The rapid-fire clang! clang! that rang out as my bicycle’s two wheels impacted the steel plate covering the expansion joint at the near end of the bike path bridge gave me fair warning it was time to feather my brakes. But I was too slow to respond.
Two hours later, on that furnace-hot June Arizona day, I was lying on a padded table at a Tucson urgent care center with X-ray diagnostic equipment hovering over my body to determine the extent of my injuries.
It would be an accident that left my body partially broken, my confidence in tatters and my plans of racing 100 miles in the Rocky Mountain Foothills that September and touring for two weeks in the South of France later in the year, at best, postponed. And, it set me on a road not for biking, but of recovery.
Bouncing back from a serious cycling accident is difficult — physically and psychologically — and with the number of crashes being reported around the globe increasing, learning how to cope after a traumatic event is an important skill to master.
I’ve loved cycling since I began riding consistently six years ago. Logging 35,000 miles through parts of twenty states and meeting people from around the world has made my life better than I could have ever imagined. I played basketball and football when I was young and ran distance from age 28 to 50 until my arthritic ankles convinced me to take a break. Staying active has always been at the core of my existence. As I’ve aged, I’ve become more aware that life has a finite end. People don’t keep beyond their expiration date, and neither will I. As a result, I do my best to make the most of every waking moment I’m given.
On the day of my accident, with its cool morning breeze, sunny blue skies and perfect road conditions, I caught myself smiling a couple times as I cruised along, feeling almost as if I was floating as I rode towards the base of the Catalina Mountains in the distance. I had lost seven pounds during the previous four weeks by watching what I had been eating and adding miles to my training schedule. My goal was to be a total of twenty pounds lighter by the time I attempted to tackle the daunting climb of France’s iconic Mont Ventoux (also known as the Giant of Provence) during a trip we had planned for later that fall.
It’s true what they say about serious accidents. The events on that day seem to have occurred in slow motion, with buffered sound and a strange comprehension during the few moments I was suspended in air that what was occurring wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill crash. I was riding too fast on a multi-use path bridge, especially since its design included a dangerous 90-degree turn at the far end. My rear wheel skidded on the metal expansion plate as I made the turn, I over-corrected, and was thrown from my bike. I landed on my left hip, without any chance to break the fall with my hands.
I’ve read stories detailing how people react in the minutes after a crash, and I progressed through the sequence almost to the letter. I rose to my feet, took superficial stock of my injuries, checked my bike for damage (I didn’t see anything significant), turned off my STRAVA app so I would get credit for the 32 miles I had ridden to that point, and tried to gather myself. I immediately noticed I couldn’t put much weight on my left foot. Surprisingly, the only blood I saw was from a four-inch-long scrap on my elbow. I remember thinking, “I’ve had way worse injuries than this!” Two cyclists, neither of whom I had ever met, stopped to ask if I needed help. I told them I would be fine and thanked them. I really should have taken them up on their offer, but I wasn’t sure at that point the magnitude of the situation. As I watched them disappear around the bend, I stood under the shade of a tree near the spot where I had crashed.
I picked up my helmet, which had come off when I landed, and noticed it had a crack near the rear vents, no doubt from when my head had snapped back and impacted the concrete surface. Another five minutes passed, and I was still standing beside my bike, sweaty and dirty, taking deep breaths and downing big gulps of water. I began doing a self analysis and tried to determine if I would be capable of getting back on my bike for the hilly two-mile ride home. I attempted multiple times to swing my good leg over the saddle, but I failed miserably. The adrenaline, which had initially allowed me to endure the pain in my hip, was slowly wearing thin. And with it, I knew I needed help. I called my wife, Diane, told her a heavily edited version of my accident so she wouldn’t worry, and asked if she could leave the office and give me a lift home. “I’ll be there in just a few minutes,” she nervously replied. “Are you sure you’re going to be okay?” With as much confidence as I could muster in my voice, I answered, “I’ll be fine after I get home, take a shower and lie down.” As I ended the call, I knew I wasn’t going to be anywhere close to fine.
Upon her arrival, I painfully climbed inside her car and we made our way home so I could get cleaned-up before going to the local urgent care center. At their facility, X-rays were taken of my hip area. After 30 minutes, the nurse communicated to us that the films showed no fractures. I was given a prescription for pain and sent on my way. I was pleased with the findings, but skeptical. Once home, Diane helped me climb into bed, lifted my damaged leg slowly by inch-by-inch careful increments and gave me two 800mg ibuprofens. I drifted off to sleep, exhausted from the day’s events.
