Mid-day. Not even mid-afternoon, barely past lunch time. I’m done for the day. On the couch, feet up, ice-pack on my thigh, shallow breaths. As a mountain biker, injury is inevitable, part of the sport. I bought my bike fourteen months ago. Eli, one year in at that point, all but addicted, and needing a riding partner in the off-season, when his team stopped meeting for the year.
When I bought my bike, I started riding with two goals: Regain my mountain bike mojo, twenty years in hibernation; and stay on my freaking bike. I met these goals well. I rode with appropriate caution, but I still comfortably rode with Eli. I realized if I could hang with Eli, I could ride with half his team. I signed up as a coach.
I divide our coaches into two categories. Those who actually coach, and those who serve as extra bodies because a mountain biking team needs tons of adults present. I put myself in the second category, and I think the kids do too. But, with some of the other coaches, it’s not too clear. “Jeff, you’re leading the middle-schoolers today.” Throughout the season my rusty skills improved, my confidence ramped up and my mojo returned, mostly. Once again, I’m a competent rider.
Today, Eli and I rode the trails out of the “Mud Banks” parking lot—easy riding nestled in the middle of the generally advanced Michaux State Forest. I’ve been struggling with headaches and dizziness for months. So far, undiagnosed but an MRI showed no timebombs or land mines lurking in my skull. I wanted to ride something fun, challenging only in an aerobic way. Sort of a test for my brain, to see how I felt during and after the ride.
Eli isn’t so easy to keep up with these days. At some point last season, his skill level slipped beyond mine. He always rode with the strongest riders on the team, while I rode with the middle-schoolers at a much more casual pace. Plus, because of my dizziness, I’ve let my fitness lapse. “Dad, you lead today. I want this ride to be fun for you.”
A mile or so into the ride, I cut off onto a side-path we’ve never ridden. It’s a fast, flowy, downhill trail I’ve run several times that I thought Eli would enjoy. As we approached an intersection, I gave some instructions. “Hard right turn, down the bank and through the stream.” I cut right, dropped off a ledge formed by erosion under a root, and before I could react, my front wheel came to a full stop against an oversized rock. My rear wheel launched up over my head, and I splashed down into an inch of water in the middle of the rocky stream.
“Jesus Dad, are you OK?” I wasn’t. I landed on my right side, my elbow first and then my thigh, at some point my chest. The jutting rocks in a streambed are hard to miss, and I didn’t. After a couple minutes, climbing slowly up the bank and sitting down on a log, I took an assessment. My elbow hurt, but wasn’t bleeding through my clothes. My thigh ached in a dull way that made me think it might cause trouble later on. And breathing was a little painful in my chest.
Three miles of riding got us back to the car. Eli was beside himself with caution. “Dad, let’s walk this section up here, it looks tricky.” And later: “Maybe we should skip this trail and head for the road.” On a long down-hill with no pedaling, my thigh began to lock up, and on the final, easy, mile-long flat, I simply wanted to quit.
When we returned to the truck, I commented that I was happy I could take such a hard hit without shattering like an earthenware bowl. “That’s because you’re in such good shape, Dad.” A really nice thing to hear from my teenage son who has recently surpassed me in that category. The ride home was fairly uncomfortable, my thigh swelled dramatically and became numb.
Now, camped out on the couch—a huge bruise and a pair of cuts on my elbow, a leg I can scarcely stand on, and ribs that remind me of my crash every time I make a heavy sigh, which is far too frequently this afternoon—I’m thinking more about that stay-on-the-bike edict. Maybe I got cocky, maybe I was pushing too hard because I wanted Eli to have a good time, maybe I was trying to send it like middle-schoolers I ride with so frequently. Whatever. I’m fifty-eight. A smart thing to remember while I’m out riding with the kids.