Flying onto the pavement

Leif Johnson — 29 Jul 2009, 21:07

There's nothing quite like a bike accident to make one's bones tremble in their sockets. The speed, the lack of padding, and the hardness of the paved earth all chip in to make for a raw, powerful impact. I've had two bike accidents so far, and they have definitely contributed to my own (still underdeveloped) sense of mortality.

Before the first accident, I'd only once pulled a full-out Superman over a piece of pavement. Winston and I had gone to Chapel Hill to meet up with Jordan, who was in town just for the weekend, and the three of us were somehow separated from one another as we walked out of a restaurant on Franklin Street. Winston and I found each other first, but we needed directions to Lydia's house, where we were supposed to be heading next. We thought we saw the back wheels of Jordan's car pulling out of the parking lot as we rounded the corner of the restaurant. We both immediately broke into a sprint, trying to signal Jordan to stop. As we accelerated on foot through the parking lot, I dodged a bit to the left to head off the car's apparent trajectory, but I miscalculated the distance to Winston's outstretched feet, in front of me, and tripped over them.

I don't remember much about what happened next, but I do remember having the distinct sensation of flying, my entire body stretched out horizontally a couple feet over the ground, seeming to levitate as the tiny rocks of the paved lot passed underneath me, arms outstretched before my face. A pure Superman. I landed, I deduced later that evening, on my right hip and knee, and although they were sore for a couple of days, I was none the worse for wear. Let's hear it for those halcyon years of early twenties health and fitness ! Also, I think I can't have been traveling very quickly when I tripped, and I only had a couple of feet to fall.

Not so when I first crashed my bike. It was the last week of June, and I was riding to my new apartment in Mountain View from my girlfriend's parents’ house in Palo Alto. I love the bike route between those two places—it's friendly, fast, well-traveled, and well-lit. The last of those is really what got me into trouble this time, though. I was in the middle of moving, so my bike stuff was scattered, and in this particular instance the critical piece was my front headlight, which I'd already moved to my new flat. I decided, foolishly, that although I knew it was unsafe in theory, I'd rather have my bike at my place for the morning commute than wait until a more convenient time to pick it up. So I hopped on Veronica and had a lovely ride down Bryant, across Meadow, and through the crop circle neighborhood. Just a mile or so from my new flat, I arrived at the three-way stop behind the old HP buildings. Even though it was nearly 10 and I would have been able to hear and see any approaching cars, I stopped, having been chided the year before by a fellow cyclist after blasting through a four-way stop in downtown Mountain View. (I've always mentally thanked that guy for saying something to me. Thanks, concerned citizen.) Even after stopping, though, a kid on a fixie can get up to a pretty good speed in the space of an intersection, and the speed bump was completely hidden in the only patch of real darkness on the whole trip.

The change was effectively discrete as my bike made a punching noise, and I found myself once more floating through the air, disconnected from everything solid in the world. This time around, the sense of wonder at my sudden flight was somewhat dampened by the darkness, and probably also by my somewhat increased age. In its stead I contemplated a single, uncannily clear thought : Uh-oh, this is going to hurt.

The feeling of absolute freedom I'd experienced in that Chapel Hill parking lot was short-lived this time around—probably because I hadn't managed to get that full arm stretch happening as I launched from my bike. And then, in a split second, I made contact with the ground, which had been flying underneath me at probably 15 miles an hour. I remember emitting a single sound, a counterpoint to the punching noise I heard as I was thrown from my bike. A huge, prolonged, oooofff noise emerged from my lungs as my body parts rained down onto the pavement. Although I didn't lose consciousness (at least I had been wearing my helmet), I don't remember what happened for another split second, and the next thing that I was aware of was the pavement, as it slid under my cheekbone in a strange centering of the universe on the frame of reference around my face. I'm sure it was just my altered perception, but the pavement seemed to slide on and on.

Eventually I came to a halt, and I did a quick mental check to see whether I had survived. I was once again on my right side, and some parts of me hurt a teeny bit, but I could move all of my joints, I could stand up, and I could look around. I was totally in shock, but even through that haze of endorphins I could tell that I'd landed on my right arm as I came down. I walked my bike the rest of the way home, with my arm over my head, and, with my girlfriend's help, began the amazingly painful process of cleaning out all the road rash. The next few days revealed that I'd severely bruised my arm, scraped some skin off my arm and hands, broken the screen on my phone, and torn a hole in the shoulder of my shirt where I'd slid on the pavement. But, in all, the heavens smiled on me that night, because I hadn't sustained any really severe injuries, and my pants, miraculously, remained unscathed !

I've always marveled at skateboarders. They are never all that great, the ones you see doodling on the sidewalk in front of the library, but somehow they are willing to take the stumbles and the falls as they attempt to jump and float over a plane made of concrete. It must be really hard, that concrete. And, though I can't skateboard, after I'd tried just standing on one I gained some appreciation for how difficult it must be to do even the smallest ollie.

And terrifying ! Flying over that hard, hard ground, potentially losing balance at any moment, supported only by a board mounted on wheels. Before my bike crash, I'd never made the connection that cycling involved a similar risk, particularly because of the higher speeds involved. So I didn't ride for months after that first crash, and when I finally did get back on a bike, it was in full daylight—it took another couple of months to restore my confidence in night or twilight riding.

Even so, there's something calming and focusing about all of this fear. In those instant instants when I've been launched, floating, above a piece of pavement, knowing that I would soon be crashing onto the ground, there has been a brief moment of panic, and an accompanying brief moment of acknowledgement, or resignation, or peace, or whatever it might be called. At that moment, reality is stripped of pretense. Your body will fall towards the earth, and your bones will collide with the rocks and the clay. There is certainty there. And so pulling a Superman is, in a way, a sort of meditation, or an exercise at finding the truth among moments of excitement, disappointment, fear, and hope. As long as there are other ways of finding this truth, of finding it in every moment, then I'm on board. And I keep riding my bike in the meantime. With my headlight.