A funny thing happened while I was watching the Olympics.
As many of you know, I used to race a bicycle. I was far better at suffering than I ever was at winning anything, but that never mattered. I loved every second of it. Well, maybe not some of the vomit-inducing workouts that my coaches subjected me to, but I even had an affinity for those–when they were good and done. I can still think of no better feeling than pedaling a meditation for hours at a time, over mountains, to the coast, and back again–except maybe swapping out some solo zen time for the raucous laughter of my teammates. I haven’t ridden more than 50 miles since Jonah came along, but these women remain some of my best friends on the planet (hi ladies!).
A few years ago my bike racing “career” came to a crashing halt. And it wasn’t even my crash. I’m tempted to say more about it here, but I won’t, because I’m hoping you’ll read about it below. Let it suffice to say that on Sunday, as I yelled and screamed and scared the dog and made the baby cry while cheering on Mara Abbot, Kristin Armstrong, Megan Guarnier, and Evie Stevens in one of the most exhilarating bike races I’ve seen in a long time–the women’s Olympic road race–I found myself right back on the side of the road in Mariposa County, CA circa 2012–my last bike race.
For those of you who weren’t watching on Sunday, in the final miles of the Olympic race, Annamiek van Vleuten, a Dutch cyclist, crashed horrifically. And I couldn’t do anything to help. So, um, I burst into tears and had a panic attack instead.
Apparently I still have some work to do.
By the time the race was over we knew that van Vleuten was conscious and on her way to the hospital. Later that night she appeared to be Tweeting with her own two thumbs, stating that she was okay, but had suffered three non-paralyzing lumbar spinal fractures. She was (in mostly her own words) “most disappointed that the crash had happened in the middle of the finest ride of her career.”
I moved on to other heartbreaks–Mara Abbot, who also had the ride of her life, but was caught in the final kilometer of the race, and Megan Guarnier, current world champion and one of the kindest, most joyful women in cycling today–I know they both, and Stevens and Armstrong too, wanted a very different day for themselves and the team. Nevertheless, I’m so proud of all of them.
But that crash. It still haunts me.
Butterflies and Angels
I’m careening down a hill on two wheels, balanced on nothing more than fifteen pounds of carbon fiber and steel, elbow to elbow in a pack of thirty women, all of whom are trying to kill me. Not literally, of course. No one is actively throwing sticks into my spokes, launching arrows, daggers, or even insults my way, but when you’re a trauma nurse and you dare to race your bicycle, you race as though you are perpetually trying to save your own life.
I have seen the spectacular carnage that can happen with one false move–someone else’s, or my own. Two wheels kiss, and in the next beat there is a pile of women and debris–broken collarbones, cracked bicycle frames, busted knees. I have suffered a concussion, road rash, and fractured ribs at the hand of this sport, and yet, I cannot give in to the fear. I cannot quit. Instead I choose to believe I can, as my coach would say, “race smart.”
I’m a trauma nurse who knows what it feels like to crash a bicycle, who has wiped the asses of countless fallen cyclists with fractured pelvises, traumatic brain injuries, and here I am, careening down a hill at 40mph in a pack of thirty women who are all trying to kill me. But my elbows are out, my front wheel is protected, and I am scanning the pack for sketchy riders–there are always a few. I am racing smart.
It’s Mother’s Day, and the fourth and final event of the Mariposa Women’s Stage Race, the only multi-day bicycle race in California held exclusively for female cyclists. In just one weekend, women from the Northern and Southern California racing circuits come together for the only time all season to compete in a time trial, a hill climb, a circuit race, and a road race, all in the blistering May heat of Mariposa County, somewhere near, but not near enough to Yosemite National Park. We are now on race number four–the Bootjack Road Race–55 miles of climbing and descending with nary a flat section to be found, and the only thing left standing between me, a camp chair, and an ice-cold beer. My legs are toast. I’m spinning them even on this downhill, trying to flush the lactic acid through me so I have something left to get up the next hill.
The peloton–the technical term for a group of cyclists–has formed three lines of riders across the road. I’m sitting fourth wheel on the far left hand side of the pack, next to the woman my teammate Penny and I have dubbed “Scary Shit.” Scary Shit likes to make sudden lateral moves without looking, a definite no-no in group riding, and I’m in her direct line of fire. It figures. I flex my elbows again, to make myself seem bigger. There is a Murphy’s Law in bike racing–you will always end up on or next to the wheel of the person you least want to be on or near. As such, Penny is on the opposite side of the pack directly behind the other sketchy wheel of the weekend, “Ribbon Chick.” Of course she is.
Ribbon Chick, nicknamed for the pink ribbon neatly tied to the bottom of her French braid, is in her early forties and stronger and faster than most of the rest of us in our amateur racing category. Rumor has it she’s a former competitive marathon runner who nearly made it to the Olympics before she blew out a knee and was forced to take up cycling for rehabilitation. This weekend marked her third, fourth, fifth and sixth bike races ever, and her first four were individual time trials. She’d never raced in a pack before yesterday, and she terrified us. Like Scary Shit, she too liked to make sudden lateral moves. She seemed afraid to get too close to the wheel in front of her, so instead of drafting neatly behind a rider in the sweet spot, she would suddenly pull right or left without looking to see if there was anyone in her path, or worse, slam on her brakes, causing a chain reaction of sudden slow downs (and a lot of shouting) behind her. We knew she was strong because she could ride in the wind without resting in the slipstream for an entire race and still place in the top three. She was strong, but she was scary as hell.
