Moaning in pain, I tried to both talk and move into a more comfortable position. I was in a doctor’s exam room, the third or fourth in as many weeks, and the only position I’d found that allowed me to talk was flat on my back.
Late last summer I pushed an NR750 Honda streetbike up on my workbench and in the last final push to get it level, something in my back pushed back.
Sure, the NR750 is near streetbike unobtanium. Yes, it’s the oval piston model and with all sorts of one-off technology and expensive materials. But it is also, as I have learned, super frickin’ heavy. Even with the tires pumped up well past maximum and the brake pads pushed back in the calipers and the chain freshly lubed, the NR750 is a lot more like trying to push a gigantic ship ashore than it is a mere motorcycle. Pushing a non-starting NR750 is not a solo ordeal. I’ve learned this.
Over the next few months the dull pain in my back started moving down and to the left (or as I explained to the first doctor, when I did see a doctor, “back and to the left, back and to the left”—gallows humor which he seemed unable to grasp).
Men born in the 1960s do not immediately call a hospital when strange pain hits them; first you call men of your own age and ask them what it is. My cohorts initially suggested that kidney stones were imminent or that I had strained some deep muscles or tissue. The pain in my back was more annoying at that point than debilitating.
Then one morning everything changed. Maybe forever.
The annoying ache amped up to excruciating; the pain intensified beyond anything I’d ever experienced in my life. I was unable to walk or sit. I could stand for brief moments but then the pain came in waves, radiating down my leg.
“You have damaged your spine and the sciatic nerve is inflamed and we need to operate as soon as possible,” the first or second doctor said.
Pain? Oh yeah, I can do pain. In previous episodes when I broke a bone, burned myself or nearly chopped my index finger off, I remembered what GP racer Mick Doohan had told Mat Oxley after Doohan’s leg had been destroyed in a race crash and he was mounting a comeback. Doohan said that he had the strength and movement that he’d always enjoyed while riding, but now it just came with waves of pain. According to Oxley, Doohan brushed off all the searing sensations by just saying “it’s only pain” and he could deal with that, no pain killers needed.
My own attempts of a Doohan-like brush-off of the pain were successful. If you consider laying on the floor sobbing a success.
The fourth and last doctor asked me when the pain was at its worst. He’d known me for 20 years, treated me without judgement when I came to him with a shattered wrist and mangled knee suffered while club racing. I rattled off the effects of sitting, standing, walking and, most importantly, attempting again to ride, for that had been the worst pain of all. Being crouched on the bike, for whatever reason, produced a perfect storm of pain.
And then he said it:
“Well, you know, you’re not going to be able to ride forever. Might be such a thing that you’ll never be able to ride a motorcycle again.”
I was in deep pain and trying to lay prone in an ordinary office chair so I really did not call a time out and tell him that was the most asinine thing I’d ever heard. That I’d ridden a motorcycle of some kind since I was 10, that I’d club-raced and ridden all over the world, from Spain to Australia. I would always own a motorcycle, at least one, and I’d ride, forever. This I knew to be as true as the world itself.
My old doctor then soothed me, first off by saying that he didn’t want to schedule exploratory surgery for the next morning like the first ones I’d seen. “Listen, this came out of nowhere so maybe you’ll get lucky and it’ll go back to where it came from,” he said. He advised me to calm down and wait it out.
All the leaves fell from the trees as I waited as best I could. The pain and the lack of sleep and other factors tested my soundness of mind. As a hard and fast “dean rule” I don’t talk to bikes like Valentino does, ever. But I will admit that every damn time I limped out the garage and hobbled past that NR750, I gave it the finger. And most of the time adding the verbal explanation just in case NR750’s don’t read sign language.
Fall turned to early winter. It started to get very cold and while I was able to stash most of my beaters in different places for the winter, there was still one last “Dean bike” in the garage that I needed to find a place to park until Spring. I reminded my eldest son of how many times I’d loaded and unloaded his dirt bikes when he was little, and also that I was one-half of the reason that he was given life. With all that guilt appropriated, he offered a spot in his own garage. However, his work schedule was heavy and there was no way he’d be able to ride the bike there himself before snow fell.
Still pretty incapacitated with the level ten pain, I knew a 15 mile ride was not going to happen without help. So, on a clear morning I popped a handful of Tylenol and then lay back down, waiting for them to kick in. An hour later I was able to handle sitting and walking. I pushed the bike out of the garage, and fired it up in the chill. My wife was to follow me to the nesting spot in my son John’s garage.
