Above and Below

I was at the tattoo shop late, pouring rain outside. I was having a piece finished up, and by the time we were done I was exhausted both from the hour and the pain. Matt, my tattoo guy, wrapped my tender arm in gauze and tape, and I pulled on my rain gear to ride the four miles home.

I just wanted to be home.

I came around a wide bend onto a main road and then I was on the ground. And bleeding. The knee of my rain gear torn clean through. I sat in the wet road for a minute, and a car pulled up to see if I was ok. I got up slowly and walked back to see what had brought me down, accidentally stepping into the pothole that had felled me, invisibly full of water and black to match the asphalt. I limped home to dress (and redress) my wounds.

At the best of times there is a rhythm of cadence, breath,  and heart rate. You roll along lost in that rhythm as your computer counts by tenths, and your mind drifts along in its aerobic trance. Maybe you are not riding the bike at this point. Maybe the bike is riding you.

In the peloton there is a whir of white noise, 200 chains through 400 derailleurs, wheels against tarmac, a swarm of bees on a field of flowers.

And then there is that moment when someone ahead of you throws a water bottle off a pothole jolt. You hear the bounce. You see it rolling towards you, your mates yelling, and then it’s under your wheel, and you’re over the bars, and your skin is burning, sandpaper on balsa wood. There is an apology. These are rough roads. What can you do?

Or, the car shifts right ever so slightly, but in that one fractured moment the rider in front of you is cleaned out. You plow into him and go over the top, cart-wheeling into a barbed wire fence. The pain is incalculable, which is fortunate. Your brain can’t recognize all the places your skin has torn, so you get back on and ride.

Above you are flying, below you are rubble.

And it doesn’t matter whether you are you – average, anonymous you – or Johnny Fucking Hoogerland. Above is peace and below is pain. And you do what you can do to stay up at all times.

But, and this is the kicker, that searing, horrible pain reminds you you’re alive. After Hoogerland’s horrific Tour de France crash, he said, “We can still be happy that we’re alive. Nobody can be blamed for this. It’s a horrible accident and I was in it. But I said to Flecha, ‘We’re still alive, and Wouter Weylandt died in a crash.’”

Hoogerland became a legend when he pulled himself out of the barbed wire fence, rode to the finish and donned the polka dot jersey, but that’s beside the point. For him.

I sat there in the kitchen bleeding, my knee pulpy and red, some other bits and pieces weeping softly, the pain pulsing through me. I thought, briefly, to cry, like Hoogerland on the podium steps, but I didn’t. I was a young guy with a new tattoo, and the throbbing in my limbs told me everything that was important in that moment.

That I was alive.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

9 comments

  1. randomactsofcycling

    Robot, I hope everything mends well so you can write more stuff like this. I like it.

    It makes me think, recollect and smile. I even rolled up my trouser leg to look at the scar from my first REALLY big bike accident.

    Thanks. I currently have no open wounds and I am smiling.

  2. David A

    I may have mentioned this in an earlier response. I remember a Kermis race In Sinaai, Belgium it was raining the whole race. It was summertime so it was 65 or so degrees. We all had to ride single file in the drainage tiles on either side of a monster cobblestone section. With 3 laps to go im about mid-pack and this Belgian kid decides to slam the brakes on and bunny hop to the stones. I slammed into him and cart wheeled end over end and came down on my butt and back on the stones. I pissed blood from the impact for 4 days. Not funny one bit, but i was alive….

    1. Padraig

      SinglespeedJarv: You were hosed with those gloves. Cold, wet and bonking is not a fun way to finish a race. (I know, I did it plenty.)

      Stefan: You should never run when there’s no room to run. If no one else is standing in the feedzone (which is why the pack wasn’t slowing down), then running isn’t just permitted, it’s encouraged.

      Kg: Holding up a bottle is like a pitcher’s wind-up. You gotta keep that thing out of sight to prevent the bandit feed. I used to fill discarded bottles with water and give those out once I knew my guys were covered.

  3. etiberius

    Perfect – I may have to print this out and hand it to people as they suggest I stick to safer activities as I recover from this season ending wreck.

    Your last line is my mantra.

    1. Padraig

      That line “200 chains through 400 derailleurs” would make the best title for a documentary on the Monuments.

      Etiberius: Heal quickly.

  4. Trev

    Fantastic piece. In 3 yrs I have enjoyed walking (sort of) away from 2 very bad crashes. 6hr spine surgeries, lazer therapy, frequent flyer points at my chiropractor, and cracked carbon frames……..I’m alive and still living the dream.

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