We live right next to one of Raleigh’s Greenway trails, which I’ve enjoyed. I used to ride my bike on it regularly. During the two years prior to Memorial Day Weekend, I rode it exactly three times. Each outing ended abruptly in some sort of failure. I attribute the second and third failures to mechanical issues resulting from the first failure — a spectacular debacle that brought on months of pain.
It was the morning of June 1, 2018. We’d had rain for the past several days, and I’d been excited to see the sun reclaim its dominance the previous evening. I never ride on wet asphalt, and the trails closest to me are asphalt. I’m too old and rickety to ride off road anymore, so I hadn’t ridden for several days. But that morning, the asphalt was dry and I thought I’d sneak a ride in before heading to work. Kim set out on her commute about the same time; I might have even raced her down to the street to the trail entrance.
The legend of the fall
I started one of my favorite short rides, one I would take when I was in a hurry — a five-mile round-tripper across a couple of scenic boardwalks through some wetlands, turning around at a small park with a basketball court, a police K-9 training course, and a steep hill marking the end of the trail. I didn’t get halfway to the park.
I was on the first of the boardwalks, clicking along, when the world inexplicably turned sideways. I wasn’t going particularly fast and I was on a level, barely curving surface. That curve is wide, gradual, and dull, stretching along under some trees growing out of the marsh. But for some reason, my bike tipped over. Hard.
I had a split second to register what was happening, thinking one word — “falling.” In my mindscape, though, that word amounted to a full thought of, “Uh-oh, something’s gone wrong and I’m actually falling on my bike. I can’t do anything to stop this. It’s never happened before, but it sure looks like it’s going to hurt.” And it did.
I fell to my right, the bike tires sliding out of control toward my left. Nothing can explain this, but I swear, the impact seemed like more than the result of simple gravity acceleration. I felt as if somebody had body-slammed me to the wood.
I became aware of several things simultaneously. My right shoulder hit the boards. The bike seat drove up into my groin and ricocheted off as the bike frame went skittering on, sliding a few feet forward from where the impact occurred. I slid at a slower rate, and some part of the frame took some flesh from my left leg as the bike moved on. The boardwalk, meanwhile, took some flesh from my right leg as the wood sat sill and I moved on. The left half of my body didn’t seem to care that the right half had already hit the ground and stopped moving, and it continued to pile-drive half of my torso into the other half. My teeth clamped down on my tongue. And my helmet hit the boardwalk. This last part, I didn’t feel — which was fortunate. But I heard it — which was creepy.
Yes, I heard my head hitting the ground. I’m fortunate that it was a high-quality helmet — my favorite Nutcase design, with an Evel Knievel-inspired bit of Americana painted onto the white shell. Inside it, the padding did its job, slowing my head’s acceleration without causing undue pain. So I never felt my head hit, but I heard the sickening “crunch” of the helmet taking out a divot of pine from that particular two-by-four.
As I said, all of these things happened at the same time, so while I heard that sound, I also heard a loud crack from the impact of my right shoulder. I lay there for a moment afterward — the split-second before various pain receptors across my body started sending damage reports to my miraculously still-functioning brain — and thought to myself, “I’m pretty sure that was the sound of a bone breaking in my shoulder.”
Then the pains came. Everywhere. I lay there feeling them, unable to breathe and listening to my heart thudding. After a moment, I spat out words with very little air behind them, because most of it had been knocked out of me. Those words were probably pretty feeble-sounding to anyone within earshot, but to me, they were forceful: “Fucking shit!”
I was hurt. I was scared. I was humiliated. And I. Was. Mad.
I lay there for a few seconds, taking stock of the various painful parts of my body and trying to catch my breath. When I tried to sit up, I discovered the bike hadn’t completely left me behind, as my feet were somehow tangled with the top tube of its frame. I kicked it away in anger and tried to push myself up into a sitting position. My right elbow screamed in pain when I leaned up onto it, but at least the shoulder seemed intact — perhaps nothing was broken, after all. I looked at the elbow and saw a steady flow of blood; I must have scraped it on the wood along with my right knee.
