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Archive for August, 2013

(Seth’s thoughts on his accident and, more important, getting back on his bike after. Written for this blog: http://keithsbikeblog.com, put together by Keith Reed – a wonderful resource for cyclists in and around Stillwater.)

 

“Well, that’ll teach him not to ride one of those things.”

I wasn’t conscious to hear it, but my mother told me several months later that this sentiment was voiced by one of the nurses looking over me in the ICU when told the list of injuries I sustained after being run over by a motorist while riding my bike to work at midday on February 27 of this year.

I don’t want to dwell too much here on the precise circumstances of the accident (I have forced myself out of the habit in general), but let me say for the record that I was not preoccupied with some personal training exercise or time trial when I was hit. I was cruising along at a modest spin, in plain clothes, with a bag full of books and papers, on a one mile commute to my office, like I had done many times before. I may have been listening to Moby Dick on audio through some headphones, but that didn’t mean I was entirely in my own world either. According to the accident report, I was seen waving and yelling at the driver before the impact, so I was paying enough attention to see him not seeing me. Not that these details matter much anyway. It was, as I said, an accident. The driver of the car was not speeding, not intoxicated, not even texting. He simply did not see me (his words). He was not expecting to see a biker there, so he didn’t. It is this fact, perhaps the very reason for my accident, which made me glad to hear that my mom chastised the nurse for her remark. Her words convey a perception of the activity of biking, or the object of a bike itself (“one of those things”), as something foreign, out of place on a road. The more people who share this attitude the more dangerous it will be for people, like me, who will continue to bike there.

The accident did, after all, teach me quite a lot, but it sure didn’t teach me not to ride a bike. In fact, quite the opposite. These are some few words about how and why.

First, let me introduce you to my bike:

 Image

 

This is a 1990 Koga Miyata Prologue. And, yes, it is hot pink, so, no, I don’t think a different color would have made it more visible to a motorist. I am glad to say, too, that this picture is post-accident. In fact, after making a few minor adjustments at the seatpost and stem, restoring the chain to the crankset and cassette, and giving the bike a little oil, a friend of mine had it road-ready again in minutes. I only wish my recovery could have been so speedy. But then I don’t have a steel frame, and my bike doesn’t have emotions, anxieties, memories. Then again, I only came to an understanding of some of my own emotions, anxieties, and memories pertaining to the accident when I got back on the bike. If I only have certain feelings on a bike, if the bike is in some way integral to some feeling of mine, then doesn’t that feeling in some sense belong to the bike itself?

Now this is not a story of traumatic memories returning to me in a fatal rush as I push off and balance on my bike for the first time since being hit by a car, so there’s no need to brace yourself. So far, I continue not to remember the accident and its immediate aftermath. That is the way I would prefer it to remain, which is not to say it will. Most of my experience getting back on the bike has been preoccupied with physical matters. My pelvis was broken in half when the SUV ran over my abdomen and was re-set by three large titanium screws that made it impossible for me to put any weight on my left leg for a couple of months. As a result I had muscular atrophy in that leg as well as in much of my core. So there was that to contend with, as well as a fractured septum (tailbone), which made getting back on the saddle a tender affair indeed (even with padded cycling shorts, my first pair of which I bought after the accident). However, once cleared to exercise by my surgeon, I happily worked through the soreness during several long sessions on a stationary bike, where I also tried to finish listening to Moby Dick. The real physical limitation I have to contend with, the one that especially challenged me upon returning to the road, is the limited vision that resulted from my severe head trauma.

It is complicated and thus far unresolved, so I won’t even try to summarize here what’s the matter with my eyes. But if you see me coming on my hot pink bike, you’ll notice that I wear a patch over my left eye. Now biking with one eye affects you in some subtle ways. For example, you can’t judge depth as well as you can with two eyes, so sometimes you think you’re about to ride into a little dip and the road is completely smooth; other times the road appears smooth and you find yourself lurching into a break in the pavement. Yesterday I was being chased by a couple of stray dogs on my bike and I was fantasizing about kicking them in their faces if they got too near until I realized that with my still tenuous balance the effort would probably throw me from my bike. These experiences are annoying and just a bit worrisome. What really troubles me is the huge blind spot I now have on my left side, right where the traffic inevitably comes. I can’t see a car passing me until it’s passed me. I can usually hear it coming, but that is not exactly a relief to someone recently run over (especially in Oklahoma, where many of the vehicles sound military-grade). The only modification to my bike since the accident is a small rear-view mirror that now juts out of the end my left handlebar; it has given me some small comfort, even as I am just learning to use it.

So I suppose if that nurse happened to pass me biking on the road, she would see that not only have I not learned my lesson and stopped riding a bike, but that I have chosen to continue riding with a distinct handicap that makes the activity more dangerous for me than it was at the time of my accident. What, then, will teach me? Well, I’m counting on biking to teach me, to teach me to bike again.

There was a distinct but diffuse hesitancy before I ventured out on my first solo ride. (On my very first ride I trailed my son as he rode his bike around the block.) It took me an hour of research to decide to ride the one-mile Couch Park loop (which, for anyone biking in Stillwater, might give a chuckle). But, strangely enough, I don’t think I am traumatized about biking. I think I am traumatized about driving. I am noticeably more anxiety-ridden in a car, especially when conditions are dangerous, than I was before the accident. This says to me that my mind has processed the accident as follows: cars are dangerous, not bikes are dangerous. I pushed through the nerves that kept me off my bike for a time to resume a form of transport that to my mind is infinitely more safe, sustainable, and pleasurable than driving, and I found what I was just beginning to learn at the time of my accident: biking is a singular sort of activity, which cannot be simulated or substituted with any other. The only way to prepare yourself to bike is to bike. So that is what I am doing.

            I am planning on testing this theory on the very day I wrap up this little account of my bike story, but I believe group-riding will be one sure way to teach me how to bike. There is a swell of group rides available in my part of Oklahoma that I have never before taken advantage of. Almost dying will teach you not to let opportunities slip you by. My goal at present is to participate in the annual memorial ride for Deb Miller, who was killed while biking on Highway 51 three years ago. Driving between Stillwater and Oklahoma City during my hospitalization, my family routinely passed the ghost-bike standing sentinel just past the Lake McMurtry entrance, honoring Ms. Miller’s memory. My dad told me it gave him a frightful chill to think that one could have been erected for me. I cannot think of a better way to test my resolve than to pedal out to that bike, to look upon it, not from a speeding car but from my own bike (which, fittingly, has a splash of white of its own), and to consider how fortunate I am to be able to continue riding, to trail my son around the block, to smile at my wife upon returning home safe from a ride, to meet new friends, to write again, and to read Moby Dick, again.

I can’t be totally sure, but I have determined that it must have been around this moment in the book that was piping into my ears just as I was hit:

“Again: as the profound calm which only apparently precedes and prophesies of the storm is perhaps more awful than the storm itself; for, indeed the calm is but the wrapper and envelope of the storm; and contains it in itself, as the seemingly harmless rifle holds the fatal powder, and the ball, and the explosion; so the graceful repose of the line, as it silently serpentines about the oarsmen before being brought into actual play—this is a thing which carries more of true terror than any other aspect of this dangerous affair. But why say more? All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in a whale-boat, you would not feel at heart one more whit of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.”

 

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