Or, you know, be there in case I died of Tylenol overdose en route.
I zipped up my riding jacket, pulled on an Arai and some gloves. Out the driveway and down around familiar streets I rode tentatively until I hit the highway. Two fingers over the front brake lever and moving slightly faster than the other traffic, I settled in. I turned for the county road that leads to John’s house and then again settled in, keeping an eye out for oncoming traffic and the police even though I was at least five mile an hour short of the speed limit.
Rolling past the houses I started to think about that last doctor visit and what he’d said, focusing on his warning that I might not ever ride a motorcycle again. He’s a pretty sage and no-nonsense doctor; he’s in his early 60s, he’s seen a generation of guys go from chest-out warriors at age 23 to men eventually unable to walk, unable to balance, unable to ride.
It had never occurred to me that I would ever reach a point where I’d no longer be capable of riding a motorcycle. When I thought of it then, zipping along at an embarrassingly slow speed just a click over wobbler pace, the enormity of it hit me. Could this very garage ditch mission be the last time I was to ride?
Was this even really happening? I touched my boot to the ground lightly as I always do, to verify that the danger is there, always, when you ride a motorcycle. A few more curves and up a short hill, then the road opened up, no houses, just farmland and occasional barns. Several miles or more of straight county road lay before my sad 45mph trek.
I slowed a bit, checked the mirrors——all clear. I banged all the way down in the gearbox, the bike protesting and the back end making unhappy noises when I finally let the clutch out in first.
When you die, supposedly, your entire life flashes through your mind. My motorcycle life, scenes from it, flashed through mine. Maybe this is it, I thought, maybe life throws me this orange cone——that I can continue to live but I can never ride again.
A lifetime of riding, from mini-bikes to dirt bikes to street bikes, then racing, and just for kicks or transportation riding spun through my head. The times, pre-family, when my friends and I swore off people who drove cars, any car, as traitors to our faith. For a short——and cold——time I had one motorcycle as my only form of transportation, year-round, in Minnesota. Then it progressed to racing motorcycles, with a non-traitor van, more racing and rides with friends, in Europe, the USA and Australia. Once, mapless, I remember following some crazy bastards from a Brit magazine through the backroads of Spain, and when we arrived at the hotel, I swore I’d never ride that fast on the street again. Then came images of dropping my kids off at school on a bike, or picking them up in grade school when theirs was the only coat hook with a motorcycle helmet hanging from it. Then teaching neighbor kids to ride, and a truck full of ninth street kids going riding.
Never did I think of “last time” … always “next time”.
I didn’t care how much it hurt when I put my weight on the pegs and the seat, lightened up on the bars a bit, did one last check of the mirrors and then I assumed the position–flat on the tank. I pinned the throttle and let out the clutch. The engine wailed. I banged second gear, the front end came up and I pushed on the front of the pegs to move my girth up to settle the matter. I put my head sideways on the bike and sucked in that familiar clutch dust smell, smiled to myself, then in an old habit I peered through the windscreen. Clear day, clear road. I held it wide open and banged gears. The speedo’ swept to the right … past 70mph, past 100mph then past 120, 130, 140 … top gear, I kept it pinned. A brown blur came past me in the oncoming lane—trooper? I didn’t care, not at all. If he followed me to my destination and put me in cuffs I swore I’d paraphrase Keith Richards when the officer demanded an explanation: I am not concerned with your petty rules. At least not right now. Not today.
Blood pumped hard in my head as my eyes began to focus pretty well. A mile went by and I started to breathe normally. Then I let off, tapped the brakes and the bike slowed to what seemed like walking pace——75mph. I slowed a bit more, down to second, back tire and clutch protesting the lower I went.
Then I did the same damn thing all over again, this time laughing like a crazy person in my helmet.
I’d overshot John’s driveway by about a quarter-mile because I was still doing something like 135 mph when I saw it, so I slowed, turned around and started down the gravel. I locked the back brake up a few times on the loose rocks, like I always do, and have done since I was 12 years old, letting off just before the bike goes sideways——fun.
I parked the bike on the cement, and managed to get off just as I felt the pain coming back. I took off my gloves, the helmet and my jacket. The bike’s exhaust was ticking as it cooled in the crisp afternoon air. It’d be snowing in 24 hours.
My wife trundled up with her car eventually. She rolled down the window as she parked by me, the bike and my gear. “I lost you,” she said.
I put the gear in the back seat, took one short look at the bike, then got in the car, the pain in my back returning in nauseating waves.
I reclined the seat and said, “Let’s go.”