Penny offered Ribbon Chick and Scary Shit some friendly feedback and bike handling tips after yesterday’s race. They both accepted with grace, but neither appeared capable of implementing it in time for this morning’s event.
We are careening down a hill at 40mph. I’m watching Penny out of the corner of my eye. She is fearless on a descent, and absolutely despises climbing–my polar opposite. We are on a beautifully banked, long sweeping grade with impeccably smooth pavement–just her thing–and I have a feeling she is about to pull out into the wind and around the group to give herself a head start down, then ultimately up the next hill. She is not afraid of hitting 50mph on a bicycle. I am, and I can smell the fear in the rest of the peloton. Things are starting to get twitchy. I sit up just a little bit to allow wind resistance to regulate my speed. A small gap forms between my bike and the racer in front of me, Marla, whom I know and trust. Nevertheless, I’m a trauma nurse. I want reaction time.
We are careening down the hill at 42mph now, a pack of thirty women, following the road as it gently swoops around into a wide curve, tall trees flanking us on both sides. As we round a bend, we can see one of the support vehicles up ahead, a white van, pulled off to the far right hand side of the road. There are two people–a racer from the field ahead of ours and a support crew member–bending over her bike to change a flat. There’s not much of a shoulder, so part of the van is jutting out on to the pavement, but the road is wide, with plenty of room for the peloton to pass without having to alter our course.
“Car up!” Someone shouts, in the appropriate way a cyclist is taught to call out an obstacle up ahead. I can hear the squeal of brakes.
I can hear the squeal of brakes–oh shit!
I see a blur of hot pink and blue fish tailing, wobbling, skidding across the road, bikes and women flying through the air, the smell of burning rubber, then, the sound–that sound–the sickening crack of carbon and steel and flesh slamming into metal at 40mph.
Then, it proceeds on instant reply.
There I am, careening down a hill at 40mph, in slow motion. Someone shouts, “Car up!” I hear the squeal of brakes–oh shit. I take a deep breath. I know what happens next.
Time catches up again.
I am darting around bodies and bikes, in the air, on the pavement–“Keep moving, Dana!” I can hear my coach’s voice in my head, “Whatever you do, don’t look back!” I’m riding into dirt and pine needles and stones on the opposite shoulder from the van, then leaning my body right, steering onto asphalt again, plowing over the wheel of another woman’s bike. “Keep going, keep moving. If you look back, you’ll crash, too.”
I’m careening down the hill, but a little slower now. The crash is just behind me. My heart is pounding in my head. I am upright, trembling. Rubber-side down. Alive.
Carbon and steel and flesh against metal. Someone has to be dead.
I’m careening down a hill at 30mph, but I’m a trauma nurse. I have to go back. But there are women up ahead, too, and I need to take stock–Marla, Scary Shit–“Where’s Penny?” I bellow. I don’t see Penny.
“Not here,” Marla answers.
Someone has to be dead. I have to go back.
I’m grinding up the hill at 10mph. My legs are toast, but maybe I can help.
I hear a car behind me. I wave frantically. The race promoter’s van is pulling up next to me.
He rolls down the window. “Can it wait? There’s been a crash.”
“I know. I’m a nurse. I need to go.”
“Get in.” The side door of the van opens and someone is lifting my bike, then me, into the moving vehicle as it continues up the hill.
“There’s a first aid kit here.” The promoter points to a tackle box between the two front seats. “Look through it. Take what you need. Take the whole thing.”
It’s mostly Band-Aids and gauze and Betadine.
Band-Aids will be useless. But underneath it all, I see what I think I will need. I grab two oral airways and the nasal one, just in case. They’re used for opening up a passage into the lungs of someone who can’t do it on her own, someone who might need help breathing. I had a feeling. No. I knew. I put them into my jersey pocket along side the Clif Bars and Luna Moons. If I need them in a hurry, I know where they’ll be.
“Penny!” I leap out of the van and she is all that I can see. She’s in the middle of the road, knees bloodied, but she is standing, with her arms outstretched. She must have run up the road in time to stop the field behind ours from barreling into the crash sight. There is a pack of racers lined up behind her, waiting.
“Dana! Thank god you’re here!”
I start moving toward her.
“No!” The force of her word stops me in my tracks, “I’m fine! They need you!” She points toward the shoulder.
I scan the scene. There are bike parts littered across the pavement and women in various states of brokenness and disarray standing, sitting, kneeling, and lying on the side of the road. Someone is sobbing and someone is moaning–a bone-chilling, guttural sound that instantly raises the hair on the back of my neck. A wounded animal. No. A dying animal. I move toward it.
“It” is Ribbon Chick. She is rolling from side to side, or trying to, but her head and neck are being held in alignment by one of her teammates. She’s no longer wearing a helmet.
