The Fall

March 15th was a beautiful Saturday morning. It was cool, but the sun had come up and had already started to warm the air. My Team in Training team met at 7:45 for a 40 mile training ride. We set off on our ride, heading up into the hills behind Stanford. A nice climb up Alpine, cutting over to Page Mill, to a grueling 2-3 mile climb to our highest point of the ride. We turned south, winding along the hills, until finally beginning our descent back toward Foothill. And that’s when it happened.

We were heading down Altamont Road in Los Altos. It’s a steep road, but I’ve been down it numerous times over the years. I wasn’t doing anything crazy, wasn’t going unusually fast, wasn’t even feeling overly nervous… but heading into a left hand turn, my back wheel hit some gravel. It started to fishtail, and I immediately knew I had to let off the brakes if I wanted to recover. I did, but then quickly realized that, in order to recover, I’d never make the turn. I had two choices: 1. try to recover, and risk likely hitting the guard rail, going over my bike, and down the hill on the other side, head first… or 2. bail out. I chose option 2.

I was probably going 25-30 miles at the time, and basically laid the bike down a bit ahead of me, landing on my left side, and sliding into the guard rail. All I remember from the impact was a loud bang – in hindsight, probably my front tube bursting (it always sounds like a gunshot – they’re at 120 psi.) When I sat up, I remember thinking a few things:

  • Everyone always says that most people fall off their bike for the first time doing something stupid, like forgetting to take their shoes out of their clips at a stop sign. Why couldn’t I have done that?
  • My shoulder is grinding in a very odd way. I remember them saying that a broken collarbone is one of the most common cycling injurieswhen I watched the Tour de France. I’m betting that’s what it is.
  • Holy crap, my bike is in pieces!
  • Looks like I won’t be riding away from this accident.
  • Michelle is going to kill me!

My bike and I had basically slid headlong into the guard rail, which resulted in me shearing off the front forks and front wheel from the rest of the bike. The handlebars were mangled, the wheel was bent & cracked, the brakes were tweaked… even the front chainring was bent! That’s some crazy damage. Pictures are below.

The next 7 hours were spent in the Stanford ER. I had a shattered clavicle (5 pieces!), fractured kneecap, torn tendons, lacerated chin (5 stitches!), and lots of road rash. I’ve seen them cut clothing off of folks on “ER” but never imagined needing to have it done to me! Ugh. They loaded me up with Dilaudid and sent me home with my stiches, a sling, and a visit to the Orthopedic Department on Monday.

Most collarbone breaks don’t need surgery. Of course, I managed to break mine in such a way that to let it heal normally would result in significant loss of motion, and potentially other damage to nerves & muscles in the area. So, surgery it was. I waited 5 days at home, hopped up on major narcotics, and headed in to surgery on Thursday morning. 3 hours later, I emerged, with a new steel plate, 5 screws, and an 8-inch long incision in my shoulder to show for it. And for the knee? “Just keep walking on it,” they said. “It’ll hurt, but it’ll heal itself.”

It’s been a month now, and I’m well on the road to recovery. Michelle has been an amazing wife and caregiver, as always. How she managed to care for 2 small kids, her more-or-less incapacitated husband (I couldn’t even lay down or get out of bed without help), her father-in-law (who very kindly came to help during my surgery), AND our newest baby who she’s still carrying, I will never know. Women are sometimes simply amazing, and all I can do is look on with awe and say “Thanks Michelle – I love you.” The prognosis is good – the plate is holding up, the screws are in the right place, and they expect I’ll have full range of motion back at some point. I still can’t lift my arm above my shoulder (the fracture is still there; the bone takes another 4-6 weeks to heal) but at least the pain is gone. But so much for my triathlon season this year.

When I look at my bike, I continue to be amazed that I’m in as good shape as I am. These pictures don’t really even do it justice:

In any case, now you know part of why I’ve been silent on this blog for the past month… it’s taken that long just to get back on my feet and back to work. Can’t say I’ll be posting every day, but for those of you still out there reading this, I’ll be back more often now… especially since I don’t have any races to train for. Wildflower, the event I was training toward, is next weekend… and I’ll definitely feel a bit of sadness about not being able to race with the team. But who knows, perhaps I’ll be back next year? (That is, if Michelle lets me get on a bike again…)

Thanks to all of you out there that offered help, food, rides to/from work while I couldn’t drive, or just words of encouragement. I really appreciate it. It’s good to be back in one piece!


~ by Nathan on April 20, 2008.

One Response to “The Fall”

  1. Nathan,

    Good to hear you are doing better after your fall on Altamont. I hope you are back to 100% soon. I came across your blog when I did a search on “Altamont accident.”

    I too was victim to the left turn on Altamont last weekend. My account leading to the accident would read exactly like yours. I wasn’t doing anything unusual, not going unusually fast (25-30 but in control), and I am a very careful rider. All of a sudden, I felt my rear wheel fishtailing and realized I had lost control of the bike and that I was heading straight for the guard rail. I did my best to minimize the impact. I ended up nailing one of the wooden supports head-on, flying off the bike and flipping over in the air, and landing on my back on one of the metal i-beams that keeps the wooden supports up.

    I’ll skip the gory part, but the result was 3 fractured ribs, a collapsed lung, and a trashed back. After the paramedics took me to the Stanford ER, I ended up in the trauma unit for 4 days. They re-inflated the lung and the ribs and back are a matter of pain management and time. I know what you mean about needing help to get into and out of bed.

    The scary part is that the paramedics said they are up there on Altamont 3-4 times a month. And just a week or so before me, they went up there for another guy at the same spot, who went head first over the bike and skimmed along the guard rail on his belly. It cut him open. I don’t know how he did.

    Every cyclist I know in the South Bay has a story about someone crashing at that very spot. And everyone has a story of when they lost control on that same turn. It would be good if we could band together and see if something could be done about that road.

    Hope you are doing better,

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