Call of the wild

A buddy came into the office a few days ago to showcase his brain damage. Actually, he came in so that he could show me how to run a new piece of software, and he started off by telling me about his nephew’s success in a recent road race.

“It was awesome,” he said. “They put him up on the podium, gave him a big bouquet and a cool race leader’s jersey. According to my brother, he’d wear it to bed if they’d let him.”

An hour later we took a break and talked bike racing. Then we talked about crashing. He’d had a severe fall about a year ago that left him unconscious for about ten minutes. This summer he’d crashed again, equally hard, and although he hadn’t been knocked out, his helmet was shattered into three pieces and he’d been “dizzy and throwing up for about ten minutes.”

“Two severe concussions in a year?” I asked. “That’s pretty serious.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “I haven’t recovered from that last one. I can’t remember things that I should, and can’t focus on things very well, either. You know, shit that’s mindless, like filling up a water bottle.”


“Yeah. I’ll have to think extra hard about really little things and a lot of the time no matter how hard I think I can’t ‘get’ what I’m trying to get. It’s frustrating as hell.”

“You’ve got brain damage, dude.”

“I know.”

“It’ll take a while to heal up. A year, maybe two, easy.”

“Or maybe never?”

“Well, you were pretty thick-headed to start off with, so it might be hard to tell.”

He laughed. “Hey, man, my nephew won his junior’s road race a couple of weeks ago. He was so stoked. They put him up on the podium, gave him a big bouquet, and a cool race leader’s jersey. According to my brother he’d sleep in it if he could.”


“Yeah, it was awesome.”

“I thought it was awesome, too, when I first heard about it.”

“You heard about it?”


“From who?”

“You. About an hour ago.”

We looked at each other.

Those goofy bike racers

We all know plenty of bike racers who are a little “goofy,” not to mention the ones who are “out there,” and of course the ones who are “batshit crazy as hell.” I wonder how much of that is due to brain damage? Anyone who’s raced regularly for more than twenty years has almost certainly hit their head; racers who are particularly aggressive (i.e. successful) may have been dinged in the brain a dozen times or more over the course of a career.

These are hard hits, too. One buddy who got whacked by a car and was knocked unconscious took almost two years to fully recover his mental faculties, and he claims he has never fully recovered. I believe him.

What’s oddest isn’t the extraordinary danger involved in road riding, let alone racing. It’s the ease with which we forget, or rather the rapidity with which we internalize the horror and the trauma of bad accidents.

Whether it’s the buddy with a broken neck who spent six months in a halo and then had major surgery to have bolts put into his neck and a piece of his hip fused onto his spine, whether it’s the buddy who hit the deck on a concrete velodrome at 40 mph, whether it’s the group ride gone haywire when five buddies went down hard in a field sprint, or, what sometimes seems just as bad, whether it’s the fear and terror and shaking when you’re lucky enough to navigate through the mess of bodies and screaming victims and broken bicycles, the incredible thing is that we blithely continue on racing our bikes knowing full well that if you race often enough it’s not a matter of whether you’ll crash but of when and how badly.

What could possibly explain it?

Please set dial to “adrenaline”

The easiest explanation is that after a certain number of years, what is “fun” becomes nothing more than the thrill of combat. One buddy who smashed his hip so badly he was told he’d never walk again, then crushed an elbow, then broke a collarbone, the broke his other hip, then fell in a bad track accident, has stopped riding after each accident just long enough to recover. Once the bones heal he’s at it again.

It reminds me of men in combat who, despite suffering grisly injuries, couldn’t wait to return to their units. We get so used to the terror and the calamity that it’s not merely normal, it’s part of our mental fabric.

A few weeks ago one of my buddies went down mid-sprint at Manhattan Beach. He’s a big guy, and he hit so hard that you could hear his body smack the pavement as far away as the exhibitor tents. Just watching him inert on the pavement was terrible. He fixed his bike and was racing full-bore again at Brentwood.

PTSD: It’s not just for soldiers anymore

Two more buddies suffered catastrophic injuries in the past year; one in a race and one while training. Buddy A was so traumatized by the accident that he can barely ride his bike, let alone race despite being completely healed. Buddy B almost bled to death, then almost had a leg amputated, and is still disabled after numerous surgeries and extensive physical therapy. Yet another buddy who was run down from behind by a psychotic cager still has mental problems riding his bike. He can’t relax. The sound of approaching cars freaks him out. He’s recovered from his injuries, on the outside anyway.

What struck me about all of them wasn’t just the awful nature of their injuries but the battering taken by their psyches. They’re not the same ol’ girl they used to be. A part of them is missing, and you don’t have to talk to them long to figure out what it is. They’re in shock. Delayed, long-term, lingering emotional shock.

So with the brain injuries, concussions, shattered bones, broken necks, shredded faces, mangled digits (I didn’t even mention the people who’ve had their fingers sawed off while working on fixed-gear bikes doing things as innocuous as wiping a chain), and countless other horrific injuries to which the bicycling flesh is heir to, it might cause you to wonder why you keep doing it?