A second woman from a different team is trying to grab a hold of her at her hips, to keep her still in case she has a spinal cord injury. I move in to help and we get her pinned down.
“Has somebody called an ambulance?” I ask.
An answer comes from somewhere behind me. “They’re on the way.”
“What’s her name?” I ask her teammate.
“Roseanne!” I shout. “Roseanne! Open your eyes!”
Nothing. Just the horrible wailing. Gasping. Her bike shorts are soaked with urine. There is no blood that I can see.
“She has a huge hematoma on the right side of her head,” her teammate says, “It’s under my hand.”
I slide her eyelids back. Her pupils constrict appropriately in the sunlight. “At least her pupils react,” I say out loud. I rub her sternum with my fist. Nothing, still. “Roseanne! Open your eyes!”
“Are you a doctor?” Her teammate asks me.
I instinctively move down to her groin to check for a pulse. “Nurse. Neuro-Trauma ICU.” She has one, and it’s appropriately slamming against my fingertips. I unzip her jersey to inspect her chest.
“Me too. Cardiac ICU,” the teammate says.
“I’m a doctor,” the other woman says, “but I’m just a GP. I’m out of my league here. I’ll follow you.”
“I don’t like the way she’s breathing. Roseanne! Open your eyes!” I reach into my pocket for the oral airway. “If she’s in there anywhere she’s not gonna let me do this.” Her jaw is stiff, but she’s not resisting. I slide it into her mouth without difficulty.
“Roseanne!” I pull her eyelids back again just in time to watch her pupils black out all traces of blue. “Oh no! No, no, no, no, no, no, no! Check a pulse! Check a pulse! She just blew her pupils!”
“I can’t feel one,”the doctor says, panic in her voice.
I’m on her chest in an instant. Her ribs crack beneath the weight of my hands.
“What’s your name?” I ask her teammate.
“Jen, can you just stay on c-spine?”
“I’m Sandy,” the doctor offers.
“Sandy, you keep her airway open as best you can. Do you have something to use as a barrier so you can breathe for her?”
“I’ll use my jersey.”
“Where’s the goddamned ambulance,” I say to no one in particular.
A voice behind me says, “They’re coming.”
Then another. “We’re in the middle of nowhere.”
Then finally, “The fire department’s here.”
But it’s not the kind of fire department I’m expecting. It’s the local volunteer fire brigade. A man in coveralls is trying to hand me a machine as I’m doing CPR.
“Is that an AED?” I ask. He stares blankly. “A defibrillator? To shock with?”
“What is it?”
“A blood pressure machine.”
“Do you have an AED?”
“Nevermind. It won’t help us anyway.” Roseanne needed blood.
“You need to take her blood pressure.” He’s still trying to hand me the contraption.
“Do you have anything to start an IV with?”
“No. We don’t start IVs. You need to check her blood pressure.”
“Can you do CPR?”
“You need to check her blood pressure.”
“Sir, with all due respect, I AM her blood pressure right now, and I’m getting really tired. Can you take over chest compressions?” The color drains from his face, but he nods his head yes.
“Okay, one, two, three.” He leans in and takes my place. I try to reassess. “Her belly is getting bigger.”
“Do you think it’s from my breathing?” Sandy asks.
I tap her belly with my fingertips and there is a dull thud. “It doesn’t sound hollow. I think she’s bleeding. I think it’s blood. Do you guys see anything else we can be doing for her right now? Is there anything we’re missing?”
“Besides a trauma surgeon?” Jen asks.
“We need an ambulance,” I say again. It’s become my mantra, then I think–we need a miracle.
“They’re here,” someone shouts.
The rig pulls up and the team spills out of the back. In what feels like an instant Roseanne is on a backboard, hooked up to a monitor, and drilled for IV access. I’m doing chest compressions again, and for some strange reason, maybe because I’m a control freak, I’m still calling the shots. “Get that fluid wide open. Get ready to hang another bag. Give her a milligram of epi. Get her the hell out of here!”
In less than five minutes she’s loaded an gone. Sandy, Jen and I sit down, dazed, on the side of the road. I can’t bring myself to look at them.
“She’s a mother, you know.” Jen breaks our silence. “Her kids were upset that she was going to be away for Mother’s Day.”
All I can do is nod my head.
Penny sits down beside us. “You guys were amazing.”
I lean into her and take a deep breath. It catches, but I don’t cry. Not yet. Penny isn’t a touchy-feely person, but she wraps her arm around me anyway.
The race promoter comes over and thanks us. “Do you think she’ll–“
I shake my head no.
He nods in understanding.
We sit quietly for a few more minutes. The pro women’s field comes whizzing by us, laughing, cheering, blissfully unaware of what just unfolded.
“Is your bike okay to ride?” I ask Penny.
“I think so.”
“Are you okay to ride?”
“I should be.”
“I think I want to take a lap around the course.”
I’m careening down a hill at 30mph with Penny at my side. I’m a trauma nurse. I know what can happen. A woman just died in my arms. Ribbon Chick. Roseanne. A mother on Mother’s Day. I’m careening down a hill at 30mph, and I know–with total certainty–I will never race my bicycle again.
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