Back in the Saddle Part 1: Aluminum and Steel, Titanium and Bone.

You could say life is short in the fast lane. You could say if you blink you’ll miss it. And if you were saying those things to me, you’d be right. Especially if instead of “blink” you said “turn around to chat,” and instead of “miss it,” you said “T-bone a truck at 20 plus.”

I like to ride bikes. Fast. Especially the ones with fixed gears and invisible brakes. And despite putting in almost 200 miles a week doing fast training rides on such a bike in city streets, I invariably save my tangles with automobiles for off days and errand runs. I guess I should be thankful I’ve never had to appear in the ER in a spandex kit. In fact, before that day, riding bikes had never caused me to go to the ER, at all. But there is a first time for everything, and all good things must end. This is the story of that.

Flying down St. Claude in typical fashion, I passed up another rider who said something to me. Exactly what was said is a bit blurry, but I do remember our exchange was a friendly one. Whatever was said to me must have been fairly thought provoking, as I turned around to issue a longwinded response, while still mashing along close to the top of my gear. Near the end of my retrospective soliloquy I blindly blasted through a red light and into a live intersection. Swiveling my head back to the orientation it should have had the entire time, I immediately recognized that I was going to nail a crossing work truck, immediately. I locked up my wheel and tried to whip in the direction the truck was going, and then for a fraction of a second everything went black.

In that instant I lost a lot of things; several months of my favorite activity, any hopes of having a fun 26th birthday, just 6 days away, my chance to ride in the Rouge Roubaix with friends from the Semi-Tough Cycling Club, and half of my most important digit.

I’m not even sure if I fell over or came off the bike, but my first clear memory is sitting down on the asphalt in the center of the lane, dazedly trying to reorient myself, surrounded by traffic and pedestrians. I did not know at first that I was hurt, but I heard a man nearby exclaim “Oh my god, is that guy alright.” I remember being seated Indian style in the street, taking inventory of myself, and discovering my right index finger significantly less than properly attached to the rest of the hand. “No,” I thought to myself, “this guy is definitely not alright.”

When I skidded to a halt against the truck, my index finger was over my drops, which were the first point of contact with the truck. The overhanging end of the finger was promptly pinched off, left to dangle by a bit of skin and muscle. This was shocking, to say the least. So shocking that I did not even realize I had snapped my collarbone like a toothpick, causing it reshape my shoulder with all the architectural styling of a Barnum & Bailey circus tent. A couple of other riders rolled up to aid me and suggested I get out the street. Jumping up and carrying my bike to the neutral ground was about the last motion I would have for some time. As I waited for an ambulance, bleeding profusely and becoming more acutely aware of the excruciating pain, some really kind fellow riders kept me company, gave me water, and locked my bike up for me across the street. I wish I could see them again to buy them all a pint.

You can probably tell from a trauma doctor’s reaction how good a job you’ve done of wrecking yourself.  When his reaction is to go get more doctors, whose reactions are to whip out smartphones and start taking pictures, you can figure you’ve really done a number on yourself. I was administered some really heavy IV painkillers, dilaudid, I believe, and the next 8 hours melted away as my finger was reattached. I fully expected to pass out and wake up the next day with 50% less trigger finger. However, I came to, to find that my finger was whole again, although with a slight corkscrew twist to it. A good buddy came and picked me up from the hospital and took me to get my bike. I expected that the aluminum frame had cracked in a thousand places after its cross with the steel cabinets on the back of the work truck. It appeared, though, that my flesh and bones had cushioned the impact and taken the full force of the collision, sparing my precious bike any bodily harm.

A week later, a day or two after my birthday, I went back to the hospital for surgery on my collarbone and finger. The mission was to nail down the wayward clavicle and reconnect tendons severed in the digital disconnection. One titanium plate and ten screws later, my collarbone was back in a somewhat normal shape, although under X-ray it appeared to contain an entire Erector set. Titanium pins joined the two halves of my finger, but the tendons sought were said to be absent, presumably crushed into subatomic particles in the explosive collision.  All in all, it was a great day for modern medicine.

Despite spending the next few days in a Percocet stupor, I was able to do a bit of thinking. While I will never take anything less than 100% accountability for causing the collision, it is internally difficult to place the blame. Would a brake have helped me? Probably not. Would riding more slowly have saved me? Hard to say. Since speed is directly tied to timing, what may have been a softer impact could have just as well been placement in the path of another vehicle. It seemed the only thing that had gone wrong, that made this few seconds any different from all the hours I had spent trucking along on that bike was the fact that I was facing opposite the direction of travel. In that moment I was an idiot, and I will never purport otherwise. When I am asked if this will change my riding habits, the first answer that comes to mind is “No. Because facing the wrong way is not a riding habit. It is just something I will not do again.”

Some more recent thought, though, has got me realizing that sometimes we need to slow down and pace ourselves for the long haul. Not every trip to the grocery or post office is an alleycat leg. Furthermore, while I caused this catastrophe, we are not in control of others’ actions, and a bit of defense can go a long way towards longevity. And as much as it is painful to get hurt or hurt yourself, worse is the guilt of knowing that you hurt someone else, almost regardless of fault. While I still count down the days until I am back in the saddle, my future self may be a little more likely to slow his roll. Andy at FYXO sums it up succinctly. Do whatever you have to do. RIDE SAFE


Yeah You Ride

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