I think for most of us the answer is the same.

“I don’t know. Let’s ride.”

32 thoughts on “Call of the wild”

  1. WM, I identified with this post. Yet, despite half of the injuries you mention here, over forty years of riding and racing, the reason I finally
    stopped ‘riding in earnest’ is because of the time it takes, and the suffering. Not the injuries and crashes. My lovely gal, ‘Sal’, however, cringes when she even sees me kit up and go out for a ride….because, she, as well as I (now), are afraid of the cars. It’s been a long road.

      1. Duane Roth (62) an avid cyclist (not a racer) died last weekend after being in a coma for two weeks…solo crash off the road into a rocky ledge in the Cuyamacas (east SD County, north of Boulevard). He was on a group ride for Challenged Athletes, but between groups when he went down, and nobody saw it happen. Duane was a good man, an able CEO, attorney, and chaired several public companies. A big philanthropist in San Diego, he will be sorely missed.

  2. I was going to add my own story, but we all know a version of it.

    IMHO, the worst part is after all the death and human damage there are a number of roadies who are still just plain hostile to other cyclists, even the ones that look like them. There are some good guys that ride competitively, but definitely not enough though.

    Keep up the good work

    1. Yes. I wanted to add a section about racers who try to crash you out. Crazy stuff.

  3. Oh WM why do you make me think about these things? Before my major injury I did it for self preservation, now me thinks addiction, plain and not simple for me.

    1. I’m not sure about addiction. It’s certainly a habit. Pathological behavior, maybe? I don’t know.

  4. Peter Schindler

    Only two types of riders, those that have crashed and those that are going to crash. Everyone crashes, the only difference is how severe the injury.

    1. I think that’s in the blog post somewhere, and, yes. I guess “frequency” is another factor.

  5. This is a timely article for me as I had just recovered from a broken collarbone about 3 half months ago when I got into a crash about 2 weeks ago on a Sunday training ride and separated my shoulder.

    I would like to say that there was really nothing I could have reasonably done to avoid the crashes (branch flew into my spokes on the first and I could not a avoid a crash that happend just next to and lid into me on the second) but I am wondering if I am just tempting fate when I go back out ther for more.

    Compared to the original story I have minor war wounds from both incidents (a few permanent bumps that will derail my lucrative modeling career) and while I consider myself lucky for healing relatively quickly I am amazed at how different people answer the question, “when do you say, enough is enough?”

    1. That’s a great way to put it. When is it enough? Yes, we’re tempting fate in one sense. Still, we’re going to die eventually, so it’s more like keeping fate at bay rather than tempting it. Also, as we all know, there are incredible risks to couch surfing, the main one being death by boredom.

  6. I crashed in a race. It wasn’t a bad crash but bad enough to scare me away from ever racing again.
    I witnessed a crash at BWGP. It was ugly. Held the kids hand until the ambulace arrived. The kid was so young and it was heart wrencing to see his mom so scared. I think I am done being a spectator.

    Be careful out there!

    ps – That Lagunitas you offered me came just when I needed some numbing. Thanks!

    1. Must have been my beer-toting evil twin!

      I know people who have quit racing the first few minutes into their first race. Everyone has a different threshold. One of the commenters below phrased it as “When is enough really ‘enough’?” The more we race the more it sinks in that it’s not really a matter of being careful because we’re always careful. It’s something else. I don’t know what, though.

  7. My final race was planned that way. What wasn’t planned was the ambulance ride and night in ER courtesy of another guy’s high risk maneuver gone bad. That mishap added the third concussion in 24months and was I ever glad when my brain eventually healed up. It is a hard, hard sport. Agreed, let’s ride.

    1. And the weird thing is that you know it’s going to happen but you somehow don’t care. At least the ones who continue don’t.

  8. Thanks for this sobering post Seth.

    I hope everyone within blog-shot reads this twice, and thinks not only about their own carnage, but the carnage that could very easily be visited upon their families in terms of emotional trauma, lost wages, lost jobs, lost mortgages, medical bills mounting into the tens of thousands(if you’re lucky), kid’s college funds depleted to pay off the medical bills… the list can go on.. more personally, think about how much you love riding your bike; now think about not being able to get out of your wheelchair without assistance and being spoon-fed by a live-in caregiver because you lack the functionality to hold you own spoon… not even being able to wipe the drool from your chin… Visualize yourself in that state for a moment… Hold that Picture…

    A quick note on helmets; The are designed to protect you only against linear forces. Here’s a sobering quote from one of the scientific studies on helmet “protection”…

    More serious injuries, on the other hand, are often as a result of angular or rotational acceleration, which leads to diffuse axonal injury (DAI) and subdural haematoma (SDH). These are the most common brain injuries sustained by road crash victims that result in death or chronic intellectual disablement.

    Cycle helmets are not designed to mitigate rotational injuries, and research has NOT shown them to be effective in doing so.

    As I understand it, in layman’s terms, basically, on rotational impact, your brain spins, or tries to, and as the layers of your brain “slide” in relation to one another the synaptic connections between the layers can be “sheared”, hence “intellectual disablement”.

