Falling Off

The accidents and injuries recounted here took place a long time ago. We’re healed now, but we’re different than before. I’ve been thinking more about this because I’ve been riding a fair amount of technical trail by myself lately. Normally, I’m more cautious when I’m alone, but sometimes the feeling takes me, and I put myself in harm’s way. This feels dumb, but also unavoidable.

But probably it’s just dumb. Anyway.

Once upon a time, Padraig fell off his bike and broke a rib. OUCH! It was one of those classic mountain bike crashes where he was forced to pull up short on a steep incline, bucking bronco-style, then unclipped and put his foot out, only to find the ground was actually a foot lower than his brain had mapped it. This bit of physical comedy ended with him bouncing off a tree stump and then trying very hard for the ensuing days not to sneeze, cough or even fart forcefully. If you’ve ever busted a rib, you know that last line isn’t actually a joke.

No one likes to fall off probably, unless they have a screw loose. And so, it’s a kind of confession I make when I say that I don’t like to injure myself, but I do believe sometimes you have to crash to learn the things you need to learn, even if the lesson is: YOU’RE NOT VERY GOOD AT BIKES!

I hate to be hurt, but I also wouldn’t trade any of my crashes for cash or prizes.

Also, there is a fascinating phenomenon that attends many such events whereby time slows down, shockingly long and accurate strings of thought occur, and you are even able to make conscious adjustments to the nature of your ill-fortune. OK. OK. Sometimes those stretched moments become the stuff of PTSD, vivid recollections of your limbs arranged in ways horror movies haven’t yet contemplated. I have been sure, in the violence of past mountain bike crashes for example, that I have kicked myself fully in the back of the head. That is not possible.

But is it?

Other times, the long time signature of a crash feels like a window into your life as a superhero, and the neurochemistry of those traumatic moments does mirror the heady mix of transmitters associated with flow states. In that way I can tell you I honestly enjoyed some of my crashes.

Once I was the father of a two-year-old who broke his leg (another hilarious story), and so I spent three nights sleeping on the floor next to his race car bed, soothing him if/when he woke up in pain, simultaneously turning myself into an extra from the Walking Dead series. On the third day of this domestic torture, I was riding my bike to work, fixed-gear and fancy free, when I woke from a fatigue-based daydream to the realization that the light I was steaming toward had turned red. I had plenty of time to slow myself and stop, but my reptile brain didn’t wait around to complete that graceful maneuver. Instead, I reversed pedals post haste, and as a result, launched myself over the bars to meet my asphalt destiny.

That’s when time slowed down. My elbow touched the asphalt first. In fact, I seemed to be sliding on my elbow, the rest of my body suspended upside down, a break-dancing move no one thought was a good idea. Then, I had the thought, “Hmm, my elbow is burning. I’d better move that.” So I pulled that arm up away from the ground and went into what I’ll call a “power roll,” but onlookers might have described as a “total f*$#ing yard sale.”

I’ve never thought of the term ‘side-splitting’ as possible fodder for double entendre, but now I see its potential.

Perhaps a better and less painful example of the phenomenon befell me on another commute. For years, the most treacherous stretch of my daily route was a narrow, heavily trafficked, and steep hill about a quarter-of-a-mile long. And one morning, as I attempted to thread the needle between idling cars and towering curb, I looked up to see a tow truck in the line ahead. This tow truck had those extra wide side-view mirrors, and so my path was blocked.

That’s when I made the mistake.

I veered up onto the sidewalk, a move I never make, thinking I’d just cheat around the tow truck and come down again at the next driveway. Bikes don’t belong on sidewalks, and here’s why. The exit point at the next driveway was awash in dead leaves, and beneath those leaves, the pavement had eroded to the depth of about 4 inches, which meant that, as I came rolling back down into traffic, my front wheel sluiced sideways and catapulted me at speed into the front quarter panel of a car waiting for the light to change.

I thought, “Well, I’m going to hit that car,” and then, “At least it’s not a very nice car.” A nano-second had passed, but already I was getting snarky, which made what happened next even funnier. The angle of that quarter-panel threw me up and over the bars of my bike, so that my next cogent thought was, “I’m upside down, and I’m going to hit another car. This is going to end badly,” whereupon I struck the back of a Mercedes SUV and slid down its rear tailgate, dropping onto my head and shoulder in the mix of leaves and gravel.

