I told myself this year I would wait until I was ready. Normally, I pull my bike out of storage sometime in March, regardless of physical health or weather or anything else. But this year, March came and went, and my bike sat in the garage, still waiting patiently for that first ride of the season.
I came close a month ago. It looked like a friend and I were going to form a woman’s Ski to Sea team, and I would do the bike leg. With that race at the end of May, I started feeling anxious and pressured to get on the bike. After recent knee replacement in November and foot and ankle surgery in December, I was still feeling cautious, and that added to my anxiety. I’d been on the stationary bike a handful of times at the gym, but it’s definitely not the same as getting out on the road.
Then, several things happened that made me stop and re-think everything.
No Ski to Sea
Come late March, it became evident that Ski to Sea was not destined to happen this year. I absolutely love the Ski to Sea race and all the festivities associated with it, and I have been involved dozens of times — as participant, support crew, and spectator. However, after losing several team members, and not finding replacements, my co-captain and I made the decision that it was not going to happen this year. Frankly, I was relieved! I was still not feeling ready to ride.
The Fatal Bike Accident in Fairhaven
Right about the time we were debating Ski to Sea plans, a cyclist died in a collision with a car a mile from my work. Not only did this hit close to home proximity-wise, but it was also at an intersection that I have ridden through more times than I can count. I used to live at the top of the hills that the biker was coming down, trying to make the light, just as a left hand turning car was also trying to make the light. They collided, and the 51-year old biker died on impact. He left six kids behind. I have done that exact same thing at that exact same intersection, pushed the light from yellow to red, carrying a lot of speed coming down those hills. But I have never been hit by a car. There or anywhere else.
To make matters worse, the cyclist that was killed was a huge proponent of bike safety, teaching classes and such. How much more tragic can this story get? I did not know him, but I can totally imagine the mindset that caused this to happen. As a fellow biker, I admit that I have pushed lights, not wanting to stop at intersections, especially when speed was in my favor. But one mistake can be ever so costly. And now, the cyclist leaves behind a confusing legacy, as he was such a proponent of safety, yet met his end with a seemingly innocent misjudgment.
This accident gave me huge pause. I decided to wait on getting on the bike…
My Ex-Husbands Shoulder Surgery
Also right at this time, my ex-husband, the father of my kids, had shoulder surgery for injuries related to two serious bike accidents in the last year. A committed bike commuter from Bellingham to his job in Ferndale, the first incident occurred when he was struck by a car last Spring. He broke his leg and injured his shoulder in that incident. After much rehab, the leg healed, and it seemed he might be able to resume activities (including riding) without surgery on his still-iffy shoulder.
Then last winter, during a cold snap, he was again riding to work, when he hit some ice. Another fall on that same shoulder, and surgery became necessary for a torn rotator cuff. He had this surgery a couple of weeks ago. These two were just the most recent in a series of bike accidents for him. Each time the kids report to me “Dad had another bike accident…”, I wonder if I should stop riding.
I know people who ride regularly increase their odds of getting in an accident. I have been riding regularly for 15 years, and thankfully, have never had an accident with a car. But still I had to wonder, was my number coming up?
Bike Accident of Other Family Members
My brother, also a bike commuter in Seattle, has been in many serious bike accidents over the last 15 years. Four of those accidents involved collisions with cars, one involved a slip on ice, and one involved him hitting a pedestrian in a cross-walk. He has suffered multiple injuries, including a broken hand and arm, and still has the litigation pending from that most recent accident with the pedestrian. That incident involved him coming down a hill fast, trying to make a light, and not seeing a pedestrian who started walking just as the light was getting ready to turn. My brother collided with him, flew off his bike, and the kid suffered a major head injury. Terrible all the way around. Brad will admit that in some of his multiple bike accidents he shared fault, but some were clearly cars not paying attention to what bikers are up to.
My niece’s long-time boyfriend was also in a bike accident last June, while riding his bike to work on quiet Bainbridge Island. He was broad-sided by a left turning car who did not see him, and was thrown 20 feet. He hurt his foot badly, and incurred $5000 in medical bills which the driver’s insurance still has not paid. He finally had to borrow the money to pay the bills, and to hire a lawyer to try to recover his medical costs. A huge price to pay for an accident where he was clearly not at fault, and there is still no resolution.
Was I ready to get back on the bike after all of this??
All this presented a serious dilemma, as March turned into April and I continued to feel uneasy. I asked myself, over and over, To what degree do I let fear interfere with things that I am passionate about? I had asked myself that question all last spring and early summer in preparation for my solo JMT hike last August. There, I methodically went about naming and confronting those fears — then went out and had a fantastic three-week trip! But on the bike, the fear is more widespread, as the variables and possibilities of accident or incident are only so much in my control. I look at all these people I know, and those I don’t but feel like I do now, who have been in serious bike accidents, and I have to ask myself is it worth it to keep riding? Is it just a matter of time before it’s me, or can I continue on in my safety bubble if I continue to be as vigilant as I can when I ride?
