Jane Blinn Clark: A New Landscape

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It’s been a long road. Where do I start? I’ve been cycling seriously for 30 years, and have raced, and have had accidents. I didn’t break my neck, thank God, but I broke my collarbone again. I punctured my lung, I broke a rib, and I broke my pelvis. That was in 2009.

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I’ve been tutoring for fifteen years. Before tutoring I taught middle school for eleven years. I was hired to teach the kids with multiple learning disabilities. When I was hired I didn’t know anything about learning difficulties. I knew nothing. I mean nothing. But they wanted me to teach the class because they thought I had the right personality. I loved teaching the kids, and I also found that I fell in love with grammar. A lot of what you do is– you break things down and give kids a lot of practice. Especially since English is so mysterious for lots of kids who struggle with language. Why do we have words where we pronounce them one way and they’re spelled another way? And the spelling is really wacky. And I thought, well, isn’t the history of English really an interesting story? So I took classes in Anglo-Saxon, in Greek and Latin and I created a curriculum on the history of the English language for my kids. I wrote a book, actually, for my students.

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The cycling grew out of mountain climbing. When I was in my late twenties, one of my colleagues invited me to come to the Sierras for a week. And I said, “Oh sure, I would love to!” So I bought my first pair of hiking boots and I begged, borrowed and rented the rest of the gear and went on this fabulous seven-day trip. And I said, “I love this.” So I took a basic mountaineering course, and then the next year I taught the basic mountaineering course. I climbed all over the west. Colorado, Wyoming, a lot in California. In 1981 I went down to climb the three volcanoes outside Mexico City. It was love at first sight, but everything has a sad story. I really wanted to be a high altitude alpinist, and I was training, but my boyfriend was killed on Mount Rainier. And I thought… maybe I won’t climb anymore. That’s when I switched to cycling. One dangerous sport for another! I bought a touring bicycle and I came back East, and I went all the way up through Maine and toured through Nova Scotia. I stopped off at Prince Edward Island and picked tobacco because I was running out of money, and then came back and that way I discovered a love of cycling. And I’ve been doing it ever since.

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Then I got into racing. When I had my accident in 2009, I was in New Hampshire qualifying for the Senior Olympic Games. I had won my time trials and I was winning the road race when it happened. The road race was a “crit” [criterium], which is not a point to point road race; it’s going around a circle. It’s how many laps do you do. The way the crit was set up, they give you a little metal detector to put on your wheel, so when you come through each lap gets registered through this little metal device. It turns out that in order for you to get registered, you need to have your bike on this rug that covered half the road. So I was on the outside of the pack, and I was just off the rug, and I tried to move back in a little bit so that when we went through my bike would register. So when I was moving in and I signaled that I was moving in, the guy next to me wound up getting a little bit rattled, and he locked handlebars with me, and he lost control of the bike and fell over on me, on my left hand side. So when I went down, the impact was significantly greater than if I had just fallen on my own because he fell on top of me. He got up and he kept on riding! The whole field took off… and there I was on the ground. And I really, really, really hurt.

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My first thought was to check my collarbone to make sure I didn’t break it again. I moved my collarbone and I thought, Oh good, it’s fine, I can move it. That’s really good. But I couldn’t get myself up off the road. So people came and got me, because the pack was going to come through again, and I sat on the curb and I thought to myself, I think I’m ok… I think I’m ok. But you know, you’re in shock. So they said, “We’re calling you an ambulance.” and I said “No no no no! I do not want an ambulance. I am not going in an ambulance.” “Well, we need to take you to the hospital.” And I thought, Well, maybe I do need to go to the hospital to get checked out. So my friend brought the car around. I had really started hurting by this time. They took me to the Emergency Room and diagnosed the punctured lung and the broken rib and the broken collarbone right away. This very young doctor who was adorable, he said, “Oh! We have somebody famous here! We know you’re somebody, I know you’re somebody famous,” and he would leave and come back, and finally he said, “I know who you are! You’re Jamie Lee Curtis!” Isn’t that funny? Anyway, he was good medicine in a way. The humor.

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Then they had to go x-ray me, and that was really horrendous, because they left me on this metal table and I was in excruciating pain, and I just remember thinking If I focus on that black dot on the ceiling and breathe, and focus on that black dot, that’s the way I’m going to get through this. Because nobody was in the room, and I was on this cold metal table waiting for the technician to come in and take the x-ray, and there was no support, I had no ice, nothing. And that was the hardest part, just waiting for the x-rays.

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The following morning another doctor came in to check on me, and she watched me walk to the bathroom. I had developed this kind of crab-walk because I couldn’t move my left leg very well without pain, and she said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m trying to go to the bathroom!” And she said, “You need a CAT scan right now.” That’s how they found the broken pelvis. They just didn’t see it in the x-rays. I said that I still wanted to go home. The doctor said “You know, if someone came in with even one or two of these injuries, they’d still be here.”

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I ended up staying in the hospital for two days, and then I had to go back and have surgery on my collarbone that December. The bicycle was not damaged but the front wheel was mangled beyond belief. And I knew that my cycling season was over. And I was really, really, really, really bummed. Because I was doing really, really, really, really well. I don’t know how else to explain the disappointment– how could that happen? It just did.

