In Which The Author Hits The Concrete And Does Not Quite Bounce Back

John had agreed to take three videos of me trying my new Chromag Monk through the rhythm section at Mike’s Bike Park, and this was the second of them. This is approximately what I was thinking at the time:

Okay… roll in, try to snag an extra pedal to get this big bitch over that step-up jump. Pump the roller… pull for the step… ah, that’s not quite perfect… BZZZT! that’s the back tire on my shorts… pump down the hill… one more roller… now for the wallride. God damn I hate wallrides, but unless you go eight or nine feet up on this one you don’t have enough momentum for the return section… is that high enough? Good, let’s get down without going over the bars… bike is on flat ground… the first jump is ahead… let’s get one strong crank in to make these jumps easy, 100% effort on the right foot please… whatwhatwhatFUCKFUCKFUCK… over the bars and tuck my head and BANG that’s the ground and roll over and John is yelling and running towards me…

…ugh. My arm is numb.


The Scripture says:

For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required. — Luke 12:48

Unlike Liam Neeson in Taken, I do not have a specific set of skills. There are only two things I do well — pattern recognition and self-rehabilitation from injury. As the poet once said about constructing the two lines of a heroic couplet, the first is the gift of God and the second is the work of man. I have been breaking bones, tearing tendons, and, ah, losing ligaments for the past thirty-three years. I’ve seen a physical therapist maybe a dozen times, and most of that was so I could learn to walk again after I pulped my leg in ’88. You could say that I’m stubborn, or you could say that I’ve developed a pretty good sense of what’s damaged and how to fix it through (plenty of) trial and (even more) error.

In 2014 I broke nine bones in an auto accident (check out Jalopnik for the most hilarious hot takes on that) and lost most of my spleen. In 2015 I snapped off the top of my tibia at the Glen Helen MX course. In 2017 I cracked a whole sack of ribs, tore my rotator cuff, and fractured my right arm at an indoor bike park. I’ve really only felt completely decent since February or March, and I’m still not able to bench, do pushups, or do arm raises with a proper amount of weight.

I’ve ridden 308 miles on road and track (wink) in the past 40 days or so. It’s been great and my pace has been jumping my leaps and bounds. Last weekend I even won a BMX race. My competition wasn’t exactly murderous — one of them was a National Top Ten rider but she was also female — but I was much stronger in the second half of the track than I’ve been in previous events. In a few weeks I’m going to take an actual vacation where I’m going to ride a bicycle around Hilton Head all week. Of course I’m going to hurt myself. How could it be otherwise?

Yet this self-pitying attitude fails to take into account that this crash was preventable. The root cause was a twist in the rear freewheel cog caused by a cassette nut that had come loose; the actual event that led to the crash was the aforementioned strong right pedal which promptly shifted the wheel in the dropouts and caused the cog to go out of alignment. It had happened previously, during a street ride with my son, but I thought I’d fixed it by torquing the wheel nuts to what seemed like an unreasonable degree.

I know better now. Chromag’s vaunted stainless steel dropouts are “unique in the business”, and there’s a reason for that: it’s a great idea for a vertical dropout, but for a horizontal dropout it’s fucking idiotic. There were bite marks in the stainless steel from where I’d torqued the wheel nut. It still slipped.

Truthfully, I should have known better before I even rode the bike. I’ve spent thirty years making rear wheels slip in dropouts, because I have big legs and I weigh a lot. That results in some unpleasant forces applied through the driveline. As a 16-year-old, I could break the plates on a Sedisport road chain. I’m weaker and older today, but I can still twist a chainwheel like the long-stroke steam engines in the Bismarck turned a five-ton pinwheel. I’ve ordered the eight-dollar parts to permanently fix the problem.

Ah, but that amounts to shutting the barn door after the horses have been let out and the meadow is on fire. As John ran up to me on Sunday morning, I took a quick inventory of my physical state. Elbows: bloody and sore to the touch but unbroken. Left leg: bleeding but not seriously damaged. Right knee: something is a little loose. Right arm: numb. Right shoulder: can’t move it.

Initial diagnosis: return of the fractured humerus from last year, plus a further tear of the rotator cuff.

I stood up and started assuring John that I was alright. He began trying to put the chain back on the bike, getting his hands dirty. I was worried that he would cut himself on the freewheel cog. More than that, I felt like a complete piece of shit. I never worried about anything happening to my father. From the moment he landed back in the States in 1969 or thereabouts, he conducted his life in such a manner as to reduce risk. He sold his Camaro RS droptop. He avoided risky behavior. He eats salmon and works out for 2.5 hours a day at the age of seventy-two. It never occurs to me that he could die or even be sick.

Contrast that with the fact that John has seen me hospitalized multiple times, that he’s seen me use a walker for months at a time and a cane for years, that I’m perpetually bloody and scarred, that twice in the past year he has watched me faceplant on concrete. Then I have the nerve to make him come to my SCCA and NASA races, where there is always an outside chance that I’ll be leaving in the helicopter. I tell myself that I’m teaching him courage, resilience, stubborn persistence in the face of pain and risk. What if that’s just a way for me to justify my own behaviors? What makes me so much more special than my father or grandfather, that I should persist in my adolescence for thirty years and force my own son to watch it?

The arm stopped feeling numb when I was halfway home. Then it started to hurt. I was so angry I could barely contain myself. I can’t say that I care too much about pain, although the damaged nerve in my left leg taught me a lot about where my personal breaking point was with regards to pain that persisted for months on end with no relief. It’s just the inconvenience. The stupidity of it. And the time. Every day I can’t ride is another day that I’m closer to being too old to ride. It’s one day closer to senility, to incontinence, to nursing homes, to assisted suicide. I’m closer to all of those things than I am to watching Miami Vice for the first time.

And there’s the biggest and most luminous wall clock of all, the one that ticks down the seconds until I only interact with my son through the phone, through email, through the annual visit like the one I have with my own father. I don’t know if I can live with the day that clock counts down to zero. It’s not something that I can explain to anybody who doesn’t have a son, any more than Neil Armstrong can really make you understand what it was like to see the Earth from the Moon. Every moment matters. Just in case I get clipped off my ZX-14R tomorrow morning or — more likely — I have a heart attack on the toilet. Every second has to be spent providing the highest-quality dad-time humanly possible. Just in case this is the last day, for him or for me.

John refused to keep riding at the park after I got hurt. It was his way of expressing solidarity with me. So once I got home, we dropped off the bikes and I took him indoor karting so he could beat up on the local kids and have fun doing that. I assured him that I felt really good and that I’d be riding before he knew it. Then I handed him over to his mother and swore a blue streak all the way home.

This morning I woke up and the arm was in good shape. All I can think of was that I landed in a way that impacted the bone chips in my right shoulder, thus inflaming a nerve. The rotator cuff? Well, that’s fucked. But it’s lightweight fucked. Like I could be bunnyhopping a month from now. Or not. With connective tissue you can never really tell. Not even I have a perfect idea of how that stuff heals.

This evening I took the road bike out just to prove to myself that I’d only fucked myself out of the summer’s MTB and BMX riding, not out of my long-distance stuff. Did 19.8 miles at 16.3mph. The shoulder only hurt when I bunnyhopped a train track, but it hurt in an I’m-not-playing sort of way. Maybe I’ll go ahead and get that MRI after all.

During the ride, when I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself, I thought about something that I’d read online. Some Twitter doofus saying that he didn’t go to skateparks anymore because he was… wait for it… thirty years old. You have to laugh at that. When I was thirty-one I was clearing the coping of Woodward’s infamous Lot 8 and Cloud 9 halfpipes. There’s not a single physical thing in this world that you can’t do at thirty except maybe win the women’s gold medal for parallel-bar gymnastics. The average age of the 2005 American League All-Star team was 30.1.

Forty-six is a little different. One of my friends on Instagram commented “Thank God you didn’t break your hip.” And I thought, holy shit, he’s right. I’m at the age where people start to break their hips. If my father read this site, which he almost never does, he would tell me to quit riding BMX before it’s too late. But he said that when I was thirty, and when I was twenty. I’m not stupid. I know that there is a crippling injury waiting for me at the end of this rainbow. I could avoid that crippling injury if I quit right now.

