Bad fall

April 30, 2020 § 8 Comments

The one thing you can’t do is tell people how to ride their bikes. I see and hear discussions all the time where one person is complaining about how somebody else rides. It’s the most natural thing in the world.

“He’s erratic.”

“He’s careless.”

“She doesn’t know what she’s doing.”

“He’s dangerous.”

“She doesn’t pay attention.”

Rides too close. Rides too far away. Rides too much in the gutter. Rides too far out in the lane. Takes too many risks. Goes waaaaay too fast downhill. Throws back the rear wheel when climbing. Throws back the rear wheel when sitting back down. Wobbles. Weaves. Rides the brakes. Doesn’t shift into an easy gear before stopping. Doesn’t call shit out. Screams too loudly. Runs stop signs. Runs red lights. Too fast on the bike path. Overly cautious. No helmet. No lights. No gloves. Underdressed. Overdressed. Saddle too high. Gear too big. Saddle too low. Gear too small. Poor aimer of snot rockets.

In short? As many things as there are about a bicycle, that’s as many ways as there are to do it wrong according to someone else. Never mind that you’re enjoying the hell out of it, you’re for sure doing it wrong.

What everyone can agree on, though, is that when you fall off your bike someone did something wrong. What the wrong was and who did it, people are going to argue about, but when you’re pedaling along and suddenly you’re in the hospital, it’s unanimous that something was done that shouldn’t have been.

Steve Susman, 79, is one of the top trial lawyers in the nation. I don’t know if you know what the psychological profile is of a top trial lawyer, but let’s just say that they are aggressive, ego driven competitors for whom winning is the only thing … and multiply that times millions … of dollars. As Mike Tigar used to say in his criminal law classes at UT back in the 80’s, “A great trial lawyer is a quivering mountain of supreme self- confidence perpetually trembling on the edge of a bottomless chasm of insecurity and fear.”

I’ve not run into a really top-notch trial lawyer who doesn’t fit that description, so though I’ve never met Susman, I can tell through his cycling career that yep, that’s pretty much him. He is, by the way, in a coma.

Susman got into cycling in Houston, where he’s lived all his life, at the age of 70. He was overweight and in terrible shape. He had the typical gunslinger’s lifestyle: Big cases, big money, a palatial second home in New York, and a palatial spread around his waist.

Some of the attorneys in his office were doing the MS-150 about ten years ago and began needling Susman about how there was no way he could do it. A Feb. 2019 press release summed up Susman’s cycling career like this:

“When Susman, then 70 years old, said he intended to join Susman Godfrey’s team, Swift Justice, his colleagues said he was too old and too fat to complete the ride, particularly since he had never ridden a road bike, didn’t own one and was spending the winter in New York where it was too cold to train,” according to the release. “That encouraged Susman to buy a road bike in New York City, hire a trainer to teach him how to ride (in ski clothes around Central Park), go on a diet, and show up in April to attempt the 150-mile ride. He finished, with a lot of encouragement from his teammates, who waited for him at the top of every big hill.”

Another web site describes Susman as an “avid cyclist” who has “run” in numerous charity rides. In addition to leading spin classes at his firm, he’s raised hundreds of thousands for MS by participating in the “grueling” ride, and he recently quit skiing so that he could, of all things, avoid injuries that might interfere with his ability to pedal.

Susman’s story is ancient. Old guy at the end of his rope discovers cycling, goes all in, discovers he’s athletic at an age when most people are fine-tuning their wills, learns that he can explore the world in new ways, physically and metaphysically, watches his body and mind become youthful and healthy in a way he never imagined, and is transformed forever.

The story is so common and it fits so many people who become cyclists that it’s wholly unremarkable to anyone who’s been around for any length of time. This is the magic of the bicycle, the transformation.

Yet each personal story of change can often also be sub-categorized, and the trial lawyer fits one very distinct grouping. This is the person who engages in cycling as an outlet for achievement and competition against others. I’ll call it the Strava cyclist, and it’s most pronounced in older white men who have made a lot of money. For these cyclists, riding is transformational but it is also a validation of the life they’ve lived up until that point.

