Riding a bicycle has to be one of my greatest fears. That’s not to say that I’m uncontrollably afraid of them; I just don’t have a lot of fears. I’m calling out bicycles because they’re responsible for most of my injuries.
Sure, all of my bicycle accidents have been the result of operator error, but this operator works just fine under most other circumstances. Bikes just want me dead is all.
No big deal…
It all started way back when I was transitioning from training wheels. I was already kind of distraught that I had graduated to bicycles, as I still mourned the loss of my Big Wheel. I loved my Big Wheel. It was my first little taste of freedom to move about my neighborhood in safety and speed. It was red and yellow, and it was my ride.
One horrific day, it broke. Too many skids and short brakes. Everything on it was plastic, so it just wore down to the point of the “tires” splitting open, making the poor thing unrideable. I was beyond upset. I wanted, nay, needed a new one. Part of the problem was that I was getting a bit too big for a new one. I had to be satisfied with my bike with training wheels. I didn’t want to be. I wanted to ride low, all relaxed-like. I didn’t want to ride up high, worried about when I’d have to shed those training wheels. You should be able to just hop on a bike and enjoy it, not work yourself up until you figure it out and your parents start taking the extra safety equipment off, hoping you make it back home without any bumps, bruises, cuts, scrapes, or brain bleeds.
Having a typical bike meant growing up. It meant my years with a Big Wheel were over.
(Of course, if I could travel back in time and see myself as I was riding a bike with training wheels, I’m sure I was as excited as any other kid. I just know better now, so I’m inserting my present feelings into my child self to create interest in the story. Duh.)
I do remember losing the Big Wheel, though. It was sitting on our neighbor’s pile of garbage in front of their house on garbage day. My parents had put it there so it wasn’t just sitting directly in front of our house where I could see it. I found it anyway, and I tried to pull it back into my possession. My mom had a chat with me about the Big Wheel, and about growing up, and about how everything will be fine. She was so soothing, but I remained unconsolable. I stayed and watched the garbage truck fling my wonderful Big Wheel into its metal teeth, rendering it gone forever.
I cried. A lot. A whole lot.
My mom comforted me. A lot. A whole lot.
Later that day, I felt better and somewhat over it. I probably had some cookies or something. I began riding my new bike with training wheels. Life felt a bit better. My mom told me everything would be fine. Little did she know…
The first time I rode without training wheels was in my backyard. I think I was about six years old. My dad was holding onto the back of my seat, keeping me steady until I said I was ready for him to let me go. It took awhile for me to muster up the gumption to tell him to set me free. Eventually I did, then he did.
It was a moment of pure exhilaration and freedom. I almost felt like I was flying. There I was, pedaling away, coasting on two wheels, the wind parting on the bridge of my nose. I realized, somehow, that it was speed and momentum keeping me upright. If I slowed down, I’d topple over, for sure.
The key was to go faster.
So I went faster. It was great.
I think I went a little faster than my dad expected, because his hands were no longer near me. They were there a moment earlier, clinging to my aura, keeping me upright without touching me and ready to catch me if I fell. But I pedaled beyond his reach.
It was quite exciting, though. Mom, dad, and sister all cheering me on as I picked up speed and stayed upright. I was graduating, and they were cheering. What a feeling.
Then the cheers turned over to shouts of concern.
“Turn, Mike! Turn!”
What’s this? Turning? What?
In my sense of equating speed with staying upright, I forgot about the second most important part of operating a bike: changing direction.
As I said, I had gone beyond my father’s reach, and I was careening toward the arms of another figure: the dogwood tree in our backyard. My set course was perfectly aligned with its trunk, its branches stretched out on either side, wide open to receive me.
I had no other idea of what to do but keep pedaling. And I only stopped by way of impact with the seemingly harmless tree.