Deciding to ride.
I’d be lying if I said weather wasn’t also a factor in my procrastination getting back on the bike. It’s been a cold, wet spring, and I don’t like to ride in wet and windy conditions, or below 50 degrees. But last weekend the forecast provided a favorable weather window, and I decided it was time to get over myself and all my fears and just do it! I brought clothes and food to work on Friday, in preparation to ride to work Saturday. I brought my bike in from the garage Friday night, and we had a stare down as I went about my evening. Who would win? My fear, or the bike’s desire to be ridden? The bike of course, because I wanted what it wanted. Just before bed, I confirmed my decision by pumping up my tires in readiness for the following morning.
I live up such steep hills, that I can’t make it back up if I ride from my house. Instead, I drive my bike down all the Sudden Valley hills and start my ride on Lake Louise Road. It’s still an iffy ride no matter how you dice it, as the roads to and from Sudden Valley are not bike friendly. When I first moved here, my landlady told me she strongly recommended that I not ride at all, as there have been many documented accidents on these roads in which the biker did not come out well. I made my decision to ride anyway, and did so last spring, summer, and early fall without incident.
But with all the bike accidents and the fatality so fresh on my mind, the nervous anticipation of the first ride was higher this year than ever. Plus I was worried about my knee, which still does not feel like a part of me, and does not bend well without pain.
The First Ride Happened!
I threw my bike in the car, dressed in warm clothes, and headed out Saturday morning. It was cool, and still drizzling. But the weather promised clearing later in the day, which would be good for the longer anticipated ride home.
There are many ways to get to and from my house to work, but I chose the most direct one to get there. It’s about ten miles, give or take, and it’s mostly downhill. The ride went smoothly enough, although my knee felt like it was completely not mine for the first several miles. But with persistence, patience, and paying attention to what was really going on, the knee became less of a nuisance as I rode. Instead, I focused on the rain stopping mid-way, the clouds lifting, and the freshness of the morning air. I arrived at work, without incident, under partly sunny skies. A good omen, I figured. I’d purposefully ridden a different way so as to not pass the biker’s memorial. But he was on my mind, and I said a silent thanks to the biking gods for keeping me safe.
The Longer Ride Home
Like some hikes, there are some places to ride that I am very drawn to. One of those is Lake Samish, about 7 miles from my place of work. For years I’ve combined a ride to or from work with a ride around Samish, as it makes me ecstatically happy for some reason. Now that I live farther away, to bring Samish into the bike commute makes it about a 22 mile ride. Not an easy task at the end of a long work day, and as part two of the first day’s ride.
But I was committed and ready. I got out of my office by 5:45, with what I hoped was enough time to make it back to my car before sunset. The sun was out with conviction, although temps were still cool. I’ve done this ride dozens of times, but I still never know exactly how long it will take. I wanted to stop for pictures of the inevitable spring flowers and trees I would see along the way. In early spring, I just can’t get enough of the progression of blooms that takes place — from the earliest flowering plums and daffodils, to the later tulips, rhododendrons, and flowering cherry and apple trees that line the route. It’s a flower-lovers paradise for sure!
Lots of stops and starts, but the ride went smoothly enough. Over the course of the ride, I passed five lakes, including Samish. All were glittering with late afternoon sun, their very presence implying peace and serenity. My only troubles were that I was freezing in the shade, and had to pull out my hand-warmers six miles from home. My knee admittedly struggled with all the uphills, and my back made me feel 100 years old! With two previous back surgeries, it takes time each year for my back to acclimate to riding.
But with sun glinting through the budding and occasional flowering trees, I had plenty of things to distract me from pain. A curvy road high above Lake Whatcom finishes off the ride. It’s somewhat risky, with little shoulder and so many wild turns. But, what views! Mossy trees, huge gullies, spectacular lake views from high bridges. My turn off came at Lake Louise, with one very steep hill to master, then I was back to my car. I arrived at 7:55, five minutes before sunset. Relieved to be safe, happy to be done.
Driving home, I again asked myself the question, How can I experience these types of things if I stay home from fear? I don’t have the complete answer. I only know I am drawn to do it again and again. I love being on the bike, and I especially love the long ride home, even with it’s rough, curvy roads with high speed limits and little shoulder. Many say I am crazy to do it. But I always feel safe. Enough. So far…
Did the ride help me to solve my dilemma?
Yes. And no. There is no definitive resolution when the question of personal safety is involved. I never go on a ride without proper clothing, a helmet, and extreme vigilance. It’s the only way I know to do it, and, so far, it has worked. It was a hard decision this year, and one that I chose to think on for a month before I acted. Now, my bike is ready for action, and I am too. I will keep riding.
When I ride, I will do everything I can to be careful and cautious. It’s the best I can do. And I will remember all those who have not been so lucky — and hope my luck holds. With that in mind, I look forward to six great months of being on the bike!