As a kid growing up in the rural Northwest of England I was, like all the other kids, pretty much inseparable from my bike. We rode our bikes everywhere, almost all of the time. It was the only way to get efficiently from A to B around the small neighborhood. Longer treks to the city, or to school, meant walking several miles to the nearest bus stop. But getting over to your buddy’s house to play Space Invaders on his new Atari meant hopping on the bike.
As dumb kids we’d devise all manner of ways to inflict pain and suffering on ourselves and on our machines. One such way was to build ramps/jumps out of planks of wood or old doors. We’d setup the jump half way down a steep hill, barrel down the hill as fast as we could go, hit the ramp and try for the longest distance to the crumple point. The length of travel through the air had marginal bearing on the outcome of this competition, the winner was the one who could crash most spectacularly.
Nowadays I fear falling off the bike, as I know the outcome of a fall can have serious consequences. My body isn’t built to absorb knocks the way it was as a kid. My bones are probably more brittle, my reactions slower - I just don’t bounce as gracefully as I did as a dumb kid. And, of course, a trip to the hospital here in the USA can have dire financial consequences, even to the insured.
I find it telling that after a couple seasons of frequent cycling, I can look back and recall, in vivid detail, each one of the four ‘spectacular’ crashes I’ve subjected myself to - it’s a sure sign of aging.
There have been many spills along the way, including some rather embarrassing fall-overs at zero speed due to being clipped-in. There have been ‘incidents’ while touring with a heavy load, which could quite easily have ended in disaster, but somehow luck intervened and I’ve lived to tell the tales.
But in terms of the potentially serious, there have been just four such events, the worst of which occurred over Labor Day weekend 2015.
Fortunately this came along at the right time and served as a wake-up call.
It happened in Fall 2014 somewhere inside the bowels of Peninsula State Park in Door County WI. At that time I was still taking a relaxed approach to wearing a helmet. Sometimes I did, mostly I did not. My logic was, as if often the case, somewhat flawed.
I figured that helmets were more about keeping your hair in place and really offered very little actual protection to the noggin. A full-faced motorcycle helmet with chin-guard was one thing, but the flimsy little ‘Alien’ style helmets cyclists wore really wouldn’t make any difference to the outcome of a crash, or so I thought.
So whenever I left the house for a ride when my wife was home, I’d take along the helmet just to appease her. If she wasn’t I wouldn’t.
On this particular day I was riding singletrack in the park on my 29er and happened to be wearing the hard hat. I recall coming down a fairly steep section of rough, rutted trail, when the front wheel slipped out on roots and I kinda went over the bars at something of an angle.
It wasn’t a high-speed crash and I managed to get a hand down first, which reduced the velocity of travel and force of impact somewhat, but the next thing to make contact with the ground after the one hand, was my head. My head hit a rock protruding from the surface of the trail and the impact made a small dent in my cycling helmet. The force of impact stunned me and I lay there for a few moments seeing stars. With my face on the ground things came slowly into focus and I could see the rock which I’d come into contact with just a few inches from my nose. It was a smallish, smooth protruding rock, perhaps the size of a pear, with it’s lower mass firmly embedded into the trail surface. It was immovable, otherwise I would’ve picked it up as a memento.
It was also alone in that particular section of dirt trail, a solitary rock with my name on it - ‘dickhead’.
Now I never ride the trails without a helmet.
Crash #2 and Crash #3
#2 happened on Hillside Ave when I hit a patch of black ice on the 29er. I was going down Hillside in high gear, so probably around 22mph, when I hit what looked like an area of dampness on the black asphalt. It was all over in a split second. I went down like a sack of spuds and hurt my arm and knee, but nothing too serious. I was shaken, stirred and lucky.
#3 happened on the old Charge Cooker Maxi Fat Bike - It was early into my fat biking career and I still believed these bikes were infallible in snow and ice. I was barreling down Cemetery Lane inside the park, riding atop a 1/2 inch of fresh snowfall, when I hit ice under the snow and lost it. It was a big hard crash and it knocked the puff out of me. I was lucky again, to get up and walk away from it.
Crash #4 - The Big One
There was something special about this crash and I can’t get it out of my system. It happened a couple days ago, on the Saturday of the Labor Day Holiday weekend, and I’m still sore and whiny.
The reason I can’t get it out of my head, aside from the constant reminders from my battered body, is that I just don’t know what happened or why.
I was in the deep-woods trail at Pen Park, an area I ride several times each week. This section of trail is all singletrack, though fairly wide at perhaps 4-6′. It’s rough terrain, mostly tree roots, some rocks and loose dirt. Part of the trail involves riding at speed through the trees, making short/sharp turns to keep on-path and avoid clattering a tree. I’ve often thought that if I were to come unstuck in a big way it would involve a mistimed turn and a head-on collision with a tree at speed. But in the end, that isn’t how it happened. (not yet).