I’m sure nothing terrible happened, just maybe a few minor scrapes and bruises, but it scared the shit out of me. There’s something unwritten about childhood: everybody learns how to ride a bike. Period. There’s no way out of it. I had to keep trying, even if I didn’t want to. It took me a couple more weeks before I could muster up enough courage for my next attempt, and I remember shaking.
This was how my relationship with bicycles started. It didn’t get much better from there.
Mind you, I had many, many mind-blowing and excellent times with friends and family on bicycles, but if I went back and counted all of the physical traumas I’ve experienced, probably 95% of them occurred while I was mounted on top of a bike, trying to have fun and eventually failing.
There are numerous quick bicycle injuries that don’t require the full background story:
- When I was about twelve, my dad bought my sister and I brand new bicycles, and we took them to the Cuyahoga Valley towpath trail to try them out together for the first time. I got my bike out first after we arrived, and as I was biking around the parking lot, trying to “pop wheelies,” the side of my front tire caught the curb. My new bike responded by promptly bucking me off sideways onto the pavement, giving me a nicely sized gash in my right elbow. I was upset and bleeding, and my dad hadn’t even unloaded his bike yet. Frustrated, he had to reload my bike and take us all home.
- When I was about eight, my sister had a 10-speed, which was considered cool back then. It was too tall for me, but I still wanted to try it out. I tried to mount it, but the momentum I had to gain to get me on top of the bike sent me spilling over the other side of the bike, and I landed on my hands and elbows. I was upset and bleeding, and I ran home to my mother.
- When I was about fourteen, I was riding my bike around my neighborhood with friends and had enough money to stop at the local Wendy’s and pick up a frosty. Clutching the frosty in my left hand, we exited the parking lot of Wendy’s to go enjoy our treats at the nearby park. I was coasting downhill at a speed that was a bit too high for my comfort, so I used my right hand brake to slow down. This was the front brake, and I hit it a bit hard. This sent me and my frosty flying over my handlebars. I stopped myself with the palms of my hands, which were, of course, bleeding, but I was more upset at the fact that I hadn’t enjoyed a single spoonful of the frosty. It lay splattered all over the road in front of me, like a murder scene. Instead of chocolatey goodness on my tastebuds, I was sucking blood from the palms of my hands.
- When I was about eleven, I was biking with my friend Chris in his neighborhood. His neighborhood had a giant hill down the center of it, and Chris could ride that hill very well, and talked about how fun it was. Chris and I had some mild competitiveness between us, and I decided that if he could coast down that giant hill, then I could as well. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my own bike with me, so I borrowed his dad’s without asking his dad. The bike was much too tall for me, but I was determined to coast down this hill. Everything went great, until we made the left turn onto Chris’ street. He took the turn elegantly. I took it too sharp and fell under the bike, skidding to a stop on my left elbow and knee. Naturally, I was upset and bleeding. To top it off, whatever Chris’ dad had to treat my wounds was some sort of orange liquid that, even if it did help with healing, made me believe that my elbow and knee were melting off from the inside out.
That’s it for the quick stories. There are two more that require a bit more detail.
When I was twelve, I was hit by a car while I was on my bike.
I was just riding through my neighborhood, and I was on the sidewalk running along the busiest street through the center of the neighborhood. It was still a 25 mph zone, so it wasn’t dangerously busy, just comparatively busy. I was coming up to one of the cross streets, and there was a car waiting to turn onto the busy street. It was situated back enough to allow for me to cross in front of it, so I thought this was intentional and the driver saw me coming toward them.
I was wrong.
As soon as the front wheel of my bike was in front of the passenger side of the car, the car lurched forward into me. It was not a great acceleration on the part of the driver, it was that motion you go through at a stop sign when you let off the gas to move a couple of feet forward to get a better view of your options for turning. Unfortunately, even with the low speed of the impact, it was still a collision between a sixth grader and a fucking car.
That feeling of impending doom will always remain with me. In the split second that the car started moving forward and I realized the impact was unavoidable, my entire body went limp. I didn’t tense up, I went limp.
It’s a talent, I guess.
