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Bike wreck: broken rib, bruised ego

I had a green light at 6th and Wyandotte and blew through the intersection doing about 17 miles an hour on my bicycle. I was standing in the pedals ready for the rough bump ahead.

The bridge expansion joint was deeper than I thought. The handlebars bounced out of my hands. I grasped around in space, trying to get a hold of the bars again. The bike zipped one way. I flew the other. Smashing into the concrete shoulder and head first, I felt a crack deep inside my chest. I flopped over on my back. As I writhed on the pavement, trying to get my breath back, I thought to myself, my god, we don’t have health insurance.

I reached up and found my helmet shattered. My head, however, was just fine.

It was only the fourth day of my new effort to get back on the bike. When I was younger, I was a real spokehead. I kept two bikes, worked in a bike shop, and rode 20 miles a day regularly—sometimes 50 to 70 miles on weekends. My interest in the bike lay in more than getting and staying in shape or exploring new parts of the city. The bike kept my head on straight and helped me ride out depressions and absorbed manic highs.

I knew all the best cyclists in the city. Group rides and long turns with friends into the countryside allowed me to expand my thinking and work out my problems. I often got on the bike and rode until I just couldn’t anymore. I became practiced and gained the muscles and tone to ride with the most fit riders anywhere.

Then, I sobered up and went off to grad school in 1991, and though I rode often in Laramie, I lost the discipline of the daily ride. Over the last 25 years, I have been in and out of bike phases. I always feel better when I’m on the bike. But somehow, the impulse ends when my time gets short or I have a great deal of work to do.

When I was working on dissertation between 2011 and 2013, I again sat astride the bike and rode 10 miles everyday up and down the hills, which are considerable, between my house and UMKC. At first, I took on the stretch with my mountain bike. I graduated after toning up to my road bike.

Which is brilliant. Let me tell you about it: Before I bought my present machine, I rode a Batavus, a Dutch bike that was a dream. It was good for about 75 miles before the tight geometry of the frame began to feel uncomfortable. Then, one day, an angry motorist was going to teach me a lesson. He sped by just inches from my handlebars then dodged in front of me and skid to a dead stop. I piled into the back of his car going about 25 miles an hour downhill. The incident resulted in a busted bike and a trip to the emergency room, where I found I suffered trauma to wrists and ankles. It took months to recover.

With my connections, I was able to get another great bike. It’s a sort of Frankenstein that weighs a little less than 18 pounds. The Miyata carbon-fiber frame responds well to power input. It’s a stiff model but forgiving on crummy pavement. Miyata was once the most respected Japanese bicycle maker. This was one of their top-line frames and I’m glad I have it.

An old friend foraged the components out of the back of a bike shop, but they are all top-drawer stuff—at least for the time I put the bike together now 25 years ago. The crankset and gear shifters are Campagnolo Record, the best Italians made at the time. The rear Shimano 600 derailleur spins the chain on a Campagnolo Record gear cluster that’s not so small that I have to be in incredible shape to push. Other components include Cinelli seat and handlebar posts, Cinelli Giro d’Italia handlebars, Modolo brakes, and a Brooks saddle. The wheels are 27x23Cs, some of the best money can buy.

Forgive me for dropping names, something I don’t usually do. And I know all this means little to someone who doesn’t ride bike or know much about what kind of ease a well-built bike affords the rider. But let me put it this way: All of what I just mentioned makes it the Mercedes of bikes.

In my last bike phase, I took the Miyata into the shop for a tune up, which included clean-up, chain cleaning and lube, tension adjustment on all the cable. I remember Bob, the shop owner, standing there against his workbench considering wistfully my ride on the stand. When he approached the machine, he handled it with special gentleness and admiration. He told me when I picked it up a few days later that “I don’t know where you got this bike, but it’s a real dream. You’re a lucky guy.”

I decided recently that it’s been too long since I rode bike. I’ve been meaning for, literally, years to get back on the saddle and push heart, lungs, and legs into back into health and tone. My first ride was hard, but fortunately years of walking two to four miles a day with the dogs kept my heart in some kind of shape and I handled the hills, albeit slowly.

My goal when I started this time was to get to 10 good miles everyday by the end of September. I’d start on a relatively easy ride with only a few hills. I figured that I would gain speed over time and graduate to hillier rides by then. I tuned up the mountain bike for inclement weather and planned to use the cyclomachines at the community center on days when the weather or temperature made it impossible to ride.

Ultimately, my goal was to get in shape for longer spins in the spring, possibly some organized rides. But mostly, my head and psyche needed that bike. It has healing powers. When I’m in shape and riding regularly, I feel whole, and that was what I want most.

Then came the expansion joint. Some Good Samaritans helped me off the street and to a gas station on the corner. A woman named Toya let me use her phone to call Virginia. Aaron bought me a bottle of water. Joseph, the store employee, brought out some napkins so I could clean the blood from wounds on my right elbow and knee.

Virginia and I came home and put me in the shower for a clean-up. Meanwhile, my upper right chest started to swell. My entire upper body stung with every move. We drove to the emergency room. X-rays revealed that I’d snapped the second right rib. Road rash of various seriousness covered my shoulder, right hip, elbow, and knee.

These details are less important than I suffered grave disappointment. I had such high hopes and was really enjoying my time back on the bike. Now, with a busted rib and possible rotator cuff damage, I won’t be back on the bike until at least September 1.

So, coping is something I’ve learned a great deal about over the last 28 years of sobriety. I will give this a couple of weeks. My right arm will be in a sling at least that long. Then, I’ll go to the community center and use their cyclomachines to tone muscle and work on the heart. I don’t want to see the time go by without some kind of effort.

I’m more determined than ever and can’t wait to get back on the bike. I have the same goals but will just delay them four to eight weeks until this rib mends. Right now, I sit at the computer and find that even sitting is causing pain to the upper chest. Whenever I move or lift any weight—a gallon of milk, for instance—with either my left or right arm, the pain is excruciating. Last night, I didn’t sleep. Every move shot bolts of pain through my upper body.

Patience. Calm. These are attributes I’ve gained over the course of the years. I’ll need a lot of them over the next weeks. And then for weeks and weeks after, for as long as this bike phase lasts. I’m not young anymore.

But, I think, what an exciting adventure. I’ll never suffer just like this again in my life. I might as well enjoy it in its uniqueness. It’ll be over before I know it. Just a memory. A lesson learned.

Plus, the bike came though without damage, not a scratch. A good cyclist saves the bike. At least I’ve got that going for me.

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