Out of the Darkness
RETIRED LT. COL. DONALD D. TOLBERT JR.
643rd Regional Support Group
There are only two kinds of bicyclists — those that have crashed and those that are going to crash! What you do before the crash in regard to planning and donning personal protective equipment (PPE) can directly affect the outcome. On 17 April 2019, I was involved in a single-rider bicycle mishap two miles from the front gate of Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, California. I was commuting to the base, a 30-mile ride I’d completed hundreds of times.
For background, I’m a seasoned cyclist, logging thousands of miles annually. I’ve been there, done that, got the T-shirt, bumper sticker and medal in over 200 events, including 100-mile (century rides) and double centuries, 6-hour and 24-hour endurance events, and Ironman. It would be accurate to say that my cycling skills are at the level of an experienced rider and competitor. But what happens when you take the route and your skills for granted?
It was about 6:30 a.m. and already warm in the high desert. I was riding on the road shoulder, traveling with the flow of traffic at 25 mph. The sun was coming up from behind some trees, casting a dark shadow over the shoulder and all four lanes of the highway. As I neared those trees, I looked down at my handlebar-mounted cycling computer. As I redirected my vision forward, I noticed “out of the darkness” a large coil of barbed wire blocking the entire shoulder. My brain immediately went into that pre-accident processing and recording mode.
I quickly reviewed my options. Can I ride through the wire or will I need to evade it by drifting into the slow lane of traffic? Because riding through barbed wire is not recommended for any cyclist, my best and only option was to veer left into the slow lane and steer around the danger. I checked over my shoulder and saw there was no traffic behind me. Less than two seconds had passed since I spotted the wire, but at my speed, the distance was closing fast. I swerved hard to the left, feeling optimistic that I had averted the obstacle when the very last inch of coiled wire snagged my front fork, violently throwing me off the bike.
My mind recorded everything that happened. Instead of going straight over the handlebars, I was jerked sideways, completing one flip and striking the asphalt left-side first, beginning with my helmet and followed by my left shoulder and hip. The collision with the ground was followed by 25 mph of road rash. Unfortunately, I was wearing spandex and fingerless gloves (a cyclist’s PPE, which is not sufficient to prevent road rash). My only thought was to get off the ground before a car ran over me.
I picked up my bike and gear and limped over to the shoulder of the road to take stock of my injuries. I was bleeding from my hands, arms and left leg from deep road rash, my spandex was tattered and my helmet was cracked. My left thumb and left shoulder ached, and, worst of all, my left hip was screaming. An MRI later revealed I’d suffered a Type II superior labral anterior posterior tear and partial rotator cuff tear, in addition to numerous lacerations, contusions and road rash. The MRI on my hip was inconclusive. In all, it was the worst accident I’d had in more than 20 years of cycling. It would take four months of physical therapy for my shoulder to return to normal, but the hip injury lingered for nearly two years.
I can only fault myself for this accident. After all, my list of wrongs exceeded the rights. The wrongs included a high rate of speed. I didn’t have to be riding that fast during my commute. Also blame me for inattentive riding for when I looked down at my computer. In addition, I took my skills for granted, which led to complacency. I even took the route for granted. A cyclist should always anticipate encountering obstacles when they are riding. I also had an equipment issue with my bike. My handlebar rearview mirror broke the week prior and I hadn’t replaced it yet. That mirror could have given me the split second I needed to clear the last inch of barbed wire.
Don’t let my experience be yours. Always bicycle within your limits, don’t speed needlessly, plan your ride, replace any broken or faulty equipment, and keep your eyes on the road. Ride safe!
Did You Know?
May is recognized as National Bike Month. Promoted by the League of American Bicyclists and celebrated in communities nationwide, Bike Month is a chance to showcase the many benefits of bicycling and encourage more folks to give biking a try. For more information on bicycling safety, visit the National Safety Council’s website at https://www.nsc.org/home-safety/tools-resources/seasonal-safety/summer/bicycles.