My Helmet is Dead... long live my helmet...

My helmet is dead, long live my helmet…
On March 9th, I along with about sixty Mexican acquaintances, met at 0530 at the town square in San Juan Cosala, here in Mexico. The plan was to ride our bicycles about 260km in one day, to the town of Talpa. The goal was to participate in the pilgrimage to the Virgin of Talpa to celebrate her miracles and Sainthood in the Roman Catholic church.

The support truck had this art announcing from where we were coming
The smaller group, nine men and a couple of their children, with whom I would ride, were mostly workmen from our sub-division here in Ajijic. They were carpenters, electricians and laborers, and there was our gardener and entrance guard who has become our friend, Ivan. There was Herman, Jorge, Fernando, Herman Jr., Sammy, Carlos, Miguel, Jessie, and Brannon, among others. They were a very representative mix of all the other riders and their age topped out at around 42 with a couple edging on sixty.
This is Ivan on Lynnda's Trek 2.1... she would only
loan it to him if he wore her helmet, too. He was
cool enough to find a RadioShack riding shirt with
a LiveStrong band on the arm

Lynnda dropped me off on time and I was immediately amazed that so many guys were on time (after all, this is Mexico) and everyone was there by 0600… the time we had been told we would be leaving. Then, we had a blessing from the local priest in front of the RC church on the square… and soon we were to be off toward Talpa, 260km over the mountains, to the northwest.

We were an interesting group… most of the guys were wearing jeans, sneakers, hoodies, sweaters and warm gloves… it was 61F when we rolled out of San Juan… cool for this micro-climate in which we live. Since we would end the ride at about midnight, at about 8,000 feet elevation, we all knew it would be substantially cooler when we got to Talpa, where we would be in casa de campo… tents.

It was what the guys didn’t have that was more interesting… almost no one had a helmet… although many had on stocking caps (to keep warm). There were virtually no tail lights, and when there were headlights, they were flashlights taped onto the handlebars. There was only one carbon-fiber bike and maybe five aluminums. Most of the rest were steel bicycles with 29” wheels, with double crossbars, many with bald tires, only a few with road tires. There were also three BMX bike riders.

In checking around, only one rider was fluent in English and all but one was fluent in Spanish… it was the same one in each… me. It was either going to be a quiet ride… or I would learn a lot of Spanish. I had heard of total immersion, this was going to be close to total. It was going to be fun.

Also, in checking around, with the exception of about ten riders, none had ridden their bikes, other than to work, since last year’s ride to Talpa. Being in condition was not to be the measure of the men. I clearly was in shape and had ridden thousands of miles since the last time most had ridden their bike more than to work…  the 6km from San Juan to our sub-division. However the real measure of the men, in the end, would be their devotion to the Virgin of Talpa and their vision of getting to the church for the blessings.
After the blessing of the Priest in front of the large San Juan Cosala RC Church, we started off… about 60 riders including three that were on the BMX Trick Bikes that were so small I probably couldn’t scrunch my old bones to angles adequate to peddle them (as a bye- the-way now I should tell you that all three BMX riders made it to Talpa standing on the peddles most of the way and whenever we stopped they were each good enough to do tricks on them).

We headed west out of San Juan after riding the cobble stone road from the church-square to the highway, a very rough start. Remembering that there were just a few bikes with tail lights, we managed to avoid one another until daybreak (I will try to attach a short video over my shoulder of the sun-up). We were riding three to four-up, taking the whole right lane of a four lane new highway. We were backed up by a huge farm supply truck from Jocotepec… it turned out to be my friend!

When daybreak turned into full daylight we made our first stop to start peeling clothes (it was very cold for the Mexicans at the start, about 61F) and for me it was to change my clear, night riding glasses to sunshades (I don’t recall any of the guys wearing night glasses and only about 20% wore sunglasses. I didn’t see anyone complain about bugs… in fact, I didn’t see or hear any Mexican rider complain about anything!
Back on the road again we were on nice smooth pavement, but soon left the four lane highway as we started heading through the blue agave fields of Jalisco…

 this is the home of Tequila, the city and the drink. Soon, we got to sugar cane fields… beautiful scenery, farms and flat land. To get into this valley we had to climb out of our valley which I have done many times and as usual I broke through 60km on the descents… the big steel bikes climbed the hills, not complaining of their rider, and couldn’t hit the speeds on the down-slopes (big soft tyres)… but they managed to catch up and to keep up. All the while there was one Mexican guy, the next oldest on the ride to me, he is about 60, who kept telling me to slow-down… then he would point to the west and the mountains in the distance!

Well, I was feeling very good, I knew was in shape, so I stayed with the kids in the break and was enjoying a great ride. When we got to San Martin, a beautiful little farming community, the leaders of the ride decided it was time for lunch… at about 1030. I didn’t complain, and ate my (first of three) BPJ sandwich that Lynnda had packed for me. I drank some electrolyte drink, took some pics of the square and the various riders.

