What does this have to do with the Worlds? Nothing, but it makes me laugh and includes a wicked photograph so this is the guest article today. @roadslave joined the 2012 Keepers Tour for the full week of riding and ranting and he was excellent at both. He rode at the front with a Chris Horner smile and now he admits to only riding for four years. Fair enough, with only four years in, there is still time for a few firsts. Here is one.
It should be no surprise that, having grown up in the 80s, one of my favourite movies of all time is Top Gun. There aren’t many situations in life that can’t be fitted to one of the many great quotes from the film, and there are certainly many that can be adapted to cycling (“It’s too steep, I’m switching to guns”, etc). Anyhow, you remember that bit when Shorty gets told off in class for flying too aggressively, (“gutsiest move I ever saw, man”) and gets on his huge, err, throbbing motorbike to be chased through San Diego by Kelly McGillis?
“My review of your performance was right on, in my professional opinion”
“Jesus, and you call me reckless. When I fly, my crew and my plane come first”
“I’m gonna finish my sentence. My review of your performance was right on. I see some real genius in your flying. But I can’t say that in there. I was afraid they’d see right through me. I don’t want anyone to know that I’ve fallen for you.”
Now, I’ve been cycling for a little over four years. I’ve covered tens of thousands of kilometres on six bikes in seven countries on two continents. I’ve bored most people I know with how much I love cycling. I’ve begun to follow the pro cyclists, and have even ridden some of their rides. And I’ve spent too long on sites like this talking about cycling when I could have been using the Internet for useful stuff, like, err, porn. But, up until last month, I’d never fallen for it. I have now, and boy, it hurt.
It was a stoopid fall. A through-and-off at the end of a fabulous long ride, out with a buddy on a cold, crisp winter’s morning in the hills southwest of London. On the drag back into town, a miscommunication – I thought he was going for it, but he was actually sitting up. Our wheels overlapped. He steered the way he thought would get me out of it, but no. A 50/50 chance, and the house won. BOOM! Tarmac, Roadslave, Roadslave, tarmac. Introductions at over 45 kmh are always going to be a little bit rushed, but even so. Helmet was cracked in two, shredded sacred garments out at the elbows (sorry, Frank), leg warmers and gloves in tatters, road rash on face, elbows and knees, and the most sodding awful bruise on my hip.
Amazingly, other than it looking like someone had taken an angle-grinder to my Ergo-levers and saddle, Bike No. 1 was ok. As, by and large was I. Nothing was broken, no concussion, no lasting damage (I hope). Which was amazing, given the physics of the deceleration, the road, my weight, and ending up on my face in the oncoming traffic lane.
Adrenalin is a wonderful thing. I was on my feet in no time, picked up and checked the bike, rode the last 20 km home, and hosted 20 five-year olds, plus parents, for my son’s fifth birthday. It was only later that things went a bit doolalley. The shock came that afternoon. Uncontrollable shaking, feeling faint, wanting to throw up. Mind you, that could have been the impact of the 20 five-year olds. The stiffness came the next morning (written with a straight face… probably the most painful bit of the whole episode was getting out of bed that day.) The whiplash came on Day Three. I still can’t fully look over my right shoulder and there is still bruising weeks after the event. I won’t go into details, but if you’ve ever watched CSI, you’ll know about blood pooling and gravitational effects. Suffice it to say, I’ve had some swelling and discolouration in some strange and unexpected places.
I was off the bike for six days. Irritable, bored, grumpy. I had been planning on doing a big block of training just prior to Christmas. Why?
a) It’s what the pros do.
b) It just sounds cool. “I’m doing a big block now to lay the foundations for the cobbles in April”
c) I was changing jobs, so had the time on my hands but the training was out the window. I moped about the house, lost and forlorn.
When I did get back on, yes there was residual soreness and stiffness, but it made my heart soar to be back in the saddle. I honestly believe that was when the healing process really started. Admittedly, I rode like Nick Clegg/Barack Obama (apply to whichever country is appropriate, insert your own weak politician, etc). I had no power, no stamina, no confidence. As my US cycling sensei told me, my body had basically gone into blue screen mode. But it still felt so good to be back riding again. I (or rather my backside) became a bit of a local celebrity, and we did the round of Christmas parties, gallery openings, and for a few seconds, trended on Twitter.
