He was ten feet off the cave floor, bike and rider stretched and twisted in the old-school BMX trick that was called a “Judge” and a “Leary” before settling into the modern appellation of “lookback”. Then he disappeared down the backside of the jump and we all heard the thump echo back across two hundred feet. The two thirtysomething men who were pedaling back up to the rest of us in the staging area dropped their bikes then broke and ran in that direction. Silence fell as the chattering children to my right picked up on their parents’ vibe, shut up, and turned to face the incident. Three, four empty seconds and then there was a loud cough. After thirty-three years behind the handlebars of a BMX bike I can heard blood in a cough and this time I heard blood.
More silence. Then: “HE’S UP! HE’S OKAY!” At the trails or the skatepark, “okay” doesn’t mean “unhurt”. It means that the ambulance isn’t coming. A wave of guilty relief swept through seven of the twelve riders surrounding me. They’d come down from Fort Wayne as a group, vans filled with bikes of all sizes for them and their children. An ambulance trip would have ended everybody’s day. I saw the fellow who had crashed stumble out from behind the jump. Someone else carried his bike away. We sat up in the staging area and fidgeted. Nobody wanted to be the first person to hit that section afterwards. You could call it respect or superstition or cowardice; it is all of those. Finally, one of the socially awkward spandex-clad mountain bikers who had arrived right before the wreck clicked into his pedals, rode down the slope, and bumbled through the line, accompanied by the bounce and clank of chain and derailleur. We frowned at this crass incompetence but in truth we were grateful. The spell was broken. Four of the Fort Wayne guys rolled in a tight line after him. The third one boosted a sky-high lookback over the recently-cursed jump and landed it with fingertip delicacy. Then the kids flocked after them and the noise of conversation rose again in the humid, dusty air.
I took a run down the center line and walked my bike back up the incline to conserve energy. When I got to the picnic benches up top the injured rider was sitting there in slack-jawed shock, his helmet still on, twisting his body to get both hands on his drooping left shoulder. He looked like he might vomit in the near future.
“Did you dislocate your shoulder?” I asked. His response was delivered in the patient monotone that always follows a direct impact of helmet to ground.
“I have metal in here,” he replied, “from an old wreck. A lot of metal. And I think… it’s bent.”
At nine that morning, my old pal Martin “El Jefe” Larrea and I had loaded up the Silverado and headed towards the Mega Cavern in Louisville, Kentucky. The Mega Cavern is a hundred-acre underground limestone mine under the Louisville Zoo that was acquired and developed by a private company a while back. They are trying to find a use for the four million square feet of underground space and they are throwing a lot of darts at the board. They have ziplines, Christmas lights, cavern tours, boat storage, trash disposal, and a dozen other things going on there. Most importantly, however, they’ve built a trail-jumping fantasyland where the weather is always fifty-eight degrees and kinda-sorta humid.
We’d been invited to meet a crew of Fort-Wayne-based “old fools” at the Cavern for a post-Thanksgiving jam. The initial plan had been to take my son with us but his mother’s parents were in town, It was a shame because John is absolutely obsessed with the idea of the cavern and he thinks it’s the greatest place ever to ride a bike. Once we got to the trails and I realized that the Fort Wayne crew had brought a half-dozen “groms” between the ages of eight and twelve with them, I wished in retrospect that I’d fought his mother a little harder about getting him out of the house.
The Fort Wayne guys had picked up a few Indianapolis-based riders on the way down, so there were fourteen or so of us to encourage, criticize, and lampoon each other. It was a carnival atmosphere. Sometimes the kids would get too rambunctious and a father would ride over to administer a few quick slaps to their helmets and sort things out. They’d brought a variety of accents and socioeconomic statuses along; in the space of a few minutes I heard both a discussion regarding switching investment brokers and an Indiana-twang fellow talking about getting into a fight at a liquor store and using the phrase “they was” in positively metronomic fashion. One of the riders was a six-foot-three black fellow with waist-length Predator dreadlocks and the flat drawl of a Midwest farmer. At one point, I saw people pointing at him and whispering urgently. Turns out they were discussing his bike: a DK General Lee with the still-heretical twenty-two-inch wheels.
To my surprise, I was the oldest rider in the group. Most of them were still in their late thirties and positively bursting with vigor, at least compared to me. Yet as the afternoon ticked on the proportion of conversation to riding swelled dramatically. After three hours in the caves, only the kids were exhibiting much inclination to motion. Even El Jefe was starting to run out of steam; he’s thirty-nine but he’s also in washboard-abs shape courtesy of a six-month training cycle for the recently-held BMX World Championships in North Carolina. To my surprise, I was actually feeling pretty good despite the fact that I’d ridden at an indoor bike park with John the day before. I’d gotten seven hours of sleep, skipped breakfast, and swallowed a whole bottle of “5 Hour Energy” shortly after arriving at the cave. I paced myself and I rarely felt breathless or particularly perched on the verge of tachycardia.
