So, yesterday I mentioned my cycling accident. Here’s the story of that accident, beginning with inspiration. And hopefully ending with persistance.
Please forgive any editorial errors – I wrote this a while ago and have edited it a couple of times. I’m sure there are mistakes in here somewhere.
There is a bike rally held every four years in France called Paris-Brest-Paris. It is only open to amateur riders – no pros allowed. In it, the participants ride from the outskirts of Paris to a town called Brest on the Atlantic coast and back again. It’s 1200 km total, and you have 96 hours to complete it. It is an event for the randoneurs, or “super-tourists”.
Randoneuring is a sport that doesn’t really exist in the US. At least, not like it does in the rest of the world. In much of the rest of the world, cycling is an accepted part of life, and people make allowances for the crazy few who choose to embark upon nigh-impossible journeys.
Around 1996, I became infatuated with randoneuring. I wanted to qualify for one of the big rides, particularly PBP. Since it is such a daunting task, they don’t let just anyone give it a go. You have to prove you’re capable of finishing it first. You do this by completing a brevet series.
A brevet series is a sequence of rides that get progressively longer. They start at 200k (125 miles), then go up to 300k and 400k and finally to 600k (375 miles). The routes have to be certified with a central authority, and on each ride there are a series of checkpoints or “controls” that you have to pass through. You carry a chit with you that gets stamped at each control to prove that you’ve followed the prescribed course and done it in the alloted time. Sometimes there are secret controls along the way, to make sure nobody tries to take a shortcut.
I began my brevet series in 1999. There was going to be a PBP held in 2000, and I wanted to qualify for it. I never really dreamed I’d make it there, but I at least wanted to get the certification that I could have. So in the Spring of 1999, I drove up to Fredericksburg with my trusty Miyata in the back of my truck and I attempted to qualify for and ultramarathon event.
I missed out on the attempt on the very first ride. A little over halfway through the ride, I lost my route card and found myself alone, with no one to follow. I was familiar with the terrain and headed in the direction that I knew the finish was in, but in doing so I bypassed a control. Even if I’d found the correct route, I would have been disqualified for not having my card. At the end of the day, I had ridden 5 miles short of my goal. I would not get the qualification stamp for that ride.
But this setback only made me more determined to prove that I could complete the brevet series. On March 20, I went back to Fredericksburg for the second ride. I knew I wasn’t going to get to go to PBP, but I wanted to finish and show that I had what it took.
The ride began slightly before sunrise and headed out through back roads in the Texas hill country. I met up with cyclsts I’d never met before and we chatted in the way that cyclists do on the road. I remember at one point the route took us through a seldom-used road that twisted around several hills and over many cattle guards. While talking to a couple of fellow riders, I looked up and found that we were in the middle of a herd of horses, who fortunately were not spooked by bikes.
Many miles later – about 70 – I found myself sitting at the bar in the diner in London, TX, next to a bearded rider who had been doing marathon rides all week. He asked me if I planned to do the next brevet. I said that I’d wait and see how I felt at the end of this ride. He chewed a toothpick thoughfully, grinned, and said, “You’re gonna feel real bad at the end of this ride.”
I still wonder if he really knew what he was saying.
Leaving London, I headed North towards Mason. Along the way I rode by several farms and ranches. In one ranch, I spooked an emu that was grazing just inside a fence. I hopped up and started trotting alongside me. We kept pace with one another for about two miles. I remember that it hopped a fence part way through our race and spooked a herd of goats. I dubbed myself “Rides with Emus” at that moment.
Mason was near the 80 mile mark in the ride. I knew I was not making very good time at that point. I was very fatigued. I looked down at my handlebars to see how many miles I’d gone already, and tried to figure out how many more miles it was to the next rest point. I looked up ahead of me and saw a straight road bordered by soft green grass and the peculiar pink granite that is common in that part of Texas.
At some point, everything got blotted out in a wash of light.
The light gradually receded, and I found myself looking up at a man in uniform. He was wearing sunglasses and a brimmed hat. I looked at the front of his shirt – it said Border Patrol. To this day, I have no idea what a Border Patrol officer was doing in Mason.
He was asking me something. “Do you know what day it is?”
I wasn’t sure. I remember thinking that I had been on a bike ride, so it must be Thursday. I’ve no idea where that logic came from.
I realized that there was something wrong. I couldn’t move. I knew that there had been an accident. I asked the officer how my bike was. He looked off to one side, then back at me and said “You don’t want to know.”
A little while later, an abulance showed up and they strapped me to a backboard. I remember joking and flirting with the EMTs in the back of the abulance as they drove me in to Fredericksburg. The back of my head was on fire. I thought I could feel my feet, but I didn’t dare try and move for fear that I’d find I couldn’t. I think I passed out again and then awoke in the ER in Fredericksburg.
I was in the middle of the room, looking up. People were bustling all around me. Someone cut all my clothing off me so they could give me a proper exam. At one point, a nurse put on a rubber glove and gave me a quick rectum reflex test – I’m told this is standard procedure in cases where they fear spinal damage. As he or she walked away, I lifted a finger and said, “Hey, don’t I at least get your phone number?” That got a laugh from the staff.
A nurse approached me from my feet. She asked if I’d like to see my bike helmet. When I said yes, she held up a nylon strap with a few chunks of styrofoam and plastic still clinging to it. It had been shattered. Around that time, someone came by and scraped the bottoms of my feet. I curled my toes as hard as I could. They grabbed the tops of my feet and told me to pull. I gave it everything I had. I could feel it when I pulled their hands up with my feet. Everything was working.
Many hours later, I had been airlifted to a hospital in San Antonio, examined, stitched, prodded, x-rayed, and ultimately released. Kelly and Thomas helped me limp up to her apartment, where the little puppy Bailey was waiting. I looked like I’d been in a barfight and lost. My bicycle was totaled. But I hadn’t broken any bones, and I didn’t have any severed nerves. For that, at least, I was thankful.
About three-quarters of an hour before I woke up on the side of the road out near Mason, a ranch hand had been driving his pickup on the same road. He’d dropped something on the floor of the cab and reached over to grab it. When he did that, he momentarily lost sight of the road. And when he leaned way over to his right to pick up whatever it was he’d dropped, he veered over onto the shoulder of the road. Right where I was riding. The front of the pickup ripped into my rear wheel and put a serious crimp into the back of my bike. He’d been going about 55 at the time of impact. I was thrown backwards against the windshield and smashed it with my back and head. Thank heavens I was wearing the helmet. The force of the impact was so great that it bent the crank arms on my bike, which are half-inch-thick bars of steel.
I still haven’t recovered to the point I was at before my accident. I haven’t done a century ride (100 miles) since then. But I know it is within reach, and I still hope that maybe, someday, I’ll be able to qualify for one of the big ultramarathon races.
Here’s what my bike looked like after the collision: