Back in the Saddle Post-COVID

Nov 8th, 2021

On January 9, 2020, I felt like I was on top of the world, or the bottom, as I had just reached Ushuaia, Argentina, after two and a half years of cycling. Around that same time, I’d begun to hear whispers of a new disease emerging in China. On my flights home, I passed through five international airports blissfully unconcerned about any potential microscopic dangers. As January became February and COVID-19 began its rapid spread across the globe, I watched, feeling helpless, as cyclists I had met on the Pan-American Highway quit their potentially once-in-a-lifetime adventures and headed home. 

In March, that feeling turned to fear as COVID-19 cases popped up across the U.S. and in my home state of Minnesota — fearing for my loved ones who are older and more susceptible to the illness, fearing that I would get it. With borders closed, my plans to cycle around Lake Superior were canceled in favor of a shorter domestic trip around northern Minnesota. 

In early December, I volunteered to deliver meals to unhoused people living on the Greenway, hauling food in panniers and a bike trailer, and it was here I think I was exposed to COVID-19. About five days later I got a sudden and very strong headache, followed by fever, a tight chest, and extreme fatigue. I quickly went into isolation in my bedroom, only coming out for food and bathroom breaks. I could barely stand up even with the assistance of my hiking stick. This was a far cry from how I was a year prior when I was cycling through the Chilean Andes on the Carretera Austral. Little did I know, my ordeal was only just beginning. 

I began my months-long journey with long-hauler COVID symptoms. For weeks I could barely walk three blocks without having to lie down for the remainder of the day. Bicycling was out of the question. After my first dose of the Pfizer vaccine in early February 2021, I was able to walk around more freely, and I even began to hop on my bike trainer for 5–15 minutes of light exercise. After the second dose, I was able to carefully increase my exercise. As the weeks and months dragged on, I felt myself slowly getting stronger but nowhere near what I was used to; anytime I pushed myself, I wound up paying for it by losing mental cognition and fine motor skills. 

Marina sits around the fire and smiles into the camera in this grainy black and white film photograph
Marina, a first-time bicycle traveler, at Bikes & Bites’s first-anniversary bike camping trip.
Natalie Corbett

By mid-April, I ventured outside on my bicycle; feeling the wind on my face as I rode the few blocks to the grocery store did wonders for my mental well-being. I slowly incorporated longer and longer rides, so by the time Bikes & Bites announced its first-anniversary bike camping trip to Carver Park Preserve near Lake Minnetonka on June 19, I knew it was time to get back on the saddle and see if my body could handle bike touring again. 

For many of the roughly 25 cyclists, it was their first time bike camping, so a SAG vehicle hauled extra food and offered to pick up any weary cyclists. I doubted there would be many requests for rides — this group has been hauling trailers full of food, diapers, and other supplies to various organizations and encampments for the locally unhoused in every type of weather, including winter in Minnesota — but I was happy to have that option. 

As the day of the ride dawned and the riders made their way to our meeting point, I felt so much excitement for returning to something I’ve loved and yet feared was off limits because of illness. Most of all, I felt the excitement of sharing my passion for bike touring with so many wonderful people. The ride was relaxing — most of it on crushed limestone trails with a stop at a brewery about 10 miles before reaching camp. Remember, hydration is paramount, people. 

A group of young men sit around a fire and chat after their day in the saddle.
Cool cats cook dogs on the fire at Natalie’s first bike camping trip after recovering from long-COVID.
Natalie Corbett

Arriving at the park, we were flush with the joys of making it to camp as a group, a huge milestone for those who hadn’t done this before and for me who wasn’t sure I’d be healthy enough for adventure cycling ever again. As the afternoon flowed into the evening, most of us settled around the fire pit to share food and stories from our lives, basking in the community and in-person interactions that for the past 18 months had been out of reach. 

Once our bellies were full of food and drink, many of us decided to call it a night early, if you consider 12:30 AM early. We knew from the forecast that we would likely be riding through rain the next day, and our hope was that we could get started before the worst of it arrived. The next morning, we woke up to surprisingly dry tents. My friend and I managed to get our bikes packed up and begin our ride home just as a light, pleasant rain started to fall. 

Looking back, even with the bit of rain we encountered, this Bikes & Bites bike camping event was a wonderful success. We were able to introduce many people to the world of adventure cycling who might not have taken the plunge on their own. And for me, it was a personal success, proving that my body still has some miles left in it. After the trip, I had roughly another two to three months of what I consider moderate long-hauler symptoms. While I am still trying to build up my strength to my pre-illness levels, my future as an adventure cyclist looks bright and exciting.

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