The Curse of February

Many people who know me know that I regularly commute to work via bicycle.  I also keep a blog, where I occasionally chronicle my experiences riding a bike to work (among other topics).  In writing about bike commuting, I’ve always focused on positive things.  That’s because bike commuting is, almost overwhelmingly, a positive experience.  Sure, there are occasional mishaps like flat tires, impatient drivers, etc., but that all comes with the territory.  The bottom line is that on a typical day when I commute by bike, the positives outweigh the negatives, and my blog entries tend to follow suit.

All that being said, about a month ago I had one of those rare rides where the negatives outweigh the positives.  On Tuesday, Feb. 8, I was about 10 minutes into my morning commute when I lost control of my bike and went down fast and hard.  I’m still not sure what caused the crash, because everything after the crash was a blur.  I remember hitting the ground hard, standing up, gasping for breath.  Someone stopped and asked if I was OK.  I think an ambulance may have been called, but I was not taken to the hospital (likely because I was able to stand and walk, and must have been talking at least somewhat coherently, though I don’t remember any of it).  Vague recollections of a guy with a pickup dropping me (and the bike) off at home (to whomever you were, in the unlikely event you’re reading this, thanks).  My wife took me to the hospital, where I spent a woozy day getting every kind of imaging scan known to mankind (4 or 5 X-rays; 2 CAT scans; 1 MRI).  Initially I was told I had a lung puncture that would require surgery; later I was told that my head CAT scan showed a midline shift which could mean a hematoma (hemorrhage) or other mass.  But in the end, the test results revealed that I just had a garden-variety concussion and 4 broken ribs.  To quote someone or other, “it could have been worse.”  I was kept overnight for observation and sent home the following afternoon with lots of painkillers.  And for the next several days, I needed ’em, as anyone who’s ever had a rib injury can likely attest.  Broken ribs make all sorts of everyday activities painful, among which are breathing, coughing, laughing, lying in bed, getting out of bed, reaching up, reaching down, lifting anything over 5lbs, etc.  You get the idea.  Not pleasant, but beats being in a body cast.

The only explanation I can think of for the crash was that I hit black ice while coming around a bend.  It’s a little unsettling not knowing for sure (before you ask, I am certain that I was not hit by a car), but black ice does seem likely.  Most bike tires are pretty much worthless on ice, and that includes knobby mountain bike tires.  In general, though, you can ride over icy patches as long as you don’t try to brake or steer.  The key is to keep the front wheel straight.  If the front wheel starts to skid, you’re going down and there’s not much you can do about it.  After going back and looking at the area where the crash happened, it seems plausible that this is what happened.

When I got home from the hospital, I assessed the damage to my bike and equipment.  My helmet had cracks running all through the right side (the side I hit), and likely saved me from a much worse head injury.  My jacket and both clothes layers underneath were torn in the shoulder area.  As for the bike, the back wheel was bent into a shape vaguely resembling a potato chip (in cycling jargon, the term is “tacoed”).  My theory for this is that the panniers (saddle bags) I was riding with got pushed into the wheel when the bike hit the ground. The bike needed a new rear wheel and new tires, but other than that, it was not seriously damaged.

A couple of people have asked me if I was going to stop riding after this, but the thought never crossed my mind (and thankfully, I don’t think any of my family expected me to stop either).  The benefits of riding far outweigh the risks.  I’ve been riding for over 30 years, and I’ve had my share of falls, this one being the worst.  Every activity has its risks, and one really bad crash in 30 years of riding is not that bad, statistically.  I figure I’m just as likely, if not more likely, to be involved in a serious accident while driving a car.  And as an analogy, you don’t see too many people stop driving after they’re involved in car accidents.

So anyhow, as soon as the doctor cleared me to ride, I was back on my bike, exactly 3 weeks after the accident.  Since then I’ve logged 6 round-trips to work and back, around 100 miles.  The ribs are still sore at times, and in particular, it’s sometimes uncomfortable to lean forward and breathe in deeply.  So lately I’ve been avoiding my road bikes and riding my mountain bike, which lets me sit more upright.  To be honest, I’m just happy to be riding again, and that winter is ending.  Next winter, I won’t be going out the door without studded tires.

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