Circa April 2002
I’d gotten word that one of my best friends was in a nearby hospital with a blood clot. For some reason I’d decided to combine a visit to his room with exercise, so I made the roughly 5-mile trek to the hospital on my mountain bike down a scraggly collection of sidewalks.
Houston has a lot of things going for it. There’s cheap housing, cheap Mexican food and, when the oil and gas industry is cooperating, a lot of jobs. There’s also a full suite of professional sports teams, museums and theaters.
The cons to the city are legion. One of the most prominent for anyone who likes to be outdoors is the weather, which for much of the year is akin to the ambiance of a bathroom immediately following a 10 minute shower where only hot water was utilized. Another challenge for the outdoorsy is the fact that there never has, and never will be, any real interest in creating a environment where pedestrians and cyclists have anything close to equal footing with automobiles. There had been a whimsical effort at adding bike lanes in some portions of town, but drivers had not officially, or even unofficially, acknowledged their presence.
So, I found myself bouncing up and down sidewalks in various stages of disrepair. A few of the sidewalks had been designed to be wheelchair/bike-friendly such that they slowly tapered down as they met the street. Most, however, ended in tall, broken curbs which bear the black marks of motorists who had driven over them in overzealous right turns.
My backpack was full of gifts just purchased at a sketchy gas station for my ailing friend. My go-to gift of choice for any male friend in this kind of situation was adult magazines — the raunchier the better. Besides the initial shock value of a bag of porn being poured out over a sterile hospital bedcover, there’s the lasting fun that comes from the fact that my friend will soon need to find a place to stash all of this in a room completely designed to defy storage. When a nurse, or his mom, uncovers the latest copy of Jugs sticking out from under the mattress and he attempts to explain it away — that’s when I earned my wings.
Bumping along my route, happy with the knowledge that my gift will soon be unveiled, I dodged the cars which routinely ran the lights or decided that my small section of the corner curb is really meant for them. The hospital complex was visible in the distance when something else caught my eye from across the street. There was something odd about the sidewalk over there.
I gingerly peddled along as I took a closer look at the sidewalk across the four lane road. In front of an impromptu used car lot, the shifting ground had erupted underneath the aged sidewalk and created a mini-hill of sorts. The sidewalk was still intact, kind of, but it now jutted up to form a steep, triangular ramp about 2 1/2 feet high. Strangely, the sidewalk further along on either side of the ramp was smooth and undisturbed. Houston, we have a bike ramp.
I filed this vision away and silently promised myself to ride home on the other side of the street so I could examine the ramp more closely.
My visit with my ailing friend went well, and I managed to leave at least one of the magazines outside of his reach. The thought of his next interaction with the nursing staff made me smile on an otherwise grim day. We were too young to be coming down with things like blood clots. There’s nothing that puts you in touch with your own mortality quite like seeing someone in their prime stuck in a hospital bed with an IV and various other equipment attached to them.
This somber visit could have easily gone one of two ways: creating an irrational fear of dying that compelled me towards safety and a healthy diet, or the exact polar opposite on all fronts. As I peddled along, dodging cars, I found myself embracing the latter approach. The light turned green for me and I sped my way across yet another intersection when I saw the impromptu sidewalk bike ramp in my path about a half a block away.
I was already moving at a pretty full clip, but I now poured on the speed. If I was doing it, and it appeared I was, I was going all out. I shifted again to gain a higher max speed and noticed that I was traveling nearly the same pace as the cars on the road next to me. I caught the curious glance of a woman driving along in the near lane. That brief look conveyed deep reservations on her part about whatever it was that I was doing.
The ramp quickly approached and I turned back to the task at hand. My backpack, now empty save for my keys, wallet and my cell phone, bounced along emptily on my back as I stopped pedaling, crouched into the bike and leaned back.
I’d done this thing quite a bit in my early teens. As my front wheel left the earth I recalled that I’d stopped my jumping activities after a particularly nasty crash that nearly left me a soprano. That jump had ended badly, in part, because my devious friends moved our ramshackle landing ramp back a couple of extra feet when I wasn’t looking. I took some solace in knowing that there was no landing ramp this time around, just a patch of smooth sidewalk nestled narrowly between the street on one side and a line of used cars parked on the scruffy grass on the other.
