I was so looking forward to getting back on the bike today. My first taste of freedom, away from a screaming dog, and a long ride up PCH on my new bike. I did not expect it to involve ambulances and a trip to the ER. And yet…
I met Brian and his friends David and Jim after their 1 mile ocean swim. They were going to brick their swim with a long ride, as two of them were in their taper before Ironman Arizona. I’d met David a few times before, he is a professional chef, and I had the wonderful pleasure of dining on his food some weeks ago at Brian’s invitation. David is an Ironman and as we talked before the ride he was shifting towards running for a while for the L.A. Marathon next year. David’s a fast runner, he relayed with Brian a few weeks ago at the SOMA 70.3 race and cranked out a sub 1:20 1/2 marathon. He recently PR’d at 1:18 for the half marathon, just an amazing pace.
I hung out by the latrines waiting for them to come out of the water, enjoying the human scenery on foot and rollerskate. They emerged like creatures from the sea, water logged and yet gregarious. They showered up and we headed out on our ride. The weather was perfect – warm sun and a nice cool air.
We opened up on PCH, taking turns pulling the lead. I felt good, finally moving my legs and seeing the speedometer respond nicely. I didn’t feel like I was holding the guys back when I took the front, and when we exchanged lead I wasn’t blown out keeping up. After ten miles Brian waved David and Jim to take off – they were going longer and harder than we were – and they slowly put about a quarter mile on us.
As we approached Cross Creek we could see something was wrong. A rider was down – and as we came up on them Jim was standing over David having just unclipped and determined what had happened. A truck was pulled over and the driver was making a call to 911. Brian and I unclipped and put down our bikes, running over to David on the ground. David was breathing rapidly, his arms up to his chest like a mummy. He was not responding to his name, or any verbal questions. His helmet was cracked completely and he had blood on his left cheekbone, which was also swelling. His knuckles were skinned and he was still partially clipped into his bike.
A man came over, identified himself as an internist, and began triage. I placed my hand at the base of David’s skull to stabilize his neck while the internist kept hands on David’s head to keep him steady. After a few minutes of being unresponsive, David began to repsond to simple requests of blinking, showing his teeth, moving his chin. Then he tried to move, disoriented. We kept him still, and I kept saying to him, “David, you’re going to be ok. You’ve been in an accident but we’re all here and you’re being taken care of.” The Sheriffs arrived and rerouted traffic, asking what happened. Jim said he just saw David flip over his handlebars and go face first into the road, scorpioning his back. The paramedics arrived shortly after and took over so I was able to release David’s head to their brace and medical treatment. By then he was asking where he was but had no memory of what happened.
Brian rode with David to the ER while Jim and I stayed behind to deal with 4 bikes and 2 riders.
I took a step away from the scene and had a brief and necessary freak out.
A firefighter came over to look at the bike and we showed him the aero cockpit flopped to the side. He said, “that’s equipment failure. The weld snapped.” And sure enough, the weld point on the stem had popped – not from any impact, literally it snapped off.
I had remarked to David earlier that he was in a pretty aggressive position – a lot of experienced guys ride low and forward on their bars to get as aero as possible. David’s stem failed him, and as soon as the stem snapped while he was going 25mph he shot forward and down to the pavement. He hit face-first and momentum flipped his bike over him. His palms didn’t have a scratch on him, he didn’t have any time to put his hands forward defensively. He hit face, then forearms, then entire body.
His helmet saved his life.
I couldn’t help but stare daggers at the Rock and Republic douchebag who rode by without a helmet 5 minutes after the paramedics took David away. Later, Brian would say how much David hates wearing a helmet. Somehow I think that changed for him today now that one saved his life.
Jim’s friend came with a pickup truck and we were able to get the bikes back to the Santa Monica parking lot. I urged Jim to reset his ride and go out again. He wasn’t sure, was wondering if he should scrap the day and just taper before his Ironman in two weeks. But I told him that he needed to get back on the bike and put in some miles, just to feel confident on the bike again. He locked up Brian and David’s bike in his minivan and took off for a ride. I’m glad he did, it was the right thing to do after witnessing a random accident that could have happened to any of us. The only way to cope with it is to get back on the bike and put miles between you and the past.
My next few hours were spent dealing with car logistics while Brian stayed with David in the hospital waiting for his family to arrive. I heard from Brian via text message that David had some bleeding in the brain and would need to stay in the hospital for a few days for observation. The good news is that he is in the best hospital in the city, UCLA, and is being seen by outstanding doctors.
Once I got to the ER we got our plan together and by then David’s family had come and were able to visit him. While we were there, it turns out that an L.A. Tri Club member was in the connected hospital having suffered a non-triathlon related emergency event a few nights prior. So we went next door and visited with his family and the L.A. Tri Club members who were sitting vigil together. Brian and I were still in our bike clothes – spandex and all – and we all made up a little community.
It’s not how I expected the day to go. I was already keenly aware of how fragile our bodies are from my accident less than a week ago. Of the three accidents I’ve been made intimately aware of this week, only one was triathlon related and then only tangentially. Today is Brian’s birthday, also not turning out the way he expected. David is lucky to have a friend like Brian, so when I sent the text message “it’s not gay to hold his hand” I meant it from having a keen memory of being hurt, disoriented, and needing someone familiar. It’s what I tried to do for David while he was lying on the ground, unsure of where, or even who, he was. A friendly voice in the chaos saying it’s going to be okay, someone is there taking care of you and things, that your only job is to relax and let others help you. It’s why Lawrence is lucky to have a grip of family and friends in the waiting room pulling for him, a hand to squeeze in the darkness.
I come back to something that a cyclist said to me at Halloween: “When you’re done being a narcissist triathlete come and ride bikes for real.” He was drunk, and only half joking, and it was the first time I had heard the animosity between roadies and triathletes. Roadies pull a tight peloton line, putting their life in the hands of the guy in front or behind them. It’s very macho Semper Fi at 30mph. But today some of those narcissists came together to help friends in need – for David, for Lawrence, and for me. That has nothing to do with god, or a book, or a way to compete telling us to do what’s right. It’s being a good human.
Handle your fellow human being with care. We’re easily broken.