The First Ride Back
by Brian Matula
Hello, my name's Elvis and I have a problem. A big problem. Riding is what I do.
This thought was going through my head when I crashed and dislocated my shoulder in June of 2004. It was still going through my head in January of 2005 as the doctor in the room outside the operating theater injected some wow-juice into my arm to make me sleepy. My last thought was, When will I ride again?
They had done an MRI and found a tear in the cartilage of the shoulder. It could be fixed. If they operated. Only, an operation would put me out of action for a few weeks, maybe more.
If it was your arm and you planned to keep riding, I asked the doctor, would you operate? Absolutely, he said. Without fixing, it could get worse over time. Already it "clicked", and it wasn't as strong as it used to be.
I decided to do it that winter. If I missed some riding, at least it'd be the cold days I missed, not the nice sunny road cruises.
But after a week of having my arm in a sling, I couldn't take it any more.
I broke out my Lemond Nevada City, and began to set it up. Cateye speedo, an old pair of SPD clipless, a pouch under the seat with a padlock. A bottle cage. I wanted to ride my fix, but I knew I wasn't ready. The 'Vada would have to do.
It was time to ride, my first real ride in a while. My first ride back.
I was not supposed to be doing this. The doctor had warned me, don't even go for physical therapy, not for a month or so. But I was going insane. The road was calling. I clipped in and accepted the charges.
It was a brisk 34 degrees as I lit out, first around the block, then out onto the main drag, oddly clear of snow. The 700x25c tires pulled more pavement than I expected. I eased my way up the hill, then past an intersection and a McDonalds. Remember that poem by Robert Frost where he came to the fork in the road? That's what I do every time I ride. But this time it was like learning all over again. I knew the way to ride, I had the ability, but the feeling of riding, the sensation of flying, was fresh and new again. I felt like a kid.
Cars pulling in the drive-thru slowed. I got the feeling the drivers thought I was a show-off because I was riding with one hand. The truth was, my left shoulder still hurt. But I had to ride. I didn't feel it then... I gingerly put my left hand on the handlebar, careful not to put weight on it, just steadying the bike a little. The nerds will tell you it's endorphins, say its chemical highs generated by some science reaction in the muscles or burning energy or whatever.
I wasn't going fast enough to get high off endorphins, and still, I don't care what they call it. I know what it was. It was love. The love of an activity, of a moment, of the cold wind on my stubbled chin, of the sun peeking through an overcast sky as I headed up a huge hill on a road so steep I dropped the 'Vada down to the granny gear, but made it up, then down Mountain Ave past the wide-open acerage of Bell Labs.
Cars whizzed past, hurrying on their way, people whose watches had a date with the gas station, or the Home Depot, or Kmart. I had nowhere to be, except in that one moment. And nowhere to go, for I carried the momnent along with me as I rode, time trapped in spinning 700c alloy rims and rubber tires, the worry of the coming work week suspended from existence, held back by a pair of turning polished aluminum cranks, and a pair of feet -- my feet -- moving ahead, in that one moment.
This morning I took my second ride, and somehow found myself three counties over. On my way back I stopped for java. I stood in line at the Dunkin Donuts for a cup of hot coffee, black as my karmic record and strong enough to float a pedal wrench, behind a lady with two kids. One observed my helmet. "Why are you riding your bike and not a car?" the kid asked. I smiled. "Well, I could ride a car. But this is more fun." He nodded. "I like riding my bike," he said. "Keep at it," I advised. "It'll still be fun when you're my age." Normally kids bother me, but right then I felt like ... who knows? Maybe when he grows up and gets his first car, he'll remember my words and not throw his bike away? Yeah, right. Maybe the nation won't lose another potential cyclist because I stopped for coffee.
I know, I'm an idealist. But what the hell can I do, Mr. Frost?
Tomorrow I go in to get the stitches out, then who knows how long it'll be til I can go for a long, full ride. But it better be soon.
Riding has nearly gotten me killed a few times. It ended up with surgery this last time. But the same riding that nearly got me killed also taught me how to live, and made my life that much richer for the learning.
In a nation where millions ride down the driveway in a car to check their mail, riding a bike in January is definitely the road less traveled.
But Mr. Frost was right. It is worth every mile.