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.”
“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?”
“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.”