As I slid, my face but inches from the ground, I had but one thought, and it repeated like a klaxon warning of impending doom.
Please not my face, please not my face, please not my face, please not my face.
We know time is as malleable as clay, shrinking and stretching to fit the moment. But one moment had been stolen and replaced by another, and yet another.
There was the moment in which after rolling from a stop light, I’d decided to stand and accelerate a bit in the big ring and bring my cadence up to the thrum of an engine entering its peak torque band. The acceleration felt good, and the sense of muscles firing following some 20 or so hours of travel was gratifying. But that was taken from me with the suddenness of a changed channel and replaced with the incomprehension of my left foot hitting the pavement.
How could this be—
And then I was down, the bang of the bike hitting the asphalt, the sound of metal scraping pavement and the lightning bolt of neurons transmitting pain from my elbow to my brain with such brilliance I could have sworn there was a flash of light.
At that point, my view was rat’s eye of the curb zooming toward me. Of course, the curb wasn’t moving; I was.
I didn’t stop before hitting the curb, but I did at least avoid pounding my jaw and nose into it, an outcome that generated something like gratitude. While I’d notice the black marks imprinted on my jersey as I undressed later, it would be days before the purple, blue, green and yellow blossom would rise on my arm, a ridiculously indeterminate tattoo.
When I looked up I could see a man across the street with a broom, his eyes already locked on me. I could tell embarrassment was washing over my ego somewhere in the background, but fragile sensibilities would have to wait for the return to my hotel. A car stopped behind me and I couldn’t help but think that had I been in the U.S., I’d have been but a momentary thump thump.
Even before I could extricate myself from my bike (Was my right foot unclipped?) the man with the broom was on me and telling me to be calm and picking up my bike. No, that’s not right. He didn’t even speak to me. He placed his hand on my shoulder in a way that told me to be calm.
He picked up my pedal, which was lying on the ground a few feet from my bike and picked up my bike. I’m not even clear in what order he did these things.
I was in Lugano, Switzerland, out for an early ride ahead of an appointment for a couple of features. I’d planned to go for an easy spin for a maximum of 1:15, sticking to the road that ringed the lake. But now I was going to have to go to Plan B, which could be broadly defined as heading straight back to the hotel, once I could get up and out of the road.
I crawled out of the street and rolled onto my side. The white BMW remained motionless; had I not heard the engine running, I’d have thought it parked. I waved it by.
Another man showed up. And then another. The first two spoke briefly. I’m sure they spoke in Italian, but I have no memory of the words they said. The second man left. I looked back at the BMW and it was still waiting. I waved it by again. The first and third then spoke and the first man showed him my pedal and the flats for a 15mm wrench.
Traffic was stacking up behind the sedan. No one honked; that would have ratcheted up the tension, the embarrassment.
I reached out for the light standard and used it to steady myself as I stood up. My elbow hurt, rather acutely, and the rest of my body hurt, but in a more indeterminate way. I looked at the BMW yet again. Waved it by, yet again. Maybe seeing me standing was what the driver had been waiting for all along. She finally pulled away.
It was then that I looked at the pavement and noticed splotches of red. They were dripping from me.
The second man returned a minute later, holding a large cardboard box inscribed, “Pharmacia.” It held all manner of bandages, bandaids, tape, gauze pads and sprays of antiseptic and cooling varieties. The broom man began spraying around my wounds with the cooling spray and then sprayed the antiseptic on my wounds with deliberate precision. He then wiped my arm of the red drip running toward my wrist.
I tried to tell him it was no big deal, the blood running down my arm was the least of my concerns, but I was distracted from saying anything in part by the pain of having him blot the area around my arm with the gauze pad and the fact that the third man returned holding a crescent wrench.
He cleaned out a short section of damaged thread from the left crank arm and then began carefully lining up the pedal and gradually turned it back in, this time doing what I failed to do earlier by tightening it sufficiently.
As third man did this, broom man, the ringleader of the trio of rescuers, told me how he was a cyclist. How he’d been to America, visited Santa Monica, and even rode down Haleakala when he visited Maui. He had the lean physique of an athlete and the weathered skin of someone who had spent years in the sun. While he spoke, the second man handed him a bandage that he placed on my elbow.
They offered to call an ambulance. While I hadn’t been wild about crashing, the thought of an ambulance and a hospital visit terrified me. That would derail my plans for the day, and I had traveled too far to miss this appointment. Texting the marketing director of a large apparel manufacturer to tell him I was in the hospital and wouldn’t be at the meeting was a bad plan, the way entering the lion enclosure at the zoo is. I had 90 minutes to get back to my hotel, shower, tend to any other wounds and be ready to be picked up.
Third man passed my bike to broom man, who turned the bar straight again and lifted the chain back onto the small chainring. He then handed me my bike. All three were about to turn and walk away with no ceremony. I stopped them and thanked them. I then asked if they’d allowed me a photo; I was impressed by their kindness. And so there they are in the photo above, pharmacy man, broom man and third man.
They stood as I mounted my bike and then headed back to their respective haunts. This was no act of heroism, at least, not to them. As I rolled back to the hotel, I thought about how even though I’d missed out on the ride I’d intended to have, my encounter with the three men was a far richer experience, and told me something far more lasting about the people of Lugano than I’d ever have learned otherwise. The biggest lessons of a place are always with the people themselves. For some, kindness is a kind of grace, and can define the way you move through the world.