Back in the Saddle Part 2: The Road to Recovery is Paved With Cobblestones

The worst part of being injured isn’t the pain. There are pills that fix that well. It isn’t the boredom, either. The same pills fix that, too. By far, the most miserable aspect of a major injury is the riding withdrawals. There are no pills for that. There are no pills that keep you in shape, that make lungs bigger and legs stronger and reflexes quicker, that fuse bones overnight. Your doctor will assuredly tell you this is bad advice, but sometimes all you can do is take one of the pills you do have and train through the pain.

Even before I went in for surgery on my clavicle and finger, just five or six days after my general idiocy landed me in the trauma ward, I was losing my mind from not riding. With my index finger barely reattached to my hand and my arm in a sling, riding a real bike was entirely out of the question. So in my pathetic state I sought out the nearest pedaling machine I could think of: my parents’ 80’s vintage Schwinn Air Dyne trainer.

For those unfamiliar, the Schwinn AirDyne is a mis-designed industrial generator that uses bicycle pedals in conjunction with arm levers to power a deafeningly loud giant fan. At some point in the 80’s the Schwinn Factory obtained one from a shipping container sent to the wrong address. Recognizing it’s infinite potential as a training tool, the geniuses at Schwinn decked it out with an onboard cycle computer the size of a toaster, boasting an analog tachometer and quasi-functional digital timer. I’m not certain whether my parents purchased this apparatus to power their A/C, or to get in shape. Either way, it spent most of my youth serving as a convenient clothes hanger in their room.

The night before my surgeries, I cranked my sling down tight and put in an excruciating 30 minutes on the AirDyne. My finger throbbed and my collarbone stabbed bolts of lightning into my shoulder and my body ached from the wreck. My heart raced and my lungs burned and it was probably a terrible idea. But in a way it still felt good and if I was going to die in the OR the next day, well, fuck it. At least I’d die fresh off a solid interval workout.

Several days after surgery I was back on the AirDyne again, working my way up towards an hour-long ride. The AirDyne just wasn’t cutting it though. It’s poor fit, bad ergonomics on an already strained frame (mine), and single resistance setting, somewhere between steep hill and vertical takeoff, were beginning to wear on me. I wanted to blow it off and wait on my injuries, but I knew I was far from being out of the forest. I was still in the deepest darkest part of the forest. I was just crawling out of the oven in the gingerbread house.

I needed something more like a real bike to train on, so I started looking into spinning. I had some concerns, though. Would a gym allow a mangled mess like myself ride a spin bike? Would a doctor clear me for that? Could I even actually do it in my current state? I resolved to bring it up with my surgeon at my post-op followup in a couple weeks and suffer it out on the ancient Air Dyne.

But before I ever stepped into a spin class or a doctors office, the Gods of Craigslist and Pedal Mashing convened to deliver me a gem, an uncanny deus ex machina, in the form of a machina ex deus. What was being offered up was a barely used Minoura MAG Trainer. A really nice one, and at a third of retail. I was in disbelief; I had never seen one of these on New Orleans’ Craigslist before, and haven’t seen another since. Needless to say, I took it off the market in a heartbeat.

By this time I had regained enough mobility in my shoulder to post up on my road bike, clamped into the trainer stand. I was starting to really be able to do some worthwhile training. At my surgical follow up, I brought up getting back on a bike. A good laugh was had by all, except me. I asked the surgeon if I could ride a spin bike. She intimated that she thought that was a lousy idea, and articulated a specific concern that I might fall off a stationary bike, further damaging myself. I was thoroughly insulted by this affront on both my stationary cycling skills and general sense of equilibrium. Clearly just another physician who had arrived at the erroneous assumption that years upon years of study and practice of medicine had resulted in her knowing more than me. (All melodrama aside, a fantastic doctor. Humpty Dumpty should have been so lucky to have such a talented surgeon.)

Deciding to go against medical advice, I returned to the trainer and pedaled my frustration away, pouring it out as buckets of sweat. Between intense intervals, lots of tempo rides, and three-hour rides on weekends, I have probably trained a lot harder after the accident than I did before, and definitely with fewer rest days.

Everything seemed to be on the mend. My shoulder was mobile, I was feeling much stronger, and not having pain anymore. To me, the end seemed to be in sight already, after only about six weeks. Then I went in to have the titanium pins pulled out of my finger. I was unpleasantly surprised to find this was a procedure performed without any anesthetics at all. A brilliant opportunity to practice pain tolerance. The doctor grabbed the hooks protruding from my knuckle with a pair of pliers and ripped the titanium pins with all the strength of a trophy fisherman and none of the gentleness one would reserve for a hooked marlin.

Just when everything seemed to be coming together, I discovered that my finger was not. Even after six weeks since surgery, the end of my finger had not fused back onto the remainder. The X-ray clearly showed Fingertip Island floating off the shore of Digital Peninsula. Pressure would cause the finger to flex at the break site, painfully and visibly moving the finger where no joint was present. Furthermore, one of the pin sites seemed to be getting infected, a condition that if left unchecked would require amputation.

The doctor was clearly displeased with the lack of progress, and I amplified this displeasure exponentially. Had refusing to rest slowed healing? Would the bones fuse soon? Ever? I was given antibiotics and an additional three weeks of healing time before I was due for another evaluation. If no further rigidity had developed, I would be scheduled for a bone graft, probably some time around the alleycat we have been putting hours upon hours of work into. I was distraught.

For three weeks I binged on milk and slept 10 hours a night. I ate all my vegetables and didn’t drink booze or stand near a microwave or anything that might compromise my healing. That is, with the exception of slacking on the trainer. I decided that way, if after three weeks there was no healing, I would have to seriously think about taking a vacation from riding. I had a really bad feeling that this bump in the road may have resulted in severe tire damage, rendering all further progress impossible. Over the course of those three weeks, though, I could feel the bone in my finger solidifying, day by day.

Today those three weeks end and I return to the doctor. As I sit here, typing with my once-separated finger, I have complete confidence for a good report. Optimistically and enthusiastically, I foresee a return to road and trails happening in the next week or two. And who knows, perhaps with all the diligent training I’ve been doing I’ll come back just as strong as I was, or stronger. I only hope I still remember how to stay upright without a stand.

God willing and the creek don’t rise, I’ll see you all in the streets sooner than we know.

Yeah You Ride

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