Shaking it off: The long road back from a serious crash
By Emiliano Jordan
“It’s a long way to the top if you want to…” well, roll. The thing is, I’m not even going to the top. It’s my first full year as a Cat. 1 and I’ve quickly come to the realization that I am, on a good day, mediocre at this level. It’s truthfully not a bad place to be, in fact I want back there, back to where I used to be. I was confident, in my element, quick around a turn, appropriately aggressive.
My story begins on the fourth day of the Mt. Hood Cycling Classic, during the Wy’East Road Race. I’ve decided I don’t like the riding style of a certain team, having seen them around the country a few times this year, and so I’ve moved to the front to avoid potential issues. I’m sitting right behind Justin England (Cal-Giant), Chris Baldwin (Ouch), and a few others who are tacked onto the back of a steady Bissell train. This is safe, steady, where I need to be…
I’m sitting in a cop car, talking to the officer up front. (To this day, I can’t remember his name nor would I recognize him if he pulled me over.) He’s friendly, talking to me in a soothing voice, and I feel young, as if my dad is comforting me, trying not to worry me, trying not to worry himself. I ask the cop a question; I’m asking myself one at the same time, “Why am I asking this?” It feels natural, as if dropped into a casual conversation, but I am ignorant of the subject, it’s just a feeling… I’m disoriented and I haven’t figured out what’s going on. How do I inquire about my surroundings, my condition? I look down and notice blood on my kit. It’s a little torn. My head hurts. I ask, “Where’s my bike?” and to my surprise I sound natural, maybe even confident. “It’s in the back of the truck.” There’s a silence, as he waits for my response; I realize we’ve already gone over this, it’s something I should already know. “Oh.” More silence, then, “Where are we going?” I’m told, for what I assume is at least the second time, that we’re going to meet the ambulance; it’s on it’s way. He tells me the intersection where we are to meet the paramedics, I suppose in an effort to orient me to my surroundings. It doesn’t.
I panic. Mt. Hood is in early June, in March I turned 25 and my health insurance under my parents expired. I’m a freelance web designer and finding good coverage has been harder and more expensive than I expected. I was dumb; I didn’t even get catastrophic coverage. Ambulances are… expensive. I’m out of the car and paramedics are doing field tests. I turn down the ride, “I’ll just go to medical.” At medical, I’m talked into visiting the ER, where I get CT scans and stitches below my eye.
I will later find out that this puts me $4,000 dollars in debt (most of which was covered thanks to a few very kind Oregonians and race sponsor MCMC). Still, I’m lucky; the CT scan shows nothing, the stitches will dissolve, and in a turn of luck the girl who has so graciously opened her house to three cyclists for a week is a nurse. I’ll be fine.
I’ll soon find out that returning to racing is going to be hard even after the wounds have healed. I’m scared; I can’t afford another crash. I’ve crashed before; this isn’t my first time and it won’t be the last, but in the past I’ve grown as a rider. When I got put into a barrier with three other riders, breaking my arm in three places I learned valuable lessons: You don’t leave the door open like that on the inside, and you don’t trust careless, overconfident sprinters.
I had learned to accept that the pain is transient and I will be fine, but now this thought is shaken. Maybe, just maybe, I can’t prevent it; it’s possible, I won’t be fine. By now I’ve seen pictures: me laying face down in the middle of a road, bikes and bottles all around – I’m not moving. I’ve seen pictures of me being held, talking to people, walking, I still don’t remember. I did everything right, I went to the front, I stayed safe, I…
I get back to racing, I go to the Cirque du Cycling Criterium on Mississippi Ave. I tail gun it. There is another rider who doesn’t quite understand what I’m doing and begins putting his wheel on the inside of me in corner five; he’s quickly yelled at. I’m not ready for this. Ten laps to go, I pull out.
I go to Elk Horn Classic Stage Race Baker City; it’s a great race. The first stage is an amazing course, I’ve lost my edge but I still feel strong, ready… The Criterium has me white knuckled. I can’t shake the feeling, and I’m considering hanging up the road bike. Maybe I could get back on the mountain bike. I’m not having fun on the bike anymore. I’ve never been fond of training, I don’t really ride just to ride, I ride to race and now that this is not what it used to be I’m not riding as much as I should.