I reached up to the railing of the boardwalk and pulled myself into a barely sitting position, more just resting my upper back against the rails. My chest hurt like hell, and I was afraid I might be having a heart attack. To this day, I don’t know why I was having sharp pains in the left side of my torso when it was the right side that had taken the brunt of the impact. And there was no reason why I should have been having a heart attack, but there was pain radiating out from that region into the side of my neck and my left arm. So I didn’t really want to move.
Then I remembered, I had my legs stretched out across half the path, and my bike was lying flat in the other half — and the path was frequently used by riders. If any had happened upon me and my bike, with railings blocking any emergency avoidance maneuvers on either side, they’d have run right over me and/or my bike. So I pulled my legs in, got my feet under me, and stood up. I took one step toward my bike, and down I went again. Bike shoes have wide, flat soles that are not generally designed for traction when walking. Combined with whatever had made that portion of the boardwalk slippery, they came out from under me and sent me to my ass. Another “Fucking shit!” later, I scrambled to my feet again — this time holding onto the railing as I slid/walked a foot or two toward my bike, knelt down to grab the top tube, and pulled myself and my cargo up again.
I leaned the bike against the railing and began to take stock of missing parts and accessories — right up until the tires slid laterally away from the railing and the bike went horizontal again. One more “Fucking shit!” for good measure, and I repeated the whole process — this time, slowing moving myself and the bike away from whatever was on the surface of that portion of the boardwalk. The front tire was resisting my efforts, not wanting to spin freely, but I coaxed the bike a few feet further, engaged the kickstand, and left it upright as I sank back to my haunches on the side of the boardwalk.
At this point, I was in serious pain. Every time I moved, the left side of my chest felt like it was on fire, and my right shoulder wasn’t exactly happy with me. My cuts weren’t serious, so I wasn’t loosing a lot of blood, but I felt light-headed. I thought I should sit and regain my strength for a bit. I noticed my iPhone was ten feet behind me, along with the broken pieces of the mirror that had been on the left grip of my handlebar. This was puzzling, as that side of the bike hadn’t hit anything as far as I could remember. Like my torso, the bike seemed to have taken more damage on the side with no direct impact.
Picking up the pieces
I carefully slide-walked over, retrieved the iPhone and broken pieces of the mirror, and returned to my bike. I was now a sweaty mess, and needed hydration. Too bad my bottle holder was empty. I knew I had loaded up a water bottle before setting out, but it was nowhere to be found. Not behind my bike, where the other missing accessories had been. Not in front of my bike, where inertia might have carried it. And not over the right side of the boardwalk, the most logical place it could have landed if it had flown out the top of my bottle holder. The bike had fallen to the right, which meant the open end of the bottle holder was facing right when it hit. QED, the bottle should have gone to the right. The only thing in the water off the right side of the boardwalk, however, was a turtle. It seemed to be staring at me in pity.
I sat down again, not having the energy to continue my search. I heard another bike coming along, so I pulled my legs in close and kept the left half of the boardwalk path open for him. He whizzed by without any ado. This made me sad. There’s an unwritten code that I assumed all bikers kept — if you come across another biker and s/he seems to be in need, stop and ask if you can help. Apparently, I was wrong.
After a few minutes of sitting and feeling sorry for myself, I remembered it was a work day. I pulled myself up again, turned the bike around, and carefully walked it off the boards and onto safer-feeling asphalt, where I’d been hoping to ride it for the mile trek back home. But the front wheel was not spinning freely. It would roll for a rotation or two, then stop as if it had met resistance. I looked at the brakes; the pads didn’t seem to be contacting the tire, preventing it from rotating. I squeezed the brake lever a couple of times and watched them close and open. It’s important to note that I didn’t notice anything wrong with the lever, either — as far as I was concerned, it was in the right place. If it was, that means the thing I discovered later is even harder to explain.
Not yet having the energy to walk the bike a mile, I sat at the side of the trail and collected myself. A woman came along, fast-walking the trail on an exercise regimen. She stopped when she saw me and asked if I was okay. I smiled and thanked her, and told her I’d be fine soon enough, but there was nothing she could do. She told me to take care of myself and fast-walked on. Two more cyclists came by without so much as a second glance. So much for that unwritten code.
