For 17 and a half years, Chuck Pridgen roamed all 731 square miles of Halifax County, North Carolina. As a patrol lieutenant with the county sheriff’s office, Pridgen presided over a squad of eight men and those 731 miles, protecting and serving citizens in small townships with quirky names like Hobgood and Butterwood. He loved everyone he met on the job. Even the bad guys.
It’s why Pridgen chose to enforce the law, despite his parents’ early wishes for him to practice it instead. It’s why he responded to a routine call on January 4, 2005 in tiny Scotland Neck. It was the last call Pridgen ever took in Halifax County.
The dispute was silly: A man refused to leave a convenience store, claiming the clerk owed him $20. After Pridgen, then 37, arrived on the scene, he volunteered to give the guy a ride home to end and resolve the situation. However, Pridgen was sucker-punched in the chest by the subject’s friend. Pridgen maced the man and struck him with his baton, to no avail. The two fought for 22 agonizing minutes as the bully’s buddies—11 in total—idly watched in the parking lot.
Nothing fazed his foe; Pridgen’s face, meanwhile, grew more numb with each punch. If he wasn’t sure he’d survive the scuffle at first, he was certain of his fate when the man wrapped his arms around his throat and told him, “I’m going to kill you now.”
Pridgen blacked out as the man body slammed him into the blacktop. In a daze, he thought of his wife, April, and his young son, David, who was just 10 months old. Then, divine intervention: A former Marine sprinted across highway US 258 with a tire tool in hand, which he used to bludgeon the bad guy and rescue Pridgen.
The stranger saved his life, but the damage was lasting. Pridgen was done patrolling those rural North Carolina roads. It would take a dozen years for him to ride them again.
Pridgen was left with an assortment of physical injuries, from arthritis in his neck to a degenerative disc in his back, most of which he manages with pain medications. But the psychological issues that stemmed from the incident have proven much harder to quell.
Pridgen hasn’t worked in the Halifax County Sheriff’s Office, or anywhere else, since his attack. He’s been on disability for 13 years while he’s waited to settle his case. That’s almost 5,000 days that Pridgen, now 50 years old, has had to deal with the depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that has come from nearly dying in the line of duty.
He often has nightmares about January 4, 2005. “I’ve thrown lamps at the wall,” Pridgen said. “I’ve woken up fighting, and I’ve accidentally grazed my wife’s jaw in my sleep. I’ve had awful panic attacks. I constantly feel guilty because I’ve lost friends who were killed on the job for less than what I went through. They’re dead, and I’m alive. But I’ve wondered, ‘Why should I be?’”
That question has weighed on him. It entered his mind a few years ago and wouldn’t leave. One day, when he returned home from a walk, he decided to kill himself. “I sat in my closet, shut the door, and contemplated how I was going to do it,” he said. He soon came to his senses. He thought of April, David (now 14), and his daughter, Laura (11), who had their own lives to live. “I realized they don’t have time for me crying and being selfish and talking about suicide,” Pridgen said. “I knew I had to dig deep and get away from that idea. It still rears its head, but I just remember I have to be there for my family.”
To help cope, he developed a strategy for staying mentally strong: keeping his brain busy. First, he devoured history books, but in 2007, he caught that year’s Tour de France, became hooked on watching cycling, and absorbed all he could about the sport. “It looked like the greatest thing in the world,” he said.
Yet he couldn’t bring himself to actually sit on a bike. “I thought it was the wrong thing for me to be out there riding and being fit,” said Pridgen. “I was scared that if people found out I was doing something fun and athletic, they’d think I was faking my depression and PTSD. I was afraid to feel happy.”
For a decade, Pridgen fought a war with himself. He badly wanted to be a cyclist, but he didn’t know if he had it in him to try. And then a cheap Huffy showed up.
April bought her husband the inexpensive bike on Father’s Day 2017. “It was a mechanical disaster,” said Pridgen, but it was the push he needed. He rode that thing for 25 straight days until he upgraded to a Trek Dual Sport 1. A month later, he added a Dual Sport 2 to his arsenal. Then came the Émonda ALR 5. “If my wife hadn’t have given me that little bike, I would’ve never fallen in love with cycling,” he said.
When Pridgen rides, he’s at peace. He loves the ritual of it all. He wears his jersey with the same pride he felt when he put on his police uniform, and keeps it in as pristine shape as his old patrol vehicle. He heads out every morning and again in the afternoon, riding for hours each time in the Roanoke Rapids countryside. It’s just him, the cows, the ponds, and the birds.
“It’s so beautiful to hear those birds singing,” Pridgen said. “I used to ride these roads in my car for years, but on my bike, I see things I never saw before. I hear things I never heard.” Most crucially, Pridgen’s PTSD symptoms subside when he rides his ALR 5. “I don’t think about anything else when I’m on that seat,” he said. “To be free and away from all those bad thoughts is the most special thing. I feel completely better about myself.”
Indeed, research shows that exercise is associated with reduced PTSD and depressive symptoms. In one , scientists conducted a clinical trial with mostly former soldiers and police officers and found that participants who received a structured exercise program in addition to therapy and medication showed better improvements in PTSD, depression, anxiety, and stress symptoms after 12 weeks than those who stuck to traditional treatment.
“Exercise provides structure, daily routine, and social interaction, and it helps get people out of bed and engaged in meaningful activity,” the study’s lead author, Simon Rosenbaum, Ph.D., told Bicycling.
Breaking a sweat may also expose people to physiological symptoms that mimic anxiety, such as breathlessness and an increased heart rate. This can help reduce sensitivity to those sensations over time and ultimately lower anxiety, said Rosenbaum, now of the University of New South Wales Sydney.
“The critical part is that we as a society create the right environment to help people living with [PTSD] to engage in physical activity as a component of treatment,” said Rosenbaum. “And not just as an optional add-on, but an integrated part of routine care.”
For all the strides Pridgen has made, his symptoms kick back in when he hangs up his kit. But if he distracts himself enough—with books, calisthenics, and anything else to keep his mind occupied—surviving isn’t as much of a struggle. “As long as I’m immersing myself in something I enjoy, I’m doing my best,” he said.
Still, nothing beats cycling, and Pridgen plans on riding those Halifax County roads for as long as he lives. “Give someone a bike and it’ll take their problems away—I guarantee that,” he said. “My bike saved my life.”