In Which I Encounter Cyclist’s Palsy, and Bilbo Baggins

For the last week I’ve been harboring the illusion biking is making my hands massively strong. I thought this, because at the end of each day, the only truly exhausted parts of my body were my hands. I thought, that like a hard day of climbing, my hands were simply tired— but every day getting stronger.

“I can’t wait to climb,” I thought, “I’m becoming a stronger climber by simply biking. Piece of cake. Two birds, one bike trip.”

That is a lie.

I knew there was something wrong last night when I had a hard time putting lotion on my face. I could open the jar, with difficulty, but the act of rubbing lotion around of my face was hard for me. I muddled through it by sort of slapping at my face, and eyeballing myself in the mirror to make sure I didn’t have streaks of lotion everywhere.

Anything that requires finger strength, such as turning or pinching, is difficult. At the hostel communal dinner last night, I had trouble cutting up my food with the knife. I couldn’t hold it properly, and then couldn’t exert enough pressure to do much. I tried to hide it by doing everything slowly, as if I were very classy, taking the time to thoroughly chew each mouthful. Even though it smelled delicious and I was starving, and would gladly have shoveled it in as quickly as possible. After that, I took to Google.

My hands were not getting strong. They were slowly becoming paralyzed by something called Cyclist’s Palsy. Cyclist’s Palsy (often referred to as Handlebar Palsy), is a condition in which the nerve on the palm of the hand is slowly being injured by the constant pressure put upon it by biking. The damage to the nerve causes something called neuropraxia, which essentially cuts off nerve impulses at the site of injury, causing weakness in all muscle beyond that point.

Luckily, the nerve will regenerate on its own, provided of course, I eliminate the pressure. Lucky enough, in Faro (where I stayed last night, at Hostel 33) there is an enormous sporting equipment store, where I purchased a pair of biking gloves. One of my friends, who is a brilliant physical therapist as well as a cyclist, suggested I try moving my hands around while I bike so the nerves can heal.

The Decathlon, in Faro, where I bought my biking gloves.
The Decathlon, in Faro, where I bought my biking gloves.

In the meantime, I’ve been feeling a bit pathetic, even the simplest thing takes roughly 4 times as long to do. I had to write down my address for someone today, and held the pen like a dagger rather than a writing utensil, making the letters uneven and weirdly spaced. “Sorry,” I said, “I’m have a bit of trouble writing today,” causing the woman at the counter to eye me warily, like I was about to throw some kind of fit.

So feeling dejected, I walked around town, asking for time schedules at the train and bus station, trying to figure out a route to give my hands a rest but still continuing on towards Seville, my next big stop. As I walked onto the train platform, trying to find the main office, I walked toward an interesting looking older couple with enormous backpacks exiting the stone building to the left. The man was short, with longish silvery grey hair. “I bet they are really cool,” I thought to myself.

As I passed them, my mind came to the conclusion just as the man opened his mouth to speak, and a familiar voice with a British accent came out. It was BILBO BAGGINS. Bilbo Baggins, Lord of the Rings, Ian Holm. I was seeing Bilbo Baggins in the Faro train station in Portugal. Internally I was squealing like a mad pig. Externally, I calmly rounded the corner, not wanting to bother them as, clearly, they were trying to catch their train.

I couldn’t believe it. It had been such a quiet morning so far, only a few cars on the street, the sunshine lazily laying across the road. I had just eaten toast and jam not 10 minutes earlier, and here was Bilbo Baggins.

And so, as I sit in my tent for the evening, the sunlight pouring in through the open tent flap and the breeze fluttering the cover, I think, everything is all right. I may not have full use of my hands. I may have to paw and slap at things gracelessly, it may have taken me awhile to put up my tent, to open my sleeping bag, and take a sip of water. I may have even had to ask my French tent neighbors to open a bottle of wine for me, which they did (the husband cheerily smiling as he opened it, then patting me on the cheek when he was done, like a granddaughter). And I may be useless and a bit sad about it.

But ultimately, I don’t give a shit. I saw Bilbo Baggins today.