Soon we were off again, with six kilometers to go to our first real climb. It wasn’t long before we found that what seemed like a short hill that would be an easy climb through some nice trees. They quickly fell away and now we were in the noon-day sun with the temperatures rising quickly. The short hill topped out 23 kilometers later, most of it being around 5% with some 8% ascents… and no downers. I suddenly knew I was in trouble if this was going to be standard fare for the rest of the day. Following came some rolling hills and relief… a couple of group stops told me that they were preparing for something significant to come. I really didn't get it as I recall now… I didn't speak enough Spanish to understand that we were approaching the real riding… and I while I was riding reasonably well again, I was in recovery mode and didn't know how long the legs would hold.

We started another climb and this time I struggled from the start. I tried to follow several riders that broke and kept them in sight. We had lost others who were behind us. I remember feeling good about passing the Mile Century on this course and in the heat. I stopped mid-hill for the first time for my own breather… and some liquid. Back on the bike, still in the climb I knew I was in a little trouble, but still able to climb what occasionally was pretty steep riding… in the six to seven percent range. By now the canyons on my right were getting deeper and beautiful. The sun angle was giving some shadows, and I remember watching them out of the corner of my eye.

On a climb that was short, I could see two riders ahead and none behind me. I topped out and started into a slight descent. The road was very narrow and there was a drop-off in the asphalt of about eight inches… I was being careful around it. The traffic was medium, but there were large buses regularly that were somewhat un-nerving, but they always seemed to give me adequate clearance.

As I shifted through some gears and picked up some speed I remember hearing a bus coming behind me. There was traffic coming up the hill toward the bus and me. I started concentrating on how close the bus was, he was obviously a great driver and giving me as much room as I needed… his wheel seemed at my head height as he went by, I was clear, but by inches.

As I concentrated on the bus, in my exhaustion, I was not concentrating on the asphalt’s edge. Too late, I knew I was in trouble, but not unable to save it. I was in the ditch in a gear that still had some torque so with the wobble, the deep grass, I started peddling to save my ass. I have been there before… it is always a question afterward, should you try to peddle out, or try to stop.

All I could see was the golden brown grass coming at my front wheel, it was still smooth enough and I could see a path up to the road… I was no more than 12 inches and parallel to the pavement. Up on the horns, I still had power enough to have covered between ten and twenty feet, going downhill… when all hell broke loose. I didn’t even see the boulder that my front wheel blasted into… and I don’t remember much after that… in fact, I don’t know what is now   reconstruction, verses memory.

I found myself splayed out on the highway, on my back. I immediately did an inventory and realized that I was alive, but in danger. A car went around me as I was doing inventory… this was a yard sale spread out over about 15 feet… I could see my phone and camera that I keep in my triple shirt pockets, but they were down the hill a little from me. My Polar trip computer was beside me; two water bottles were in the ditch and my bike was about half-and-half on the road.

I remember crawling to the ditch as a car, slowly passed and stopped. I crawled back and retrieved my stuff and began to hurt. A small truck stopped and stayed on the highway, holding up some other cars, protecting me. A woman was yelling something at me that I didn’t understand, did I mention I couldn’t speak Spanish any better in an emergency! Gibberish is the same in any language, later I found out she could speak some English... 

The woman got back in her car and drove off. A very elderly couple got out of the small truck passenger door and a really young kid from the driver’s door. By now I was standing, but very confused. Both my knees were bleeding, my shoulder was on fire, and my left hip was searing hot… but I could think, walk, talk and take inventory. I would get back on the bike when I had some water, and ride on… NOT!
My bike could not have sold in the yard sale… the big ring was bent 90 degrees out. The rear derailleur was askew the chain was twisted around the right crank. The front left shifter/brake was at right angles. There was a visible hole in the front tire… it was later pointed out that the wheel has a dent in it. And the Polar Computer’s holder is broken in half, but still in place… the computer itself was destroyed. I wouldn’t be riding anywhere soon!

The next best thing when holding a yard sale is having a small half ton truck holding back the buyers… and driven by a young guy who had learned some English in his Mexico farm community school. I explained that there was a large yellow farm truck down the road somewhere that could take care of me… if he would drive me there. He moved bags of carrots, cabbage, beans and oranges to lay on other boxes of bulk produce to make room for the bike and I climbed stiffly in. I sat on the edge of the fender… what room the driver had made was mostly taken up by the bike.

We found the big yellow support truck down the road, and by then I realized that the woman who had driven off must have understood some English because the second, smaller support truck was now following us… she had driven ahead and told the two riders of my plight… one had a cell phone and called the truck which came looking for me. Soooo, I had all the help I would now need.

While I was bleeding and confused, it was clear that I didn’t need medical support, so we decided that I would ride in the truck for the rest of the trip. I have to admit that several riders at the next rest stop offered me their bikes to ride to Talpa… I don’t know if it was pride, injury or the practical reality that I was “all in” that made me decline. Perhaps it was the sunset in the west, and the dawn of the darkness on these narrow roads with demanding ascents and descents that wimped me… or some of each excuse for my mind to rationalize… I didn’t ride, and still haven’t!

