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January rolled in on a high – this was the year I was to be married. That summer, my fiance and I would put on our fanciest outfits, gather family and friends, say our vows and embark on the future we’d been dreaming of (honeymoon, babies, eventual move to the countryside…)
With months to go, all that was left were those little details – hair, flowers, favours; things you think you’ll be laid-back about, but end up utterly absorbed in. Yup, this was the year. I had life totally figured out, and thought I couldn’t be happier.
Then – suddenly – my fiance seemed distant. A few days later, he texted me at work asking if we could talk that evening. Back home, I walked into the lounge to find him sitting on the sofa, tears pooling in his eyes, and my gut clenched with dread.
‘I’ve been doing a lot of thinking,’ he began… ‘I haven’t been happy. If you’re truly honest, I don’t think you have been either.’
Like all couples, we’d had ups and downs, but this was different – the sharp sadness in his voice; the bile rising in my throat. ‘We love each other, and this is so hard, but it doesn’t feel right. I don’t know if I can marry you.’
I’m sobbing, my chest is tight; he’s already made arrangements to stay with a friend; space for us both to gather our thoughts. He closes the door behind him and suddenly there’s no air left in the room. I can’t breathe. I call my sister, but I can’t speak. It feels like my heart’s been ripped open and every magical ‘big day’ moment I’d been counting down to – hearing my dad’s speech, putting on the dress – and the whole future we’d planned to share, is spilling out in front of me and unravelling into nothing.
Over the following two weeks, we meet to talk and even try counselling. But it’s just salt in the wound. It’s over.
It’s difficult – scrap that, it’s impossible – to wrap your head around how a relationship can be everything one moment and nothing the next. Maybe it was self-preservation, but I knew it wasn’t something that was going to make sense overnight. So, I took deep breaths, set about unplanning the wedding, and moved into a friend’s spare room.
For a moment, it felt like all my teenage angst and fears had morphed into one giant doom monster, colluding to throw me a humdinger of a pity party. ‘See, of course it was all going to fall apart – did you really think happily ever after was going to happen for you? Fool!’
But I resisted. I’d spent enough of my 20s turning breakups inwards, torturing myself with the responsibility of proving I was worthy and could fix anything, if I just tried hard enough. I knew that what I needed now was distraction. Something to keep me busy and flood me with endorphins.
The universe provides
Shortly after, I received an email from a company offering to kit me out with a bike, along with a place in a team of journalists taking part in the Prudential Ride London 100-mile sportive. This was it – my challenge!
OK, so aside from a weekly spin class, it had been years since I’d been out on a bike, and I’d never done anything like this before. I’d also just come through two years of physio, rebuilding my fitness from scratch following a stubborn ruptured disc in my lower back, which had left me hospitalised and unable to walk at points, so I had no idea if I’d even be capable.
I consulted my physio, who gave me the thumbs up, providing I trained sensibly and agreed to stop if my back wasn’t happy. That weekend, I travelled by train to Dorset and went for a 20-mile ride with my brother-in-law. Clocking up that distance on attempt one was a pleasant surprise and, from then on, filling weekends wasn’t a problem.
Who dares wins
When I couldn’t get out of London, I’d cycle to the Olympic Park and spend hours riding around the one-mile training circuit there. Even a busy weekend work trip didn’t halt my progress; I got up at the crack of dawn to squeeze in a – very wet and windy – ride before breakfast.
Exercise works wonders for the mind. The great thing about training on a bike is that it gets you outdoors for hours, too. You clip on your helmet and off you go on a mini adventure. I’ve always craved freedom and felt most alive when immersed in the elements and moving my body – but I guess I’d forgotten how much these things meant to me, or I’d let life get in the way, as is so easily done. Cycling was unleashing it all, reconnecting me with an energy source that might otherwise have remained untapped.
As much as cycling can be an exhilarating rush, it can also be wonderfully meditative. Even when you love something, training can be tedious – there were moments when clocking up miles was a real battle. But there were also times when I’d sink into the rhythm of my turning pedals, and exist in that sweet spot for an hour or two.
The wheels are turning
As the sportive approached – weeks before what would have been our wedding – I was still slow, still baffled by inner tubes, and still not entirely sure I understood the gears. But I did know that big gears were shifting in me… I was sleeping better; the chunky ‘rugby player’ legs I’d spent so long disliking were now marvellous weapons, powering me up hills – and, as my quads hardened, the world took a calmer, softer edge.
When the day of the ride arrived, I felt sick with nerves and cried a lot. But I did it, and crossing that finish line was one of the best moments of my life.
As that other no-longer big day approached, of course sadness crept in. Cycling had been an amazing distraction, but the hurt and loss were still there.
It’s hard to explain how I felt on the day. I’d escaped to the coast with my sister, whose baby twins were keeping us busy and topped up with joy. The tears came. The unavoidable awareness that this day might have been so different brought an emptiness and a fresh rush of sorrow.
But I knew, too, that it was all going to be OK. I had a ready supply of endorphins on my side and more adventures to look forward to. I may not have a honeymoon, but I had landed a trip to cycle across Vietnam and Cambodia. And so my love affair continued. Last year, I tested my limits with an eight-day ride in Sri Lanka that included a gruelling 85km mountain climb in 40-degree heat. It took 11 hours and I was last to the top, but I felt like an absolute champion!
But the biggest journey cycling took me on is closer to home. While there might always be some sadness around the wedding that never was, there’s no anger or regret. Breakups can be complicated and confusing, but some things, I’ve come to believe, don’t need to be questioned. We all deserve to be happy. Recognising when we’re not, and choosing to walk away, can be really hard – but it’s also brave, and opens the path to greater fulfilment. I respect that my fiance had the guts to be honest, and am grateful that he was able to confront a truth that I, at the time, could not.
Our love was genuine and I was happy – but I realise now that the ‘happy’ I felt then wasn’t my ‘total happy’, because I wasn’t fully being me.
I’ve no doubt the breakup and discovering cycling were key in getting me to this point – getting me to ‘me’. The me who thrives when her wings are spread. The me who needs to move and explore. The me who discovered that the world doesn’t actually fall apart when you stop putting the need to please others above everything else. The me who knows she’s just fine by herself.
Hindsight and happiness
My perspective on relationships has changed. We’re primed to see ‘successful’ relationships as the ones that last forever, and those that don’t as ‘failures’. But that viewpoint doesn’t do justice to all the positive things that can come from those connections which, for whatever reason, come to an end. My ex and I didn’t have the happily ever after we’d once imagined, but there’s still so much I cherish about what we shared.
I also deeply value the growth and experiences that being single have brought. We don’t celebrate singledom very much, but we should. Riding solo brings space to explore and really nurture your relationship with yourself. I’m hoping this will help make my future romantic relationships healthier, too.
They say you need to make yourself happy before you can truly do that for anyone else – and, for me, that makes so much more sense now. Cycling has shown me that the passions that shape your life may not always be the romantic kind. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still optimistic about love, but my happiness and self-worth don’t hang on it.
Embracing solo living doesn’t mean you’re rejecting monogamy or denying that, yes, it would be lovely to meet someone special. It does mean that, until that happens, and in the gaps in-between, opening up to new passions that have nothing to do with your relationship status can be awesome.