If you don't know the story by now, here it is.
On one of my last rides on my old Trek 830, hurrying across the University of Iowa campus for an exam, I misjudged a curb-hop, too intent on the history of American labor movements to focus on the maneuver. Instead of lifting over the curb, my front wheel struck it at full speed. The bike stopped immediately, launching me over the handlebars, inertia breaking the connection between rider and bicycle. I tried to turn in midair and land on my shoulder, protecting the delicate bones of my hands and wrists -- a textbook mountain bike crash technique -- but I didn’t quite make the rotation. My right elbow struck the sidewalk, driving the ball of my upper arm deep into the socket of my shoulder. Seven years later, my doctor jokingly says, “You’ll never throw a good fastball again,” as if I ever could. On impact, the bones in my shoulder scraped together, causing permanent and possibly degenerative arthritis. Despite weeks in a sling, months of physical therapy, years of weight training, I will never be as good as new. The ligaments are stretched beyond repair. I aced the test, but my body is damaged goods.
Two years ago, during an unseasonably warm Ohio January, I took my road bike out for a trip up and down the Olentangy Bikeway in Columbus. While leaning the bike over in a curve (going too fast, playing Greg LeMond again, I’ll admit) my rear wheel hit a pile of wet leaves and slid out. My helmet struck the ground before I could react. After a moment of silent, stunned recovery, I stood, spit, and assessed the damage. Taking off my sunglasses, I surveyed my face in the curved reflection of the lens. Blood dripped from deep asphalt gashes on my nose, upper lip, and chin. When I ran my tongue around the inside of my mouth, I realized that I had just spit two of my teeth into the woods. A bloody gap marked where my incisors had been just seconds earlier.
I may not have my fastball, but I can still play a decent-to-mean game of racquetball if I’m careful on the overhead shots. With color-matched resins, my dentist has created two artificial teeth that can barely be distinguished from their natural counterparts, as long as I don’t try to bite a carrot with them. I am superficially whole, Humpty Dumpty pieced back together thanks to modern medicine, yet when I wake in the morning and feel the click of rough-edged bone between ball and socket, I feel my father’s bewilderment, his fear, wondering, “When did I get so old?”
Yet, as a mechanic, I see my bikes still refusing to age. I have yet to crash a bicycle in a way that causes permanent damage to the machine. On the Olentangy Bikeway, where I lost two teeth, my bicycle lost a rear derailleur. The replacement part cost fifty dollars, considerably less than two artificial teeth. That plus thirty minutes of labor and my bicycle rolled on as if it had never touched the ground, immortal. Properly maintained, bearings greased, chain oiled, tires inflated, my bicycles will outlast the aging, collapsing body that provides their momentum. My Paramount -- the favorite child, I’ll admit -- was built in 1985, and its steel tubes react with the same liveliness they did just after the paint dried over a decade ago. In twenty years, as the bike reaches its mid-thirties and its rider heads into his late forties, one of us will be just like new, begging to get out on the road for a ride. What fantasy will I use then? Who will I be? Greg Lemond will be old and gray. Will I remember the dirty, bloody leaps into grandpa’s garden? The chatter of mountain bike tires over rocky trails? Or will it be enough to recall a time when my creaking, twenty-six-year-old body could finish a slow, ten-mile commute?