The Great Bike Crash

In the ambulance on the way to the hospital after crashing my bike.

In the ambulance on the way to the hospital after crashing my bike.


It had to happen eventually.  Now if I could just remember it.

The saying goes it’s not a question of whether you’ll crash your bike, it’s when.  Now I know the answer.

I think of myself as a pretty good bike handler.   Not like Peter Sagan good, but good enough to get down the road even if it throws a few curves at me.  Strava indicates I can get down a twisty mountain road in the top percentile.  I kinda pride myself on it.

So why couldn’t I navigate an otherwise undistinct curve on a beautiful, if hot, summer day near Middlebury Vermont?  I’m still not sure.

Here’s what I do know.

When I was in the ambulance I could not tell the EMT the name of the president of the United States.

But then, I couldn’t remember where I had lunch 30 minutes earlier.  It was that kind of crash.

It was supposed to be fun

It was all smiles when we stopped for treats in Middlebury.

It was all smiles when we stopped for treats in Middlebury.  This was about an hour before the crash. Left to right: Me, Barbara, Mary and Gary.

We were staying at my family’s cabin on Lake Champlain in Addison, Vermont.  For the third year in a row, My wife Mary and I were joined by our friends Gary and Barbara Butcher for a week of cycling, fishing, campfires and the visitation of various breweries.  We planned to repeat our bike rides to Burlington for a stay at the Willard Street Inn.  This year we were to add a ride along the Burlington greenway system and causeway that included a bike ferry across a gap in Lake Champlain to South Hero Island.  The causeway was to be an easy day before the more rigorous ride back to camp on the New York side of the lake.

Our cabin on Lake Champlain

Our cabin on Lake Champlain

But first, we wanted to do a little shake out ride.  You know, just to loosen up our legs after the 12-hour drive from Virginia.

Bad idea.

The Ride to Middlebury

It’s 17 miles from camp to Middlebury.  The 34-mile round trip includes a couple of short but steep climbs, with one tipping up at about 14-percent.  We had been riding similar roads at home in the Blue Ridge Mountains, so the Vermont hills were worthy of a few complaints — but really, no big deal.

Except it was hot — 100 degrees with the heat index.

Despite the heat, we rode without incident to Middlebury where we enjoyed some baked goods at the Otter Creek Bakery.  We refilled our water bottles and resumed the ride back to camp, where, as Gary pointed out, it would be “beer thirty”upon our arrival.  The Yeti cooler was waiting for us.

By now, as you probably guessed, we would not be making a withdrawal from said Yeti.

The crash

The heat was getting to Barbara, but she was handling it okay, as long as we rode a bit slower than usual.

No problem.  The beer would be just as cold if we got there a few minutes later than planned.

We came to a gradual climb that lasted about a third of a mile. I maintained my pedaling rhythm which put me about 150 yards ahead of the rest as I crested the top.  The sun was beating down and I remember looking for a shady place to wait.  Seeing none, I rode along by myself.

That’s the last thing I remember.

Well, actually, I remember the moment of realization that I was not going to make it around the curve.  I grabbed a handful of brake, skidded down a small embankment and toward a ditch.

I went back a couple of days later and stood where I landed. You could still see the imprint of my body in the weeds.

I went back a couple of days later and stood where I landed. You could still see the imprint of my body in the weeds.

Then it goes black.

I don’t remember the moment of impact.  I can’t tell you how I landed.  I have no idea why I failed to round the simple bend in the road.  The curve was at the bottom of a slight downhill, so I’m guessing I was going 15-20 miles an hour.  But it’s just a guess.

I was still unconscious when the group reached my position and rode past.  They didn’t see me because I had landed down the embankment in tall weeds.

Finding John

My group started to worry when they arrived at a small general store where I should have been waiting.  They discussed whether I had gone on to camp without them.  Just to be sure, Mary called my cell, but I didn’t answer.

When she put her phone back in her jersey pocket, she believes she hit redial or Facetime by mistake.  This time I answered.

That was my return to consciousness.

Mary believes the butt dial was divine intervention.  With the phone still in her pocket, Barbara and Gary heard my voice saying, “Mary? Mary?”

She answered.

Mary:  “John, where are you?”

Me: “I don’t know.”

Mary:  “What happened?”

Me: “I don’t know.”

It went on like that for a bit.  Mary told Barbara to call 911.  Only they still didn’t know where I was.

Mary: “Can you see anything so we know where you are?”

Me: “I see a red tractor.”

This International tractor is what guided Gary back to me.

This International tractor is what guided Gary back to me.

Of course in rural Vermont, there’s a tractor of some description in every other yard.  But Gary remembered this one.

