I broke some small bones in my back in a late night crash a while ago; they’re the best ones to break. Little things called spinous and transverse process that support muscles and ligaments. They can break into your spinal cord, the doctors all tell me I’m very lucky. My GP explained in graphic detail how easily it could have been worse if I impacted at a slightly different angle. Thankfully they broke the right way, so thumbs up for that. In the weeks since I’ve spent almost all my time laying down. It’s been like a long dull holiday. I’ve been reading and writing and watching old cycling films. The very best of the dozens is Stars and Water Carriers. The whole thing is on YouTube; watch at least some of it. If you’ve ever seen A Sunday in Hell, it’s similar but with more depth and surprising moments that are a cool memorabilia to that era of cycling.
There’s a great scene in the hotel room of Ole Ritter, who’d been devastatingly dropped by the leaders that day, laying in bed, blank faced and zapped. The narrator that you’ve been hearing throughout the film describing Merckx’s relentless attacks is saying, “Disappointment looks like this. This is how a cyclist looks when he has lost some of his illusions.” The camera zooms in on his face, his expression doesn’t change, and you can’t help thinking he looks like a broken man. He came in 8 minutes after Eddy on Montecampione and lost his place as Bianchi team leader. The next time you see him he’s eating alone, his mechanic working on his bike outside and then suddenly later in the film, there he is, drenched in sweat and giving everything in a time trial he ends up winning. It’s inspiring cycling. All that time, all the thoughts of failure, of disappointment, of self-doubt, broken down and discarded, left behind before getting up on the starting ramp alone, left behind easily by the hardness. And you see his physical pain become the easy part again.
I’m Ole Ritter, disappointment flooding my veins with the Endone as I lay on the couch at Jorja’s parents place. And I’m Ole Ritter in the time trial, only instead of cycling down a road lined with Italians in 1973, I’m on my wind resistance trainer in Sydney getting dizzy. I’m forcing the fan of the trainer louder and louder. I can look over and see my legs spinning fast in the window but when I look down in front of me they are frustratingly slow. I sprint and come out of the drops staying as close to that speed as I can. I’m shattered after 30 minutes of it, walking slowly away from my always stationary bike thinking, ‘If I keep doing that I’ll be ok.’ I’ve twisted staying sane and positive with staying in good shape but the two have been connected for years. It’s the best depression beater I know.
Before that night I was feeling stronger on my bike than I ever have. When I came back to Sydney after spending 3 months in Canada with my family, I was desperate to start working again. In Nova Scotia I’d go for a ride some evenings after doing building work and I did long rides occasionally but nothing close to the automatic hours I get from work. If I’m feeling sharp and it’s busy there’s no space for anything else in my head, like a very physical meditation that I’m getting paid for. Without realising why I was doing it, I started riding like I was busy even if I had 1 city local standard in my bag. I looked like a tit rushing around when it was a dead day but not giving myself time to think made my head a manageable space and after a while I could feel my endurance growing incrementally. The week before I crashed a buddy and I started a competition where whoever earns less buys the other guy a longneck. It wasn’t anything big on the line and nothing to take seriously but it was a great excuse to try harder. I’ve never put as much effort into a week as that, I felt like a budding young champion. I’m not actually an athlete though and I’m nothing special as a cyclist but I started getting cocky, thinking that I’d keep getting faster and faster until I was an unlikely middle aged Olympian. I started thinking I could win the Bronte Hill Climb, talking shit about the planned victory to whoever would listen the night that I crashed on the way home. Seems like a karma intervention to me. I crested the little incline over Anzac bridge with music pounding in my ears and wind-blurred vision.
What happened, not the crash so much but the afters was one of the strangest things I’ve ever experienced. I thought I was dying when I was first laying there, feeling blood going into my lung and trying to sit up and failing. Then I convinced myself I was being a wimp, I forced myself on my feet and tried to get on my bike. I figured it would hurt but it would be so much better than walking home. My front wheel jammed in the brake, it felt like all the muscles on the left side of my back were being torn off the bone. Jorja’s mum and brother Michael, came to pick me up. They got my bike in the van and my bag off my back and we were all set to go to the hospital. Jorja’s mum was helping me into the front passenger seat and Micheal had gone around to get in the drivers seat. I remember hearing a car going very fast, seeing lights come very close to the van and then hearing a horrific clumping body sound. Jorja’s mum ran around the van and I hobbled around to see Michael laying across the road on his back unconscious. I thought he was dead, I thought the car had hit him. I started trying to stop the cabs rushing back into the city from running him over, bent double waving one arm with Jorja’s mum trying to get her hands to work so she could call an ambulance. It was desperate stuff there for a couple minutes but then Michael regained consciousness like the Undertaker and the ambulance arrived. A few hours later we were beside each other in emergency, both wearing neck braces and laughing at ourselves. As my grandma always said, ‘it could be worse’, no matter how terrible something was. She also famously once said, ‘Look, not a cloud in the sky!’ on a miserable overcast day.
It’s been over a month now. I can do all sorts without needing a nap or pain killers afterwards, I can even ride my bike again. We have a little tour planned for this week from Byron Bay to Sydney. Just waiting on this to arrive