Hard Fall

In the autumn of 1999 I was on my third or fourth comeback as a bike racer.
I had bought an Ibis hardtail and I had been rolling the fire roads and steep hills of Marin and Mt. Tamalpais.

I had managed to hook up with a group of local pros – guys from Lombardi Sports, guys trying to make the grade, step up to the next level, or just hold their position as the years rolled on. I was chasing down the ghosts of the sport I had left just two and half years before. I was in a hurry to get fit before cyclocross nationals, just 10 weeks away, just down the road in the Presidio.

I lacked miles and was trying to make up for it. So I had gotten myself invited on the long mountain bike rides these guys would do on Saturdays. I would make the drive over the Golden Gate Bridge, up to San Anselmo or Fairfax, and park on a side street, pull down my bike, meet the group and the coffee shop and roll out.

I learned the rhythm of the ride the hard way. The first times out were 4 or 5 hours long. I never brought enough food or drink and we never stopped for any. Not that there was any place to stop. We stayed tucked in the redwoods and grassy hills of the North Bay, without a sighting of pavement or structure, for much of the duration. I couldn’t allow myself to get dropped. I had no idea how to get back to the car, and I sure as hell couldn’t ask these guys to slow down. In cycling, there are rules of etiquette and I had already breached one of them by interloping into their elite group.

Some groups have a “no man left behind” policy, where if anybody flats or falls, everybody stops. In other cases, a rider or two will pace dropped riders back on. Or escort them home in a slower group.

But these guys were serious.

This was no Sunday coffee shop ride. This was training. Any further violations would have me banned outright. So I pedaled on and hoped for a return of form and metabolic efficiency and, meanwhile, took bigger bottles and packed more Cliff Bars into my pockets.

The autumn is the best time of year in the Bay Area. The air, land and marine temperatures strike an equilibrium that keeps the fog well offshore and delivers sunny mornings. So we rolled out the smooth paved roads from San Anselmo one such morning, climbing up and over Corte Madeira, into Mill Valley where we picked up the fire roads at the foot of Mt. Tam. The plan was to ride over Tam and onto the trails along the Pacific side, rounding back at Olema.

The guys were drilling it up the climb. I had no idea how I was going to make it another 4 hours, but I was hanging on and starting to feel comfortable. We crossed over Pan Toll Highway — barely absorbed the vista of Stinson Beach, the Pacific Ocean sparkling beneath us, the tip of San Francisco and the waves crashing on Ocean Beach, the Farrallon Islands on the distant horizon — and rolled onto the descent.

We let it fly on the way down. Big gears, chain slapping against the stays, shocks compressing and rebounding. The previous week’s rain had cut ravines into the dirt and every few hundred meters, when I rode over them, they grabbed at my front wheel and tried to jerk the bars out of my hands. But they weren’t too deep and I was able to ride out of them and keep pace with the guys in front of me. I had never been a fearless descender off the road. Part due to etiquette so not to get dropped, part due to my returning fitness, I relaxed my death grip and let it rip.
Then, all of a sudden, my front wheel sunk into a particularly deep ravine. I couldn’t get the wheel up and out. I couldn’t brake because I was carrying too much speed. I visualized my current trajectory along the fissure, made some rapid calculations and determined that the path would take me off the road and over the side of the mountain.

At the last instant, I was able to get out of the ditch, but it was too late. I hit the berm on the side of the road instead. My fork compressed and bottomed out and I pitched up and over the bars, my feet still clipped into the pedals. I was hoping for a soft landing – and not to continue tumbling down the slope – but I landed hard on my left shoulder and bore the full impact. I felt something snap. I heard it, too. And then I finally came to rest. The riders who were behind me held up to see if I was okay.

I felt no pain, but my shoulder was stiff. One of the riders was a physical therapist. He pushed on the top I my shoulder. I yelled out.

“Yep. You separated your shoulder. You should get it checked out,” he said as he climbed back on his bike.

My shoulder and whole arm were starting to hurt.

“I think I can keep going,” I said.

“No, you should go back,” he replied.

I gripped the handlebars, tried to pull up on them. My left arm was useless.

I was half hoping somebody would offer to go back with me, or go fetch a car so I didn’t have to ride all the way back to San Anselmo. I was too afraid to ask. And I had already committed the worst of all possible sins – making the group stop.

So I watched them ride away, down the mountain. Then I turned to hike back up to the top, dragging my bike along, my left arm hanging limp by my side. It was too steep to ride back up, impossible to get going again with only one functional arm.

At the top, I jumped back on the bike and took the smooth, paved roads back to San Anselmo. I rode with one arm most of the way, which made a terrifying descent off Tam on the twisting, winding roads and made my good arm very tired.

I rode back through Mill Valley. Up and over Corte Madeira hill and back to my car in San Anselmo. I hoisted the bike onto the roof rack, managing with one arm to line up fork in the bracket, and drove off. Driving was tricky because I had a stick shift. Every time I shifted, I had to brace the steering wheel with my knee because I couldn’t use my left arm.

As I approached the Golden Gate bridge and its toll, I patted down my pockets for my wallet, but couldn’t find it. I pulled off in Sausalito, went through my gear, and found no wallet. So I turned around and headed back to San Anselmo, back to where I had parked. I looked around. No wallet. I went to the police station and fortunately, some kind person had found the wallet and turned it in – money and all.

When I finally got home to SF, I felt pretty beat up. Not so bad that I couldn’t pop a few ibuprofen and go to the Luna concert that night — only with a newfound awareness of how much people bump into you.

A few days later, I saw the orthopedist. The clavicle bone could plainly be seen floating a centimeter or two above its normal position. I had torn some of the acromial ligaments in my left shoulder. The x-rays confirmed it. Fortunately, it would heal on its own and there was no need for surgery. But it would take 6-8 weeks.

I still went to ‘cross nationals that year…as a spectator.

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