Mary had kept me on the phone, and told me to stand up and get out of the ditch so I could be seen, which I dutifully did.  A few minutes later, Gary came around the curve on his bike to find me still on the phone.

“What happened?,” I asked.

Gary didn’t know.  He took me to the shade and poured water on my head, assuming I had heat stroke.

After a couple more dumb questions from me, he told me they had called an ambulance.  I told him that was nonsense and that I wanted to ride.

In the moment, it wasn’t clear to me that I was hurt.  There were so many questions that should have been top of mind.  But I seemed to believe — at least momentarily, that I had  merely become separated from my group and it was time to go on.  Oh sure, I had a whale of a headache, and there was grass stain all over my jersey.  But none of that registered.  You’d think I would have at least known I had crashed, but I didn’t.

To the hospital

It wasn’t long before the ambulance and half the population of Vermont, or about 10 to 15 random people, arrived at the scene.

The crew deduced pretty quickly that my helmet was broken and that I’d suffered some sort of head injury.  They asked me what happened and I said I didn’t remember. They asked me who I was, where I lived, and whether I recognized my wife.  I knew all of that.

But for the life of me, I could not tell them the name of the president of the United States.

The EMT’s from the Vergennes Rescue Squad put me on a board and loaded me into the ambulance for the ride to the hospital back in Middlebury.  I don’t have much recollection of that ride except they were checking vital signs and calling the ER with information about me.  It seemed strange as a news person who is used to hearing this type of call come over the police scanner.

Only this time it was me.

I knew they needed to remove my bike jersey and I remember telling them that under no circumstances were they to cut it off of me.  Jerseys are expensive.

I also remember the guy working on me was named Kirk.  He told me to remember “Captain Kirk.”  That trick worked.  (Thanks for the great care by the way!)

In no time they had placed one of those collars around my neck to prevent me from twisting and possibly injuring myself further.  I remember thinking of a dog movie where this was referred to as the “cone of shame.”  It seemed like my penalty for screwing up vacation.

At this point, I still did not remember crashing.

And the tests reveal…

The team at Porter Medical Center immediately began trying to figure out how badly I was hurt — and where.  They did CT scans of my brain to look for swelling or bleeding.  They scanned my back as well.

The nurse also moved me onto a very cold x-ray table and told me to hold still.

I closed my eyes and suddenly the moment before the crash came flooding back.  I remembered the instant that I knew I would not make the curve, my front tire passing over the white line, grabbing the brakes, skidding over the bank and saying out loud, “This is going to happen.”

Then nothing.

At least I was making progress.

The tests revealed I was basically ok.  I had a concussion, a bruised hip, and a sore back.  Blood tests showed an elevated enzyme that caused some concern about my heart, but that was attributed to riding uphill in the heat.

About 10 p.m. – six hours after the accident, I was on my way back to camp.

No bonfire.  No beer thirty.  And per the doctor’s orders, no more bike riding for a week.   She said my head wouldn’t survive another bump like that one.

So much for our bike vacation.

A week later

Almost time to be released

Almost time to be released

It’s now been a week since the crash.  Still no recollection of the five seconds prior to going into the ditch.  My mind keeps replaying the moment I grabbed the brakes and lost it.  I wish it would stop.

I keep trying to back up the tape to see why I screwed up.  Was there a car?  Did I hit a turtle in the road?  Was I just looking back for the others?  I hope it comes to me, but so far it hasn’t.

The headache was gone by the next day.  I was sore and stiff, but able to go fishing with Gary. The ER called to see how I was feeling and ansked if I planned to go fishing.  I had just landed a big bass and told them I already was.

We drove to Burlington and had a reasonably good time perusing the shops along Church Street and yes, visiting breweries.

Just no cycling.

For what it’s worth, my bike appears to be ok.  I’m taking it to the shop for a once-over, but unless I miss my guess, it will have a clean bill of health.

Psychologically, I don’t know if I’m ready to ride again.  Mary even said last night she is thinking about giving up cycling.  I told her that was a bit extreme.

I’m not ready to quit, but I’ll be easing back slowly,  Maybe a ride on the greenway or two.  Or ten.

Nothing like a close call to make you take a hard look at something you love.

This is the curve I missed. It shows the embankment. It's hard to judge how steep it is, and the ditch is hidden in the weeds. Trust me -- it caused a sudden stop!

This is the curve I missed. It shows the embankment. It’s hard to judge how steep it is, and the ditch is hidden in the weeds. Trust me — it caused a sudden stop!  This crash was no fun.

Later in the week we enjoyed beer thirty and a campfire by the lake.

Later in the week we enjoyed beer thirty and a campfire by the lake.