The New Year

sBC GPL Copper Mtn 2014

Three hundred sixty-six days ago I made a miscalculation. Simply put, I went too fast through a corner. I could tell you how I thought the adhesive quality of my bike’s rear tire given the road surface, lean angle and speed I was traveling was sufficient to keep me stuck to the road, but none of what I thought prior to that turn matters. Nor does it matter that I got the bike under control briefly. The impact itself doesn’t matter in the way you might think it would.

Here’s what matters: any time I enter a corner that I don’t have as well memorized as my social security number, I hesitate. Hell, even the ones that I do know that well I find myself sitting up a bit to scrub some speed.

That one tire slip changed, well, maybe it didn’t change everything, but it was the first in a series of events that, in aggregate, served as the most colossal upheaval I’ve experienced in my life.

Under other circumstances I wouldn’t have seen the events as related in any way. However, it was that sinking feeling in my gut—the universal signifier that no matter how good or bad things may currently be, things are about to get worse—that kept coming back with each new lousy piece of news. I knew the moment my tire slipped that I was going too fast for the next few seconds (or days as the case turned out to be) to turn out in any routine manner. That feeling came back when I got the call that my stepfather, Byron, was unlikely to leave the hospital. There was the call with the ad sales guy I’d hired in which he admitted that not only was he planning to take a job with an exercise magazine but that he really hadn’t done a damn thing for the previous month.

I experienced the same feeling the day the obstetrician said, “I don’t like this,” as he pointed to a dark area in our son’s body as he performed what was supposed to be a final and routine ultrasound two weeks before delivery. I did my best to tell myself that things couldn’t be that bad, that my body was jumping to conclusions not supported by the data. However, minutes later, the feeling only grew when we entered a different office with a different ultrasound pro operating an ultrasound unit that was S-class Mercedes compared to the Toyota Tercel we’d just been on. That doctor’s first, “Hmm,” was all I needed to begin wondering how the moments go before a first experience with incontinence.

The next month served up a succession of conversations that each resulted in that damned feeling. It was as if I’d discovered some previously unknown cookbook in which Julia Child served up that one emotional response in eighty different dishes. There was Sinking Feeling Paprika. There was Sentiment d’Angoisse a l’Orange, Sensazione di Affondare Cacciatore  and Spaetzle mit Flaues Gefühl. I lost track of all the dishes containing that one ingredient, but you know how the palate fatigues. After a month of chicken, all you want is beef.

Once we finally brought the 15-lb. miracle home, I headed to a doctor, one just for me, for what was supposed to be a relatively simple out-patient procedure. Weeks later I woke up in a hotel room and the sheets were red. I spent Memorial Day in the emergency room.

Each of those events is as related as a brick is to a blue whale, but they share an emotional crossroads to which I inevitably responded, “Oh no, not again.” Even as I sit, typing, my stomach hitches as I traverse the events of those days, the tone of the doctor’s voice, the color of the sheets, the leftward kick of the wheel.

Shortly after the crash I wrote that I’d soon be back on Tuna Canyon. But that hasn’t happened. It took more than six months for me to return to Decker, to Las Flores and to go 90 percent of my old speed requires an anxious, uneasy clenching of teeth. It’s not a flow state. Not currently, maybe not anymore. Maybe I’d have returned sooner were it not for the succession of events that made my life a Himalayan roller coaster. I’ve no way to know.

I’ve gained much in the last year. The Deuce is a prize beyond measure. And the awareness I have of my place in the world thanks to the beer fund is a lesson that simply couldn’t be purchased. For those, I’m grateful. But neither can change my desire to be able to let the bike run on tilted asphalt. For that, I’m pissed. There’s no road map for how to get them back.

Worse is the simple fact that I’d be okay going slower if I could relax. Just relax. My discomfort on the descent to Cazadero and on Myers Grade at Levi’s Gran Fondo made me brake enough that I wondered if maybe I was now part of the legion that shouldn’t ride carbon clinchers on such roads. The wheels, I can report, fared better than my nerves.

It might seem that a year is a pretty arbitrary way to mark a collection of days, but anniversaries are how we mark time, mark progress. Occasions are a chance to look back at who we were previously. Weddings allow us to demonstrate how our lives have improved thanks to the power of love. Birthdays give us a chance to look back on who we were, to judge how we’ve grown. Commemorating the anniversary of a crash doesn’t seem the remembrance you’d want to mark, but for me, it was the first in a series of events related by a visceral response. It is my hope that today marks a turn, a chance to move forward without each new disturbance tapping into the psychic equivalent of being tazed.

To the degree that I don’t sound more hopeful, I admit that my outlook is tentative, uneasy. While I’m sure what the shackles are, I’m less sure how to cast them off.


Image: Wil Matthews

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  1. Patrick O'Brien

    Long live the Deuce! Still the coolest of names as Mr. Pelkey, I think, said before the little guy came home. Embracing the change in your riding might unlock the shackles. Maybe you have paid the god of speed enough tribute.