Questioning the Initial Findings
Prior to my retirement, I worked for a large medical device company. One of my responsibilities was developing promotional and educational programs detailing artificial hip replacement devices. In that role, I produced films and written protocols to teach surgeons and their support teams how to successfully use our company’s products to implant metal prostheses. I’ve been in more operating rooms leading videographers and sound technicians while surgeons performed surgeries than I can count. As a result, I know the anatomy and physiology of a human hip backward and forward. As I lay nearly motionless in my bed for the 24 hours following my crash, I began to review in my mind how the musculature, ligaments and joints in the hip and pelvis function. I was hopeful mine was a tissue-related injury, but I needed confirmation from a trained medical professional other than an urgent care employee. And I was aware that X-rays often aren’t able to pick up fractures in the pelvic region of the human body.
I began to develop a plan so I could get more information.
My first appointment with my family physician moved me down the road to a series of productive next steps. He immediately noticed I still couldn’t put weight on my left foot, a little surprising to him since I hadn’t improved much in the days since my accident. Furthermore, he was frustrated that my insurance company had refused an initial request for an MRI. During that appointment, he exited the exam room, made a call to their office, returned 15 minutes later, and said he told them it was imperative I get a more extensive test to determine if there was something the X-rays weren’t catching. On the same day, only hours after they had rushed me through the MRI facility, I received the results from the radiologist: “a fracture to my acetabulum (hip socket) and to my lower pelvis that would likely require surgery.” Next step: my PCP recommended a highly respected orthopedist to review my case and make recommendations for my medical care.
My initial appointment with the specialist was a few days later. After reviewing the MRI scans, she said I didn’t need surgery to correct my fracture. She went on to say that it was going to be a challenging path to recovery, but, with the help of several weeks of physical therapy, I should see strong results within a year. I was relieved surgery wasn’t going to be my ticket back to health.
I’ve always believed others shouldn’t put limits on your progress, no matter the hurdles that lie ahead. As I’ve gotten older, I know my body better than ever, and I’m well versed on what my physical limitations are. Three years ago, I bounced back from pneumonia after being away from cycling for seven weeks and began a grueling 12-week training schedule so I could join a friend to ride 420-miles across Iowa at RAGBRAI 2016. So, I know the seemingly impossible can become reality with a plan, effort and a little good fortune.
After meeting with my physical therapist for the first time in late July, I started adding to my twice-weekly appointments at her facility and joined a gym so I could do a full regiment of four additional stretching and strengthening 90-minute daily exercises each week. I also began riding a stationary bike the first week of August, working my way up from a painful 20 minutes at a 12 mile-per-hour pace to 30 minutes at 20 miles per hour within two weeks. Five weeks and seven sessions after I began my initial PT treatment, I met with her on August 20 and explained that it was my view that I would be able to complete the recovery program on my own. She hesitated with her response, but agreed to do the same series of strength and range of motion baseline tests she had done the first day we met. At the conclusion, she told me my improvements were “astounding” and I was free to take it to the next level individually. However, she emphasized that I should meet with my orthopedist before I made a final decision.
After seeing my orthopedist for a final appointment and going through another series of tests, she released me with a relatively clean bill of health. However, she emphasized that I should take it slowly at first and build my strength and endurance in the weeks to come. Ultimately, though, she said I should make it back to normal within four more months, Then she said something that caught my attention: “your new normal may not be the same as your old normal.”
A scary thought.
The next day, I climbed back on my bike and rode a very slow ten miles on the flattest path I could find. It had been just over ten weeks since my accident, and my entire body, especially my core, was so weak that I could barely make it home. But I pushed on as I progressed, adding more time and miles each day. I worked my way up to riding six consecutive 20-mile days by September 1. And the week of September 9, I biked a total of 144 miles over a five-day period, with a high of 41 miles. I was convinced I was finally on my way back. It had been a painful, often frustrating three months since I had my accident.
This entire series of health issues I’ve struggled with this cycling season is a period of my life I’ll always refer to as My Lost Summer.
On the positive side, I now know that with a good medical team, a plan for how to set and accomplish goals and putting in countless hours with a therapist and on your own, it’s possible to get back in the saddle and on the road to recovery. However, I realize my return is going to take time to discover what my “new normal” will be.
A final note: My dream of riding through the south of France had to be postponed following my accident; no climbing Mont Ventoux this year. But I progressed so quickly that my wife and I recently made the decision to do a shorter, less aggressive series of rides along the French Riviera this fall.
I’ve promised myself that it’s just a matter of time until I’m back to where I want to be.
Now let’s go see what’s over the next hill.