When my front wheel came off the side of the log-skinny the bike’s trajectory was right at a tree. Panicky, I was unclipped and putting a foot down before the tires touched the ground.

My left foot hit hard and the knee move in a way that felt like I had exceeded its design parameters. It didn’t hurt, but it wasn’t right. I was on the ground assessing when I heard Ben ask, “You okay?”

Normally after a crash I’m bouncing back up, brushing the dirt and leaves out of my trail rash, and shouting, “I’m good.”

This time I considered a moment before answering, “I don’t know.”

Ben was at my side in seconds.

He untangled my legs from the bike, pulled it away, and I dragged myself over to sit on the log. The knee felt weird, weak and unstable.

“Can you ride?”


“What do you want to do?”

“Walk out.”

“Do you need to lean on me?”

I thought of the inconvenience of Ben getting two bikes out of the woods. He’s a mensch and wouldn’t have minded, but I said, “Let me try it leaning on the bike.”

I stood. The knee held my weight, but wanted to move too far backward, rubbery as a toddler’s leg. Leaning on the bike for stability, I took a couple of steps.

“This will work.”

Slowly we got back to the parking lot and Ben racked my bike on my truck. Then, because this was still technically a mountain bike ride, we sat and had a couple of beers.

A young Hispanic boy was walking around the parking lot with what I took to be his grandmother.

“Hola,” I said, exhausting a fair portion of my Spanish. He smiled shyly, and his grandmother encouraged him to walk up to us. Ben’s far closer to multi-lingual than I am, and after we all fist-bumped, the two of them chatted briefly.

That idyll drew to its natural end, almost as if it had been a normal ride.

I drove home, thinking about all the trouble I’d just caused, worried about Pat giving me a justifiable ration of shit (she did not), worried about work (so far we’re finding ways to keep me useful), worried about being off the bike (that’s come to pass), and worried about what the hell I just did to myself.

Maybe it was inevitable. Put a middle-aged, congenitally un-athletic guy on a bike and bad things can happen. I’m usually aware of my limitations. But that day, my head wasn’t in it. I should have stopped and focused my mind, thought about my strategy for the ride. Or I shouldn’t have ridden.

But I’d launched an effort to find ride time, wanting to regain lost fitness. I’d been thinking of my changing identity as a cyclist, realizing that what I loved most was mountain biking. Gravel grinding was no longer my main squeeze. It had become largely a way to build fitness for riding the trails, and I wasn’t enjoying it like I once had. The day before, I had done a hard gravel ride and I felt pushed to follow up with a fun mtb ride.

Pushed to have fun. Yeah, my head isn’t always right.

That was two weeks ago. Since then, I’ve had my first MRI. I’ve had a huge fucking needle pushed deep into my knee. Dr. Gupta was excellent – there was no pain at all as he filled three vacuum vials with 80 ml of blood.

He enjoyed that part.

“Look at this! Wow! That’s a lot of blood!,” he gushed in a gleeful Indian accent.

The verdict is a torn ACL, the ligament that stabilizes the back of the knee. Lots of people tear the ACL and do fine with just PT. In fact, I’m not at all certain I have an ACL in my right knee due to a bit of stupidity in high school. That injury felt far worse than what I just did, with a “pop” followed by immediate pain and swelling. Forty years ago, we didn’t have MRIs and diagnosis weren’t as sophisticated. No one mentioned PT or surgery. I drove crutches around for a month, hobbled for another month, and called it good. I’ve never had a problem with that knee since.

But the doc recommends surgery to replace the ACL. The new ligament would come from my patellar ligament, or my hamstring, or a dead guy. We haven’t discussed that yet, and won’t for another two weeks while I undergo PT to improve range of motion. The knee is much improved on its own though. The day after, I was on crutches. Now, except for going down stairs, it’s not a big deal.

I am pretty sure this won’t keep me from returning to the trails, that is, after a couple of months of medical misery and a bunch of road riding to regain strength and confidence. But I do think it will change how I approach mountain biking. I don’t need to ride the skinnies and log-overs. I never found them to be much fun anyway, only riding them because they scared me, and facing fear is good discipline for growing in any endeavor. What I love about mtbing are the climbs, the challenges of rock gardens, and the rewards of long, flowey paths through the trees. These are all close to the ground; hard enough to satisfy, and less risky to an aging body. 

A man’s gotta know his limitations.

About swampyankeecyclist

I'm Andy Engel, just a middle-aged, middle-class guy from Roxbury, Connecticut. I've been married to my best friend since 1988, and we have two grown sons. I like riding bikes, and my biggest accomplishment is the 180K D2R2. I own 5 bikes but my go-to rides are a 2016 GT Grade gravel and commuter bike and a 2016 Specialized 650b hardtail mountain bike. Additionally, I have a 2000-something carbon-fiber Orbea road bike, a 1990-something Specialized Sirrus that's my old dirt and commuter bike and which now serves as a spare and a trainer bike, and a 1985 Ross Mount Hood MTB. All but the 650b have Brooks saddles. I work from home now, but used to commute 32 miles round trip to work by bike year round. I was a carpenter and still love building things, but regular paychecks, insurance, and vacation time lured me into journalism. I've written a couple of books on carpentry, and I've been an editor at Fine Homebuilding, Fine Woodworking, and Professional Deck Builder magazines. Currently, I manage construction events at the JLC Live and Remodeling Show trade shows. Additionally, my wife and I run Transylvania Guest House, an Airbnb. Find us on Instagram. Come stay with us and I'll show you some great cycling.
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