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Cycling saved this veteran’s life

Victoria native tries to ride every day

Photo by: Peter Dunfield

“Without a bike, I wouldn’t be here.”

In 2015, Peter Dunfield was working on a Royal Canadian Navy frigate when a hatch closure landed on his head. The result was a traumatic brain injury. He had been working in the water sewage systems of the boat, and had opened and closed the hatch hundreds of times. The hatch clicks if it is locked, except this time. He had forgotten to secure it. It fell on him as he was going down the ladder. The hatch weighed almost 200 lb. and hit him directly on his hairline.

Photo: Peter Dunfield

By that point, Dunfield had lived in various parts of Canada when working for the military. He’d been stationed in News Brunswick, Alberta and British Columbia. When he suffered his injury, he was working in Victoria, the second time he’d been stationed there.

The first time he called B.C.’s capital home was 10 year before his injury. It was then he discovered cycling. “Eventually, I really got into racing. I loved it. I was a Strava addict, I lived and breathed by my Garmin,” Dunfield explains. “Now, I never use them. I don’t have Strava, a Garmin, nothing. The way I ride now, is to be present. It’s the best kind of therapy for me.”

The early years

It was a difficult recovery following the injury. He’s recently retired, and still makes sure to ride every day now. But the first two years after the accident were very hard for him.

“I won’t lie, I have never been the same since, and I know I never will,” he says. “When I first got out of the hospital, I tried to ride after only two weeks. Of course, my doctors said I should wait longer, but I couldn’t not ride. My first ride was terrible. It was 800 m. I had to stop as I was puking.”

But he persevered. He continued to ride, and discovered it was the best way to cope. He says he still finds some days harder than others. “It took me a few years to grieve. It’s very hard to realize life will never be the same. Especially when you can’t process things quite the same. There’s times I don’t realize I’m not as lucid, or missing information. Your brain adapts, but you don’t realize you’ve adapted.”

Photo: Peter Dunfield

Now and then Dunfield will see an old Facebook memory of him racing a criterium 10 years ago, for example, and it causes him pause, knowing that’s part of his old life. “It’s not normal, it’s my new normal. I don’t race anymore. Mass participation can be overwhelming for me. But I do ride with a small group of friends, friends who I trust and know are good riders,” he says. “It’s human nature: when you’re the sick sheep, you distance yourself. But all my friends are bike friends, from the shop, or riding, or whatever. All bike people.”

He has always looked to his bike as his therapy. “I never regret riding the bike, I regret riding the couch,” Dunfield says. “Weather is never a factor, either. Even with the rainy days in Victoria, you have to keep motivated. One thing I’ve found is I buy better gear. Then riding in the rain is totally fine.”

Cycling as therapy

Even during those days which aren’t as good as others, Dunfield does his best to be optimistic. He says that his bike has saved him thousands of dollars in anti-depressants. One of his mottos is “when in doubt, ride it out.”

Dunfield has used his experience to motivate others who are going through tough times. He continues to encourage people to take up cycling, or stick with it—even during recovery, rehabilitation or suffering from depression. Sometimes it’s a tough sell, he says, to convince people to try the sport, but he does his best to prescribe his favourite remedy.

But for Dunfield, he knows it’s not simply a hobby or pastime, it’s his life.