Back in the Saddle
Words by Cindy Lewellen
I don’t remember November 5, 2014. As if my mind erased it from my memory with only a few scars, screws and broken bones as proof the calendar wasn’t void of that day.
I’m sure that morning started out like any other Wednesday. My friend and riding partner, Joel, arriving at my house a little before 7a to roll out for a pre-work ride, leaving just enough time afterwards to shower and get my dog and me to work by 9:30a.
Joel and I chose a flat ride that morning: Sauvie Island: 30 miles and a mere 350 feet of elevation. Joel normally pulls on the way out while I’m shaking off the morning cobwebs from my legs, then I take the lead on the way back. The only redeeming quality of this straight, 10-mile stretch of four lane highway traffic to and from the Island—known as “Dirty 30” to local cyclists--is its wide shoulder on either side, within which I’ve always felt safe despite the high-speed traffic.
We were about two-and-a-half miles from my house, just about to get off busy Highway 30 to a quieter industrial road. The truck came out of nowhere, cutting across both lanes of traffic from the opposite direction and through the bike lane without looking or yielding.
Joel said I let out my usual soft, signature scream just before impact. I was going 26 mph, says my Garmin. The F250 with California plates took my front wheel with it as it continued to the right into a driveway. The left side of my body left an impressive dent on the truck before I bounced off and hit the pavement. A doctor in a car behind us evidently saw what happened and jumped out of his car before Joel was able to narrowly avoid the truck and pedal back to me. I wasn’t breathing and was without a pulse. The still-anonymous, fast-reacting doctor sped into action and instructed Joel to aid with CPR to resuscitate me. I remember none of this, but I know I owe that doctor my life.
I came-to in the ambulance and recall asking Joel what had happened. He calmly replied “you were in an accident.”
“Go be with Noodle” (my dog), I said, before drifting back into unconsciousness.
For the next two days I would apparently ask that same question over and over again, Joel replying each time with the same patience and calmness he did the first time: “you were in an accident.”
The morphine drip masked my pain to the point of near-comatoseness those first couple days. They fixed my shattered pelvis with twelve screws and a plate, leaving four broken ribs, a broken scapula, punctured lung and a concussion to heal on their own. I spent one week in the hospital and one week in a skilled nursing facility. They thought I should stay in the nursing facility longer. I thought not and checked myself out.
The doctors anticipated I’d make a full recovery. The alternative didn’t dawn on me. I would walk again. I would walk my dog again. And I would ride my bike again.
I was in a wheelchair. Then a walker. Then a cane. At six weeks I could start riding a stationary bike. At eight weeks start bearing weight on my left leg. Those six weeks seemed like sixty.
Too much time in my own head.
Too much stillness.
Too much time depending on others to do the simplest things for me.
I could deal with the pain and the work it would take to get my body strong again, but I couldn’t deal with the rest of it. I thrive on moving and doing; an independent spirit who doesn’t like asking for help. And now I couldn’t avoid help. Despite an incredible outpouring of love and support from my friends and colleagues all I wanted to do was crawl under a rock.
I kept telling myself it’s only temporary; it’s not forever. I’ll move again and I’ll get my independence back again. I couldn’t let the truck win. I’ll happily suffer on the bike but this type of suffering was the biggest head game I’d ever experienced.
At six weeks, the same day I was due to get on a stationary bike, I had an appointment with the surgeon who put my pelvis back together. He said my x-rays showed I was healing well, ahead of schedule, in fact. Not only could I commence riding a stationary bike, he gave me the green light to start bearing full weight on my left leg with the aid of a walker then a cane, and driving. It was a week before Christmas. Happy f’ing holidays to me.
It had been weeks since I’d moved my legs or worked up a sweat. I’ve always despised trainers—opting instead to ride or run in unfavorable outdoor conditions—but now spinning inside took on a whole new, joyous light. I did 20 minutes my first session then built up to 80 minutes in 10 minute increments each day. Thank you “Serial” for keeping my mind off the tedium.
