Why Jim Henry rode

Sep 12, 2011 by

(Editor: Former OBRA member and multi-time Paralympian Jim Henry died June 7 from injuries suffered during a crash two weeks earlier on a regular evening ride in the Salem area. John Divelbiss remembers his friend and fellow group rider in the essay below).

Jim Henry lost his left arm in an industrial accident when he was in his early 20s. Photo courtesy of Laura Shingleton

The section of road where my friend Jim Henry lost his life this summer is tabletop flat and straight as a pilgrim. A newly planted hazelnut orchard borders the right side there. A wheat field, green then and gone now, unfolds on the left. On a rare clear day, Mt. Hood sits snowy on the horizon. I’ve ridden that road in the intruding months since he died. The place where he lay has become simple blacktop again. The road is what it was before: quiet and empty.

Of the 15 cyclists in the pack that evening, ten or so hit the pavement with sudden violence. The group ride we had all enjoyed for years became a chaos of strewn bikes and bodies. As the replay now runs slow-motion in my head, my view distorts from two tight rows of cyclists to the detonation of people hitting the asphalt at 27 mph. It is as sudden as a lobbed hand grenade. I grab my brakes but hit someone who sits stunned in my path. Because I am in the back of the group, I have the clearest vision and am spared the severest results. I remain upright. Still, my perspective is in and amongst, a participant, not the panoramic view of a helicopter or crane-camera. I do not have the all-seeing vision of what went wrong; my replay does nothing to bring clarity.

My friend Jim lay on the bisecting yellow line behind the rest, unconscious, and I soon discovered, barely breathing. Blood from his nose and mouth colored the road a darker black. We knew not to move him, so he lay on his left side—the side that made Jim’s life, in cycling and out, what it was.

Jim had lived most of his life missing his left arm and shoulder. To a cyclist, one arm means all shifting and braking and bike handling had to be done with one hand on one side of the bike. That didn’t stop Jim from slapping you on the shoulder as he’d ride past with his typical ”Hey, did you hear the one about….” It didn’t stop him from plummeting (screaming/barreling/flying work too) down our local hills tight in the pack, as fast and faster than the cars who crowded or chased us. To keep the bike on the correct trajectory, he just pinched the top tube with his knees and leveraged it into the corners.

“He could have wiped it away, but that would mean taking his hand from the bar. Physically, easy enough for him to accomplish. But it would also mean slowing down and sitting up. That, Jim wouldn’t easily do.”

Jim’s corny jokes were ice breakers. They help when you are a middle school instructional assistant, as he was.

“Hey, why doesn’t Tigger play with Piglet?” Pause for pondering. “Cause Piglet plays with Pooh!”

They also help if you have only one arm, and only one shoulder, like he did for almost all of his adult life.

Jim’s extreme right-handedness gave him an advantage over doubters, whether 13-year-old students or professional bike racers. And, despite the potential cliché, with a bike Jim flew farther with one wing than he could have with two. That happens when you are brave enough to turn liabilities into assets, disabilities into strengths, and tragedies into triumphs. By riding his bike as if in a constant duel with fate, this was clear to everyone: even those who only knew him as the one-armed guy who rode everywhere in town.

A national champion and Paralympian, Jim Henry raced in the Seoul, Barcelona and Sydney games. Photo courtesy of Laura Shingleton

His friends knew Jim often rode with a will to break himself, his demons, his limits. All those who pursue cycling as more than a pastime try the same thing to varying extents. Jim had a constant reminder, looking down at his sawed-off handlebar, of the challenges put before him. It didn’t stop him from sharing as many jokes as he could along the way. Or smiling when someone would call him the “one-armed bandit” or razz him about keeping two hands on the bars or ask him how he could do this (tie your shoes) or that (win triathlons).

During wet and unkind Oregon training rides I’d look over at Jim and see a drop of liquid suspended from the tip of his nose. That drop would stay there the whole day — three, four, or an extra-ambitious five hours in the saddle. I’d ask myself, Is it sweat? Rain? Symbol of the cold and flu season? He could have wiped it away, but that would mean taking his hand from the bar. Physically, easy enough for him to accomplish. But it would also mean slowing down and sitting up. That, Jim wouldn’t easily do.

I don’t know what caused the crash in our group that evening as summer was finally arriving. Like most informal club or shop rides meeting in towns large enough to support a bike shop or two, someone in the murky past had decided riding together could be more rewarding than riding alone. The Salem, Oregon ride has met on Tuesdays and Thursdays since toe clips and downtube shifters were new. People gather in front of Scott’s Cycles on the edge of downtown. Lawyers and doctors and teachers and office workers on $5,000-$2,000-$500 bikes. Team jerseys, shaved legs, fanatics and friends mingle and wait the call. Soon, legs and lungs determine a purer hierarchy.

“For 30 years Jim used cycling to outride that mill accident. His story, and now my story, is in the last word he said to me on that Tuesday evening in late May…”

At 6 p.m., the front door is locked and one of the shop owners yells, “Fast group go!” The crowd splits pretty equally into two. Jim always picked the fast group, and so did I. It’s the one to test your limits.

