The Hard Road
Motorcycles can be rebuilt, and, in time, bones will heal. But what of the damaged psyche?
Pulses of blue and punches of dirt flit past my eyes. I am rolling, tumbling, toppling. But this time when my head slams down it isn’t ripped up, flung overtop, and hammered earthbound again. Face down on the ground, the ride is over.
Something—a tuft of grass, a clump of dirt—is jammed in one eye. I bend the other eye up and trace a funhouse horizon to where my Ducati has collapsed. The oil pressure light on the dash glows a red alarm. I think to move, to roll over, to stand up, to walk away, but I don’t stir. Methodically I tick a checklist of wiggled toes and clenched hands. My neck raises my head. My legs loft my feet. I am awash in thankfulness.
Unlike home renovation shows, where the before image is of a house in disarray, at the beginning of this tale the Ducati was in fine, fighting condition. It wasn't to last.
And then I remember my wife and 11-year-old in the grandstand. Time to look alive. I rise to one knee and discover my right arm is a sausage—limp, pendulous, unresponsive. With my left hand supporting my right elbow, I launch into the doubled-over lurch of a man dodging sniper fire. Far from the track’s edge, I slump against a guardrail.
My opening race of the roadracing season began well. I nailed the start and carried the front wheel a few inches off the ground throughout an upshift. Then, on cue, the wheel touched down precisely when it was time to initiate the turn. But instead of taking my place in the queue on the racing line, I drifted high and used my momentum to gain three or four positions. At the second corner traffic neatly parted to let me through, and by the third corner, I’d gone from a third row start to the tail end of the lead group.
I moved up when a GSX-R drifted wide, and caught a Kawasaki and the two of us split a lapped rider and my way around was the faster way. It was the last lap, and I was in position to be on the front row for tomorrow’s final. I entered the long back straight and squeezed my ankles and knees and elbows to the bike’s flanks. The engine hit 10,000 rpm in fifth gear and I braked, dropped two gears, dipped my chin to the corner and met the rising ground with my knee. And there, just in front of me, was the very green Kawasaki of Colin Duncan, the rider I’d passed a straightaway ago.
I hadn't heard him behind me. I didn’t see—or can’t recall—him passing me. I braked into the sickening sensation of the front wheel tucking into a lowside. I thrust my knee into the track, jerked the clip-ons skyward, reset the bike on its wheels, and exploded into the right rear of Duncan’s Kawasaki.
Now I stand with Duncan against the guardrail. I reach to flip my visor but it’s been ripped off in the crash. My left hand, content as it’s been to let the right hand do the delicate work all these years, fumbles awkwardly with my chinstrap while the right hand hangs. I’m trapped in my helmet. Panic seeps in. I forgo questions of etiquette (is it appropriate to ask the man with whom you’ve crashed for assistance in slipping from your gear?) and get Duncan to unfasten my chinstrap. And then things get foggy.
Time, that humourless marker of the march from cradle to grave, can be, during moments of great stress, unexpectedly whimsical. The time between the crash and the arrival of the ambulance—at most a few minutes—is as long as a calculus exam. I’m ashamed that while I sink to my knees, Duncan, erect and alert, appears to be scanning the tundra for a taxi. When attendants arrive, lights ablaze, they ask if I’ll feel better on the stretcher. I will not. Eyes in the grandstand keenly watch my movement; I must not put them through more than I already have.
I’m led from the ambulance to a room in a trackside building. And then a moment so odd that were it not true it would be a device of the most pitiful of novelists. The ambulance attendant asks my name. “Neil Graham,” I say. He looks at me oddly. “I’m Neil Graham too,” says the attendant. I’m convinced I’ve died and gone to a land of mockery, where everyone is named Neil Graham. Two women stand on the far side of the room. I ask, in as breezy a tone as I can muster, if they, too, are Neil Graham. Both women turn up their noses at me. They accusation offends them. I am relieved. I am alive.
Doctor Steve Walker (himself a fine racer) says I’ve broken my clavicle. I’m to be thankful it wasn’t my shoulder. I’m freed with the directive to head to hospital for X-rays. I arrive back at my pit just as the truck that dropped my crashed bike is departing, and step into the cover scene from the Beatles Sgt. Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band record. But instead of Mae West and Carl Jung and William S. Burroughs and Laurel and Hardy and Shirley Temple (in triplicate!), I’m greeted by my stepdaughter, my daughter, my wife, a kid on a skateboard, many more on bicycles, a childhood friend (with her third husband) and a dozen rubberneckers half interested in my condition and half looking for blood.
The crash was in the dry, but it rained overnight and into the next day. Of course it did.
My leathers have been peeled off and I slump in a lawn chair in my all-black sweat-wicking undergarments. I look like Hindu guru Sri Yukteswar Giri (also on the Beatles cover), and am about to rehash the crash in excruciating detail to my followers when I glimpse Colin Duncan coming at me. Duncan is seeking retribution. Why else would he be fortified by his wife and pre-teen daughter? But as he walks each footfall meets the ground as meekly as a man who doubts the thickness of a river’s ice. We awkwardly shake (left) hands and he painfully lowers into a chair. Our conversation, of course, cannot directly confront what each of us is thinking. I want to know why he parked his bike in front of me so late in the corner, and he wants to know why I didn’t just tighten my line instead of ramming him.
Duncan and I discuss the collision. We choose our words carefully. Neither of us can offer an explanation that fully satisfies the other. We agree to refer to our coming together as a racing incident, a superficial phrase suffused with deeper meaning. Racing incident means that Duncan and I are not going to be assholes. We are not going to be petty over a club race crash. The question of blame withers as we bid goodbye.
I wait in hospital, prepped for surgery. Alongside the misery of bodies mangled from car crashes and industrial accidents, my snapped clavicle isn’t particularly serious, and I’m bumped deeper in the queue. Finally, in the early evening of my fourth day in hospital, I’m wheeled into the operating theatre and a titanium plate is screwed atop my clavicle. I awake to 21 metal staples and a fine scar. There is no pain. Duncan checks in on me. “All the fast guys have titanium!” he writes in encouragement. My sliver of exotic metal is not, sadly, a talisman of newfound speed, but the admittance to a club. Throughout the summer former and current racers elongate t-shirt necks to show scars long faded or freshly made. And then, as if proclaiming ownership of a bottle of ’82 Château Lafite Rothschild, they declare the vintage of their scar: ’88 Laguna Seca, ’78 St. Jovite, ’09 Barber, ’71 Mosport they say, to me, ’16 Shannonville, their latest recruit.
A tip for fellow racers: while in hospital, confess to attending physicians that next time you'll pay more attention while riding your bicycle...
Two weeks before my crash I watched the young daughters of Rob Harris, a motorcycle journalist, crowd alongside his open casket at a viewing. One daughter ran her fingers absent-mindedly over her father’s wrist. He was killed when his Husky met the front of a pickup truck. Four months later I watched Michelle Warner Beattie climb into an ambulance after her husband, flat-tracker Steve Beattie, crashed and was knocked unconscious after two bikes ran over his body—one his chest and the other his neck. (Beattie, in time, recovered.)
On the way home from the flat track race, with the memory of Beattie’s crash still fresh, my wife interrupted the silence by telling me that my crash had been horrific. She didn’t offer details. I didn’t speak at all. At home, I parked in the garage but didn’t head straight to the house. I pulled back the cover on the Ducati. I hadn’t looked at it in months. The right-side clip-on bent back on itself to form a horseshoe and the footpeg aimed at the ceiling. The fairing was weakened by deep lacerations and the fuel tank was concave where it was once convex. Enough time had passed. Time to get to work.