Planes, Trains & Automobiles – Part 5: Ringing my bell

cyclocross-larryI did a lot of cycling after 2003, and had a fair number of spills. I won’t go into all of them, but I did want to share about my most life-threatening incident, which occurred in the spring of 2006.

This was at the peak of my enthusiasm for cycling. Following my 2003 downhill mountainbiking accident, as I began to get in much better physical shape, I decided to take up road biking as well. I researched modern cycles and realized the one I was using was very heavy and sub-par when it came to performance. As I began looking for a good road bike, I wanted to take something of a leap forward without spending a huge amount of cash doing so.

I decided to purchase a bicycle that could double as both a road bike and an offroad bike. Such hybrid bicycles are known as “cyclocross,” and I began watching for an opportunity to purchase or build a modern cyclocross bicycle.

I found a slightly used but high quality “Redline Conquest Pro” aluminum frame, then built my new cyclocross bike up from there. I purchased very nice new racing rims and tires to fit the frame, a quality racing saddle, and road cyclist clip-in pedal platforms. After outfitting the bike with lightweight road handlebars and high-quality disc brakes (preferred in the environment of the Northwest for braking consistency even when wet), and adding a cyclocross computer and high-quality shifters, I was almost ready to ride. Of course I also had to get the appropriate gear — shoes that would snap onto my “eggbeater” pedals, a helmet, sunglasses, gloves, not to mention a jersey and shorts.

About $1,500 later, I was set up and began road cycling. It was a wonderful machine, very fast and relatively light — weighing in at less than half the weight of my mountain bike. Just as I had gotten into mountain biking, with my heavy, department store bike, I really began to enjoy the road cycling experience. I worked out, lost more weight, and made big plans.

I talked my son Nathan into training with me for the large annual ride called the “STP” (Seattle-to-Portland). It was a grueling 206 miles south with 9,998 other riders. Some riders did it in one day (one long day, from sunup to sundown). Others, like me, broke it into two “centuries” and did those back to back, making an overnight stop in Centralia at the approximate middle of the ride.

It was a lot of work, but we both completed the ride and enjoyed the experience. (I later calculated the approximate calorie burn on that ride, which took about 15 hours, at 11,000 calories!) We did a second STP the next year, as well.

The year after that, I was planning a trip to Southern Africa during the summer and would be unavailable for the STP, but I hatched a plan to do an equivalent ride on the coast of South Africa, hoping to recruit some companion riders in World Vision’s Southern Africa regional and national offices to join me, and make a fundraiser out of it. I began training, and training hard, for this ride.

A month before scheduled departure I was cycling to and from the office as part of my training. It was a solid 15-mile ride, each way, which took about an hour and a quarter. The tough part was that the Puyallup Valley lay between my home up on South Hill, and my office on North Hill, so each direction required a significant (about 500 foot) drop and climb. But before that climb, when you were down on the valley floor, you could enjoy the ride … you just had to watch out for the traffic in downtown Puyallup, which was always heavy during the commute.

One afternoon I was on my way back home. I remember stopping by Nathan’s house in downtown Puyallup, I think to fill up my water bottle, and then getting back on the road again, heading toward home. The last specific place I remember being was on Second Street SE, approaching Seventh Avenue, where I was to turn right, heading toward Meridian. My last discrete memory of the ride was glancing up and noticing the back side of the Safeway supermarket, between Meridian and Second.

My next memory is of floating to a semblance of consciousness, on a gurney in an ambulance, which I later discovered was rushing toward the trauma center at Tacoma General Hospital. Lots of questions were obviously swimming through my head, though I don’t remember giving voice to any of them. Despite this, I recall my attendant, an EMT in uniform, leaning over me and saying gently, “You just asked me that. Don’t you remember what I told you?”

“Asked you what?” I said weakly. He shook his head and laughed.

“Wow, you really got your bell rung, didn’t you?”

The entire next week of my life comes to me only in bits and pieces. I vaguely remember my wife, Darlene, with me in the emergency room. I remember feeling embarrassed while someone cut my nice new cycling shorts and jersey (now soaked in blood) off of me. I don’t remember any of my other family members being there, although I later found out they were.

I don’t remember getting loaded into the tube to receive a full-body MRI, a privilege which the hospital later billed me more than $20,000 for. But, I know I was there, because I have seen the scans.

The scans revealed how narrowly I escaped true disaster. Bone fragments from the impact could be seen surrounding my very top vertebrae, the one that connects your spine to your skull. If perhaps only slightly more force had been applied, my neck would have been broken.

There were some other injuries, to my face, hands, and knees, consistent with me being thrown over the handlebars of the bike and onto the pavement, but none so serious. This time the bike, which itself had apparently not been struck, suffered only minor and fixable damage.

Very little is actually known about the accident, at least to me. The woman who reported it declined to be contacted by me. There was no police report, and apparently no witnesses, despite the rush hour traffic. I even posted a flyer on a pole near the place where I was hit, soliciting any witnesses, but none emerged. All we could surmise was that something hit me very hard to the back of the head while I was riding along the right side of the road in front of the Pink Elephant Car Wash. The back of my helmet was crushed, and I had a major concussion.

But, that was the end of my dream about cycling in South Africa. The doctor said, “Riding in Africa? Next month? No way!”

In a few weeks I felt that was pretty much healed up, though I have suffered from occasional migraines and recurring neck pain since the accident. My daughter Mandy and I continued on to Southern Africa, as scheduled, and had a wonderful time. Our last week there we took our rental car and did a tour of South Africa’s southern coastline, starting at Cape Town and heading east toward Durbin, following the 300-mile route which I would have cycled if permitted. It would have been a very interesting ride, no doubt.

I did compete in the STP a third time, several years after the accident, but this time without my son. And it wasn’t near as enjoyable!

team-world-visionA Team World Vision photo taken at the Bonney Lake Bicycle Shop, one of our sponsors, shortly before my third STP. I’m the bearded one in the back row, under the “Bicycle Repair” sign.

I mention that I rarely make the same mistake twice. This time, with my memory of the details wiped, I’m really not aware of a mistake that I might have made that led to or contributed to the accident. My wife is convinced I shouldn’t be riding on public roads at all, so as much as possible I try and stick to cycling trails, though it’s difficult to ride a lot and not mix it up with motor vehicles occasionally.

I also procured a magnetic cycling trainer, so when the roads are wet or icy I can ride in the safety and relative comfort of my own home. But nothing beats getting out there with the wind in your hair, enjoying the beauty of nature while riding trails along the Carbon or Puyallup River.

I must confess I’m not near as serious a cyclist as I was back then, and unfortunately don’t get out as often, but I still get out there when I can. I’m fairly competitive, but I’ve learned to live with the fact there are a lot of people out there who are a lot faster than me (I blame it on the fact that they are riding more modern, composite frame bikes rather than aluminum), just as there are those guys on department store bikes I can still pass easily. But, when you’re doing it for your health and the sheer joy of cycling, it’s not about getting out there in front!

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