Having convinced myself I was not really going to have a heart attack, I set out for home. Walking a mile wouldn’t ordinarily take very long, but it’s slowed down when walking a bike. It’s slowed down even more when said bike won’t freely roll. I was able to push it a little, but every time the wheel stopped moving, I had to lift the front end off the ground and half-carry the bike. My right shoulder hurt, as did the left side of my chest. Neither arm was a particularly good choice to carry the front end of a bike a mile.
My sixteen-year-old had just finished his school year, so I texted him. Could he start walking toward my location and give me a hand? I rolled the bike for five seconds, picked up the front end, walked a couple hundred yards, put the bike down, checked my texts for a reply, switched arms, and repeated the process in approximate 250-yard increments until I reached my street. I was just approaching our driveway when my son burst out the door, en route to help me. He had slept in, so he had only just seen my text.
I got inside, drank about a gallon of water, and limped upstairs to the shower. Once I was cleaned up, I thought I should get checked for possible concussion, among other potential injuries. I really didn’t suspect a concussion, so I drove myself to the urgent care place a couple miles away.
No harm, some foul
At least three different people asked me what had happened, something I’ve since learned is a tactic to test a patient for either wellness or honesty. One PA misunderstood and thought I’d come directly to urgent care from the accident, as if I’d walked there from the Greenway. She mentioned something about getting my cuts cleaned up. She was asking me for details and at one point I said something about how hot it had been walking home. She replied, “Yeah, you do look kinda sweaty.” I would remind you here, I’d taken a shower not an hour earlier.
She gave me a tetanus shot as protection against the multiple gashes on my legs and arms, then referred me for X-rays. While I was waiting, another PA gave me a neuro test and said I didn’t seem to have a concussion, but warned me only a CT scan could confirm that. They didn’t have one, so I opted not to pursue the matter. They X-rayed my shoulder and chest and told me there was no sign of a fracture or a lung collapse. (That last possibility hadn’t even occurred to me, so I’m glad it wasn’t the case.) They found a deformity in my spine, but I’ve had a couple of those almost all my life. The fall hadn’t caused that one.
They told me the soreness was probably due to tensing up during the fall, then sent me home. I opted not to go to the office that afternoon, and tried to rest up and feel better. That night, my shoulder and sides hurt too much to sleep. I’m a side sleeper, usually on my right side. The sore shoulder prevented that. The sore chest prevented me from sleeping on my left side. I rolled onto my back, and that just felt weird. Unnatural. All I could think about was how nice it would be to roll onto my side. It was low-level psychological torture. And the pain lasted for months. It subsided some, enough so I actually could roll over onto a side, but if I wasn’t careful, it would hurt like hell. Eventually, it just went away.
But I remembered the pain, and the memory kept me from riding for a long time. That, and the other failures I mentioned. Plus a few aborted attempts.
CSI: Cycling spill investigation
The next day was a Saturday, and I busied myself investigating both the bike and the scene of the accident. I rolled/carried the bike out of the garage into the driveway, where I made an interesting discovery. After two years, I don’t remember how I noticed, but I managed to discover the reason the front wheel wasn’t spinning — somehow, during the accident, the handlebars and fork had spun around inside the head tube. This is where things get fuzzy — I don’t remember if they had spun 180 degrees, or a full 360.
I don’t see how they could have spun 360 degrees — I’m almost positive the brake and shift cables would have caught on something. But if they had spun only 180 degrees, the grips would have been backward and the brake levers would have been facing inward instead of outward. Remember when I said I’d tested the front brakes? I squeezed that lever 2-3 times, and nothing seemed amiss. I had to have had my fingers on it. It the handlebars had been backward, I would have had only my thumb on it. Plus, I would have been squeezing the lever for the rear brakes.
I cannot for the life of me figure this out. Neither 180 nor 360 makes sense, but that handlebar and fork had been rotated. However far it had spun out of place, I rotated it back — and suddenly, the front tire could spin freely again. I might have uttered another “Fucking shit!” when I realized that, had I only noticed this back on the trail the day before, I probably could have ridden my bike back home rather than carrying it.