  2. August Cole

    That’s a brave essay to share. Thank you. As we get older, we talk about big birthdays. 30. 40. There are bigger milestones that lurk behind those birthdays. Not long after I turned 30 I watched my life flash before my eyes during a shoulder-popping, failed self-arrest with a ski pole. Standing up, feeling with stinging fingers for the contours of your face to make sure it’s still attached after falling hundreds of feet down an icy chute changes you. Maybe for the better. I took up telemarking and understand more about fear and control than I ever did before. Nearing 40, I ride my bike differently than I did when I was 22, when crashing seemed to pose no more setback than a flat. Today I ride with so much more gratitude. Being thankful, and mindful of all that we have waiting for us at home, helps us know when to push and when to pull back. Nothing is taken for granted. Is it a slower way to ride? Not by much. Is it a more meaningful way to experience the bike? For sure. Savor it, every mile and every smile. You’re a lucky man.

  3. Scott

    In about 25 years of riding, I’ve been involved in nine significant accidents where I broke, my bike broke, or I lost significant amounts of skin. Four of those accidents involved motor vehicles; one from each direction. I’ve totaled two bikes and the jury is still out on the third. Just three weeks ago, I was in a head-on collision with a bike on the trail resulting in three broken ribs, two broken scapula, one busted collarbone and a punctured lung. Some say I’ve used all nine of my lives. Others say I’m an experienced rider. I say “I’ve busted more stuff than most.”

    Returning from serious injury is never easy. After sliding out on a wet line a few years ago, it took me months before I could turn left without the overwhelming feeling that I was about to lose my balance and slide. There’s a flashback phenomenon that causes you to relive traumatic incidences when you encounter your “Tuna Canyon.” Or, in my case, Dog Bar road — and eight other locations that I remember vividly. Overcoming that psychological glitch required going back to raw fundamentals of cornering combined with relearning trust in my equipment.

    Following every accident there’s something to address – fear of speed often tops the list. The irony is that when you grip going downhill, you tense up which makes cornering even more difficult, less fluid, more likely to result in a crash. Intellectually that’s a “known.” Emotionally, it’s way more difficult to put 100% trust in a flimsy piece of carbon fiber connected to the road by two square inches of rubber. But the moment you think about that, you’re screwed.

    Comedians say that tragedy plus time equals humor. It’s more or less the same for cyclists. One day, in a few months or years of repeated effort you’ll be flying again. After the ride, you’ll think, “wow, I never even thought about how fast I was going.” It will just happen. At least that’s what I tell myself.

  4. Les.B.

    It seems you still feel you’re still in the midst of challenges coming your way, with possibly more on the way. If you haven’t looked at how you have grown into a more substantive human being through these challenges, then that is the maybe reason why.


    My one good crash that drew blood happened in the period that I was an eager cyclist but not yet the avid cyclist I am now. Recovering from the crash, I had decided that I wouldn’t do cycling any more.

    Living with that decision brought a surprise reaction from within. I got very depressed at the thought of giving up cycling, and I realized that I really needed to become more of a cyclist!

    And I went from riding the 46 miles of the beach bike path on weekends to traversing the highways and back roads of the Santa Monicas for 80-100 miles. And, by the way, went from spending hundreds of dollars on bike stuff to thousands.

  5. Brian Stephens

    I can’t believe that was over a year ago now. I read the story and quickly reached for my beer money and Paypal account info. The easiest decision that day for me was to “buy a beer” for a fellow cyclist in need. The same way I would stop and offer assistance to a cyclist on the side of the road with a flat.

    I had no idea of the depth of the issues. I wish I had more time to be an avid reader here. I’m glad that things are on the mend, for all the issues here. The best advice seems to be, “let it go” and eventually you won’t even realize how fast you are going through corners and descents. Good luck all around.

  6. Diesel

    I think there are two ways to look at your past year.

    1. Your step dad passed, you badly wrecked your bike, your son was in the hospital for weeks….

    2. You had the wonderful opportunity to know the great man and have him in your life so long, you miraculously survived a crash, your son was one of the lucky kids to get out of the hospital and live a normal life….

    I for one and very glad you got through the past year for very selfish reasons. I wake up everyday and check RKP for new posts as it is by far the best cycling/life blog I know of!

    Here is to another “great” year to you, your family, your blog, and all of its readers.

  7. jprumm

    I know how you feel. I am in the midst of my own “life turmoil”. 2013 has sucked big time. It seems death has been making it’s presence known to me in a big way.

    As I am a Superintendent of a Hotshot crew loosing almost the entire Granite Mountain Hotshots rocked my world. It has made me quesion what I am doing with my life. How selfish it is of me to subject my family to this lifestyle?

    Then shortly after I attended the memorial for Granite Mountain while on a fire I got a call my mother was in ICU and would not live.

    There where a lot line of duty deaths in the wildland fire community this year. With every new fatality it took another piece of my heart and soul. I would often ask myself how can I keep doing this job?

    I have learned a lot about myself this year. Things have become a bit more clear and a bit more hazy at the same time. Is this a mid-life crisis or just life? I don’t know.

