Monday, November 11, 2013

Stale Fish: The Masters Wreck at Derby City

Artwork Courtesy of James Billiter
I covered my eyes.  I’m certain that’s where the realization set in that my friend and teammate may be paralyzed.  I paced.  I rested my head in my arms along the course fencing of the start/finish straight.  Little clips trickled into my ears.   “I’m a doctor.”  “He’s complaining he can’t feel…”  I didn’t catch the rest.  Emotion overcame me.  I spotted teammate Gerri on the other side of the course.  We had a good weepy hug as the EMT’s carefully went to work. 

Nate was stale fish on the ground.  They already had a collar around his neck.  I looked back, with his arms at his side, his legs shook.  Shock I presumed.  Fuck man, just fuck.  I wasn’t angry.  I feared the worst.  I didn’t want to make that phone call.  Someone handed me his glasses.  I snagged his Garmin off his bike and tucked both in my jersey pocket.  Gerri helped getting a plan together.  I hopped on my bike with inoperable brakes and coasted back to the start to collect my grid bag and thoughts.

As of this Monday morning, Nate spent the night at U of L Hospital.  An MRI showed a fractured vertebra in his upper spine.  Thankfully, he can move all his parts.  He was alert, coherent and concerned about his bike.  Despite complaining of intense shoulder pain, the news sounded somewhat positive.  Granted the possibility of surgery and rehab still looms, at the moment it appears our buddy Nate escaped the most serious of injuries.  Looking at his bike and helmet, it looks as if he sprinted into a wall at 30mph.  When I put the bike on my roof rack, the drivetrain was in the 53x17 gear. 
Derby City Cup Masters Wreck 1 by Kent Baumgardt
I saw the wreck unfold firsthand.  Despite the ruckus over the large mixed fields at the MudFund Derby City Cup, I don’t think those things had anything to do with it.  It was the simplest thing really.  A rider hooked a wheel at the front which cascaded into a chain reaction full-gas pile up. 

I personally knew 90% of the riders in the first four rows, and at least two more rows behind me.  Look at the call up list for Wave 6.  Granted not everyone on the list started, but all of those guys at the front, masters and juniors, are good riders.  Most of them I’d equate with sticklers for etiquette.  They know to hold a line and not to make unpredictable moves.  With the callups based on points, at least the first 8 rows were sorted by speed.  Additionally, throughout the last two weekends with Cincy3, every junior I raced with passed cleanly.  Between a bunch of USGP’s and Worlds, most of these guys have done this same long paved Louisville start at least 10 times.

Derby City Cup Masters Wreck 2 by Kent Baumgardt
Based on Saturday’s start, the first few hundred meters of the course were key for position in the race.  Everybody on that start grid knew we had a long paved start, a soft curve onto a long downhill straightaway.  From there, the course made a huge soft left hand U-turn before getting into the first pinch point on the course.  We all knew the position you held going into the first chicane was more or less within a few riders you’d have up the steps, through the first sand and over the flyover before you’d have another big chance to make passes.  Still I don’t think the speed at the start or the jostling for position in the first few hundred meters of the course was unusual or overly aggressive.  Yesterday, the wreck happened not much more than 120 meters or so from the grid, 3 or 4 shifts, and a mere 10-15 seconds into the race.      

Derby City Cup Masters Wreck 3 by Kent Baumgardt
I cannot say it was a bonehead move.  Someone hooked a wheel.  Only the rider who hooked the wheel in front of him knows the circumstances.  Maybe the rider in front hit a crack in the pavement or a rock.  Maybe that rider came out of a pedal or his hand slipped off his bars.  From what I remember seeing, the hook was subtle.  It was not a big sweeping move from right to left, more a matter of inches.  The wreck happened before the announcer’s trailer, way before the bend to the left and onto the grass.  I don’t know if the rider in front slowed, moved right or if there was something unseen that happened miliseconds before it caught my eye.  Regardless, two riders made contact.  The rider in back went down.  I don’t recall seeing the front rider go down. 

Front end of Nate's bike caved in
I started on the middle of the 4th row.  My BioWheels teammate Mike was 3rd row and to my left.  My teammate Steven was a row behind and to my left.  Nate, registering late, had a 92nd call up.  With some no shows, I’m unsure of where he lined up on the grid.  In front of us was a who’s-who of the region’s top masters and a handful of seasoned juniors. 

At the whistle, a rider in front of me was a little slower off the grid, nothing unusual.  That held me up for a fraction of a second.  I got around on the right.  Clicking through gears, I remember seeing the two sides of the front open up.  The middle held more traffic.  Feeling the flow of the race drift to the left, I was now out of the saddle sprinting maybe just left of center. 

I saw the hook slightly ahead of me and just to my left.  A rider in front moved slight right to left and snagged the wheel in front of him.  I honestly can’t recall even a jersey color and would rather not speculate.  As he fell to the left, he went into someone else coming up from behind.  Those two went down and collected a 3rd rider.  Three riders and bikes slid across the pavement in front of me.

Chris King Headset Cracked
You make split second decisions.  I was sort of boxed and heading straight for them.  At this speed, likely close to 28mph, there was no way I could change my line fast enough to avoid them and not take out guys on either side.  I threw my weight back, braked and aimed for the least obstructed part of the pile, the rear end of a bike in my path.  I didn’t make it.  I fell down on the other riders with my left side.  My bike rolled up and over.  I tried to curl up in a ball and cover my face.  The rider next to me did the same, hidden under a cage of frames.

Then the impacts came, seemingly endless, one by one.  Oof.  Ugh.  I caught a glimpse of Nate’s kit on my right.  Mmmph.  Ugh.  The weight of people on top of me compounded.  I heard a young man scream out.  Frames dug into my hip and body.  They just kept coming, hitting, landing, rolling over.  I worried about being crushed.  Boom.  Bam.  I could hear the crowd gasp.  My teammates Steven and Mike, starting more to the left, avoided the serious wreck, but got caught up in the course fencing.  Both got free and continued racing.

Crack halfway through downtube at BB
Then the bodies stopped falling on me.  With the clop of bike shoes on pavement, riders scrambled to pull tangled bikes off the top.  I shouted at someone, “Hey!  Hey!  Be careful.”  A call went out for medical.  I could see my shifter stuck in someone’s wheel.  As far as we knew, the race was still on.  From the ground, I helped to untie the bikes.  The weight was still heavy.  I just wanted to get out from under as quick as possible.  It was freaking me out.

It seemed like minutes passed, but I’m sure it was only seconds.  I was able to wriggle out from underneath.  Nate still lay on his back, I think propped half on top of a bike.  I found my bike along the fence.  The rear wheel had come out of the drops.  I fixed that, but couldn’t reattach the brake cables.  My front brake pads were stuck under the lip of the rim.  I was done.  That’s when I turned to see Nate.  The sight made me sick with worry.  I couldn’t leave him. 

While Nate does have insurance, copays and deductibles for a serious visit to the ER probably wasn’t in the fall budget.  Not to mention, his custom Indy Fab Planet X is ruined.  A fund has been set up to help him out.  I’m sure he’d appreciate your generosity.  Click here for more information.

Joe Bellante

Update as of 3pm 11/11 from Anna: "Final X-rays came back and no serious damage to any of the discs. A lot of ligament damage so he will be in a neck brace for awhile until that heals. Won't be going home yet today but hoping tomorrow. No surgery!!!!! Very happy. We want to thank all of you soooo much for all you are doing. We got the best friends in the world and so proud to be part of the amazing cycling community."