16 Oct 2017

BACK IN THE SADDLE

WORDS & PHOTOS x Conor Barry

I feel like I need to warn you; normally, I hide behind a wall of sarcasm and self deprecating jokes. But this one is real. This wound is deep. It’s raw and very much still open.

Shit can hit the fan so quick.

Two years ago, a friend introduced me to mountain biking. I loved that first ride. I can remember the exact trail — pushing up the steep parts, being nervous as I tried to keep my wheels on a narrow bench-cut section of singletrack, high above Lake Tahoe. I remember the feeling of pointing the bike back downhill and cutting loose. I remember zipping through the trees. I felt free. Like a junkie on a bender, I was hooked.

And then that junkie turned to dealer as I passed the proverbial pipe to my nephew Sam the next summer. He picked it up so quick. We rode four or five times a week for most of that year. During that time he became one of my closest friends. The kid was fearless and fast. He had this old rusty hardtail with mismatched components and rim brakes. That didn’t stop him from dropping in on some of the nastiest terrain around. Not only would he drop in, he’d keep up. It was a matter of getting him on a good bike and our PRs were in trouble. Sam eventually picked up a modern bike with all the bells and whistles. Sure enough, no one could keep up. He whooped all our asses. He got even faster. Sam started riding shit that no one else would. He looked for the hardest lines and charged in full blast. Components didn’t last long with Sam behind the bars. He was always breaking this or that. He took quite a few dirt samples while he was at it. It didn’t matter though, he only got faster. We were all convinced he’d be racing pro in the next year or two.

But sometimes meteoric rises can come to an abrupt end.

Sam was so damn fast. Maybe too fast. It all came crashing down in a split second – literally. Sam had a bad one — really bad. A few riders came up on a kid lying in the dirt. His helmet was smashed and his head was bleeding. He couldn’t move. He was freaking out. Sam had suffered a severe C5 spinal injury. He was evacuated by helicopter to a local hospital where he immediately went into surgery. It wasn’t looking good. The doctors said he wasn’t going to walk again. He still can’t move. He struggles to talk. Even breathing is a chore. He’s in a lot of pain*.

I can barely bring myself to go see him. He’s in rough shape physically. I can’t begin to imagine the shape he’s in emotionally. Somehow, I can’t help but feel at fault. I got him into this. I got him hooked. I can’t even look at a bike these days without feeling like I’m going to hurl. Bikes have given me so much joy. Then in the blink of an eye, bikes have also ripped my world out from under me and sent me into a tailspin.

It hits too close to home. We have all crashed. We’ve all had a handful of close calls. You could crash a hundred times and never break your neck. It was a freak accident, but we all know that could have easily been us. It could have been me in that hospital bed crying because I couldn’t even lift my arms. It could have been me being fed by a spoon while pissing into a bag. It could have been any one of us.

Yeah, I’m upset. I’m mad as hell. Sam is 18. He’s so full of stoke for life. How could something like this happen to him? How could life be so unfair? It’s very hard to accept what happened. Is biking even worth it? It sure as hell is, until it isn’t.

Sam’s accident has really changed my perspective. Why did I start biking in the first place? To have fun. Period. To be outside connecting with nature. To shoot the shit with friends. To stay healthy and fit. Then, it evolved into something it never should have. It turned into Strava PRs, chasing KOMs, trying to look the coolest, be the rowdiest and the fastest. It turned into a competition. Trust me, I’m just as competitive as the next guy. You know what, I’m more competitive than the next guy — I’m willing to prove it. Who was I kidding? I was never going to be the fastest guy out there. I just got caught up in it all. I got caught up in all the bullshit.

Things have changed though. Now, when I eventually get back on the bike, it’s going to be unplugged. No Strava, no racing, just good old-fashioned two-wheeled fun. The kind of fun that makes you feel like a kid again. The kind of fun that makes you feel free. The kind of fun that got you hooked in the first place.

One of these days I’ll get back in the saddle. Until then, here’s to hoping Sam can too.

[*Ed note: We just received this update from Conor:

“Sam has started a pretty miraculous recovery. He is working hard with a skilled team of therapists and doctors. He has regained some use of his hands and legs. He still faces a long road ahead but his future is bright.”

While is sounds like good news we’re sure Sam has a long way to go and Sam’s friends have set up a gofundme page to help him out.

 

Update: 6th November 2017

“On sep 16 2017, Sam suffered a severe spinal injury while mountain biking. His doctors initially thought he wouldn’t have much use of his hands and arms, let alone walk again. Sam isn’t one to be told what he can’t do. He put a ton of willpower and effort into his recovery and now seven weeks after a life-altering injury, Sam is back on his bike. He’s a prime example of an indomitable human spirit. We are so happy for him and all the support he has received from the mountain biking community.”

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