This probably prevented more serious injuries.
The best part of the crash (yes there’s a good part) was what came out of my mouth as I rolled over the hood of the car. There I was, a sixth grader, experiencing first-hand the power and impact of being struck by a car. I, as anyone else would/does in this position, panicked and the quick “life flashing before your eyes” moment happened. My sixth grade self was literally rolling over the hood of some woman’s car, and in my panic, words came out of my mouth.
I believe there are many occasions in life when you can’t help what comes out of your mouth, and being hit by a car is one of them. The interesting part is what is actually said. It is your brain’s “reflex phrase” for that situation.
And apparently, when I was twelve, my brain’s reflex phrase for being hit by a car was:
“JESUS FUCKING CHRIST!”
I have been amused and confused by these words coming out of my mouth at that moment. It wasn’t a phrase my parents ever said, but I had obviously heard it before. In peril, my sixth grade brain didn’t just say “fuck,” or “shit,” or even just “Jesus Christ.”
No, it went full blown “Jesus fucking Christ.”
And the poor woman in the car. I wonder about her perspective. She didn’t mean to hit me. One moment she’s looking for an opportunity to turn, the next a sixth grader is rolling over her hood in front of her invoking the Lord’s help in the worst way possible.
I wonder if her brain agreed with me.
Jesus fucking Christ, indeed, kid.
I stood up immediately after coming to rest on the ground. My knees, elbows, and palms were bleeding, but I wasn’t upset; I was all adrenaline. I walked over to the woman, and she was all groveling and apologies. She was almost in tears. She helped me into her car and loaded my mangled bicycle into her trunk. I bled on her front seat, and I even apologized about it. She said it was okay and rushed me the three blocks back to my house.
(Side note: I will teach my kids that when someone hits you with their car, you probably should not get in the car with that person. But this was before the internet and everything, so it really was a safer time to be driven home by someone who hit you with their car.)
When I came in the front door, I called out to my mom. She came to the front door and I said something very matter-of-fact and strange. “This woman hit me with her car, but I’m okay.” I don’t know what I would say if my child called me to my front door and introduced me to a complete stranger that way. My mother sent me to the upstairs bathroom to start cleaning my wounds and told me she would be right up. I heard her talk to the lady, I heard the lady’s apologies with my mother. Mom simply got the woman’s address and phone number and sent her off, telling her she’d contact her if I were really injured.
When mom finally got to the doorway to the bathroom, I was using tissue to clean my knees. I was all adrenaline and seriousness up until that point. Then mom kneeled in front of me, looked me deep into my eyes, and asked me if I was okay.
I think the next sound out of my mouth was supposed to be “no,” but it was just a big, long, terrified sob. I pulled her into the tightest hug I could. I was physically okay, but the true terror of the situation had finally set in with that look from my mother.
My brain had switched from “Jesus fucking Christ” mode to “I NEED MY MOMMY!!!” mode.
I was only twelve, and thank Jesus Christ I was okay.
I’ll concede that that particular occasion wasn’t really the bicycle’s fault; however, my most memorable accident was almost entirely the bike’s fault.
I was probably seventeen years old, hanging out with my friend Chris (again, I know, it’s like we were best friends growing up or something), and he convinced me to go biking through Hardy Landfill with him.
Yes, a real landfill.
It’s much cooler than what you’re most definitely thinking. At least it was back in the late 1990’s. It is a landfill in the Cuyahoga Valley that’s pretty well disguised, because it’s surrounded by forest. It’s not even marked. You just go up Theiss Road and near the top of the hill there’s a few makeshift parking spots on the side of the road. You have to hop a fence that has a sign warning about trespassing to get in.
Believe it or not, it’s a beautiful place, or at least it was. The active part of the landfill was on the other side of the forest, and someone, or a bunch of someones, had carved a mountain biking path through the forest. Chris loved biking this path.
I was pretty scared of it.