Ah, but answer me this: What is the difference between the man who cripples himself riding or racing or fighting or climbing mountains — and the guy who is not crippled because they quit riding skateparks at twenty or thirty or forty or fifty? Only this: the former knows that he’s not a pussy, and the latter will never really know for sure. Of course, we live in an enlightened era now. one in which “men” is a three-letter word. We don’t have “men” now. We have “guys”. Guys smile with their mouth open and guys never engage in acts of toxic masculinity and guys are exactly the kind of smooth rancid butter our society needs to make sure that we precisely duplicate the navel-gazing implosion of the Roman Empire.

Some guy out there will read this and point out that I’m not the manliest man who ever lived. I’m a bookish intellectual who reads philosophy and who cried during the movie “August Rush”. I’ve never boxed professionally or climbed Everest. It’s okay. I’m not the message. I’m the messenger. Like Homer. We don’t know how much Homer could bench. We only know that he brought us the stories of Ajax and Achilles and that smooth-talking Mr. Steal-Your-Girl known as Paris and his resentful brother, Hector. In so doing, he inspired two thousand years’ worth of heroic exploits. We are all better off because of Homer.

My job is made both easier and harder because my true audience consists, not of the world, and not even of my readers, but of one single nine-year-old boy. It’s easier because I don’t have to wax particularly poetical. My son likes to hear stories of great racers and brave fighters and traditional male role models. He doesn’t much care how I phrase them.

On the other hand, it’s a bit harder because my audience expects that I’ll do my level best to exemplify the virtues of which I speak. I want him to be a competitor, so I’m still competing on two wheels and four. I want him to be an intelligent problem-solver, so I work hard to come up with intelligent ways to teach him the required skills. And I want him to be a courageous man, not some slack-mouthed guy, so I have to walk the walk as far as I can. So this won’t be the last time I pick myself up off the concrete. There are broken bones to come, more surgeries, more blood. All to impart a singular lesson: don’t be a quitter.

There will be joy to come, as well. In what few accomplishments I might still knock out. In the day when he rides faster than me, jumps higher, breaks my laptimes at Mid-Ohio, succeeds in a way that makes him retroactively pity my comparative poverty and idiocy. And, finally, in the day when he doesn’t need me at all. The problem with this job of parenting is that if you do it right you become extraneous to future events. Sometimes, when I’m out there on the bike with just the ball bearing rolling around in my head, I think that maybe Joni understood all of that, and more, when she sang

There’ll be icicles and birthday clothes
And sometimes there’ll be sorrow

30 Replies to “In Which The Author Hits The Concrete And Does Not Quite Bounce Back”

  1. Scout_Number_4

    “And there’s the biggest and most luminous wall clock of all, the one that ticks down the seconds until I only interact with my son through the phone, through email, through the annual visit like the one I have with my own father. I don’t know if I can live with the day that clock counts down to zero. It’s not something that I can explain to anybody who doesn’t have a son…”

    My son is 19 and the clock is ticking really loudly these days….which is why I spent about 40 minutes on the phone with him tonight (I’m out of town on business) trying to help him troubleshoot his used car-stereo amp. It wasn’t because I think we have a chance in hell of fixing it (we don’t have a wiring diagram or a scope), it was, of course, because he thought I might be able to help and he CALLED ME. Can’t waste an opportunity, they are getting more and more precious.

    Then I walk into my hotel room, check email, see from the RG notification that you’ve hurt yourself again and read this. Jack, I’m sorry to hear that you crashed, but I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts on what it all means in regards to you and young John. Here’s a gift for you from a guy that has also tried to be a worthwhile fatherly presence in his son’s life–it won’t be easy to see him gradually fly away, but you’ll know it’s right and you’ll know you did your very best for him….and you will take comfort in that. You can trust me on this.

    Get well soon, dude.

    Reply
  2. -Nate

    Damn ;

    I click to read about another Old Man crashing yet again and find Philosophy and Homer….

    No wonder DW’s so damn jealous .

    You’re so right Jack ~ one day John will be out there and not need you standing my his side but he’ll never, _ever_ forget all these life lessons you teach him daily .

    -Nate

    Reply
  3. Eric L.

