Due to some of my friends never having seen the details of the epic 2005 bike crash, and thanks to an online photo contest over at Steve's blog, I've decided to paint a more in-depth picture here of the day I was a passenger in the Life Flight chopper. Without further ado, I give you Jeff vs. the Guardrail.
September 10th, 2005 was a Saturday morning like any other. I had woken up well before the sun, brewed a cup of joe and donned my cycling clothes before loading up the road bike to meet the guys at our local shop for a cool ride through the North Georgia Mountains. Triple Gap is a beautiful ride, taking you out of the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and into the mountains proper, over three gaps and across a valley or two, culminating in an exhilarating descent. While riding this route, you'll pass an Indian princess' grave, rock climbers on sixty foot cliffs, picturesque landscapes and the only building that the Appalachian Trail actually goes through on top of Blood Mountain.
Our ride was typical, nothing fancy. The roads were still slightly wet from the preceding days' hard rains but the air clear, smelling like evergreens and rife with Rhododendron and a bright blue morning sky. After the final climb, we crested at Woody Gap and began the decent towards R-Ranch, like we had done dozens of times before. A turn or two, and then right ahead the sharp left turn that required a tight lean and good line. That's when it all went wrong.
I dropped my outer leg, shifted my weight off the saddle and looked at the same line I had so many times before and just as I got into the curve my rear wheel unexpectedly let loose, lost its traction and began its slide outward. I heard the gravel before I ever saw it. At this point we were doing a good clip as the long, winding descent often sees speeds in excess of 50+ mph (not that you'd catch me trying to break that again). So my rear tire slid outward..and slid.. and slid some more. When finally it did catch and grip the asphalt my angle was so incredibly wrong and my speed such that I avoided the high-side fall but found myself staring face-to-face with the guardrail, and the valley beyond that.
You know when you've crossed the point of no return, when there simply are no options left, no time, no space and just far too much speed. You are well beyond the envelope, and there's no going back. I could only get out an "Oh, shit!" and then I met the guardrail at 30+ mph nearly dead-on. The force of the collision was such that my cleats popped clean out of the my Speedplay pedals, and either my arms or my torso broke my handlebars as I was airborne. Briefly airborne. The edges of an i-beam - the pieces of metal that are driven into the ground, and that the guardrail is then mounted to, are fairly sharp at first glance, however they are extremely sharp at 30+ mph. "Luckily" I didn't sail off the mountain but my right quad was punctured by the i-beam, and in it went, severing the top bundle of my quadricep and nearly nicking the femoral artery - it missed by mere millimeters and I was truly blessed that day. As the corner was well inside my leg, it acted as a pivot point and I did an arc from the air, around, and face first in the ground on the other side of the rail. I was no longer attached to the guardrail, thankfully.
There are a lot of thoughts that went through my mind, laying there on my back in the grass (which later turned out to be poison ivy - talk about adding insult to injury). I recall staring up at the beautiful sky and watching my vascular pal "Doc" do his best to put pressure on the femoral and tell me how he isn't letting go because it's so damn close and he isn't sure if I nicked it or not. (Thanks, John, for swapping-out with Doc after making the call!) But I don't want to wax poetic, I just got injured doing one of the many things I loved and that was OK.
My mind switched into a mental checklist of sorts and I started talking to the guys: "In case I loose consciousness, my keys, wallet and phone are in my shorts in Mark's car. Call my folks and give them a head's up when you find out where they're going to take me. As matter of fact, do NOT let the locals work on me with their sporks, those damn primates - I want to go closer to the city. Where's my water bottle? I'm thirsty." I knew enough that it was at least a visit to the ER and immediately thereafter OR, if not straight to the OR. The ambulance arrived about 20 minutes after the phone call was made - thankfully we were on the southern side of the ridge else there would have been no signal - and I was strapped to a backboard and moved to the ambulance, and that was pretty much it until the helicopter landed.
Let me say a few words about Flight Nurses, which I will one day become: they are the special forces of the trauma nursing world, in my opinion. They know their shit, and they don't waste time. Will they dig in your leg to pull out debris before administering anesthetics? Yup. And did I curse him up one side and down the other when he was doing it? Yup. But I apologized and said it wasn't for him, it was for the sticks and leaves he was pulling out, the torn muscle he pushed aside and field washed so he could call ahead to the trauma center. He just laughed and patted my shoulder saying "I've heard much worse, most people do just that." The ride down in the chopper the pain killers kicked in and when the lady asked if I needed anything, I just requested an ice cold Guinness - which turned into a discussion with the crew over favorite beers and culminated in an open-ended offer for drinks after I got back on my feet, seeing as how I was "Patient of the Month" - what a great group of folks.
Twenty-five minutes after lift-off I was in the hospital getting prepped for OR. It was efficient and as the really nice anesthesiologist was putting me under, I - well, the drugs, really - told her "you're pretty..." and she laughed, and I was out like a light. Then I woke up. And I was mad because I thought I hadn't been worked on yet, but I was actually in recovery.
Long story short, I had a very frustrating two months of healing and recovery, hobbling around and getting down about my limitations but at the same time thankful that it's a recoverable injury and could have been much, much worse. I came back to ride my longest ride ever, the Burnt Mountain Century Challenge, the first ride back. My muscles had atrophied a little, but I learned that the mind is a very, very powerful thing. Not as powerful as my friends and family, though. Thanks to them and a dedicated physical therapist, I was back in the saddle in short order.
While I descend with exaggerated caution today, I prefer climbing over descents. I still ride in in the mountains and wink at the same guardrail each time I pass it. More often than not, it has a few additional dings from motorcycles and speedy cars, sadly. On my last ride, the word Suzuki was clearly imprinted on it. Safety first, guys. Even if you're doing the right thing, it's the little details - like gravel washed out in a turn - that can get you. And for heaven's sake don't take unnecessary risks.
As promised, now for the gnarly photos! I put them at the end so they wouldn't be in your face - in case you're squeamish :)