    I find myself crying for no reason. I tell myself Hotshot’s don’t cry but it doesn’t help. Living in a constant state of mourning is my new normal.

    What I do know is my wife is the greatest person I know, I have some of the most incredible friends, and when I am riding my bike I feel a bit more at peace.

  8. Michael

    After reading this post the terms gut-check and gut-feel will have a different meaning. You have again used cycling as the palette to paint a complex picture of life. Thanks for sharing some gut-wrenching life experiences that make me feel a little more human this morning. I hope writing this is cathartic and you are nailing those descents again the way you know is possible.

  9. Patrick O'Brien

    Maybe you should ride that route again without a computer on the bike. No watch, no phone, no strava, and no GPS. Just you the bike and the road. No hurrying, no pushing, and no distractions. Bet it feels real good. I am not a racer and never have been, so I can’t know what you are feeling.

    If I could find a simple odometer for my bikes, I think I would take the computers off all of them.

  10. Dustin

    “Cornering ability and confidence grow with time and practice, until they fall off sharply and suddenly.”

    I know a small bit of what you’re going through. Just keep pedalling.

  11. Gregor

    Good article.

    This past August I had my 1 year anniversary of breaking my wrist after the creation my first Strava segment. The fast ride went great but the easy ride back to the cabin went sideways when I endo’d on an easy connector trail. Anyway here we are one year later and I am back up to speed on the mountain bike – it took a while to get there though, and no one has beaten my Strava time on that segment. Speed on Padraig!

    1. Author

      Everyone: Thank you for your comments.

      Jprumm: What you shared has been with me. Your losses are weighty. I wish you and the people you care about all the peace you can find.

      Tom in Albany: Thanks for that. Well played. I’ve been playing many of those thoughts back in my head, but not in such a pointed fashion.

  12. Steve

    I think (at out age) life is a lot about learning about uncertainty and then learning how to deal with it. Thanks for sharing how you are doing it.

  13. Fearless

    I have the “Fear”.
    October 25, 2009. Cycling at an easy pace thru slightly downhill S turns at 20-25 mph. Fine gravel in a corner, rear wheel skids, correct by turning into skid. Happened before, no problem, right ? Correction takes me right but the road goes left. Now in fine gravel on shoulder. Try to bring bike back to the pavement. Brighter stars than I’ve ever seen which disappear like an old tube tv being turned off.
    According to the people behind me: hit the pavement head first, never came off the bike, unconscious for the 30-60 minutes it took the ambulance to arrive.
    Trauma unit, ICU, hospital for a week. Shattered collarbone, 8 broken ribs, punctured lung. Damage to bike minimal, I still have and occasionally use the bibs from the crash. Four months off the bike.
    When resume cycling, knowing what happened at a relatively slow speed, I “Fear” the downhills. All the internal discussion does no good. The “Fear” remains.
    After several years, I say to myself. “Perhaps you should listen to what your body is telling you”! So I did. I now go downhill at 75% of previous speed. The “fear” raises its ugly head when I go faster.
    But the cyclists I ride with still refer to me by the nickname they gave me. “Fearless Kevin”.

  14. Hautacam

    Not much I can add to what’s been said already.

    I guess if I could write anything, it’s this: Your center of gravity has shifted. You’re carrying a lot more with you on every ride. In your head, in your heart. The Deuce, your stepdad, your wife — and yes, even the Beer Fund. It all goes with you. It’s the most important stuff in the world.

    So yeah, maybe you’ll ride Tuna and other descents slower now. So what? You’re carrying a lot of precious cargo with you. As August wrote, you are a hell of a lucky guy as a result. Put your hands on the hoods, notch it back a cog, and keep your eyes on the horizon.

    It’s beautiful out there.

  15. tinytim

    Thats a ton of weight to have been handed over the course of a year. That being said, it could always have been worse. I think that your life events and their respective traumas are lingering for sure. Dont underestimate your resilience as a human, eventually it will pass and hopefully leave minimal scar tissue. I’ve ridden the myers grade descent more times than i can count, and every time i am slightly skeeyched out, especially in the rain.

    1. Author

      Again, everyone, thank you for everything you’ve said, shared.

      I know that people often say about sharing stuff like this, “Just trying to keep it real,” but that’s a BS statement most of the time, and doesn’t get at why I wrote this piece. When I began writing for Belgium Knee Warmers we shied from writing the personal in an effort to say something universal. The surprising thing about RKP is that I’ve shared increasingly personal material and somehow it has resonated with people. Wonders never cease.

      Tinytim: You raise an interesting point by noting it could have been worse. The funny thing is that while I can accept the truth of that statement, and can even think of scenarios that are worse, I can’t orient myself to the emotional weight of what my life would have been should things have taken a worse turn. I don’t know how I would have gotten through anything worse that this. This took all I had. I wouldn’t know how to get through more. As it is, this is more than I knew how to get through and even that’s a statement that surprises me. I didn’t see that admission coming.

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