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