As grateful as I was to be pedaling again, at eight-and-a-half weeks I’d had enough of being indoors. I was ready to hit the road. At least I thought I was.
I asked my friends Ben and Boone of Argonaut Cycles to join me on my first outdoor road ride in Bend. My ribs were still a little sore, as was my scapula when I moved it the wrong way. My left hip was stiff with constant, dull pain and I found myself easily out of breath from the collapsed lung.
I didn’t anticipate the lack of flexibility in my hip hindering me from getting into my left pedal, or the tightness in my neck to prevent me from turning my head to look for traffic. I was wobbly the first couple times I got out of the saddle to climb and my breathing was extremely labored. But most debilitating (and surprising), I was now terrified of cars.
On my maiden voyage I clipped into the right pedal first and had trouble bending my leg at my hip enough to get the left foot in, knocking over my garbage can as I swerved out of the driveway. “We’re off to a good start,” I thought. Ben tried to make light of it and yelled “don’t worry, I got it!” Both Ben and Boone sensed my trepidation and gave me plenty of silence and space. You could’ve cut the nervous tension with a knife. A good 30 minutes passed before I was calm enough to make small talk. My balance wasn’t all there yet and it took concentration just to ride in a steady, straight line and properly corner...skills that normally come naturally. And every time we stopped I debated which foot to unclip and how.
I’d forgotten how to ride a bike. I was afraid of cars and afraid of falling.
It’ll all come back, I kept telling myself. Just be patient. Relax. Relax. Relax.
Gravel blanketed the side of the road from recent snow so I found myself riding to the left of the white line. It was also a convenient excuse to avoid the bike lane, an area in which I once felt safe until it failed me weeks prior. It was logically illogical, I realize.
Near the end of our 20-mile spin I was more at ease with traffic and my riding skills, and was able to enjoy the scenery and my companions. I even managed to pull out my phone and snap a photo or two while pedaling…obligatory riding skills. However my new distrust of cars and not being able to adequately turn my head still prevented me from being completely comfortable in traffic. Ben and Boone both assured me this was normal, and expected, and it would take time to work through.
I was a tense ball of nerves that first time out. However, with each mile under my belt, the car fright has declined and I’m able to breathe a little easier…literally and figuratively.
A solo 65-miler a couple weeks ago may not have scored any QOMs, but it felt fantastic and put a little confidence back in my pedal stroke. I had a panicked thought about mid-way through the out-and-back that my body wouldn’t hold up for the entire distance, or I’d get hit again and nobody would find me in the bowels of Central Oregon. But the latter was out of my control and I wasn’t about to let the accident forever taint my enjoyment of riding by ruling my mind with fear, so deduced that calling a friend or flagging down a car to take me home if my body gave out weren’t bad options. Luckily neither were necessary.
My hip still annoys me with constant pain and numbness and it’ll take a while to re-build my lung to climb mountains with relative ease. I’m working on the neck issues with acupuncture and yoga and hopefully craning improvement will help boost my comfort level around cars. In time I plan to be pedaling pain-free again, with confidence in any situation and in any condition. I had a glimpse of this the other day when I surprised myself by pulling out my phone to snap a photo of Joel while riding the rough, wet, uphill gravel of Saltzman Road in Portland. Maybe I’m already almost there.
I’ve never been reckless or taken risks on my bicycle or motorbike, but I’m now much more cautious on the road, which can’t be a bad thing. I spent a lot of time in those sedentary dark days wondering why I was given a second chance at life, but as my dear friends and fellow cyclists Rebecca Gates and Tanya Quick put it, “If you ride long enough, sooner of later you have an accident story. You just hope you're with someone, that you know what to do next, and that you can recover. You can't eliminate risk in life. Especially if you want to discover your strengths, your edges, your freedom.”
You can’t, I do, and I will.
That truck may have done a number on me that day, but it didn’t take away that which brings me so much joy: riding my bicycle. And for that, along with all the people who helped get me to where I am today, I’m forever grateful.