    *thinks*

    Dunno, man. That’s a tough subject. Do you think you’re overcompensating on the whole masculinity thing? King David is the epitome of masculinity. Dude kills a 8′ monster as a gangly teen, then goes on to be a top-notch fighter, military commander, and guerilla leader, before finally becoming king. He had all the ladies and, ha ha, cut off a slew of non-Jewish bros’ foreskins… But he also wrote poetry. Wept. Had *emotions.* Was humble. And screwed up raising his own son!

    I want my three sons to learn about true masculinity, too. But I don’t think that necessitates broken bones.

    Reply
  4. -Nate

    RE : when they leave the nest ~

    My Son’s mother whines and bitches, always had .

    When he left to do his own thing, the apron strings around my neck nearly killed me and I couldn’t say a word because I taught him to be a strong, resourceful Man, you’re doing the same thing, John’s going to succeed, you’ll see .

    He’ll be calling you too, just wait .

    -Nate

    Reply
  5. tresmonos

    You’re doing your best just like your father likely did his best to raise you. I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

    I think life is balance of making sure you live out the best life you can all the while calculating a comfort zone for risk taking.

    I don’t have many passions besides work and being a degenerate socialite and I’m not very athletic. I envy your abilities to share your passions with your son. Makes me wonder what kind of life I’ll provide for my offspring (if that day ever comes). Fuck.

    Reply
  6. tyates

    If the world of tomorrow turns out to be as tough as we all think it will be, what kind of parent would be best suited to raise a child who will grow in it? One who takes manageable risks and challenges themselves at every opportunity, or one who avoids any kind of confrontation or chance of adversity?

    Yeah, don’t wake up tomorrow and say “hmm, maybe I’ll sign up for a boxing match with Max Baer”, but if someone like you has to give it all up, someone who’s been driving and riding for decades and built up a huge amount of knowledge and experience, then what about the rest of us? In that case, just shut the race tracks, biking paths, sporting arenas, etc down and we’ll all sit at home and play Xbox.

    Reply
  7. ScottS

    Jack,

    Like you I was once a feared competitor although in a sport analogous to racing. I have my share of championship trophies from those storied days that in all likelihood will never relive. I believe I could be a contender again, but I would have to reorganize my life and livelihood to have a shot at it. Doing so, and prevailing against the odds would boost my ego enormously. But, looking back at those old trophies, I know the satisfaction would be fleeting. Come Monday, the glory is already fading. . .

    Today I manage a team of young competitors that have the physical stamina, the time, talent, and raw desire to win. I have much more to give them that will make a difference in their accomplishments than I have to give to myself. When I am with them I am the boss and my job is to keep them focused and keep the ghosts out of their heads. When they win I have a much deeper sense of accomplishment than if I had won individually, and that feeling is much more durable. I still engage in sport but in the more “distance” oriented events where strategy and knowledge are a greater factor. These phases of life are sometimes hard to accept but I can clearly see that my role is to transfer the skills and knowledge to next generation. This process is why the records keep getting reset and why each generation exceeds the accomplishments of the past. It is from our shoulders that they can fly higher.

    Peace Brother

    Reply
    • Ronnie Schreiber

      Bobby Rahal told me that in many ways it was more fulfilling for him to win the Indy 500 as a team owner than when he won it as a driver.

      Reply
      • Harry

        I once took a leak in truck stop between Dayton and Indy next to Bobby Rahal (I observed proper urinal separation). He bestowed no pearls of wisdom upon me. That and standing behind Gary Carter in a supermarket checkout are my closest brushes with greatness.

        Reply
  8. DougD

    Hmm, you are correct that this was preventable, but perhaps you need to examine the big picture instead of the details.

    Maybe it’s time to forget the Chromag Monk and look at an Azor Amsterdam. A baguette and Chardonnay goes down so much easier when you can use both arms.

    Reply
    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      You’ll laugh but I almost bought a Shinola Bixby last year. In the end I decided not to because I knew I’d try to jump it over something, Napoleon Dynamite style.

      Reply
      • DougD

        Oh yeah, the crash video would have been so much better if you’d been riding a Bixby.

        I said screw it a few years ago and bought an Opus Cervin, although I slightly regret not getting a geared hub model.