Less surprising was my relative lack of ability compared to both Martin and the Fort Wayne crew. Many of them were seasoned trail jumpers who had quit racing in their teens so they could focus on the trails culture. Compared to them, I was a low flier with a distinct lack of style, struggling to clear jumps that were second nature to them. At one point, after I’d groaned and strained my way over the left-side run, somebody said to me, “Hey, at least you’re here, right?” I’d earned a participation trophy, apparently. My right shoulder was burning in its socket from my failure to smoothly clear the third step-up; as I rubbed it and frowned, a 39-year-old on a rusty bits-and-pieces bike blasted a no-hander-to-X-up over the same jump. It was humbling, to say the least. Four weeks ago I’d won a double endurance race in my own MX-5 Cup car, and four weeks before that I’d been driving a $170,000 AMG GT C up the Furkapass in Switzerland while wearing a Brioni coat and horsehide shoes, but in the Mega Cavern I was in a caste of accomplishment hovering just a whisker above untouchable. There was a bit of sotto voce discussion in the staging area about my one-of-a-kind Lairdframe custom bike and my obvious spare-no-expense approach to its construction. In a culture that has never had much patience with rich kids on fancy bikes, I was conspicuously doing less with more.
Yet it would be unfair and unpleasant of me to imply that the Fort Wayne riders didn’t welcome me, because they did. And I was eminently satisfied with my own chugging progression throughout the day. Riding a BMX bike on a set of modern trails is just so much harder than driving a race car. There’s so much more that you need to get right. Each jump is a series of whole-body exercises in which each step has to be both finely judged and executed with all the strength you can muster. Think of running across a balance beam while doing a series of bodyweight-plus-fifty-pounds deadlifts and you’ll start to get the idea. That’s how you get into the air, but once you are there you have to perform a kind of unconscious time-and-distance math in your head so you know when to rotate forward and push the nose down for landing. If you don’t jump far enough, you’ll smack the top of the jump and maybe break your wrists. If you overjump it, the way the fellow at the beginning of this story did, you will add a drop of anywhere between three and eight feet to your landing and suffer consequences ranging from a torn rotator cuff to a broken neck.
For those and many other reasons, I proceed cautiously at the skatepark or trails. After more than three foolish decades on the bike I’ve finally subordinated my ego to my common sense. If a jump looks too dangerous to me, I don’t try it, regardless of the clucking I might hear from the other guys. Some days I can pick up new jumps or new tricks almost effortlessly. Some days I struggle just to leave the ground without flopping over in mid-air and crashing. The key is to know which kind of day I’m having and to adjust accordingly. I have a plan and that plan is to ride skateparks until I turn fifty. The only way I will accomplish that is if I don’t have any more really big hits. One more set of broken wrists, or one more big hit to the neck, and I’ll be done early. So I proceed with all advisable caution. That’s how it looks to me, anyway. The rest of the world sees an overweight man with a medical-records file the size of Infinite Jest riding a children’s bike in oddly contorted positions despite being approximately the same age that Ulysses S. Grant was upon his election to the Presidency.
After four hours underground, pretty much everybody was ready to hit the road. We formed loose semi-circles and chatted randomly, about Beginner-class races held in the Eighties, about long road trips to races and trails and skateparks in clattering cars and rusting vans. One of the Fort Wayne guys had been a relatively famous pro racer fifteen years ago; he signed a few shirts for shy kids and starstruck grownups. We exchanged urban legends regarding local heroes and the cargo-culture things we’d learned from the BMX magazines back in the day. There was a discussion as to whether you could ride drunk. One of the younger guys had snuck in three beers during a quick lunch break. Another one was what they call “straightedge”, and his opinion was that if you have BMX you don’t need the temporary peace of mind that comes from alcohol.
“It’s weak,” he said, and the stringy toughness of his tattooed arms dared anyone to contradict him even as the volume of his voice raised gradually until it seemed to fill the cave. “If you can still ride… you can fix your problems on the bike. That’s why we have the bike, man. So you don’t need that other shit.” I thought about the thirty-four years of my life I’d spent entirely sober and the realization hit me: I’d always had the bike. I didn’t start drinking until I stopped riding. Since taking delivery of my Haro FST reissue ten months ago I’ve had a drink maybe five, six times total. I don’t feel the need for a drink nowadays. I have the bike. It’s holding me up.