The Cascade Cycling Classic in Bend begins and quickly develops into a nightmare. It’s my last big push of the season and the big races have not been going well for me so far. I’m already tired and stressed from the season and from the week leading up to the race.
The first day goes the same for everyone except for 24 riders in a very pro-only break. The second day is different; the number of corners has increased. The peloton is nervous; there are just fewer than two hundred riders and any touching of the brakes in the front causes huge grabs for those behind. My mind starts running, and I’m grabbing a touch more brake than I should – just to be safe. I’m getting more and more nervous then a lapse of concentration sends a rider slamming into the back of me. It’s nothing – I didn’t crash. I should be able to shake it off, turn around let him know to shape up, and ride away, but it doesn’t happen. I crack. I’m not fit anymore. I’m not riding well. These issues are compounding, it makes the job of being mentally strong that much harder.
I accept that this isn’t something I’m going to ride away from. I need a break. I need to just have some fun, return to my element. I rest, sleep a bit, do some small local races, try to get my legs beneath me. I manage to start the national road race, trying to have some fun, attack a bit, get a few pictures and above all, not take it too seriously. I understand the irony of not taking a national championship seriously, but I’ve decided it’s what I needed to do.
Going into the Portland Twilight Crit, things are… better. I’m relaxed, joking, not stressed. I feel confident. At registration I’m confronted with the fact that some people will always remember me for how I looked when I first met them. I’m reminded of my crash but oddly, it doesn’t affect me, I can joke about it. I hear a crash in the threes, but it doesn’t rattle me. The course is technical and, all tennis balls aside, there will be crashes and I will avoid them; I know how to do that.
The race starts and I’m sitting last position. I’m comfortable with my situation; front would have been nice but this will allow me to ease into the race. I’m quickly figuring out the course and after one lap I’m moving up. I’m conserving energy, making moves when I need to and staying tucked in the draft when I don’t. After a bit I’ve moved to the front, I jump to bridge a small gap to a group dangling off the front. As I make contact in the last corner there is mayhem. Bodies are lying all around. I choose a line, brake as hard as I can, try to maintain control, try not to skid, and I land in the crowd. I apologize, have a laugh, pick my self up and roll to service. This is bike racing. I ask where the race stands, is there a break? I’m not very informed since I spent so much time on the back. I’m told the crash was in the front group and I’m started into the break that had been established since the second lap. I’m not sure it’s correct.
The break is not a success. I’m still not a hundred percent and ninety just isn’t quite enough to keep me up here. The pulls are hurting a bit too much, and the attacks are killing me. I probably won’t last. Another attack and I respond, perhaps a second too late. It’s tight going into corner one, one swerve, I feel a shifter in my hip. This is the last ten percent I need – the confidence to follow my instinct, jump earlier, not cut the corner close.
One more race, the Oregon State Criterium Championships, and I’ve made that last progression. I see the issues as they develop; the only crash in the race is obvious – the pack has slowed into corner one; people are trying to move up and the group spreads too wide. I take a tight inside line to avoid the potential crash that will spread from the middle to the outside. It works; I gain some position and work on getting to the front. This is where I’m supposed to be.
Racing will always be a series of growth and setbacks – some greater than others. We all deal with our share of injury, bad seasons, and winter woes, and for the most part we expect them and are able to deal with them. We put our gloves on, strap on our helmets and keep the medicine cabinet well stocked with Neosporin in case we go down. For the most part, we don’t. We manage to ride our races; we suffer on the hills, in the sprints, against the clock and around the corners safely.
This story began and ended in the same place, with a bike racer, racing a bike. My story isn’t unique, racers are confronted with similar and worse every year. Sometimes, you just need to pick yourself up and go on. As I said, I’m lucky, excited, enjoying my bike again, and even competed in my first cyclo-cross race this fall. Thanks for sharing in my experience with me. I hope to see you on the road and if I previously met you on a beautiful day near Mt. Hood but I don’t remember you, I’m sorry; please say hi again.