We traveled to Madison, Wisconsin this past Saturday to do some riding in the hills on the Ironman Wisconsin course. I rode 65 miles with 4,000 feet of climbing and my wife was on track to do 100 miles when her Specialized Shiv double-flatted on the railroad tracks in Cross Plaines.
The next morning we got up to watch friends and associates race in the Wisconsin Ironman. After spending an hour at the 18-mile point next to Rocket Bicycle Studio in Verona, we drove out to Mount Horeb and joined the folks from The Labs at the aid station leading into downtown.
We saw our buddies finishing the last few hundred feet of the long climb leading into Mt. Horeb. There were dozens of volunteers handing out water, orange Gatorade, gels and bananas. Feed zones are always a little sketchy with people starting and stopping, seldom looking behind to see what’s coming. We saw no incidents until one fellow parked his bike smack between the curb and the traffic cones at the start of the feed zone.
Bent and haggard
He was bent to his left and looked a little haggard, more like a guy that had just finished the race than a triathlete starting the first of two 40-mile loops in the steep hills west of Madison.
I walked down to see check on him because the young volunteers handing him Gatorade and hand-feeding him bananas seemed confused and a bit unsure of their role in that situation. As I approached I could see that his shoulder was dropping on one side. There were fresh new skin abrasions and what appeared to be a thin strip of black garbage bag around his shoulder like a bra strap.
“Don’t touch me. I broke my shoulder”
Drawing closer, I began to point at his shoulder to ask a question about his condition when he turned numbly and said, “Don’t touch me. I broke my shoulder.”
Indeed, the entire shoulder joint appeared to be three inches lower on his right side than his left. Then I glanced at his tri-bike and saw that his aero bars were askew. Clearly the crash he’d just taken was bad.
He seemed foggy and distant in conversation. Words tumbled out of his mouth slowly and without certainty. “He’s in shock,” I thought to myself. “I’ve been there.”
Back in 2012 I crashed my bike going 40 mph on a Wisconsin hill near the American Players Theater in Spring Green. That wreck shattered by collarbone in three places. The ambulance arrived and hauled me off to the hospital where they gave me Vicodin and my friends finally arrived to take me back to the campsite to recover for the day. A few weeks later a surgeon repaired the clavicle and a few weeks after that I was back riding my bike. Gingerly, mind you. But you do have to get back on the horse and ride it after it bucks you off.
Chip Seal sins
But this guy was fresh off an obviously violent crash. And given that I’d just ridden the hills on which he traveled the day before, I could well imagine the scene. Several of the roads were recently paved with Chip Seal, the dreaded pea gravel treatment favored by township governments across the country because the technique is apparently cheap and easy to do.
Loose gravel and tri-bikes are a literally deadly combination. As I stared at the guy’s condition I could imagine him speeding down the worst of the pea gravel hills as his bike tires slid out beneath him. Down he’d go. The body collapses into pain after that. But he got back on his bike to ride.
Was that a good decision? Only he can make that call in the moment. Surely he did not want to give up after all that training. But as I thought about the hills ahead of him, a vicarious fear for his life appeared in my brain. A man in possible shock who could not even start up riding his bike on his own accord did not belong on the roads ahead. The young volunteer helping him by pushing his bike back into motion was doing his best to be supportive, but as I watched the broken rider teeter up the hill with only one hand on the handlebar, I had second thoughts about whether he should be allowed to continue.
Because I don’t think he’d been seen by a medical team associated with the race. There is no way that an EMT with any conscience would have allowed that fellow to continue. Too much liability, for one thing. But human nature and medical training would have demanded that he be extracted from the race.
So I walked up to the policeman directing traffic at the intersection and explained what I’d seen. “I think you should call ahead to the EMTs up the road and get that guy out of the race,” I told him.
That’s what the policeman did. Some might think that I ruined that man’s day by tattling on his ostensibly brave demeanor. But I might also have saved his life. He had more than 90 miles to ride that day just to reach the marathon start. There’s no way he could have run 26.2 miles with a broken shoulder.
Call me an ass for sticking my nose in where it perhaps didn’t belong. I’ll take the label proudly. I’d rather be an ass for caring than live with the sin of saying nothing.A