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“Skinned Knees and Black Eyes”: A Cyclist’s Tale

illustrations by Juliana Wang

article by Andrew Titus

Last week, for the first time in probably 15 years, I hit the ground and, man, I hit it hard. Right up-over-the- handlebars hard. When I finally came to a stop I had skidded some 10 feet across the gravel. Thought #1: am I okay? Is there a big pool of blood nearby? Can I move my leg? Thought #2, exactly five seconds after Thought #1: is the bike okay?

Typical.

I caught my breath, did the quick check to make sure that nothing was permanently damaged and — started laughing like I wasn’t in my right mind. What a rush! That was AWESOME! I hobbled upright, taking it pretty easy on my leg, looked at my torn up elbow and ripped shirt, lifted the bike up and gave the front wheel a spin and — laughed and laughed and laughed! Maybe it was the adrenaline, but I somehow doubt it; I’m something of a connoisseur of the neurological cocktails that our system is capable of producing, having spent much of my life in pursuit of adventure. I was a ripped jeans kid, a fish hook in the arm kid, a skinned knees and black eye kid, a go kart with no brakes, hose water drinking, tree fort building, wasp nest crashing kid. In many ways, as a grown up all that’s really changed is that I’m better at it.

And that means, quite literally, that I don’t wipe out as much anymore but when I do — well, apparently I laugh like a fool, get back on the whip and make sure that all things mechanical and biological are in good working order and take off like a bat out of hell, just like I was in my right mind. The bike, because I know that you want to know, is in great shape. And me? Well…

In addition to spending my time thrashing the hell out of myself on the gravel roads and trails on the bike, I’m also a long distance runner; perhaps more accurately described as a looooooong distance runner, on average knocking out 80-120 kilometers on trails in the woods per week, splashing through creeks or busting my ass pushing through snow, early in the morning to late at night and sometimes straight ahead through both. I have no need to justify it — it’s what I do, like a BASE jumper or a weekend downhiller or a free soloist, this is my poison. And so, while the crash didn’t do the bike any damage, I had to wonder about my knee. It’s just not quite… right. Something in there just doesn’t feel on.

For a lot of folks I know, this would spell disaster, because while I am definitely of the opinion that the difference between addiction and dedication is that one harms you and your family and the other one contributes to the well-being of both (and, trust me, I know), telling a runner to take a few days off to recover from an injury is very much like taking the sookie from the baby’s mouth. Think a sick grown man is pathetic (I want my MOMMY!)? Runner’s withdrawal is waaaaay worse — like a soccer player faking injury, only real. Like an existential crisis crossed with the breakup of a romantic relationship and a sudden realization that the peanut butter jar is empty AND the store’s closed. Like a kick in nads. Like nothing you can imagine.

I know, because that’s been me.

But lately I’ve come to see the bike the way I used to — as a toy and a tool and a vehicle and, perhaps most importantly, as both emblem of my against-the-stream attitude and mainline to my personal freedom. The bike is not JUST a mode of transportation, but one that engenders that peculiar brew of envy and disdain from the less liberated (usually expressed through garbled shouts from windows of speeding cars) and enriches my well-being perhaps more than any single thing. The bike is the answer to all my questions.
Which brings me to William Carlos Williams and his excellent commandment, “Say it! No ideas but in things!” Like the cat from “Full Metal Jacket” who had scrawled the words “when I die bury me upside down so the world can kiss my ass!” on his helmet, this declaration of the inherent interdependence of our tawny notions and the actual stuff of our daily lives is a proclamation of what it means to be all-too-human.

Ideas, in no uncertain terms, decidedly do not fall from the sky, they come up from the ground and smash into your knees and elbows. Ideas are wicked and unexpected bumps on the trail when you are traveling WAY too fast that catch the front wheel and throw you hard to the ground. Ideas smack you up, straighten you out, and are the stuff of lives lived full and well.

I ride my bike everyday. I ride it to work and back, in every season, through every kind of weather, at all times of the day. I ride my bike to get places and to remind me that the places we go are, after all, an expression of who we are, the choices we’ve made, our priorities. I ride my bike for fun (because really people, if you’re not having any fun in your life then what is the point?!), and for exercise and to solve problems. Sometimes all the world’s problems, other times just my own.

And that’s no metaphor.

The bike IS the conveyor of my life, it is how I MOVE through world (with balance and speed, momentum and, most of the time, observant of the minute details), it is an EXTENSION of my thoughts and the quiet that abides. It is how I attend — because if you don’t show up, how are you going to learn anything at all? It is the poetry of my motion and the longing in my heart to just be, right here, burning the asteroids of energy that course through my blood.

I looked down and there was no blood pooling on the ground. I caught my breath. I hadn’t been paying enough attention. The leaves were just starting to bud on the trees and while it was warm, there was some mist in the air. I was the only one on this trail, my path, breathing and trying to gauge if everything was okay. And then I laughed. Out loud. Because, man, this living thing is exactly all it’s cracked up to be. No metaphor necessary. All the art in the world, right there.

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