All of this is still a mystery to me, but I’ve given up trying to remember. I inspected the rest of the bike and discovered some broken spokes on the rear wheel, plus some other minor damage. I didn’t want to ride it like that — or so I told myself — so I took it to the store where I’d bought it, and forgot about it for two months. Because apparently, so did they.
I have a backup bike — the first one I bought as an adult. It’s a mountain bike, one that’s clunkier than my newer hybrid, but far more beautiful with its electric blue matte finish. I love the look of Old Blue, and I had a lot of good times riding it, so I couldn’t part with it after I got the smoother, lighter, uglier hybrid. I thought I might take Old Blue out, forcing myself to get back on the horse, but first I had to buy a new helmet. (Once a bike helmet has had a major impact, it’s no longer effective.)
I drove to Target, bought a boring non-Evel Knievel helmet, and walked out — into the first drops of a rainstorm. There’s no way in hell I was going to ride in the rain, so I put the helmet away in a closet, where I only pulled it out twice during the next two years.
The next day, I walked back to the scene of the accident. As soon as I reached that spot on the boardwalk, I slipped again. This time, I was wearing sneakers with better traction, so I was able to catch my footing. I knelt down and ran a finger over the boards — they were slick. They also had a sort of glow to them. I looked up at the branches shading that spot, and saw tiny white flowers on the tree. I looked back at the boards and realized the glow was coming from hundreds of tiny white petals, glistening with dew. Mystery solved — the petals retained moisture from dew, making that spot especially slippery during morning hours.
Walking back, I stopped to search for my water bottle again. This time, I found it — half floating in the water off the left side of the boardwalk. I have no idea how it got there; physics should have sent it off the right side. But physics also should have prevented the front wheel fork from turning around inside its tube, too. And physics shouldn’t have felt like a body-slam when I tipped over. But physics had failed me, and I was left only with shame — moreso than the last time I’d had an accident on my bike, when I’d steered into a guard rail and left a scab on my calf that resembled Richard Nixon’s profile for a week or two.
The weeks passed, and other things got in the way of me dragging Old Blue out. We were planning a spectacular vacation for late July, and Kim had some health issues leading up to that. I forgot my bike was in the shop, and they didn’t call. Upstairs in the loft, we’d had an unassembled exercise bike that I’d ordered and forgotten about for more time than I care to admit. I finally took the five minutes required to put that together, and discovered the fun of exercising while catching up on the backlog of shows that had been building up on our DVR. I knocked off a pound or two, then left for vacation and gained seven or eight.
The straw that broke the camel’s bike
In August, I thought I might try again. I called the shop, where they claimed they’d been waiting on delivery of a new wheel. They apologized profusely for the eight-week wait, prioritized my bike, and had it back to me in time for a birthday ride — which lasted all of a quarter of a mile. As I down-shifted to climb the big hill near our house, the chain jumped the biggest ring on the rear cassette and firmly lodged itself between the cassette and hub. I couldn’t dislodge it, so I walked it home, flipped it upside-down, and set upon it with a pair of pliers, a long screwdriver, a can of lubricant, and a generous application of colorful language.
It wouldn’t budge, so I more or less gave up. I parked it in the garage, went inside, and changed out of my cycling clothes for the last time until May 2020. I dragged the exercise bike out again and continued to catch up on DVR. I only hope my fellow cyclists can forgive me — I forgot who I was.
I also had other things going on — some health issues of my own, plus numerous fun community theater commitments. The last one of those ended in February. March brought Covid-related shutdowns, and the world sorta stopped for a while. My family and I made the most of things while quarantined together, but the old itch finally came back as the weather warmed up.
It hit me hard enough over Memorial Day Weekend to finally spur me to action. I dragged the hybrid out, miraculously managed to get the chain dislodged, and set about getting it ready for a ride. Both tires were low, of course, so I plugged in the electric pump and started inflating them. The second one exploded. Kim and I were standing in the garage, chatting while I watched the pressure gauge. It was well within the maximum limit, but there must have been a weak spot in the inner tube — the thing just popped inside the tire, with a sound like a gunshot that scared both of us out of our skin.
