Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving Notes: Motorcycles saved my life

I wrote this three years ago. It's one of the essays featured in my new book, On Motorcycles: The Best of Backmarker.

A couple of weeks ago, on one of the many perfect fall days we've had this year in Kansas City, I went out on my usual bicycle training ride. The ride wasn't a huge deal; on my single-speed, out of my loft and over into the West Bottoms then up the 12th Street viaduct, through downtown, past River Market and down into the East Bottoms, and back. Basically, it was up and over the biggest hills I could find around my house; an hour and a bit in which I try to make up with quality what I lack in quantity. 

Most of the route passed through largely un-, or at least under-used warehouse districts, and the roads, as usual, were pretty empty. The Kansas and Missouri rivers meet here, hence the 'Bottoms' in those neighborhood names, but I only occasionally caught a glimpse of the water. The American Royal, a huge rodeo and stock fair, was on and there were horses hobbled in parking lots, and pastured along the levee.

It was late afternoon. The sun raked in. The sky was a deep, deep blue. Black shadows. Backlit trees in fall colors; as if the the world was created for  cinematographers. I rocked it; if my quads got any more pumped, I'd've been at risk for compartment syndrome. As I approached my turn around point, down in the East Bottoms I came to the long straightaway where I sprinted into a headwind.

The East Bottoms is, well, sort of a weird area. It's mostly industrial, with some run-down residential and a great honky-tonk bar – Knucklehead's – hidden away there, too. I passed a trailer park, and heard the sound of a compressor and a nail gun. The place was was mostly filled with actual trailers like the ones you'd pull on a vacation, as opposed to mobile homes. The nail gun was being used to skirt one of the trailers to keep winter drafts out from beneath it. I thought, The guy should've taken care of that last winter – which was KC's hardest winter in decades. Or, had he just been foreclosed out of some warm home and moved into those new digs?

I turned around, caught the tailwind, and cranked up my cadence, as fast as I could spin. Ripping back down the straight with my head down, for the nth time I felt intense gratitude for such simple pleasures, and for having managed to stay in shape. I spent a few weekends last summer watching Kevin Atherton limp around the Lloyd Brothers Motorsports Ducati at flat track races. While he's resolutely cheerful, it's clear his racing career took a huge toll on him. I've had friends pay far higher prices than that, too, enduring injuries I know I couldn't bear.  

Our sport is dangerous; that's not news. I wasn't one of those riders who thought, It won't happen to me. I thought about danger often. It was never dying that scared me, it was not dying that scared me. I've got some expensive Ti components (and I'm missing some cognitive functions; if you tell me your phone number, I have to write it down one digit at a time) but so far, I've come off lightly.

In fact, I'm able to enjoy simple physical pleasures not in spite of motorcycles and motorcycle racing, but because of it. It's not just that motorcycles haven't killed me (yes, I'm touching wood as I type this.) Motorcycles actually kept me alive.

I've never really told this story in much detail, but 15 or 20 years ago, when I was a club racer up in Canada, I got sick. I had some kind of autoimmune disorder, which depending on which doctor I asked was either lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. You know the expression, 'off the charts'? My white counts were literally off the charts. I got a graphic output after one lab test and the bar graph went off the edge of the page. When I finally got in to see a specialist, after a long wait, he looked up from that lab result and said, “I wouldn't have been surprised to see you come in in a wheelchair.”  

I was lucky that when it came on, I was in outstanding physical condition; I'd been training hard since university. I had a lot to lose before I'd ever be incapacitated. And, typical of people with lupus, I found that while it was painful and utterly exhausting to keep working out, the harder I trained the less I felt the symptoms. Still, I could only slow – not reverse – the course of the disease.

Month by month and year by year, I lost strength and range of motion in virtually every part of my body. It was frustrating because I was club racing and learning to ride better, but I couldn't really capitalize on it. I had to be super-careful not to crash; the drugs I was taking made the risks of injury much higher and besides, just getting out of bed in the morning already hurt like hell. By the time I raced in the TT, in 2002, I was careful not to let my friends see how hard I had to struggle just to get into my leathers or let them know that I'd almost bleed out from a shaving nick. And after that... It was as if my body had been holding out just to let me live out that dream, because in the next year, symptoms took a turn for the worse.

During that year of precipitous physical decline, I found myself wondering, At what point would in not be worth living? My life had, for decades, been defined more by physicality than intellectuality or spirituality. I decided that at the point where I couldn't wipe my own butt, I didn't want to live. Let me tell you, it was seriously depressing and I frequently rehearsed, in my mind, that hunting accident. 

