN (CATEGORIES & TAGS)

Inspiration

Your Stories

Please keep the conversation civil, constructive, and inclusive, or your comment will be removed.

21 Comments