I wondered if I was ever going to ride my bike again.
This is a happy post. It really is. But honestly, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever get to write it. It’s all because of an illness called sarcoidosis.
In January I underwent surgery to determine what on my spine was causing tingling and numbness in my legs and feet.
After a series of MRI’s and failed treatments, doctors decided they needed to “scrape” a bit of my spinal cord to make sure it wasn’t a tumor. I now know they were about as certain as Donald Trump building a wall between the United States and Mexico that it was in fact, a tumor. (i.e. pretty certain)
Not sure what this says about Trump and his proposed wall, but it wasn’t cancer. It was something called a sarcoid. (I won’t bore you with the details.) That’s great news. Waaaay better than anticipated, and a part of the reason this is a happy post.
That doesn’t mean all is merry in the bicycling part of my life.
In first few days after surgery in mid-January, it felt like I would never ride a bicycle again. Sitting up in that hospital bed caused pain I can only describe as if someone handed you a white-hot piece of iron and plugged it into a 220 outlet. If I couldn’t drag my IV stand from my bed to the door, how in the world did I expect to ever again ride a bicycle?
My cycling buddies came to visit me and wish me well. They sat in my antiseptic hospital room and looked at me and the wires, diodes and plastic tubes sticking out of my body with a “bless your heart” look on their faces that was hard to hide. But I appreciated the support.
That encouragement came despite the parade of nurses, associate nurses, accredited dietitians, orderlies, lunch ladies, custodians and everyone else in the hospital who, like bank tellers, have been trained to ask every time they leave the room, “Is there anything else I can get for you?”
They were like a small, scrubs-clad army, coming and going every five minutes — all asking the same question — and wearing me out. I started answering “carbon fiber mountain bike” every time. No matter, they kept asking. Bless their hearts.
When I finally got home and went directly to bed for days, it started snowing. Between the weather, the prescription painkillers, and the zipper-like incision on the back of my neck, I was thinking that cycling might be a July possibility at best. It was depressing.
Recovery and maybe a bike ride
But with good rest, and a reasonable amount of stupidity, I was back at work part-time in two weeks and full time in three. That is not to say I was whole again, but at least we can pay the light bill.
The doctors said it would be six weeks before I was “recovered” from the trauma of the actual surgery. By this they were referring to the aforementioned neck zipper, peeling back of the muscles, breaking off a piece of a vertebrae, yada yada. It’s ugly.
This does not cover the inflammation to the nerves that extend from my chest to my feet. Thanks to both the surgery and sarcoidosis, these still lack feeling about like a great white eating a seal. It’s just nature doing its thing.
Somewhere around four weeks post surgery I had tried, with little success, to ride my road bike around the neighborhood. The position was just wrong, forcing me to bend my neck in the exact spot the doctors had been slicing.
After six weeks, my friend Gary, suggested we go for a fire road ride on the mountain bikes, which offered a more upright position. “Nothing hard,” he said, “… let’s just get you out there.”
So we loaded up and headed for Carvins Cove, our go-to spot here in Roanoke. But, as we got closer to the parking lot I noticed there was still a lot of snow in the woods. Ever the optimist, I shrugged it off thinking the fire road itself would have had enough activity to be mostly gravel..
As you can see from the pictures, that was not the case. The road was covered with a slushy, slippery snow for hundreds of yards at a time. In between was soft mud or standing water. Not exactly perfect for a first ride post surgery.
As I swung my numb leg, and unfeeling foot over the bike and attempted to click in, I wondered if I would have the equilibrium to ride. While I figured I would be based upon my brief road bike test, lingering in my thoughts was the balance exam at the physical therapist’s office two days earlier. They told me to close my eyes and stand on one foot. I lasted six seconds.
With this in mind, we headed off into the Cove, the mud and the snow.
I know how mountain bikes react in these conditions. What I didn’t know was how my body would react. So as the front tire rolled into the slush I was worried. A fall here would mean a cacophony of screaming from doctors, bosses, and wives that would be way more painful than any damage I might do.
Sure enough, at the first little bit of off camber trail, the back wheel slid to the side. But intuition and experience kicked in. A simple counter steer with the front wheel and the bike pulled out of it. I grinned a little.
And so it went. We came to a fairly steep grade. Steep enough that traction would be an issue. As the hill got steeper the back wheel started spinning. But the knobbies were getting just enough bite to keep the 29er moving. Up the grade I went, completely out of breath but still upright by the top of the climb. More grins.
As we covered more snow and mud, we noticed lots of wildlife. Deer are common in the park, but this day there were lots of them. Three of them seemed not notice the dirty cyclists playing in the snow. I snapped some pictures with the cell phone and we talked about how the deer just 10 feet off the trail blended in so well with the late winter woods.
Toward the end of the ride, I knew I could do this. The tentative approach to sketchy sections was pretty much gone, and while I would not call it attacking the terrain, I was no longer steering clear of mud puddles or some of the deeper snowy sections.
Eventually, we made it back to the hard top and the one-mile ride to the parking lot. We had not ridden fast or far, but we had ridden!
After a long winter of wondering, it felt like a huge victory. As of this writing, I still have a long way to go before my fitness approaches the level I want. There is still considerable numbness in my legs, but not enough to stay off the bike.
I still can’t close my eyes and stand on one leg for more than six seconds, but as I was telling my physical therapist in my mind after this ride, “You should see what I can do on a mountain bike.”
NOTE: I have continued to write about how I am dealing with sarcoidosis. You may be interested in this post, where I describe the next year of fighting the disease and the drugs used to fight it.