Through that period, I really wanted to finish my memoir, Riding Man, and I was grateful that I could at least type. But the thing that kept me going was that I could still ride motorcycles. Maybe not well, or nearly at the level I once had ridden; getting a leg over the saddle was a real trick. You really don't need Too Much Information on this so I won't go into detail, but even though there days when I wasn't flexible enough to reach my butt, I still put in 1,000 kilometers in the alps, unearthing the story of Pierlucio 'Spadino' Tinazzi, the hero of the Mont Blanc Tunnel fire. 

So I put off the hunting accident.

Before I reached that point, I found a doctor who changed my drug regimen to one that worked way better, at least in the short-to-medium term. The drugs I was taking were literally toxic – one of them is used to kill cancer cells in chemotherapy – but they radically improved my life. Once they really kicked in, I could ride OK. I could cycle and swim and, as before, the harder I trained the better I felt. For the first time in over a decade, I started to feel better and better, not worse and worse.

After a year and half in France, I moved back to North America, to San Diego. I started working at Motorcyclist, had health coverage for a while, and found a new specialist. By that point, I was an expert on lupus and rheumatoid arthritis myself, and we had a long discussion about which of those two diseases affected me. It didn't really matter, since I had a treatment that worked for the time being, and in any case, neither disease is curable. At that point, when I looked at friends my age who weren't sick, they were mostly in such crappy shape that I wouldn't have traded places with them.

Then my cool job fell apart, I got divorced and remarried – poor but happy – and I started to feel... good. My doctor and I developed a plan to wean me off drugs and, for the first time in well over a decade, my blood tests started to look... normal. I don't use the phrase 'miracle,' that would be too strong. But about two years ago, my doctor – a very experienced rheumatologist – got a little teary when he said, “Don't call me again unless you get sick.” That's not something those guys get to say. Their patients don't get better, the job is just to mitigate the symptoms as long as possible.

I know that the thing that got me through to that point, was, there was a part of me that was determined to stay healthy enough to ride motorcycles. The weights, the cycling, swimming, yoga; the glucosamine sulfate, the 30,000 aspirin, the prednisone, the methotrexate... all that stuff wasn't to ward off pain and depression and slow the progress of the disease, it was, This is what you have to do to ride. You know those idiots in the German-inspired half-helmets who wear those “Live to ride, ride to live” patches? Well, for me that was literal truth.

I climbed up out of the East Bottoms through downtown KC, and right up at the top of that hill in the financial district, I was distracted by something I saw on the sidewalk. Two private security guards were sort of wrestling an unconscious street person upright on bus stop bench, and he ended up slumping heavily to the sidewalk. It only took a few seconds for me to process the situation. It wasn't violent and as far as I could tell, they were just getting ready to call the cops or an ambulance which would be doing the guy a favor. He wasn't very warmly dressed, and when the sun went down the temperature would quickly drop into the thirties. One of the guards noticed me noticing them and as I rode past called out, “Good afternoon sir, how are you?” They'd said similar things to me when I'd passed before under normal circumstances, but his question was incongruous when there was someone lying right there at his feet who was clearly not having a good afternoon .

The light turned green and I pedalled away. At the next light I stopped beside a limousine. The passenger window rolled smoothly down. I looked in at the driver, who called out, “Want to trade?” It crossed my mind that his job paid better than motorcycle journalism, but then I remembered that my job allowed me to the freedom to hop on my bicycle and train, or go for a motorcycle ride, on any unseasonably fine day.

I laughed and said, “No.”

“I'd rather be where you are,” he said. “This is the wrong kind of saddle-sore!”

Then, he rolled up the window and the light turned green. 

A few blocks later, one short final sprint, I was home. I locked up my bicycle downstairs, glanced at the Triumph and my '65 Dream, and thought, You deserve to take the elevator today. Before I'd even reached my door, I could smell chili simmering on the stove.


  1. Absolutely outstanding. I feel ya buddy.

  2. Mark - I so appreciate your writing and now this blog. Riding Man was my first read of your work. It was just great, superlative story telling about your personal journey to the TT. This post adds another layer to your compelling story, both Riding Man and to how we as readers have come to know you. I have a similar disease and like you, physicality defines my life more than intellectuality or spirituality. I have thought about the hunting accident. Thanks for the inspiration.

  3. Hi Mark, that's quite a post. That's an epic comeback, sir. Glad you're still with us...and riding. Motorcycles saved my life to, but in a quite different way.