Gotta Ride, Part 6: The Crash

I have set a goal for myself: Get to the top of Mount Hamilton by bicycle before I turn 60. It is a well-known climb in these parts, and it has the advantage of being a serious ride that I don’t have to start with a ride in the car. It’s only a few miles from home to the foot of the climb. It’s about 1300 meters from where I live to the top. Routine for some, the achievement of a lifetime for others.

I have given myself three years to get fit enough to make that climb, and let me tell you, kids, I am extremely excited about this goal, and I’m sure I can do it.

If I survive those few urban miles between me and the mountain.

December 19 was, mostly, my best ride ever. I had planned to do a small loop up the first couple of miles of the climb. That would be a preview to a bigger loop I would build up to. Not even remotely close to the full climb, but more than I had done on the last trip.

Man, I had fun. I told myself there was no shame in stopping for a breather a couple or times, and I missed the turn for the smaller loop and kept on going up. I found the larger-loop road down and took it easy heading back; this wasn’t a time trial. It was a chance to enjoy the day, and when my tire hissed and spat angrily I pulled over only to find that the sealer goo I had reinforced just prior to the ride worked perfectly.

It was a tiny road down, twisting and turning, but there were almost no cars. There were many junior-high level kids slogging up the other way, pedaling at absurd gear ratios but moving forward and up. A club? A team? Just what kids do up there to get around?

I had a song in my heart when I returned to the foot of the mountain. An epic day, for small values of epic. I’ve mentioned before how much I love a good day on the bike; this was the best day ever.

Until the crash, at least. I was back on urban roads and looking over my shoulder to check traffic as I approached an intersection, when I hit a massive ridge of pavement in the bicycle lane. According to software, I was moving at somewhere between 17 and 18 MPH when it all went to hell.

The Death Berm. It’s taller than it looks in this photo.

My first thought, as my reflexes fought to control the bike, was utter surprise. That didn’t last long. Given the distribution of my injuries, it’s pretty much a miracle that I didn’t break a wrist or leg or you-name-it trying to break my fall. I wobbled, I tipped, and I smashed to the curb and slid across the sidewalk to wrap myself around a tree in its oh-so-soft mulch.

Somewhere in there I heard the sound of my helmet whacking against the pavement. It seemed, in that time-dilated moment, that I had been waiting for that sound.

Finally I was at rest, against the tree, and I hurt in a very non-specific way. I just hurt. My watch asked for my attention. “It seems you have fallen,” It said. “Do you need help?” I wasn’t sure at that point how to answer.

A bystander came close, but not too close. He asked if I was OK. I was still trying to figure that out, as I lay on my back and looked into the clear sky. My watch asked me about my status again, ready to call 911 on my behalf if I was unable to answer. I selected “I did fall, but I’m OK.” I still wasn’t sure that was true.

Once the bystander was sure I was not going to die, my Samaritan turned to humor. “You need last rites? Because my friend here is a priest.” I wasn’t ready to laugh, but I was glad he was. When I told him I was wearing a brand-new helmet, one with new technology for better brain protection, he was effusive. “Wow! that’s great! Thank God for that.” He couldn’t offer physical aid, but he was working as hard as he could to throw spiritual aid my way.

Eventually I convinced my electronics and my helpful bystanders that I would be all right. I just needed to lay on the grass for a bit. After a short while I got up, documented the death berm in the bike lane, and started my ride home.

That was a long six miles. There was enough blood coming off me that motorists at intersections waved me along and waited for me to cross. I couldn’t (and still can’t) signal my right turns; my shoulder won’t allow it. My front derailleur is either damaged or knocked out of whack; I tried a shift that left my chain flopping around my bottom bracket, and in my state that nearly dumped me over again. There is also quite a bit of cosmetic damage to my brand-new bike.

Perversely, I’m a little proud of those six miles. Not in the same way I’m proud of the climb that came before; but proud nonetheless. Two miles from home I called the Official Sweetie and said that when I got home I needed to go to urgent care.

As my Samaritan was quick to tell me, it could have been a lot worse. I had a good helmet and somehow managed to hit the concrete with my fleshy parts, and not break any bones. My brain survived unscathed, judging by subsequent code reviews. I have a massive hematoma on my thigh, a bulge larger in span than my fully-extended hand, that ripples when I tap it. The doctor says it will probably go away, and almost six weeks after the wipeout it seems a little smaller. I have a separated shoulder that is pissing me off and making it difficult to sleep. But I am alive.

I am alive, and I really, really want to get back to climbing that mountain.

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6 thoughts on “Gotta Ride, Part 6: The Crash

    • I use a helmet mirror, and have since 2011. I still get surprised by things passing me (cars, bikers) all the time, but I do check it before I move out to my left. Also, it lets me keep an eye on Kristi riding behind me.

  1. So suddenly I realize I haven’t seen any rides from you in my Strava feed. Yikes. Bike lanes are unfortunately a common place for death berms. I can totally relate, as I went down hard on a tree-root ripple in a bike lane going fast (thank you Strava for recording the exact speed I was travelling before I went to 0 mph in 2 seconds) on Feb 1, 2014.
    1) Glad to hear it was only a trip to Urgent Care, and not the Emergency Room. There is no shame in calling the Sweetie for a pick up rather than riding home. I have called for pick up after crashes twice. On Feb 1, 2014 the ambulance got there first.
    2)Helmets are a life saver and I wont get on a bike without one. I trust you know they are one-use, and are to be discarded happily (even new) after a crash: they did the job they were hired for.
    3) Just Wow. Not a unique story, unfortunately. The risk we endure for the reward. Really, really glad you are okay.

    • Thanks for the good wishes.

      I think my attempt to control the bike kept my hands on the bars and my knees in until I went over so fast I didn’t have time to stick out a limb and break it. Injuries are consistent with “on a bike, sideways on the ground, still moving quickly.”

      It was my second ride with my Bontranger Wavecel helmet – sold to me by the store clerk for its dramatically better concussion protection. I had gone into the store to get a light that could attach to my helmet, and learned that helmets expire after a few years – the foam hardens up. My previous lid was long overdue. I am fond of my brain, so I sprung for a fancy new lid, with the latest brain-protecting technology.

      As bad as this crash was, a lot of things aligned in my favor. New helmet tops the list. Of course we can’t know that the old helmet would not have done just fine, but that’s a data point I’m happy to not know.

      The helmet also came with a one-year crash replacement warranty. One of my next walks will be to the LBS.

  2. So glad to hear you are on the road to recovery and that your helmet was under warranty! I’m curious about the algorithm that made your watch ask if you wanted it to call for help.
    Was it the rapid deceleration, the increased pulse rate, both? Something else? Not asking for any trade secrets mind you, just want to check in that your watch has recovered from the emotional trauma.

    • I think it has more to do with acceleration and elevation change, perhaps with a lack of motion afterward. Not really sure. Somewhere I got the impression that the feature is targeted mainly at seniors, but it seems like a particularly valuable feature for cyclists in rural areas.

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