I had tried this path on several previous occasions, and my travels through it were always taken gingerly (see previous experiences with bicycles), leaving me far behind everyone else in the party. Plus, staying upright on the path took a lot of muscular strength that I did not have. On my previous attempts, I had to stop and walk my bike quite often.
Chris had convinced me that it would be fun to try it again. The problem was I didn’t have a bike. This problem was solved by borrowing our friend Andy’s bike.
Fast forward to biking the actual trail. It started out easily enough, but soon we were into the twists and turns that made the trail difficult and foreboding. But this time I could keep up with Chris. Something about this time was easier. I was taking the turns. I was climbing the hills. I didn’t have to stop and walk.
I was getting stronger. I was getting more confident.
Finally! I felt 100% comfortable on a bike! After all of my bumps, bruises, cuts, and scrapes…after being hit by a car, flipping over handlebars, jumping over the other side of a 10-speed…after taking myself out by going headlong into a dogwood tree…after losing my Big Wheel to this whole bike-riding bullshit…
I was enjoying myself and feeling completely safe and in control of my bike. I felt amazing.
I still wasn’t as strong on a bike as Chris, and he got ahead of me. This was okay with me. I was doing really quite well. Was it Andy’s bike? I didn’t care; everything was going great.
I was even excited as I approached the “big downhill.”
This was as described. The trail took a turn to the right and headed downhill at approximately a 45 degree angle, losing probably 50 feet of elevation. You could get some great speed going down that hill. To make it even more thrilling, whoever constructed the path also built a dirt mound at the bottom for jumping.
I had always walked my bike down this hill while everyone else coasted downhill and took a jump.
Today I felt great and confident on a bike.
Today I was going full speed. I was going to jump. I was excited as the downhill approached.
I took the right turn.
I faced downhill and kept pedaling.
I picked up speed quite quickly.
About halfway down, I realized that I was maybe going a bit too fast. I needed to cut down my speed just a little bit. Hey, I was a confident bike rider now, that’s an easy fix! I just need to pump my rear brake just a little.
I was careening downhill now, not quite in control.
I held the brake down hard.
In all of my efforts to brake, I had only picked up speed. I was concentrating on keeping the bike steady. I was still somewhat confident. I would slow down naturally. Everything would be okay.
Then I saw it just a few feet in front of me. I forgot about the jump. Chris was standing next to it, waiting for me. I swear he covered his eyes, it looked like it was going to be bad.
I remember being launched into the air. That weird lurching feeling of becoming airborne without wanting to be was an incredibly nasty feeling.
I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. Flashes of broken limbs flew through my mind.
I will break the tension by saying that I didn’t get terribly injured. I suffered cuts and scrapes, leaving me bleeding and upset. But you saw that coming.
What nobody saw coming, including myself, was my reaction to being launched uncontrollably into the air.
No, I didn’t say “Jesus fucking Christ.”
I have this distinct memory of being airborne…and laughing. I was belly laughing. I was mid-air on a bike I had never rode before in my life, having images of mangled limbs and even death flash through my brain, and I was laughing.
It was only a few seconds.
I think I let out an “oh shit” before I hit the hill, so from Chris’ perspective, I was speeding downhill, gathering speed, testing my brakes, letting out an “OH SHIT!” before the hill, becoming airborne while laughing maniacally, uncontrollably, and finally coming to a stop on my side, bloody and sore.
But that is all I was. Bloody and sore. Nothing more. That’s not what I thought would happen, but I still, to this day, think that it’s great that my first natural reaction to being in what I think is potential dismemberment is laughter.
Because fuck it, that’s why.
I really have carried that with me ever since. If life is going to put me in a situation that makes me believe I will, at least, have several broken limbs, I will respond in the moments before with laughter.
I never was mad or upset. I knew it was a memory as soon as it happened. Hell, here I am twice my lifetime from then, still remembering that moment and writing about it. But that doesn’t mean that I have forgiven bicycles.
It’s obvious that those damned things are out to get me, right?