When you have the bike you have a place to work out your anger, your emotions, your problems. You put your hands on the bars and you do those running deadlifts and you soar or you don’t and you bleed and you laugh. Sometimes it’s a bigger deal than you realize at the time. I probably extended my marriage by four or five unnecessary years because I was hiding at a skatepark instead of arguing with my wife, because I was taking out my frustrations on the quarter-pipes and step jumps instead of having a screaming match at home. You can say that I wasted that time. But without those extra years I wouldn’t have my son.
If the bike gives, however, it also takes away. I am always in some sort of low-level pain. It hurts to walk, stand, and sit. I sleep two hours at a time max and never comfortably. There is blood in my stool and a New York strip steak’s worth of muscle cut out of my right leg. Occasionally my arms go numb and I drop things for no reason. You get the idea. Still, it could be worse. The bike took my friend Nick away, encouraged him to train until his heart failed at the ripe old age of exactly what I am now. Many years ago, when I was still writing for a BMX magazine, I was contacted by the family of a man who had started BMX in his early thirties so he could ride with his children. In his first race — the first fucking one! — he crashed and broke his neck. When he woke up, he was paralyzed from the neck down. Permanently. Once he realized what had happened, he chewed through his breathing tube. Things happen when you are on the bike and there’s no rhyme or reason to it. You can bail over a thirty-foot set of doubles and come up smiling. You can bump a three-foot roller the wrong way and end up in a wheelchair.
As the group started packing up, I found myself talking to one of the riders who had brought a kid along. His boy was nine years old, shy and small behind tousled hair and elfin features. I’d seen the kid pedal full speed at the big jumps and huck five or six feet in the air, utterly fearless, absolutely secure and confident in his skill. There was a lot to admire about how he moved his shoulders and how he placed the bike during the landings and I said as much to the father.
“Well, earlier this year he hit pretty hard. Got a concussion, lost every tooth in his head. He didn’t want to ride for two months.” I shuddered involuntarily.
“Well, it doesn’t seem to have discouraged him in the long run. How often do the two of you ride?”
“Every day we can. Three, four days a week.” No wonder the kid was so good. I felt the gnawing beginnings of envy. I can’t even get my kid out of the house to ride two times in seven days and this guy’s consistently doing twice that much.
“Well, it shows in his riding. How are you holding up under that kind of schedule?” It was half joke and half question, because this fellow was quite a bit heavier than I was and he looked a bit worn out after half a day’s worth of riding. He looked down at his handlebars and considered it.
“I have good days, and bad days.” He paused. “It’s because… well, I have leukemia. Some days I just watch him ride.” Then we slouched on our bikes as a string of kids attacked the right-hand novice section. They were laughing and yelling. One of them tumbled off, bucked by a miscalculation over a roller, but he landed on his knees and seemed unaffected. The children rode off in a pack but we stayed there, elbows over handlebars, staring into nothing in particular. Our silence was long but it was companionable. Then I looked at him and said,
“No matter what happens… Your son won’t forget the time you’re spending with him. I… well, I don’t remember seeing my dad a lot when I was nine.”
“Me neither. I don’t remember seeing him at all. He wasn’t real to me. That’s why I’m doing this. So we’ll have this time. Like you said, no matter what.” We did not speak further. After a minute or two, he kicked his left pedal to rotate the right one up into position. He smiled at me, then wordlessly he rode off to follow his son. Then I kicked off myself, to ride that troublesome left-hand line. Roll, pump, pull level nose down pump roll pump pull. On the third jump I pulled hard and briefly flicked the bars around for an X-up before nosing in for a landing so smooth that my tires didn’t even thump. It’s nice to occasionally touch the possibility of perfection. I am forty-six years old and I have squandered every talent or advantage I ever had but I can still ride, I can still eyeball a jump and clear it, I can still hear the language of balance and power and grip and inertia in my hands. I still have the bike. Not forever. Just now. So now will have to be enough.
Time to go. El Jefe and I put our backpacks on, put the GoPros away, found phone and keys. There’s a flat path back to the entrance but I took the middle line one final time on the way out, boosting each jump just a little harder than I needed to, the backpack merrily whacking away at the nape of my neck with each landing. Martin followed me, laughing the whole way. “I forgot I have that big water bottle in there, man, the one-liter bottle and it was HITTING me in the kidneys! I thought I was going to throw up!” I laughed so hard I lost my concentration on what was up ahead and almost ran into a trio of women who were waiting for the cavern tour. They shot me a fusillade of fish-faced disapproval and we shot past them towards the exit.
“Jefe,” I sputtered, “those women… they were so angry! They were so… I don’t know, they were just these mean old women! Except that I think they were younger than I am! Something’s wrong, when the mean old women are younger than I am!”
“No,” he responded, “at least one of them was older than you, Grande, but that is okay, you don’t need to be afraid of her. There is something to be said for an older woman!” And we burst out of the doors into the parking lot, nothing but children grown older, two boys and their bikes, out of the dark and into the light.