As my back wheel joined the front into the air and I began an ET-like soar, I puzzled over just how close these cars were to the sidewalk. They didn’t look that close from the other side of the street, but then again I’d told myself previously that I’d take a closer look at the ramp before I’d thrown caution to the wind and just sped over it.
Time curiously slowed and I marveled at the roofs of the cars in the lot that were now below me. I have not just caught air. I am f’n flying. The absolute thrill of the jump came back to me in a rush and I used my super slo-mo version of time to see that several of the cars on the street, including a few going the other way, had slowed or stopped to gawk at me.
Less than a heartbeat later the slow motion aspect was gone and everything, particularly the ground, was coming at me all at once. The item that troubled me the most is my rear tire, which was now leaking seriously to the left as I descended. The idea of trying to correct it back to the center whilst still in the air briefly crossed my mind, but I immediately discarded that notion as problematic as an overcorrection just a wee bit too far to the right would send me left into the street. I was coming in — hot — and I was about to make a serious right turn.
I did stick the landing, which was something I could only briefly take pride in as I immediately took the expected, but not desired, right turn and crashed into the front grill of an aged OldsmaBuick which had low miles and only one owner. These attributes were noted on the windshield, which I hit at a high rate of speed when my bike stopped at the front grill and momentum carried me forward. My bruised face was still pushed against the windshield when the thought occurred to me that the owners of this parking lot might not terribly fond of what I’ve done with their car.
Still numb from the impact, I rolled to my left across the hood and ended up landing face down again, this time on the grass between the Oldsmabuick and whatever car was for sale next to it. I was still facing away from the street, directly towards the shack of an office for this lot — so I’d at least I would be able to see the feet of anyone leaving the office to investigate the ruckus.
I waited a few beats. Nothing.
Life was beginning to return to my extremities and I did a quick inventory. A lot of body parts hurt, some quite a bit, but much like the roofing adventure I’ve somehow avoided the very real outcome of a compound fracture.
With no one coming from the office I used the space available to awkwardly turn back towards the street while keeping as low as possible. I now saw that one of the cars that had slowed to watch my performance was now stopped in the near lane about 10 feet away. The passenger in that car stuck her head out of her open window and stared at me with a mix of concern and laughter. I smiled back and waved at her. She shook her head and laughed as the car sped away. From her perspective, which did not involve super slow-mo, I was the guy who sped through the intersection on a bicycle and launched myself into the air, crashing into a parked car and then hiding beside it. It had all taken less than five seconds, and it probably was a little funny.
I crawled forward a few feet to see what had become of my bike. Outwardly it appeared fine as it laid on its side in front of the OldsmaBuick. I snuck one last look back under the car but still saw no one coming, so I scrambled to my feet, picked up my bike and tried to ride away.
I was making all of the correct motions, but the bike remained unmoved. Something about the front wheel was strange and at first I thought that the handlebars had been spun around backwards by the impact. Upon further review, I saw that the forks had actually been bent backwards such that the wheel was bent and wedged against the frame. This bike wasn’t going anywhere under it’s own power.
I dismounted, grabbed the bike by the top bar of the frame and held it across my shoulder as I sprinted as quickly as I could on my jittery legs down the sidewalk to put some distance between myself and the scene of the crime. It didn’t take long for me to run out of breath, and I put the bike down and looked behind me to see if anyone was following me.
No one was chasing me. I was safe. Relief gave way to an immediate need to share my idiocy with another person as soon as possible. I took my backpack off and fumbled through it for my phone. The last number I’d dialed was my friend in the hospital so I hit redial and held the phone to my ear with one hand while holding the frame with the other so I could roll the bike along on its intact rear wheel.
After a few rings my friend answered. According to later reports, I was laughing so hard that he couldn’t understand me. He attempted to berate me regarding the gift of porn but I just kept talking jibberish about my epic jump. One of us hung up on the other and I then called my wife to see if she could pick me up as I still had more then four miles left on my journey home. Apparently this conversation was also filled with a lot of hysterical laughter but she eventually figured out where I was and agreed to come get me.
Whilst I waited for her arrival I continued to drag my bike down the sidewalk. I also continued to think about just how fun it was to jump a bike, and whether or not I was truly too old for this kind of thing.