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