No matter; I had a couple of spare tubes in the garage. It gave me a chance to bone up on some rusty skills. I removed the wheel and tire, pulled off the split tube, and popped a new one in. All with the generous application of more colorful language, because of course it wasn’t as easy as I just made it sound. First, it was the rear wheel. Any accomplished cyclist can handle it, but I have a mental block when it comes to the rear wheel — that’s where the cassette is, so there’s a chain involved. It’s not just a matter of pulling the wheel off; there’s an added level of…not difficulty, but the possibility of messing up the additional parts involved, I guess?
But I got it done, at the cost of running Kim off with my increasingly foul mood. Knowing me, I was rude. I don’t remember the details, but I remember we were both in bad moods when it finally came time for me to leave the house and actually ride. I had the distinct feeling that she wasn’t sad at the idea of me being gone for a while, and that’s completely fair.
A plan derailed
Tires inflated, chain back in place, and foul mood fading, I set out — and it felt great. I hadn’t moved on two wheels for almost two years, and the first mile and a half of the ride brought back all of the instinct and passion I’d forgotten. No further miles happened. I down-shifted to go up a hill, and the chain jumped the ring again. Same as the last time, it was lodged between the cassette and the hub. I flipped the bike over and partially removed the rear wheel, thinking that would help me get at the chain a little better. It didn’t, so I put the wheel back on and resolved myself to walking the bike back home.
At least I was partially up the hill, so I could coast the first little bit before hopping off and walking it the rest of the way — or that’s what would have happened, if I’d remembered to secure the wheel to the frame after I’d finished messing with it.
In case that last sentence doesn’t give it away, I’m not particularly adept at mechanical things. Given that, I’m explaining this as best I can, without any real understanding of what exactly happened. I get that it seems like, if the chain is thoroughly lodged between the cassette and the hub, it should prevent the wheel from turning. Either I’m misidentifying the hub, or the hub is not affixed to the wheel. Just know the chain was stuck in there somewhere, but the rear wheel was still spinning freely.
Without being secured to the bike frame, however, the rear wheel was able to get up to a little mischief. Fortunately, it didn’t pop off and send me sprawling. But it was loose enough to do…something. I don’t understand the mechanics of it, but somehow the wheel, spokes, or something grabbed the derailleur — the mechanism that actually shifts the chain from one gear to the next — and snapped it in two. The rear wheel was wobbling, which is to be expected when it’s not tightened. I stopped the bike, got off, and beheld the mess I’d made.
I got my wrench out and flipped the bike upside-down again, and quickly tightened the rear wheel. I knew the bike was in worse condition than before, but figured I could still roll it the mile and a half home. Nothing doing. As soon as I flipped it over and tried, the rear wheel stopped rolling freely. I have no idea what was causing that, but I didn’t want to walk the bike a mile and a half while lifting the back end off the ground.
Fortunately, I was close to an access point on a nearby road. Also fortunately, my wife is a forgiving type, so whatever I’d done to make her mad, she was willing to overlook it when I texted her for a ride. She brought my car with a bike rack and drove two broken passengers — one two-legged, the other two-wheeled — home.
A little while later, I dropped the bike off at that same repair place, hoping they wouldn’t take as long this time. His shop looked like it had been decimated — hardly any bikes and no spare parts. Seems I’m not the only one whom the quarantine inspired to take up cycling, either again or for the first time. There’s been a run on all things bike-related over the spring and summer. But the repair guy thought he might have a derailleur that would fit mine, and expected to have it repaired within a week.
Three weeks later, I called to ask about it. He said he’d had to order my derailleur, and was waiting on it. He called me back a week later to say the derailleur had come in and he’d installed it, but it looked like my chain was messed up, so he’d ordered one and would install it as soon as it came in. Why he hadn’t been able to inspect the chain while he was waiting on the derailleur for three weeks, I do not know. But I hope if there’s any other damage to my bike — I’m especially worried now about the wheel and spokes — that he catches it in time.
I called at the two-month mark, and someone else in the store had to look up my file. Once he did, he told me it looked like the bike was ready; all it needed was its chain. “Then it’s not ready,” I corrected him.
We are now at the ten-week mark, with no call from the repair shop. I’ve ordered my own chain, which I expect to come in this week. At that point, I plan to drive it over to the shop, give it to them, and ask them to install it immediately. I have a charity ride scheduled in September, and I’d prefer to have the new bike available for it.