    Take a moment to think about this tomorrow morning before you jump into the fray of testosterone jockeys fighting for a moments glory that will be long forgotten before you reach the coffee shop.

    1. You’ve said it better than I did. One of the interesting comments was that this is an addiction. I’m used to thinking of addictions as related to substances, so that explanation doesn’t work for me.

      Then you start thinking about other behaviors, like golf or scrapbooking, into which people throw themselves with similar abandon, the only difference being that the scrapbookers don’t break their collarbones often and the golfers don’t wear helmets. None of it makes much sense, frankly.

      I’m also unsure what to do with the “racing is dangerous” conclusion. It is. And it’s deadlier than golf. But is that a reason to quit doing it? Rather, is that “the” reason to quit doing it?

      1. Thanks Seth, it was duly inspired.

        Having spent an entire week in the ICU hooked up to a morphine drip(my forearm had been completely dislocated and shattered) I can attest that the euphoric dopamine+ rush we get from extended periods of time in Zone Six is not dissimilar to the flood of pleasure morphine delivers. We are addicted to our own endogenous “drug” supply. I think that’s the short answer. Then there’s the social/communal aspects as well…

        As far as “racing is dangerous”, I think the answer could be found in a Weber-esque theory on crowd behavior. Witness a gap open on the local group ride and egged on by the torch and pitch fork brigade, a rider will leap out of his saddle, stabbing his pedals into the ground in an effort to instantly close the 20 foot gap. Panic spreads like wildfire as every rider behind follows in lemming-like suite. If you’re lucky all you get is a bunch of overlapped wheels. Given the penchant for cyclists to act like lemmings, we can see that the smart wheel would gently accelerate, closing the gap smoothly without creating chaos in his wake. A few cool heads sprinkled through the peloton could do a lot to mitigate the danger and fear(which is the core of the problem). Fear has started World Wars, so that’s a tough one…
        They say we are carbon-based, but I would add fear-based… Ha.

        I don’t think it’s “the” reason to quit, but maybe “a” reason to, as the Knight in the cave told Indiana Jones, to “choose wisely”, find the safe wheels, and let it be okay, when panic erupts, to just ease off the pace and float to the back. As the saying goes “cooler heads prevail”. They may also live longer without brain damage…

        1. Well said. It’s definitely a reason, but there are so many others, right? Cost, time, diminishing returns, ephemeral nature of the accomplishment, which is meaningless on virtually any scale.

          The bigger question is “How will I spend my time here?” An acquaintance today extolled to me the virtues of life insurance and retirement plans, or rather the virtues of a career selling them. He then proudly said that his son “Would be employable immediately upon graduation.” The kid is a mechanical engineer.

          I didn’t argue with him, because there’s no argument. For him, the sale of insurance products will be the sum of his life, give or take a mechanical engineer. Those are good things, perhaps, but they aren’t my things. Some very poorly coded piece of DNA tells me that the mix, the faux battles, the camaraderie, the fascination with the ridiculous, the exploration of the absurd, the fellowship of beer and donuts and bikes, that these are the sum of my life, and I enjoy them every bit as much as my friend claims to enjoy selling insurance products.

          My time here will have little in the way of tangible benefit, and it may end catastrophically at the Torrance crit next weekend. But don’t cry for me. I’ve got good life insurance.

  9. Ive spent the majority of my adult life indulging in sports that arent exactly safe, and a 27 years in a career that I cant even get disability insurance. You get banged and cut up. You cant walk for a while. It hurts….Then yesterday I hear about a buddy who was riding his stationary bike, got off and slipped crossing the threshold and fell down hard. Bruised kidneys, tore some muscles in his back and red zoned his sciatic nerve so bad that his testicles feel like they are in a vice…So what the fawk. At least if we get hurt its always a good story.

  10. I know of a guy who injured/strained his back muscles during a “hard sneeze”.

    If you’re walking around stiff and in pain, I suppose it sounds better to tell family & friends you were injured during a mad sprint for the podium spot, than “I injured myself sneezing”.

    1. If you’re walking around “stiff and in pain” I’d presume you took too much viagra.

      1. If you’re pedaling stiff, that’s a whole other problem, related primarily to PBF.

    2. I met a lot of people who threw out their backs in Japan while sneezing. I just couldn’t believe they admitted it. How hard is it to say, “I threw it out with the old lady,” or “We were moving the piano upstairs,” or “My mistress was standing on it”?

  11. With this shithole of a world we live in, which isn’t getting any better, with a House that represents the crazy pants in society, a Senate run by rich white guys who are hell bent on protecting theirs, a Supreme court dominated by overtly political justices who should recuse themselves on every other case they hear and a President who is a “step n’ fetch” for corporate America, really what is the danger in riding. We’re living in an Orwellian time, only a generation away from being a green paste for the “privileged” and hiding in sewers looking over our shoulders for “Mr. Smith”. Queen said it best, “Get on your bikes and ride”. Ding, ding.

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