“See? I got that $500M verdict and I also beat everyone up that hill.”

You get a sense for Steve’s overweening trial lawyer personality when you learn that several times he was the number one fundraiser for the MS-150, allowing him to pin on the Number 1. How about that? Getting to do a bike ride where everyone knows you’re the money guy? Where you’re distinct not because you are fast and good, but because you are rich?

It’s kind of perfect for trial lawyers who have made millions.

You also get a sense for Steve’s personality when you learn that he ran spin classes at his firm and was the core around which the firm’s riding group was organized. I can well imagine it because I know the type. They’re not worth a fuck on the bike but they have a ton of money and power and they use it to make people ride with them, and more importantly, to make people ride the way they want them to.

The most revealing thing about Steve as a cyclist is in the last line of the paragraph I quoted above, written to show the non-cyclist what a competitor and tough guy Steve was, and written to show how cohesive his team was because they “waited for him at the top of the hill.”

What the fuck is that? No self-respecting cyclist ever waited for anyone ever, least of all some slowpoke Fred on a $15k rig who was doing his first century. The whole point of taking Fred out on his first century is to drop his ass and let him suffer for 90 miles alone in the frying Texas heat, starving at the empty feed stations, out of water, broken in spirit, humbled into a spreading pile of punctured ego, straggling in just before dark. Maybe after he got shelled he hooked up with a fellow Fred in the lifeboat and they became lifelong friends as they dragged, cajoled, and breastfed each other into the finish.

By the time they got there, their “friends” were all drunk, full, showered, bikes stowed, and waiting with every manner of joke at Fred’s expense while the supposed badass choked down the few remaining cold mouthfuls of humble pie. Best of all Fred got to ride home in the club van caked in sweat and humiliation, and hear about how awesome everyone else was … except him.

If you’re a tough guy, go-getter, ass kicker in the real world and you want to bring that into cycling, you don’t do it by making your junior employees wait for you at the top of the hill to cheer you on. You do it by accepting your place at the back of the bus, taking your weekly beatings on the group ride, and gradually realizing the only real life lesson that cycling has ever taught or ever will teach: You suck.

But back to Steve. Whatever his qualities as a cyclist, and trust me I’ve run across more cycling Steves in this world than you have, he is also a philanthropist, a supporter of worthy causes, and a guy who has dedicated his life to using some of his fortune to make life better for others. He’s larger than life, a giant.

Which adds to the terrible news that he’s not only in the hospital, he’s not only in a coma, but he got there by falling off his bike.

What went wrong? One of the riders in the group, another plaintiff lawyer and partner of Steve’s, witnessed the fall.

“In a freak accident, his front tire went into one of those seams [in the road] and locked. His momentum threw him over the bike. He had a good helmet on, but the way he landed, he hit his head very hard,” Manne said Wednesday.

This raises so many questions, for example, why is a trial lawyer calling a bike fall an “accident”? Either there was a dangerous condition in the roadway that the city was on notice of and for which the city is potentially liable, or Susman wasn’t paying attention, or Susman was paying attention and didn’t know how to hop a crack, or Susman was going so slow and his ebike was so heavy that he couldn’t lift it and it got stuck in the crack, or Susman was going too fast and was startled by the seam, or Susman’s setup was wrong, with tires that were too narrow for his skill level.

It’s hard to parse “his momentum threw him over the bike.” Was he going too fast for his skill or for the conditions? Or is this just a statement of physics, because every time your bike comes to a sudden stop you’re going over the handlebars?

Moreover, what in the world is “freak” about this fall? It’s about as garden variety a fall as they come when you are on 23 or 25mm tires in an urban environment. For example railroad crossings, of which there are a billion in Texas, are one of the most common and most hazardous road conditions that exist. If you ride a bunch in Texas, you are going to fall on a railroad crossing, period, no exceptions. Same for chugholes, uneven pavement, seams … and Susman was riding in the Braeswood area, whose streets are horrific even for a car.

