“Riding with the pain of a broken collarbone, veteran American racer Tyler Hamilton won his first ever stage in the Tour de France on Wednesday after a brave solo breakaway effort.”
–Red Orbit website, July 23, 2003
The effort is legendary. Cyclist Tyler Hamilton rode to a Tour de France stage victory on July 23, 2003 with a broken collarbone.
Okay, sounds horrific, doesn’t it? Except I’m here to tell you that having recently broken a collarbone (fractured in two, actually) by crashing at 40 mph, there’s a funny little truth I’d like to reveal to you. Breaking a collarbone really doesn’ t hurt that much.
It hurt to hit the ground hard. For sure. But I didn’t black out from the pain. Luckily, and thankfully, I veered my wobbling, harmonically-challenged, gyroscopically disturbed Felt 4C into a grassy ditch. And maybe saved my own life. The worst thing that happened was that I dug up a divot with my shoulder and crunched my left clavicle in the process.
Cyclists do that shit now and then.
I’d made it 20,000 miles without a crash. This was apparently cosmic justice of some sort. I hope it is another 70,000 miles before I crash again, and then I’ll be too old to care.
But sitting there with my right hand holding my left shoulder, a surprising thought came through my head.
“I thought this would hurt worse.”
There was no stabbing pain. No throbbing even. Just a crunchy sound when I moved around. I admit I didn’t like that, but it was not disabling. Just creepy.
What really hurt was the back of my right hamstring. Two days later a giant purple bruise emerged. On the day of the crash, when I tried to crawl out of the ditch to get back up by the roadside to be seen, that muscle really hurt. It felt like my whole hamstring was torn. The back of my leg must have struck the top bar of the bike. When I tried to get up a shooting pain almost doubled me over.
Of course, my back was sort of stiff too, eventually. So the lesson was that crashing at 40 mph is going to cause some damage.
You should know you can also break your collarbone going much slower. I once rode 45 miles with a guy on a Saturday morning and then saw him the next morning at a criterium where we were both were intending to race.
Only my friend now had a broken collarbone, sling and all. I asked, “How did that happen? I just rode with you yesterday and you were fine!”
He said, “I was standing over my bike adjusting my front wheel when I got home. I leaned over too far and my cleats slipped. I landed on my wrist and busted my collarbone.”
So, you can imagine there was not too much trauma for the rest of his body if all he did was tip over from 3 feet over the ground. And I say he could have gotten on the bike that day and raced. If there was enough on the line.
That’s what Tyler Hamilton did back in 2003 in the Tour de France. His team physician slapped a diagonal tape job over the right clavicle and away he rode to not only finish the Tour de France with a broken collarbone, but win a stage along the way.
Now let’s be truthful here: Tyler Hamilton was an athlete with a high pain tolerance, known for his ability to dig deep and climb mountains with the best in the world. Plus, world class cyclists in general have a far higher pain tolerance than most other athletes in the world. So it is both remarkable and unremarkable Hamilton was able to pull off the feat of riding in the world’s toughest bike race with a broken clavicle.
But like I said, it was not the clavicle that hurt me so much after my bike accident.
If Hamilton landed in such a way that the collateral damage was not that bad, it would be possible to strap up the clavicle bone tightly, brace the rest of the body to compensate and get on your bike and ride.
Probably there would be moments where it did really hurt. I certainly cannot say I got back on my bike and tried to ride after the crashola. No one in our camp site would even allow me to get out of my chair without help. So I walked down to the washroom to show that I wasn’t completely disabled.
The next morning after sleeping all night in a tent on an air mattress, I felt stiff and wanted to make sure my body did not lock up completely. The worst part of the night was not sleeping through the pain of a broken clavicle, it was trying to pee in the cold night air outside the tent when I was shivering so bad nothing would come out. My teeth were still chattering so loud when I came back to bed my tent mate asked me, “What the hell were you doing out there?” I probably looked like a skeleton from the Danse Macabre.
The next morning I did get up and walk down a big hill and back at Governor Dodge State Park in Dodgeville, Wisconsin. That’s not exactly riding over the Alps with a bandage over a busted collarbone, but we all have our relative mountains to climb. I also did not have the competitive obligation to race for a team that desperately needed me, or take any more painkillers than necessary to hold off the pain.
Okay, we all know Tyler got busted for doping later in his career. Maybe he was doping back then, too. But doping doesn’t help you ride through difficult situations like a busted collarbone. Not really. That was sheer guts and panache. You can’t take that away from him. But you should know: The clavicle when broken does not give off much pain all by itself. At least it did not for me.
Yet the visual of Hamilton riding with that sling bandage across his shoulder, shirt open and pained expression on his face should live forever in our minds. It’s a risky, tough thing to do, for sure.
It’s been almost four weeks after the accident since I rode my bike. The Felt 4C still sits in the garage where my buddies pulled it out of my car and parked it in a dark corner. The water bottle full of stale Gatorade is still perched in the cage on the frame. I need to clean that out and probably throw that water bottle away. The mold will be an inch deep inside, and its partner water bottle disappeared somewhere in that grassy ditch where I lay looking at the sky, grasping my collarbone and asking myself, “Now, what would Tyler Hamilton do?”
Not really. I made that part up. What I actually sat there thinking was this: “What the mother in hell just happened? My bike just freaked out and threw me in a ditch. But thank God I got myself off the road, at least.”
The Tyler Hamilton lie is more romantic. But the truth is more revealing. All you can do in some circumstances is ride and learn, figure out what you’re made of. And once in a while, strap up the old shoulder and ride over the Alps for the hell of it. That’s what we cyclists live for, even if it is only in our own imaginations that we ride through the tarsnake that is pain, for glory.