The ride started out from #5 parking lot at the most northerly end of the park and the accident happened less than a mile into the 10 mile loop. I pedaled up a long/steep incline and came to the crest of the hill where it switches quickly to a steep/long descent. I know the section well and as soon as the descent starts I’m busy ramping through the gears to get into 17th gear on my 2×10 setup. So by the time I hit the lower part of the descent I’m moving along at around 20-22mph depending on cadence.
It’s a very rough surface and there’s an element of ‘hanging on’, but I’d never considered it to be one of the more hazardous sections of trail, until today.
I don’t know what happened but at the bottom of the descent as the trail was leveling off I became airborne over the front of the bike. It was as if the front wheel had hit a branch or rock…..but it hadn’t. Maybe I’d touched the front brake a little - but why? I wouldn’t ordinarily be braking on this section of the track. Something happened but I don’t know what it was, and for that reason, and the subsequent impact and aftermath, I’m left a little spooked by it all.
I came to rest in a heap around ten feet in front of the bike, which suffered the most wrenching of collisions with the ground imaginable. Later, I was sure when I retrieved the bike the Carbon frame would be shattered in many pieces.
It all happened so quickly that I was never able to get a hand down on the ground prior to impact.
Later, when I was cleaning myself up, I noticed my hands and gloves were completely free from dirt. My knees were blooded and bruised, but the thing that took the main brunt of the impact was….my chin!
Imagine a bloke being fired from a cannon with his arms strapped to his side - that’s how it felt! I hit the ground with so much force that I felt my jaw and teeth/gums move to some place where they’re not supposed to move.
I lay there for at least a minute before attempting to move around, it may have been longer. I pulled my right arm from under my body and nervously, tentatively, felt around my jaw to try and assess the damage. I could taste blood and the inside of my mouth and face were numb and tingling. Because of the numbness it was impossible to get a read on the damage by simply trying to ‘process’ the aftermath of the impact. So I probed around my jaw by hand but could get no feedback on the extent of any damage, it was all too numb. I couldn’t feel anything and couldn’t therefore assess what, if anything, I’d done.
So I tried moving my other arm, then my legs, then got up onto my knees. I was relieved at not having broken any leg/arm bones, but the jury was out on the jaw.
I could see blood on my arms and legs but nothing too serious. My mouth was bleeding badly on the inside and I spent a while spitting out a lot of blood until the flow began to slow down.
I sat down and waited for things to come into focus. I looked back at the bike expecting the worst, but it lay there some distance away seemingly in one piece.
I got to my feet and felt nauseous. I could feel pain from my legs and arms but my face was just numb, and that was the concern. I probed around again, this time inside my mouth and around my gums. Everything seemed to be there and roughly where it should be.
The bike looked OK - it was a miracle. I had to straighten out the levers on one side and replace the chain, but other than sprouting mud and leaves from various orifices she looked no worse for wear.
It took me a few more minutes to come to my senses and work out the best way back to the car. The quickest way was back the way I had come, up the hill. I looked around to see if I could make sense of what had just happened, but there was nothing - no clues, no evidence, just the scarred section of path where it had all played out.
Back at the car I cleaned up as best I could. I didn’t want to freak out the missus by walking in covered in blood. My right knee was cut and I had cuts on my other leg, my arm and two small cuts on my face. My jaw and gums were still numb but I was beginning to feel sensations and pain from inside my mouth and my jaw seemed to be moving OK. I was lucky.
By late afternoon Saturday I could see a large black patch under my beard - the whole of my jaw on the left side was badly bruised and swollen. But not broken. A Festivus Miracle.
I went out on the bike late Saturday night, just down the hill into the village for ice cream. I thought it would help with the pain but it didn’t. The Advil was helping somewhat and my headache had subsided to manageable levels. But I really just wanted to get back on the bike and to make sure she and I could still function together.
I forced myself to ride the Ahnapee trail on Sunday. A 36 mile ride in 92 degrees and high humidity. It did nothing to lift my spirits or rekindle my enthusiasm. I was sore and probably should’ve stayed at home.
It’s after noon on Monday now, Labor Day, and I’m still sore and banged-up, but thankful that I’m still in one piece.
I’m no closer to understanding what the fuck happened out there and I can’t hide from the fact that it’s going to take the edge off any trail riding I do in future. Maybe it’s time to come to terms with the fact that I’m not a kid any more. I can’t handle a bike the way I could when I was younger. I have fairly strong legs but my upper-body strength has all gone. “He’s fragile, he’s very fragile…” to quote the Dude.
Happy Labor Day.