As far as I know, everyone made the ride that started. This meant that there were about 59 riders on that highway, in the dark… most without lights… although in the darkness they bunched together and the cars, trucks and busses seemed to sense that they would be there… after-all, most were also heading to Talpa, or planning to overnight there on the way to Porta Vallarta on the coast. None were hit, none crashed in the darkness and I know of only one interesting incident… Sammy lost his front brake! Since he was one of the few guys who knew a little English, I had gotten to know him a little… I also knew that he had started the ride without a rear brake! For about twenty-five kilometers he rode up the hills and flats with no brakes… he had to walk down the hills! Ivan, riding Lynnda’s bike stayed with him… riding, walking, riding, walking for about five hours. Ivan had the largest flashlight strapped to his bike… it was huge, so large in fact that he was the lead rider when we left the church back in San Juan. These guys were inexperienced riders, but they were anything but dumb.

In early years of my life of hard physical work in the stopes of nickel mines; on the ranches mending fences; wrangling freight on the CNR I have rarely seen men work harder than many of my Mexican friends here in San Juan. And on the long, hard bicycle rides in the Rockey Mountains, the Cabot Trail and in Niagara I have never seen courses more physically demanding than the road to Talpa… and these men and boys, the vision of the Blessing and the Healing of the Virgin of Talpa clearly in their minds were and will be again next year, able to complete their goal of visiting this church, among the thousands of people, for less than fifteen minutes of peace and prayer… I am amazed, but proud to have attempted the ride with them.

I will post some pictures of the town of Talpa and the ride with this little story. More importantly I want to remind myself of a new goal for next year’s ride to Talpa. I likely won’t attempt all of the ride… clearly not the night riding in the evening! I will likely ride the start and well into the early mountains… I vividly remember where my crash occurred, and I plan to ride just past that point. The sun will be going down, enough for a day's ride...               

When I started out, I never considered getting to the church shown here... but when I realized the power these fellows felt from the Virgin of Talpa, I began to get the feeling that would change. It has, this is a beautiful place. The throngs of people believe it and you can see how they came to find their way there... the pic above is from about seven in the morning... the pic below from about 1030 in the morning.

 More importantly I plan to start a riding club here in Ajijic and San Juan with the interest of safer riding. One of the objectives will be to raise enough money to provide helmets for all of the riders in the club and on the road to Talpa. About fifty of the riders were not wearing helmets… not because they don’t know how important they are; not because they have an ego like Guy Lafleur and won’t wear them… it is because when you are making the equivalent of $2.50 to $4.00 per hour, you don’t have the money to buy a helmet for a day’s ride, once a year. It won’t take much money really, given the thousands we have all raised in our lives for cancer, heart, stroke and other medical diseases.

It is now two weeks from when I crashed. Three days after, I started getting headaches, and pains that hadn’t been there before. On the Thursday, in a panic I called my doctor in Jocotepec. She gave me a series of neuro tests that honestly mimicked the sobriety tests back in Canada… I failed a couple of left-sided exercises so she sent me for a  CT with contrast exam. My helmet had broken in six places and the straps inside had been ripped and broken. I had pain on the back left of my skull, and a tightness I was interpreting as pressure… frightening!

My radiologist reported no fractures, no bleeding and no tumors… wow, my helmet had done its job… it clearly had saved my life. That helmet had been my brain bucket for years. The inside spacers were all worn out, it was likely a salt cavern, and while it had nary a scratch, I had worn it for every mile I have ridden since coming back to the bicycle following my cancer. A few times I considered short rides absent the lid… especially now that I have long hair that musses in a mile.

There is a reason I had never been on an organized bike ride that allowed people to ride without a helmet or with ear buds in… safety. Had I not had on my helmet, I would likely be dead now… at least I would have a concussion and there are lots of other issues that could now be looming large in my life. I really haven’t been able to photograph my helmet adequately to display all of the breaks and cracks… but the best of them are here with this article. Six cracks on the interior of the helmet likely would have been a skull fracture absent the brain bucket which didn't have a scratch on it after thousands of miles... now look at the outside plastic...

I hope people will learn to ride with a helmet, and not ride with people who don’t. For my sanity here in Mexico, I will do all I can to help these guys acquire helmets. I don’t know about headlights and tail lights… there is something eerily beautiful about riding with shadows in the night… I would hope we can have more support vehicles to back up the riders, especially in the mountains.

For me, I will start riding again when I return from Guadalajara  next week with my Madone back in one piece. There is a Trek shop there… they can fix the bike… my helmet, that’s another story, it has to be replaced, and I look forward to it.

My helmet is dead… long live my helmet!

The photos below are of my bike and those of my new friends here in Mexico as we prepared to drive home... there were ten of us below the bikes, with three more in the front... It was hard to sleep for many of the guys... here are three of my friends who likely didn't sleep well when they got to Talpa... it was really cold in the tents and they had just ridden 260km or so... Tired is an understatement...


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David said…
Great read, Bruce. My shorter ride around Lake Chapala with far less intimidating hills likewise left me very impressed with the strength and stamina of my Mexican friends.

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