        Reply
  9. Ronnie Schreiber

    Humans don’t react well to being dependant. We start feeling a toxic mixture of entitlement and resentment. That’s one reason why our job as parents and grandparents is to teach our offspring to be independant. That necessarily involves exposing them to controlled risk. To use a cycling metaphor, you have to eventually take off their training wheels and risk having them fall over if they’re ever going to learn how to ride a two-wheeler.

    Reply
  10. hank chinaski

    /puts ‘August Rush’ in Netflix queue and the next two films in search are about auto racing and drug addicts, respectively.

    I can’t help thinking of the old joke, ‘hey doc, it hurts when I do this….’

    I know of more than a few father-son relationships where the son, usually as a boy around ten, forswears to break whatever cycle (pun not intended) of harm he sees his father endure. Dad smokes 3 packs a day, maybe has an MI or gets cancer, boy doesn’t light up once. Poon hound to hopeless beta AFC. Tightwad to profligate spender. Drunkard to teetotaler. Ad nauseum, and of course the reverse of each.

    In some lives, courage is driving an ambulance in someone elses civil war. In others it’s chugging along in quiet desperation, riding down into the mine, paying the mortgage or collectively flying a cubicle to keep civilization’s lights on.

    Whatever. I and the other internet nobodies wish you well, if only to continue reading your stuff for free and soiling your comment section with spergy non-sequitors. Full-on ‘Tinkerbell effect’. Probably even DW.

    A caveat. Historically, the hero would die after at most a day or two death watch after being gored by the bull, gutshot by Johnny Reb or smacking his leather helmeted head through a wooden steering wheel. Thanks to modern medicine you survive in a chair, typing with your mouth and shitting into a bag as a living petri dish for new and different drug resistant organisms, teaching a whole different lesson.

    Rock on.

    Reply
  11. J Edwards

    There is nothing wrong with choosing your battles, life is a long game. Is your son going to more fondly remember you Goonie-ing it up until you broke something that can’t be fixed, or you participating alongside him with respectfully earned diminished capacity?

    Maybe I am not sufficiently brave enough for the former, or just to introspective to see ample value in anything but the latter, but I am fine being proud of her for some things, and her being proud of me for others. Although, what do I know? I play golf.

    Reply
  12. Time Flies

    this was an awesome bit of writing, thank you. and the joni mitchell song/story behind it was a tearjerker too. I almost started blubbering at my desk and left to take my kids out of school and hug them. they would have surely thought I was weird and attempted leverage my emotions into a trip to buy toys.

    your pops stopped taking risk after returning from viet nam?

    Reply
    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      Yeah… He left the Marine Corps and went into business. Never rode a motorcycle or did anything irrational.

      Reply
  13. David Florida

    Jack, is there such a thing as body armor for BMX riders? Perhaps standard MX gear might suit?

    “If you have a $15 head …” was a great old slogan. I wonder what a refurbished shoulder costs compared to a vest, and how useful could it have been to have roost-protecting armor spreading the load across your chest in last years incident?

    Reply
    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      I wore a chest and shoulder protector for a long time but I’ve been reading that those devices actually aggravate joint injuries by providing a leverage point. I’m still thinking about it though.

      Reply
  14. AoLetsGo

    Ditto on raising a son.
    The front of my favorite tee shirt has – Death before DNF
    My bad knees have forced me out of many of my original sports. For those sports that remain I find it safer to charge up the hill versus charging down the hill.

    Reply
  15. S

    I’m 4 years older than you with 2 boys much older than yours – 26, 23. There’s definitely a process that unfolds in parenting, to me – where we go from being the center of their world, to then in their circle but no longer the center, to then one day we’re actually outside the circle of every day, but with a somewhat unbreakable tethered connection forever, due to the time spent in those first two areas of the circle. It’s actually good, and healthy, for the kid and for you (you won’t end up making your kid the center of your life, and viewing your own worth through the success -or not-, of your child), though it’s difficult/sad/depressing to navigate in when you’re transitioning through the circle. A failure to be willing to leave the circle, in my opinion, is what creates the helicoptering, and ultimately delays the growing up of the kid who wants his life project managed for him rather than to own it himself. My boys needed me to not be so prominent in their lives in order for them to discover who they actually are (a process still unfolding), rather than their constantly looking at life through the prism of family thinking/beliefs/values. With a little separation, they reach a place of being able to actively and willingly choose for themselves what they believe and value, rather than mirror family, or worse yet do things out of fear of family disappointment. Your son is still quite young, at 9 or 10 you’ve got a few more years of center stage, so I don’t know that you need to worry so much about it yet. Mid teens, to me, is when it’s good to start really letting out the leash, even if you know they’re making a dumb decision.