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So my friends took me home. And the interesting part there is how you heal. How do you cope as a single person, and you are now disabled? How do you accept help from other people? I needed to figure out– how do I function in my apartment? I’m up on the third floor, by the way. And I didn’t like pain meds so I didn’t take pain meds. It just became a matter of problem solving. You have to break everything down for yourself. You can’t carry anything from one room to another because you’re on crutches. So you have to say, How can I get from this to that room? Oh, I can put this in a bag, and I can hold the bag with my crutch and I can move things that way. Each time I solved a problem it was a little victory. And then as I got better I thought, Well, I bet I could do my laundry now, but I can’t carry my laundry down three floors… but I can still walk backwards down three floors. I can’t carry the laundry, so I can put it in the bag and throw it over the railing down three flights below and pull it down to the basement. It’s a dumb story, but it’s an example of how you try to figure out– how can I do these things on my own?

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Within the first week I started walking about a mile a day with crutches. I knew that I had to keep moving the injured areas to not let a lot of scar tissue develop. And that’s how you heal. You push yourself ever so slightly, every single day… combined with a really great mental attitude. There’s a verb in Latin, it’s called patior. It means to suffer, and it’s the origin of the word patience. So when you have patience it means you have to suffer through something. So in order to be a good patient you have to be really, really patient with yourself.

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I kept telling myself how lucky I was. I could have had organ injury, I could have had brain injury, I could have had to have plastic surgery on my face. A lot of things could have happened to me that did not. You know what? These are bones, these will heal.

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I remember after the accident emailing my family, and I have a younger brother, and he writes back in capital letters WTF? WHAT ARE YOU RACING FOR AT 59? I thought, Well, he might have a point. Then I didn’t have cycling seasons for the next few years because my mom got sick. and I spent all my vacation time taking care of her. That’s a very long chapter of helping her. She and her husband were on a very serious downward decline healthwise and financially. My mom passed away a year ago last March, and her husband passed away this last March, which then freed me up last summer to have a cycling season. But I started my training and I realized I don’t really want to be in a race.

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What I ultimately love is rhythm and when a group works together intuitively as one, whether it’s in a cycling pace line or a roped team on glaciers. There are no words spoken, but there is an understanding we all appreciate.  It doesn’t happen as often as I wish, but when it does, it’s memorable, uplifting if you will. The same is true of learning– I love the rush that comes when my synapses are firing.  It’s a bit like a drug.  It’s that same joy of learning that I try to impart to my students.  And it doesn’t come without effort.

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The great pleasure is working your body. How hard it can go, and how pleasurable it feels to breathe hard and to work hard. It’s the ultimate “drug”– grace, mastery, and a feeling of effortlessness. It all comes together at the peak of a season. I remember that feeling in climbing as well in cycling when we were climbing the mountaineer’s route on Mt. Whitney.  I was leading our team– roped travel with ice axes and crampons on a steep pitch– and with the pace I set and rhythmic breathing I could have hiked forever.  It was effortless.
People say “Oh, are you going to retire soon?” Because I’m now 65 and will be 66 this summer. A friend of mine, Lexi, who is a fellow cyclist, she and I want to hike to Everest base camp in Nepal. And I’d also like to climb Kilimanjaro. I know they’re climbing trips, but I don’t think of them as very dangerous. And it would be fun to do some cycling in Europe again, and I’d like to go to New Zealand, so I’d like to be able to carve out time every year for traveling.

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The climbing continues. Yeah, it does. Last summer I went back out to California and hiked back up in the Sierras. I hadn’t been there in 30 years. It was wonderful to be back. We didn’t climb any peaks, we didn’t do anything dangerous, no ropes, no technical gear, it was just backpacking, but it was really fun.

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I’m older now, so I don’t feel like I have to pressure myself. I remember one year I started my training season and I said, “You know, if I don’t feel like going out for a ride, I’m not going to go for a ride. I’m not going to force myself, and let me see what happens.” Lo and behold, I was in just the same shape as I was in a season where I rigidly followed a schedule and never listened to myself. I don’t think I have that tyranny much anymore. At the beginning of the cycling season you do have to push yourself to some degree against some of the resistance that crops up. Every athlete deals with it–  you have to contend with your headgames. Wouldn’t it be easier to go home? What do I do this for? Haven’t I done this long enough? All those things go through your mind. I say, “Jane, now you tell yourself this every year, so remember: what does it feel like in August? It feels really good. And guess what? You’re gonna get there again.” And guess what? Every year I do.

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I’m really comfortable with where I am as a cyclist, and what I’ve accomplished and my ability to ride– strong, smooth, make it look effortless. How can you get to that place where it’s just a joy and you’re at the apex of where you want to be? I worried when I was not having those full cycling seasons, when I was taking care of my mom and recovering, Will I be able to ride as well and be as strong again after a long hiatus like that? And the answer is yes! Because you’re getting older, right? I think I’m as strong, I feel like I am… I mean, I have no idea, but I feel fine. if I go out with the women’s racing group and average over twenty miles an hour twice a week, on a fast course, I’m doing just fine. So now it’s like, we’ll see what we’ll do with this season. And I have a new bike!

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This is kind of a new horizon. This is kind of a new landscape. I’m trying to figure out how to navigate it. New freedoms, new flexibilities. Now I get to figure out what to do!

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Elspeth K. Walker in conversation with Jane Blinn Clark

photography Ashley Soong

styling Nicole Hyle

hair and makeup Michaela Bosch