The Stig, our tame racing cyclist, was pretty matter of fact:
“Bummer. Biggest cause of accidents. Period. You hear the ‘Zippp’, you prepare for the worst. Last time I crashed, it was in the finishing sprint of a big crit and wheels overlapped. Tore so much skin off my thigh that I was in hospital for weeks getting a square foot of skin graft. I was lucky. The other guy lost his thumb, and the third guy fractured his skull and was in a coma for two weeks – he was the only guy not writhing around on the ground screaming like a little girl.”
It was the response of my non-cycling friends and family that surprised me the most: zero sympathy, lots of anger (“how could you have been so stupid? To pick today, of all days, when you knew we had the kids party?”) and much encouragement to take up golf (thanks, Dad). When she saw the bruise, and the red mist had cleared, the wife forced me to go to the ER. The doctor’s response was priceless; “So, you fell off your bike, and you have a bruise and your wife has made you come to have it checked out? Well, it looks fine to me.” He was looking at the small road rash above my left eyebrow. “That’s not the bruise I want checked out… this is.” “JEEESUS!” At which point he ran off, leaving me with my pants down, to get the other doctors into the cubicle. What, you want a second opinion? “No, I just want them to see this.”
The most thoughtful response was from my US cycling sensei via email. I think it’s worth sharing in its entirety:
“The overlapped wheel. No one gets away for long without going down because of that. Ask the pros. It amazes me how often big groups go down in the peloton because of it. For all the riding you’ve done – and challenging riding at that – you can feel good that it hasn’t happened before. As you now know, the worst part of those falls is that you literally get catapulted into the pavement; there’s no sliding or deceleration of one’s body. Of the several times I’ve gone down, about 1/3 are because of overlap. I broke my hand once. Glad to hear the bike is ok – but a shame about the cosmetic damage. I can understand why the wife is upset, as I know you do too. Funny – if you’d gotten injured in a car crash, it would be nothing but sympathy from her. But because you (we), as grown men, choose to dress up in tights like superheroes to pedal half the day on the open road on what most adults see as a child’s toy… well, I think most see it as borderline selfish, risk-taking behaviour… how do you explain to the kids that their dad got seriously injured doing something that was totally voluntary. Hence, IMO, the disproportionate reactions to cyclists on the road (how dare they enjoy themselves while I have things to do!). That’s just my take on it… I know plenty of guys that pretty much stopped cycling after they had kids – not just because of time constraints, but also because of knowing how bad cycling crash injuries can be and how it might impact their families. Personally, I think that was an extreme position for them to take, but then, I don’t have kids.”
Now, I know it’s supposed to be taboo to talk about this stuff – and, indeed, it is in breach of the new Rule #81. (This did happen before its introduction.) But I really don’t know if I’m lucky – after all, it could have been a helluva lot worse. Or am I plain idiotic (see Rob’s excellent article on overlapping wheels), unlucky (proper cyclists rarely fall), or normal (this is just something that happens from time to time, so get used to it)?
Forget the responses of non-cyclists – we tolerate them at the best of times. All of my cycling buddies gave me comradely and knowing looks, as if I’d passed some rite of passage, and was now a proper cyclist. Have I? Am I? Just the other day, @Houdini was describing another rider to me: “He rides like someone who hasn’t fallen off yet.” Before this fall, I would have had no idea what he was on about, but now I get it totally.
As with most things cycling, when in doubt, I look to the pros. And my conviction is that falling is a rite of passage. It’s what proper cyclists do. Getting back on defines the true cyclist. Hoogerland is defined by his fall, Cavendish either wins or crashes and burns. There is no middle ground. Part of our love for JENS! is because we saw him bounce his face down a mountain in 2007, or in 2011 when he went down twice, swore at the camera crew, got back on and up to the front, and rode tempo for the next hour in service of his (undeserving) team leaders.
Then there is the dark side. We know these falls can lead to the bad places where we do not want to go. These occasional tragedies unite cycling like no other event. IMHO there is nothing more noble, more heartbreaking, or that stirs greater pride, than a neutralised, mournful peloton. Self-shackled race horses. Chapeau Millar, the dignified master of ceremonies for the last horror, grew as a cyclist and as a human that day.
So, while a first fall is a rite of passage, it is also a warning of where not to go and what not do to. For each fall we get up from, we have the adrenaline-primed happiness of knowing it could have been much, much worse.
I am a cyclist, today is a good day, today I rode on.
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