    On the physical end, that’s different. I think as long as you continue to enjoy an activity and can physically do it, it’s your choice to do it or not. We’re role models, sure, and those damned kids do watch every move we make way more than we realize (it all comes out later, trust me), but we can’t put quite so much pressure on perfecting parenthood in order to ensure some sort of perfect growing up experience. I certainly tried, and failed at it, and learned (the hard way, as always) that whatever it is you’re doing, there’s a trade off. It really is true that whatever it is you do to avoid having a regret, by definition will create the opportunity for a different regret. Nature of life.

    More applicable, at middle age, is whether or not you want to physically punish yourself. We do all reach a point where whatever it is, isn’t as easy as it used to be. Doesn’t mean you have to stop, what it might mean is that what used to be something you could do without prep, now requires training, more thoughtful approaches, etc. Think the fastball pitcher who has to learn how to finesse when he can no longer throw so hard, in order to extend his career. The late 30’s football player who has to work out for hours a day in order to be competitive with the 20 year olds he plays against (who don’t necessarily need to work out the same amount). They’re still doing it, it just takes more to do it than it used to, but if it matters to them, they do. Best advice I got from a trainer was that as we age, we can let everything go if we must but we should continue to work to keep a strong core, as that controls everything from a stability/balance standpoint. Hip breaks happen, most often, because of a weak core, he said. So maybe make a deal with yourself that you’ll keep riding as long as it’s fun and you feel safe, but you need to do adopt some kind of specific training regimen to keep at it. Who knows.

    We do want to make sure we hang up our cleats before we’re washed up, but only you will know when that time is (it doesn’t sound like yet, to be honest). Let your (and your son’s) main memory be made of when you nailed it on one of these courses, rather than when you face planted.

    Hope you heal quickly.

    Reply
  16. JMcG

    Jack, I used to do some mountaineering. I used to do a lot of stuff. I’m in my fifties now; I have a son and three daughters.
    Back in 1988 I soloed the Grand Teton. Not a hard route or anything, but I did it myself. It took me 14 hours from parking lot to parking lot. I was pretty proud of myself. On the hike in, at maybe 8 AM, I met a guy who was on his way down, having already soloed the north face and having descended the route I was intending to climb. In running shoes, shorts, and a T-shirt. In three hours.
    His name was Alex Lowe. He became one of America’s premiere alpinists. He climbed all over the world and was spoken of with respect among mountaineers everywhere. He was a stud, and a really nice guy. He met a pretty girl and had three boys.
    In 1999, 11 years after I met him on Grand Teton, he was killed in an avalanche in Tibet. His widow married one of the the guys who was climbing with him when he died. Another man raised his sons.
    A few years later, my wife and I were sitting at the table eating breakfast one Sunday morning. My son was a year old , my first daughter just born. I had been towing gliders for a few years by then, having taken up flying as a way to keep the adrenal gland properly functioning.
    There was a tiny paragraph in the paper that morning that described the death of one of the other guys who towed gliders with me. He had crashed and burned on takeoff. A couple of sentences and a man’s whole world had ended.
    I figured I didn’t want another man raising my kids more than I wanted to keep towing gliders. It’s hard to grasp sometimes, but you mean more to your son than he means to you. And I don’t say that lightly.

    Reply
    • Robert Harris

      I was trying to come up with a way to talk about the genuine concern in John’s voice. I’ve heard it a few times from my boys. “you mean more to your son than he means to you” says it better than I ever could have.

      Reply
    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      That’s the problem in a nutshell, isn’t it? You try to set an example for your kid knowing that there’s a potential consequence of not being around to set further examples.

      Reply
  17. Tom Daley

    Sorry to be that guy, but the Bismarck had steam turbines.
    Excellent piece. My advice; keep on keeping on. Shared experiences with your son are priceless

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.