A Stark comparison
In the meantime, there’s Old Blue. That day in May, I’d really caught the bug. After I dropped the new bike off, I took at look at my battered old friend, leaning haphazardly against the garage wall, two flat tires and a lot of spiderwebs and dust covering it. I started thinking about movies like “Iron Man,” where the recently brought-low hero is able to recover by depending on the original model, the beta version, or the old technology. I romanticized myself as the journeying hero, relying on that beta tech to get the job done. So I set myself to the task of cleaning up Old Blue and getting it journey-ready. I even dealt with the rear tire!
The next day, I set out. I went more than a mile and a half. I went as far as I wanted to, without anything falling apart. I felt like Iron Man, but I probably looked like Her Man — as in, Pee-Wee Herman. But that’s okay, because I’ve had a blast re-acquainting myself with Old Blue this summer.
I’ve had to re-learn a thing or two, like, don’t try to jump that curb at the trail head down the street. I took a bad spill doing that a few weeks back. I hit the sidewalk hard and planted my face — you know, the part of my head that isn’t protected by a helmet. But I walked away. Bloodied and mad, and too willing to yell at the passing delivery guy who’d stopped his van when he saw me go down.
Once when I was a little kid, I rode my bike to a friend’s house on a summer afternoon, hanging out with him the day before going on vacation. He invited me to come back the next day, but I told him I couldn’t. He’d already asked his mom, who said “See you tomorrow!” as I was leaving. I told her no, I would be out of town. He walked outside with me and said “See you tomorrow!” as I was getting on my bike. I told him no, as I’d just said, I would be out of town. But now he had a button to push.
He ran down his driveway after me, shouting “See you tomorrow, Dan! See you tomorrow!” and laughing as I tried to pedal away through the thick gravel on his driveway. I finally got to the road, which was also gravel, but I quickly aimed for the “speed lane” — the smoother surface where car tires had packed down and/or kicked out the gravel. I just wanted to get away from my friend’s stupid taunts. In my hurry, I fish-tailed between the gravel and hard pack, and down I went.
A piece of gravel tore a gash in my elbow, and I was biting back tears as I still heard my friend running down his driveway and shouting, “See you tomorrow! See you tomorrow!” He hesitated for a moment when he saw me laid out on the road, and I took the opportunity to stand up resolute and shout back, “Look what you made me do!” He asked me how he’d made me do that — a fair question, considering he actually hadn’t made me do a thing. But I reminded him that he’d been taunting me — whereupon a grin lit up his face and he again started shouting, “See you tomorrow, Dan!” I picked up my bike, jumped on, and sped off in a painful rage.
I think I momentarily became that angry kid again when I fell in July. The delivery guy probably wasn’t rubber-necking; I’m sure he wanted to make sure I was okay, but when I’d waved him on multiple times to ensure him I was okay and he still kept watching me, I’m afraid I raised my voice. At least I didn’t shout, “Look what you made me do!” Instead, I shouted at him to go on. Still rude of me, and I hope if he ever happens to see this, he’ll forgive the grumpy old man from that bike wipe-out he once witnessed.
Back on the saddle
After that spill, I didn’t want to quit again. I rode home quickly, wiped down all of my abrasions with alcohol, and forced myself to head out again. I rode the trails for at least an hour, convincing myself that falling is not as bad when it actually happens, as it is to think about the possibility. Not because I’m tough — far from it — but because I didn’t want to lose the joy again. Also, because I’ve committed to riding 300 miles in September as part of the Great Cycle Challenge, to raise funds for Children’s Cancer Research Fund.
Plus, Old Blue has brought back everything I loved about riding. This entry has been long and boring, but I had to get it down as a precursor to one I hope to write about the joys of riding.
I don’t know if I’ll still be riding Old Blue for my charity miles in September, or if I’ll have the newer bike back by then. I’m hoping they’ll have put my chain on it without finding other repairs that need to be done, and I’ll be able to ride a little faster and smoother for the fundraiser. But I do know one thing — when I bring them that new chain this week, I want them to put it on immediately. The last thing I want to hear is, “See you tomorrow!”