Karen Darke – 29 March

There’s been lots of bike training in Mallorca this winter (fab for it, up to 20,000 cyclists at any one time on the island, more bikes than cars). But, the best story of the last few months happened at home.

Picture a train station, Inverness as it happens, heaving in summer but no tourists arrive in the Highland capital on a February Saturday. I’m waiting for a friend, sat in my handbike, the kind of contraption that tends to attract all sorts of stares and comments. A drunk bloke staggers towards me and I’m thinking “Oh no, here we go”, expecting to be bombarded with personal questions, or maybe to get a pat on the head.

He stops and swaggers before me, then slurs “They were going to put my dog down you know”. I think ‘Double oh no!’, and wish my friend would hurry up. Between swallows and head sways, he tells me that his dog had lame legs, that the vet suggested she be put down, that he’d fought back and said no. “I got her a wheelchair for her back legs” he said, “and now she runs around all over the place with it”.

I’m taken back a little. This guy’s got things sussed. Often people don’t make the connection between the handbike, that my legs don’t work, that I use a wheelchair – they think I’m some kind of geeky poser, an ‘enthusiast’ on a wacky bike. I kind of like that the handbike removes any disabled aspects of disability. It’s fast, it’s sleek, and you have to be fit to ride it.

“So what’s your mission?” he asks me.

“Why, do you think I look like a woman with a mission?”

He stands back for a moment, and theatrically puts his hands on his hips. “Yeah, you do actually”.

I’m warming to him.

“Aw, well, I am training….hoping to get to the Paralympics next year”.

There’s none of the usual oohs or aahs or guff of any sort. He just leans forward, looks me intensely in the eye, grabs my hand with this drink-sticky palm, shakes it and says “Beat the Yankee”.

I laugh, and tell him that she beat me last year. It had been the World Championships and a sore moment, the American female a newcomer too, but one I’d felt certain I could beat; until her shadow crept up behind me, eased past me with a strength I couldn’t match, and left me weakened with disappointment, feeling deluded by my ambition to be a Paralympic athlete.

He leans closer, still shaking my hand, still with an intense look, and says again, “Beat the Yankee. For me. For my father. Beat the Yankee.”

Then he staggers off towards the station bar.

I sit in the bike, pondering the encounter, bemused, amused, thoughtful. The loss to the American had been a stab to my confidence, a puncture to my ambition. How odd that this random bloke should appear and slur this message to me.

A few minutes pass by, and I see the same swagger coming toward me again.

He arrives at my side, his hands full, and into my lap places a bar of Galaxy chocolate, a can of Red Bull – can’t stand the stuff, but the intention it sent was loud and clear – and a mini stuffed Loch Ness Monster. Calories, a kick of energy and a mascot to cheer. He looks me in the eyes again, fumbles to shake my hand once more, and says “Just beat the Yankee”.

He stumbles back into the bar, and I am left wondering at the world, at the messages it brings us, how inspiration comes in the most unexpected moments, in the most intriguing ways.

Karen Drake: Official Site