I laid there, like you do, running the diagnostics, like you do, and laughed out loud as I realized I wasn’t actually hurt. That the crash looked awful is indisputable. People got out of their cars. For New Englanders to get out of their cars, when it’s cold, to help a cyclist, tells you all you need to know. Two offered to take me to the hospital. One asked if I needed a lift to a bike shop. I took a moment to explain that I was genuinely unhurt and that actually, I worked where the bike was made, none of which seemed to make much sense to my rescuers.

I had put a solid dent in the first car, but the woman looked at it and said, “It was already dented. I’m not worried about it.” The driver of the second vehicle, the Mercedes, was similarly flippant. I had crashed hard enough to bend my saddle rails, but my helmet was intact, and these folks were willing to let me ride off to ruin someone else’s day, so I celebrated my good fortune by pedaling away from the scene before anyone called a cop.

That’s two crash stories, one injury, one stroke of good luck, and as I type I realize I could go on and on. I’ve fallen off a lot. Sometimes I learned valuable lessons (e.g. slow down, pull up, you don’t have that much skill). Sometimes I got a great story. Sometimes I had a good laugh. I’m not reckless, but I’m also not overly careful.

I give falling off a 10/10. Without the potential to fall off, why stay on? What are we even doing? That doesn’t mean I want to swap places with Padraig or anyone else who’s busted a rib, who can’t get out of bed without feeling like they’ve been stabbed, but also can’t get the time of day from a doctor about it. Oh no. I love falling off, but what I like even more is someone else doing it.

Join the conversation
  1. Pat Navin says

    Oh my… Falling off stories (and those are good ones) can be humorous, mostly in retrospect. Like the day I was riding to work and coming up on a slow cyclist who was all the way in the gutter (with her earbuds in) when she suddenly veered left, seeking to make a left-hand turn. Instead of t-boning her while I was hitting 20 mph, I hit the brakes hard and went over the top. Like an idiot (we know better), I put my right arm out and instantly popped off the little end cap on my elbow. I knew it was broken instantly. My daughter came and picked me up. The next morning, I went to see the orthopedic doc and he asked, “How did it happen?” “Bike accident.” “We’ll have you back on the bike in four to six weeks.”

    I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I had ridden the bike, one-handed, the 10 miles to his office. My god, we do stupid stuff…

  2. alanm9 says

    Lesson 1: don’t take a corner hard on an asphalt road while riding cyclocross tires. Broken collarbone, broken shoulder blade, broken rib, punctured lung.
    Lesson 2: although 999 out of 1000 motorists will run the yellow light, the one in front of you won’t. Over the bars, two broken back ribs.
    Lesson 3: Going downhill at 30mph on a gusty day at mile 97 of a century is a bad time to use both hands to massage an aching back. Ride to the ER strapped in a horse collar and backboard, 26 square feet of road rash, miraculously nothing broken.

  3. TominAlbany says

    Roll a drop that’s too steep to roll? I’ve done it. Only cost me a front wheel (full taco) and a helmet.
    Broke my rib ripping home from work. I was intending to quickly avoid a 6″ tall cone of pavement spoils-pile. I got the front wheel around it, the back wheel got taken out and next thing I know I’m on the ground. In front of cars… Lucky it was only a broken rib.

  4. jcs2317 says

    I don’t fixate on the bad things that can happen falling off of a bike. I have been lucky enough to avoid almost all types of cycling related injuries, particularly fractures and severe road rash. My worst crash happened earlier this year when I decided to take a stab at mountain biking after a 20 year hiatus. I went over the handlebars on a steep trail section that was beyond my ability and landed heavily on my back and side. No breaks, or cuts, just some superficial abrasions, but I felt the after effects for about 5 weeks after that incident. My wife would just shake her head and say “you’re not 35 anymore…”. I did go back out on the trails; I just was careful to stay within my own limitations.
    If you really worry about falling off the bike, you’ll probably never get on.

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