The Gift

My first broken bone, a finger, seemed at the time just about the most painful thing that could happen in sport. It was in middle school, and back then one didn’t see a doctor for silly things like broken fingers. My coach simply grabbed my finger in one hand and my ear in his other hand, and squeezed the latter under I cried. Then he twisted the L-shaped finger back into place. Unfortunately, I fell on it the next day and it’s still rotated twenty degrees after the first knuckle. But this was football, a real sport with real athletes, and so before long, I was cut from the team.

A few weeks later, I began racing bicycles. I was already a shop rat, and after failing at football (and baseball and soccer and basketball) I finally got permission from home to race my bicycle. These were the days of friction shifters and drilled out components, when protective headwear meant a cotton cap worn backwards, and scientific training meant eating a raw egg for breakfast. I won my first three races, and quickly acquired a big head. It was the weight of this big head that surely threw off my balance coming around a sharp corner on the course’s steepest descent. I slid out in some gravel, lost the front wheel, and slid ten meters before slamming into a mailbox post. As I was off the front and there weren’t any coaches or spectators or officials around to witness the embarrassing episode, I dusted myself off as best I could, and hoped that nobody would notice. But as I came around the start/finish of the first lap of four, having regrouped with the main pack, I realized that everyone had noticed. My coach shot me a menacing look and I swear I could hear him growl. Two of my teammates looked concerned, and one of them pointed at his right knee, so I glanced down at my right knee, and discovered that it was covered in blood and looking a little hamburgery. I shifted to the back of the pack, and doused the knee with water.

At the base of the climb the next time around, a few of us shot to the front, this time hoping to gap the field for good. A kid I knew from Santa Barbara was there; he was an excellent climber, a couple of years older, and a cross country runner who had gone to State. As I stood to bridge, I winced in pain as a little bolt of lightning shot down my left leg. I lost grip of the handlebars, and went down, taking a couple of kids with me.

This was more embarrassing than the solo crash, but the other guys seemed to be fine, so we hustled back onto our bikes and they made me pace them back to the pack. As we crested the hill and tucked down low, I felt a pain much worse than the broken finger. It started at the base of my neck and shot all the way down to my finger tips. The pain was so distracting that there was little I could do when, on the third lap, Santa Barbara, shot solo up the hill like a rocket and gapped the field. I finished with the pack and rolled over to my coach after the race.

“Does this hurt?” he said, pinching my left shoulder.
Delirious with pain, but wondering if this was a test, I whimpered, “A little.”
I guess my expression betrayed the suffering though, because he already knew. “Your clavicle is broken.”

Crap. I knew what that meant. A month away from racing a week off the bike. Just when I was fighting for a spot on the team. But I think he was reading my mind, because he continued, “Don’t worry – it’s early in the season and your place on the team is safe. Go sit down.”

The next day, I showed up for practice wearing a sling. As I was about to demonstrate my one handed riding abilities, Coach came over and handed me an envelope. It read “ICHIBAN DOJO,” which I thought was a pretty stupid name.

“You don’t know how to fall yet.” he said.
“But…” I stammered.
“These guys will teach you balance, and they will show you how to fall and not get hurt.”
"Yes, Coach.”

The judo lessons turned out to be pretty fun. I’d not imagined before being about to throw guys twice my size. And we did learn all sorts of interesting falling and rolling techniques, many of which have saved my hide in all sorts of cycling crashes. Unfortunately, I think I might have been too much of a quick study with the judo, however, because when I returned to the team, I discovered that my new role was less breakaway artist… less superdomestique… and more crit crash test dummy.

I crashed going into corners, coming out of corners, and on top of corners. I gracefully took out our strongest opponents, our weaker opponents, and if Coach was in a bad mood, some of our allies. The best thing about that season, is that I completely lost any fear of crashing – something that is very difficult for older racers to learn. Elbow-to-elbow around tight corners, bunny hopping medians, and even launching dirty attacks off of curbs or out of gutters: these were halcyon days indeed. Sam (the other designated crit crasher) and I took pride in our technique, and even learned to customize our bikes for better crashing. Sam made some nice aluminum scuff plates for our pedals and chainstays. I would lay down an extra layer of cotton tape on my bars, and shellac everything from the base of the brake levers to the end of the drops. But Sam one-upped me by having his mother sew strips of his obi along the inside of his shorts. Perhaps if I’d done that I wouldn’t have these unsightly scars up and down my thighs today.

Young racers today are very different from my competitive days. They are surely stronger, faster, healthier, and better looking. But they’re also less focused, and lack many of the skills we used to spend hours developing as juniors. There seem to be just as many crashes in today’s amateur racing as there ever was, but for some reason the injuries seem a little more serious. I wonder if this could be because riders are faster and heavier than in the past? Or perhaps they just need a little less whey protein and a little more judo.