Cycling columnist dealt with physical, psychological trauma to get on the bike again

  • Licensed Rush Physical Therapist Jake Livingston takes pride in getting Ralph Banasiak back on a bike.

    Licensed Rush Physical Therapist Jake Livingston takes pride in getting Ralph Banasiak back on a bike. Courtesy of Ralph Banasiak

 
By Ralph Banasiak
Along For the Ride
Updated 9/10/2021 8:55 AM

Editor's note: This is part 2 of a two-column series. Part 1 appeared Friday, Sept. 3.

"Sounds like the twisties," a family friend surmised.

 

Adam suspected that my three-month hesitancy of ever riding bikes again paralleled what Simone Biles experienced in Tokyo. If so, it's probably the only thing the Olympic gymnast and I have in common.

A minor fall in May had damaged my anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the key stabilizer in my right knee. Since then, I'd reminded myself, "If a horse throws you, climb right back on."

Six weeks of physical therapy later, I finally summoned the nerve. I laced the sneakers, cinched the helmet and unlocked the Schwinn. For several minutes, I just stared at it. I balked at throwing a leg over the saddle. I blanked on pedaling that first stroke, picturing myself toppling over. I froze.

I wheeled it back into the garage, unsnapped the helmet and slumped inside. Light bulb flash: rehab isn't just physical, it's psychological. No matter one's tolerance for physical pain, psychological issues must be faced, too. It's all the more reason for bike safety. Predict a crash and you can prevent both types of trauma.

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Though a loved one hadn't departed, my sense of loss was real -- likewise grief. Mentally, I was somewhere along that sequence of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Reliving the accident, for example, I'd mentally erased the caution tape between the traffic barriers, causing my fall. Didn't really happen, right? Anger ensued, turned inward. I repeatedly labeled myself a fool days afterward, not just on the drive to the ER.

Before seeing Dr. Charles Bush-Joseph at Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush, I'd bargained with myself: Pay the price -- ACL repair, recovery, rehab -- then go back to normal. But when the knee specialist recommended against surgery at my age, depression awaited. For a glass half-full kind of guy, the rabbit hole of despair beckoned.

Wet streaks on cheeks accompanied the smallest frustration. Not catastrophising the pain, I did obsess on how the physical restrictions -- can't walk, bike, drive -- affected long-deferred shutdown plans -- a wedding, grandbaby visits, a bike tour.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Focus on the little wins

A stationary bike was key to physical and psychological therapy.
A stationary bike was key to physical and psychological therapy. - Courtesy of Ralph Banasiak

Mini-flashes plagued me that first month, twitches of terror as my head replayed the fall. Jake Livingston of Palatine's Rush Physical Therapy helped my psyche, not just my knee.

"One tries to be very reassuring in the acute injury phase, creating an encouraging environment specific to what a patient needs. It's a very dynamic process. Encourage them with little wins and let them know they're doing well."

At a checkup, Dr. Bush-Joseph also tuned into my mental state. Describing my biking hesitancy, I tapped my temple knowingly. He acknowledged the fear but, changing my focus, set a goal for me: Balancing on the injured leg 25-30 seconds, then twisting my head quickly, as bike riders might do.

Focusing on that number worked. Similarly, hitting numerical PT goals also helped the rabbit hole disappear. It obviously helped being a retired math teacher.

Twelve weeks after the fall, I was cycling again. Evening rides, though quite tame, brought improvements, physical and mental. Cycling to PT was a psychological victory.

Just let it go

Occasionally, descending stairs, a random hitch in my knee reminds me of its instability. Two months ago I'd freak out after such a flinch. Now I no longer chase that rabbit down the hole. It's going to happen now and then, so just let it go.

"As you get stronger, you should have fewer slips and catches when you pivot," the good doctor offered.

Early in my rehab, a long phone call with Peter Flucke, co-author of "Coast to Coast on a Tandem," convinced me that waiting to write about the rehab story was prudent. Many "selfs" are now past -- self-incrimination, self-pity, self-absorption. Self-acceptance has arrived.

Inspiring more people to bike -- and to bike safely -- has been this column's underlying theme since its start last August. A safety message using myself as a foolish example hopefully will find traction with readers/riders.

Just telling people to be safe isn't effective. Preachy sermonizing won't cut it either. Frightening readers off their bikes with gruesome tales only leads to fewer riders and less visibility for all of us on the roads. I hope this column strikes the right balance.

Bike plan input needed

Cyclists check the trail map on the North Branch Trail in Cook County.
Cyclists check the trail map on the North Branch Trail in Cook County. - Courtesy of Cook County

As part of its long range transportation plan, the Cook County Department of Transportation and Highways launched Cook County's first Bike Plan project this past February.

Under Transit Manager Benet Haller, the project is conducting its second cycling survey, available until Sept. 17 (cookcountybikeplan.mysocialpinpoint.com/outreach/qasurvey).

It focuses on riders' comfort levels with various biking facilities, like side paths, paved trails, protected lanes, etc.

"We are gauging how riders are using existing bike paths and trails to help shape the plan and how future bike-related investments are made throughout the county," Haller said. "It's essential that we collect information from all types of riders, no matter their skill level, to ensure we are looking at all challenges residents face while biking."

The Bike Plan will prioritize maintenance of existing infrastructure while adding facilities attractive to a broader cross-section of riders, not just those confident, experienced cyclists capable of riding on all types of biking facilities.

The plan's goal is to grow the cycling community throughout Cook County by creating infrastructure that makes biking easier and safer for all ages and abilities.

• Join the ride. Contact Ralph Banasiak at alongfortheridemail@gmail.com.

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