For two hours or so, we become explorers and athletes. We know our back roads better than UPS drivers. We also know the places we will suffer and the places we will challenge ourselves and our friends. The group ride brings us a closer understanding of our world and our limits.

Ernest Hemingway said, “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best. Since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are.” Only the part about coasting down the hills doesn’t ring true to the Scott’s Ride. To stay with the group, pedaling both up hills and down hills is essential.

The games we play to keep the ride lively — King of the Hill, Stop Ahead Sign Sprint Champion—mimic the simple tests used by cyclists everywhere. The mix in our group of old and young, amateur racer and regular Joe, is probably the same as well. We are willing to put up with glass in the road and irrational drivers and clearly rabid dogs because we find strength and joy in the simplicity of cycling. It is the Zen clarity of the pedals turning over and the lush beauty of our section of the Pacific Northwest. It is also most certainly the suffering. The grimace on the face of a triathlete or marathoner or a cyclist finishing a race reveals it. Joy and pain mix for the winners. Pride and pain mix for everyone else.

That Tuesday evening, the week before Memorial Day, most of my friends and rivals were spread across the road, and Jim lay slightly farther back, not moving. He was likely already gone then, but we didn’t know it. While a friend called the ambulance, I pulled Jim’s phone and his riding vest out of his water bottle holder and called his ex-wife Mary and his girlfriend Dee. Jim used his bottle cage mostly for storage; he would only occasionally bring a bottle on a ride. Water seemed to be only for “epic” rides. Taking a drink meant he’d need to sit up, slow down, and take his hand from the bar and from the goal.

Every town with a bike shop and a few good roads has a ride like ours. Not every town had a Jim Henry: national champion and Paralympian. Jim raced in Seoul, Barcelona, and Sydney. At the Seoul games, he qualified for seven events, in both swimming and cycling. His event times conflicted, however, and he needed to choose between the two disciplines. Even though gold was more likely in swimming, he chose cycling and earned a silver medal.

Photo courtesy of Laura Shingleton

People who aren’t road cyclists wonder at our passion — or folly. Professional racers break bones and shred skin every season they race. They too can be killed. A month after the accident my neighbor said, “Maybe it’s time you started working out the ‘Y’ like me.”

Why, at 51 years-old, did Jim still come out and push himself, taunting fate, when swimming or running could supply the same endorphins, similar challenges and similar rewards to a one-armed athlete?

To me it is simple. The bike is our greatest mechanical gift to ourselves. It measures us while we measure our world. I am one of those who has felt this. Jim lived it for most of his life. And, really, how much awe can a one-armed jogger inspire?

Running is challenging exercise; swimming takes coordination and stamina. Both can be grueling. Neither is wedded so clearly to the striving of humans as cycling. For each of our great achievements, whether space flight or a disease’s cure, we have combined our spirit and intellect with our invention. The bicycle fits this template. And, in the end, it is simplicity itself: it is the easiest way for humans to fly.

I still have the riding vest I pulled from Jim’s bike that day. I planned to return it to him when he woke up, got better—when he could joke a bit and laugh through the pain of his broken ribs.

But Jim never woke up. He died of severe brain trauma, even though he wore a helmet and the road was flat and he’d been riding and racing for 30 years. That is now my truth. He’s there on that road, and aside from a few seconds in the ICU, that is the last image I have.

That won’t be the last image Jim’s two sons will have of him. They will see a father who loved them entirely. I hope they will also see a man who did not slack pace because life told him he should. Jim was a poet and father, an athlete and friend, who had three good limbs and one great heart. Jim’s story is one of triumph over fate, not one of a fatal mishap.

I knew only the basics of how Jim lost his arm. When he was in his early twenties he worked in a mill in Connecticut. Somehow, his arm was caught in the machinery. The machine ripped his left arm and shoulder from his body. I found out later—I never did ask him—that he had to run for help, carrying his arm between his legs while he clamped the artery in his shoulder with his remaining hand.

For 30 years Jim used cycling to outride that mill accident. His story, and now my story, is in the last word he said to me on that Tuesday evening in late May. As he rode past, on his way to the front of the pack, where he always tried to be, he turned to me and yelled, “Allez!” For a cyclist, the French word can mean “Faster!” or even “You can do it!” For my friend Jim, I felt it always meant, “Come on! Follow me!”

I bought a small can of yellow spray paint (jersey pocket-size) in late July. It sits now on my desk next to the computer. I bought it to memorialize my friend. Not a very original, or very mature, idea. I bought it to write, “Allez, Jim!” on the roads we ride: not only where the accident occurred, but on as many hills and near as many “Stop Sign Ahead” sprint zones as I can. A month or so after Jim died, I went back to the Scott’s ride. When I heard, “Fast group go!” I hesitated. But as the last of that group left, I fell in behind.

– John Divelbiss

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