Falling Off

My friend Padraig fell off his bike and broke a rib. OUCH! It was one of those classic mountain bike crashes where he was forced to pull up short on a steep incline, crowding the rider in front of him, who hadn’t made the crest. He reared back, bucking bronco-style, then unclipped and put his foot out only to find the ground was actually a foot lower than his brain had mapped it. This bit of physical comedy ended with him bouncing off a tree stump sideways and then trying very hard for the ensuing days not to sneeze, cough or even fart forcefully.

If you’ve ever busted a rib, you know that last line isn’t actually a joke.

I like falling off my bike. No. That’s not right. I like to have fallen off. The maelstrom of the moment, when your limbs are no longer tethered by the laws of physics, is not fun. There’s a nano-panic. Fear floods the system with its spiky chemicals. No one likes that.

But each crash, in retrospect, is fascinating and illuminating experience.

There is the phenomenon that attends many such events whereby time slows down, shockingly long and accurate strings of thought occur, and you are even able to make conscious adjustments to the nature of your ill-fortune. OK. OK. Sometimes those stretched moments become the stuff of PTSD, vivid recollections of your legs arranged in ways horror movies haven’t yet contemplated. I have been sure, in the violence of past mountain bike crashes, for example, that I have kicked myself fully in the back of the head.

That is not possible. But is it?

Other times, the long time signature of a crash feels like a window into your life as a super hero, because the neurochemistry of those traumatic moments mirrors the heady mix of hormones and neurotransmitters associated with flow states. In that way I can tell you that I honestly enjoyed some of my crashes.

Once I was the father of a two-year-old who broke his leg (another hilarious story), and so I spent three nights sleeping on the floor next to his race car bed, soothing him if/when he woke up in pain, simultaneously turning myself into an extra from the Walking Dead series. On the third day of this domestic torture, I was riding my bike to work, fixed-gear and fancy free, when I woke from a fatigue-based daydream to the realization that the light I was steaming toward had turned red. I had plenty of time to slow myself and stop, but my reptile brain didn’t wait around to complete the maneuver, instead reversing pedals post haste and as a result launching me over the bars to meet my paved destiny.

That’s when time slowed down. My elbow touched the asphalt first. In fact, I seemed to be sliding on my elbow, the rest of my body suspended upside down, a break dancing move no one thought was a good idea. And I had the thought, “Hmm, my elbow is burning. I’d better move that.” So I pulled that arm up away from the ground and went into what I’ll call a “power roll,” but onlookers might have described as a “total fucking yard sale.”

I’ve never thought of the term ‘side-splitting’ as possible fodder for double entendre, but now I see its potential.

Perhaps a better and less painful example of this experience befell me on another commute. For years, the most treacherous stretch of my daily route was a narrow, heavily-trafficked, and steep hill about a quarter-of-a-mile long. One morning, as I attempted to thread the needle between idling cars and towering curb, I looked up to see a tow truck in the line ahead. This tow truck had those extra wide side-view mirrors, and so my path ahead was blocked.

That’s when I made the mistake.

I veered up onto the sidewalk, a move I never make, thinking I’d just cheat around the tow truck and come down again at the next driveway. Bikes don’t belong on sidewalks, and as if to prove that point, the Gods of Mt. Velo set a trap for me. The exit point at the next driveway was awash in dead leaves, and beneath those leaves, the pavement had eroded to the depth of about 4 inches, which meant that, as I came rolling back down into traffic, my front wheel sluiced sideways and catapulted me at speed into the front quarter panel of a Subaru waiting for the light to change.

I thought, “Well, I’m going to hit that car,” and then, “At least it’s not a very nice car.” A nano-second had passed, but already I was getting snarky, which made what happened next even funnier. The angle of that quarter-panel threw me up and over the bars of my bike, so that my next cogent thought was, “I’m upside down, and I’m going to hit another car. This is going to end badly,” whereupon I struck the back of the SUV next in line and slid down its rear tailgate, dropping onto my head and shoulder in the mix of leaves and gravel.

I laid there, like you do, running the diagnostics, like you do, and laughed out loud as I realized I wasn’t actually hurt. That the crash looked awful was indisputable. People got out of their cars. For New Englanders to get out of their cars, when it’s cold, to help a cyclist, tells you all you need to know. Two offered to take me to the hospital. One asked if I needed a lift to a bike shop. I took a moment to explain that I was genuinely unhurt and that actually, I worked where the bike was made, none of which seemed to make much sense to my rescuers.

I had put a solid dent in the first car, but the woman looked at it and said, “It was already dented. I’m not worried about it.” The driver of the second vehicle, a Mercedes SUV was similarly flippant. I had crashed hard enough to bend my saddle rails, but my helmet was intact, and these folks were willing to let me ride off to ruin someone else’s day, so I celebrated my good fortune by pedaling away from the scene before anyone called a cop.

That’s two crash stories, one injury, one stroke of good luck, and as I type I realize I could go on and on. I’ve fallen off a lot. Sometimes I learned valuable lessons (e.g. slow down; pull up; you don’t have that much skill). Sometimes I got a great story. Sometimes I had a good laugh.

I’m not reckless, but I’m also not overly careful.

Falling off is worthwhile. Without the potential to fall off, why stay on? What are we even doing? That doesn’t mean I want to swap places with Padraig, who can’t get out of bed without feeling like he’s been stabbed and also can’t get the time of day from a doctor about it. Oh no. I like to fall off, but what I like even more is when you do it.