“Best ride of the year RC. Thanks so much!” It was the third such text from local legend Harold Preston. You’d think after reading them that we had just returned from an all-day epic in Squamish, BC, or Hurricane, Utah – not a one-hour, cross-country loop on our home trails in San Diego.
Some of you may know Preston. He’s one of the better bike-handlers in my city, an indomitable spirit, and a trusted PB test rider who often appears in my bike reviews. A while back, Preston parted company with his bike at the top of a tricky compression drop and ended up with two plates and a number of stainless steel screws inside of his left shoulder. The surgeon handed down a three-month sentence: “No mountain biking until we get that plate out.”
Harry handled the news surprisingly well and, within a week he was on a stationary bike, preparing in earnest for a swift return to his rightful place on the Southland’s Strava reports. By the half-way point, Harry was secretly training on his road bike, still deliriously optimistic, but by the beginning of month three, I could sense the strain in his voice. He was over it. So, I returned a favor.
“Harry. I’m riding this afternoon. You’re coming with me,” I texted. “I’ll be at your house at three.”
Crashing with a plate could hand-grenade his healing process. I assured Harry that we would take it easy. I chose a zone with numerous turns and grade changes, and steered away from jumps and technical descents. My plan went out the window in thirty seconds. Harry was tentative when we first rolled out, but then the supercharger kicked in and it was foot-out, flat-out - almost an hour of drifting and dodging oak trees. I was riding at the top of my game just to stay in contact. The mountain bike had worked its magic. Harry was radiant.
Five months earlier, I suffered a different fate with a similar outcome: two unexpected crashes and two minor concussions. I’m pretty good at mitigating crashes when I can anticipate the danger, but the dirt was moist and tacky, the trails were freshly tuned, and I was flying downhill, relaxed, and riding at 85-percent. What could have gone wrong? The short version for the first off was: bike, no bike, then sky-ground-sky-ground… I had to piece together the second one from clues, because I woke up face down. Two helmets in as many months. The doctor said it would be both foolish and permanent to risk rattling my brain even slightly for a long time, and she ordered me off my bike.
Four weeks crawled by. I anticipated great news about a record recovery at my follow-up visit, but all I got was: “As you age, head trauma becomes far more serious and recovery intervals increase.”
I was fine, at least I felt fine. The doctor asked in an off-handed way, if I had returned from the grocery store recently only to discover that I had duplicated items which I had purchased a week earlier. Damn! Turns out that self-diagnosing one’s state of mind after a good rattle is like self-assessing one’s ability to carry on an intelligent conversation at a bar with a non-inebriated love interest after one drink too many. It rarely goes well.
When the doc finally did give me the OK to ride, it was not the celebration I expected. She knew I rode bikes for a living and grudgingly gave me the nod, followed by a number of phrases like: “no jarring impacts,” “mild exercise,” and “utmost care.” What I heard was: “Bla bla bla …You can ride your bike …bla bla bla bla.” I wasted no time. I was kitted up, tires pressurized, and bike loaded in less than an hour after my checkup. I rode solo. No peer pressure. Just an easy roll on a familiar loop.
It was awful. Trying so hard not to crash virtually ensured that I would. I missed lines. I foot-dabbed easy drops. There was no flow in my ride. Was my brain still addled, or was I overcautious and overthinking everything? I regretted taking so much time off.
Not so long ago, I would have shaken off those crashes and been “back on the horse” the next day, but new studies related to long-term effects of head trauma reveal that minor concussions – the ones most of us once laughed off – can have cumulative and permanent consequences. Once you know something, you can’t un-know it. I had visions of ending my mountain biking career on a mobility scooter, helping my caregiver pick out my favorite baby food flavors at Walmart.
Salvation came a short while later in the form of a phone call: “RC. Let’s ride this afternoon! Meet me at my house at three. I’ll take it easy on you – I promise!” It was Harold Preston. Of course, he was lying. We blasted cross-country trails at full gas until sunset. It was the best ride of the year.