Why did the other lawyer think it was a “freak” fall? Because of the head injury? Head injuries have been part of cycling since bikes were invented. The first sport helmets of any kind on earth were invented for cyclists, riders of the high-wheel penny farthing, for whom head injuries were such a part of the sport that they were called “headers” and were considered part of what made the sport, and you, tough.

Death and severe injury from head injuries are what drove the development of the safety cycle, i.e. the bike with two equally sized wheels that we ride today. The helmet industry, mandatory helmet laws in Australia, and war over bike lanes v. lane control are all functions of the non-freak nature of head injuries.

I suppose that the freakiness of the fall was the fact that it happened to Steve, the boss, the guy whose life had been transformed by cycling, the guy who was a poster child for all of the good that can happen when you pedal. Of all the people who might have seemed to have an invisible coat of armor surrounding them when they rode, it was likely Steve, pedaling his e-bike safely ensconced in a protective cocoon of his cycling subordinates, duty bound to wait for him and cheer him as he lagged up the hills.

The problem of course is that cycling doesn’t work like that. In cycling, although there are a world of variables that can knock you on your ass, many of which are worthy targets for being sued, in another sense you’re always on your own. Sure, drivers can be negligent and paving contractors can wrongfully put your life in danger, but none of that is going to help you get out of a jam, however much the lawsuit will help pay for the medical bills.

When you ride your bike, your assumption of the risk is total, and I don’t mean that in its legal sense, I mean it practically. No third person can keep you upright, although they can certainly knock you down, and it’s this total responsibility that makes cycling so empowering and so terrifying. Every second of every ride it’s all on you, and you either develop the skills to handle the road’s treachery, or the road handles you.

In fact, no matter how good you are, you’re going to fall, and over time I’ve seen lots of things that correlate with falling off your bike. One of them is speed. The faster you go, the more you’re going to fall. Another is late-entry, especially when combined with speed. The older you are and the less experience you have riding fast, entering cycling late is correlated with falling hard.

Returning to the aggro trial lawyer psyche, the competitor who likes to win, it’s natural to push yourself on the bike, which simply means going faster and working harder. Local trial lawyer Gerry Agnew found himself in a similar predicament several years ago. A complete beginner but aggro competitor, he started racing road time trials in his 60’s and in one of his first competitions he lost control at the finish on his twitchy, high-end TT bike, fell, broke his neck, and spent the next several months in a halo.

I have no reason to think that Susman was going too fast or that he was riding aggressively. What I do have reason to think is that Susman may not have had the skills to navigate bad pavement. Perhaps he thought that being surrounded by friends would keep him safe. Perhaps the fall was 100% caused by the city’s failure to maintain its roads. It’s easy to speculate about what Susman was doing wrong, because as I pointed out at the beginning, chances are good that everyone who doesn’t ride exactly the way you do is doing it wrong.

You = Right Way.

Them = Wrong Way.

Something like that.

It’s horrible beyond words that Susman is in what appears to be a life threatening or life altering medical situation, but cycling in general doesn’t prematurely end your life, it extends it. Everyone falls, but not many fall badly, and of those who do, a surprising number heal up and continue to ride.

I hope Steve Susman is one of those. And I hope the City of Houston fixes its lousy streets.


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§ 8 Responses to Bad fall

  • Brian Keller says:

    I hope Steve recovers from his fall. Sounds like quite a character.

    Your quote “A great trial lawyer is a quivering mountain of supreme self- confidence perpetually trembling on the edge of a bottomless chasm of insecurity and fear.” is absolutely the description of every “great” professional person; entertainer, salesperson, military leader, you name it.

    And it’s dead on.

    Thanks Seth.

  • Funny how some of the crappiest streets in America are lined with multi-million dollar houses. You’d think the rich people don’t want cyclists in their neighborhood or something.

  • …some fall off their bikes, end up in a hospital, and Seth Davidson is there to check on them in minutes…(heart)

  • downwinder says:

    Sounds like Denny Crane at Boston Legal took up cycling but I’m still wondering what happened to that cyclist who hurt his shoulder on the bike path.

  • When I was an active pilot the saying was that the most dangerous thing in the air wasn’t the weather or mechanical failure. No, the most dangerous thing in the air was a lawyer with an expensive airplane.

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