Monday, July 27, 2009


Last summer I watched my brother in the 35+ division of the ING Capital Criterium. It was his first season of racing and he'd broken his collarbone and fought off tendonitis in his knee earlier that summer. Still, he was in terrific shape and primed to do something special.

Set in downtown DC, the ING course would host the likes of Christian Vande Velde, Danny Pate, and Freddy Rodriguez later that day; the 35+ field itself was stacked.

My brother missed the winning breakaway, but went after it, drawing within a bike length or two of Chris Schmidt's wheel out in no man's land, dangling there lap after lap before falling back to the pack and finishing a respectable thirteenth.

Chris is our teammate this year. We know now, but didn't know then, that he's a friggin' diesel who was reeling in breakaways when we were still tooling around the driveway on single speed bikes with coaster brakes. (Ok, maybe not quite that long.) At the end of the season, when Chris has good form, if he's out on the flats motoring by himself two bike lengths ahead of you, unless your name is Fabian or Jens, or Magnus, good luck trying to catch him.

I remember the pro race from that day too, won by Toyota United's Clarke Hilton. I remember Jonathan Vaughters posing in front of his hotel, rocking the hell out of an ascot.

But what really stands out from the ING is a conversation I had with Tom, who'd recently been in a freak bike accident.

I'd met Tom once before on a ride in Rock Creek Park when he was kind enough to slow up and chat with me. Tom is a powerful rider and a brilliant conversationalist, with intellectual palmares running from Yale Law to winning the Post's scavenger hunt competition. But at the ING Crit, Tom was a mess. The full torso brace was the most obvious sign of trouble: a broken back. More disturbing, though, was the streaming, somewhat repetitive, immensely detailed, highly enthusiastic word salad. Tom was just as likeable and charming and in a way, funnier than ever, but his cognition was definitely a bit off.

Around the same time, a colleague of mine, a professor of philosophy, was hit by a truck while crossing the street. She was always a fast talker, hyper verbal, but after the accident conversed at a normal, even slowish cadence. She lost her social inhibition too: no filter whatsoever. And slept 14 hours a night.

Both Tom and my colleague fully recovered from their respective ordeals, but eeeesh... concussions are serious. Accidents are serious. People who avoid lower category crit racing or even bicycles in general for safety reasons are not cowardly; they're just *rational*. We who ride and can't give it up even though we know the risks... we're the crazy ones.

Friday afternoon I was out for a spin, loosening the legs for Lost River and heading south on Wisconsin when someone pulled out of a parking spot on my right, attempting a U turn. I braked and tried to swerve around her but slammed into the front quarterpanel instead, hurtling over the hood, and pile driving onto the road, smashing my helmet and, I would later learn, fracturing a vertebrate in my lower neck.

Somehow I dragged myself, Quasimodo-like, onto the sidewalk and collapsed as onlookers poured out of the adjoining Starbucks, CVS, and health club.

My first thought was for the woman who pulled out in front of me. Though she said nothing, I could see the expression of horror on her face.

Then I thought about my dinner plans and about Lost River and how I'd have to change all of that.

Then I worried about my bike, asking people about the damage.

Finally, I went through the systems check. Extremities? Responsive, sort of, but I can't feel anything in my left hand. Contusions? There's no blood. Road rash on the shoulder, probably. No biggie. Mobility? I can't lift my head or turn my torso. Where does it hurt? Upper back, lower neck.

What to do now? Someone asks if I want an ambulance. I'm silent, thinking it over. I have insurance, but a hefty deductible. Is this something I can suffer through at home with ice, ibuprofen and a little Tegaderm? No. I really can't move at all. My hand is numb. This is serious. By this time, an ambulance is on its way. Here goes...

I'll write about the medical adventure later, because it deserves its own post and because I've already rambled on long enough. I'm recovering quickly, but for a number of mundane reasons (nerve damage, difficulty of positioning myself over the keyboard, etc.) it's still difficult for me to type. Conversations are taxing and I can't sustain the attention required to watch a movie, let alone write at a decent level or even read emails.

Even though I didn't suffer a concussion, maybe because of the pain and stress or meds or whatever, I'm not exactly myself, cycling through emotional peaks and valleys without realizing it and perseverating, like Tom at the ING.

I'm going to be ok. My goal is to be psychologically normal in a few days (normal by my standards; normalcy relative the general populace is a lost cause), be back on the trainer in 2 weeks (if I don't need surgery) and on the bike in a month. We'll see. The medical establishment is not so optimistic. They like to tinker with the human body, play with their tools. They want to cut, drill, fuse, and splice.

But anyway I can't trust my inner editor right now.

I do want to say, though: shortly after my accident, propped up on a bed in the ER and waiting for neuro to look at my scans, I got a call from Tom, who knew exactly what I was going through.

I also want to thank everyone: family, friends, and teammates, who've expressed concern. This also deserves a post.

And whether you're walking, driving, or riding, be careful out there. My accident was entirely avoidable. I don't think I could have done anything more myself, but had the driver taken a long look in the rear view mirror or a quick glance over the shoulder, I'd be writing about how I got dropped on the first climb at Lost River.


Bryan said...

I'm glad your feeling better. I think we're all going to chip in and get you a racing suit, and then, for added protection, you'll wear that under the Trojan.

Then go ahead and ride your heart out.

Martin Andres Austermuhle said...

Horrible to hear about the accident, but good to see that at least they didn't get to your sense of humor or ability to write a great blog post. If you do need surgery, ask for the titanium spine with optional Wolverine knuckle knives. And if you need any help or for us to beat up that lady, well, the team's here for you.

Nigeltheterrible said...

Hang in there buddy! Glad to to see that you are still writing great blog posts - we'll miss you on the bike for a few weeks, but are glad we'll still be in touch!