THE SOUND OF THE BONE DRILL: BMX hero Mat Hoffman on the pain and the glory (Arthur, 2002)

Originally published in Arthur No. 1 (October 2002). Cover photograph by Spike Jonze. Art direction by W.T. Nelson.


BMX superstardom didn’t come cheap, says Mat Hoffman

Excerpted from The Ride of My Life, BMX madman Mat Hoffman’s new autobiography written with Mark Lewman. Hoffman came out of retirement at the 2002 X Games and made history, pulling a no-handed 900 air. 

I’ve broken one wrist five times. The other wrist, three times. Between my ankles, I’ve had five breaks. I’ve snapped four fingers, my thumbs four times, my hand twice, busted my feet three times, and broken three toes. (You don’t think a broken toe would hurt that much, but your entire body weight is on it.) I’ve busted my collar bones five times, snapped my pelvis, my fibula, my elbow, cracked three ribs and separated a couple from my sternum. (Breaking ribs off the sternum sucks—just about every movement you can think of is centered in your chest.) Then there’s my head: one skull fracture, two broken jaws, two broken noses, a mouthful of teeth, and a partridge in a pear tree.

Every choice you make can be traced back to the instinctual need to seek pleasure, and avoid pain. These two forces are interconnected, different sides to the same coin. Since I started bike riding, I wanted more than anything to experience the highest highs. To get there, I was willing to accept the consequences. My medical records contain more than four hundred pages documenting my injuries. I’ve put myself in a coma, had over fifty knockouts and concussions, been sewn up with over two hundred stitches, dislocated my shoulder more than twenty times, broken about fifty bones, and had over a dozen different surgeries. I’ve torn ligaments, bruised tissue, severed arteries, spilled blood, and left hunks of my skin stuck to plywood, concrete, dirt, and bicycle components. I’ve had to endure not just physical pain, but the mental anguish of re-learning how to walk, ride my bike, or even remember who I was. I’ve dealt with mountains of health insurance red tape, and condescending doctors who took it upon themselves to lecture me before they treated my injuries, as if they needed to save me from myself. 

Not everyone understands that I’ve asked for it, accepted it, and willingly volunteered. Not to sound sadistic, but I consider each of my injuries a tax I had to pay for learning what I could do on my bike. I wanted it all, and wouldn’t take any of it back if I could. Yes, I will be sore and broken when I’m older. I can feel it already, the aches and pains of a body that has been beyond and back. I’ve given up as much of myself as I could, because I love bike riding that much. 

My insurance companies have always hated me, having paid hospital bills totaling more than a million dollars over the years. I’ve had to rely on surgery to keep me going. You know it’s getting serious when you start letting people take knives to your body to make you healthy. 

Here are my patient notes. 

Number 1: Collarbone Crush 

November, 1986. It was immediately following a Mountain Dew Trick Team show. I’d just learned 360 drop-ins, and was uncorking them all day. We finished our demo, but I still wanted to ride. I took my chest protector off, figuring I’d just do easy stuff. I lined up parallel to the coping to do a simple hop drop-in, like Eddie Fiola used to do. I stalled in position for a second and went for it. For some reason my brain told my body to react as if I was doing a 360 drop-in. I fell straight to the cement and took the hit on my head and shoulder. My friend Paige said it made a sound like a helmet being thrown off the ramp with nothing in it—a loud, hollow snap. That was my grand finale. I didn’t just break my collarbone, I shattered it. I knocked myself unconscious too. The show was right next door to a hospital, of all places, with two of the best surgeons in Oklahoma City on duty that day. In surgical terms, Dr. Grana and Dr. Yates performed a fourth degree AC joint separation procedure, provided reconstruction of the coracoclavicular ligament, and did a partial removal of my left collarbone. 

Number 2: Right Leg, Wrong Move

February, 1988. The 540 is a trick that makes you earn it to learn it. The price is a lot of slams. I finally thought I had them just about dialed in, and did one and looped out. My leg got caught behind me and I sat on it. There was a snapping sound and a blast wave of heat, pain, and nausea. Broken bones have a dull, throbby kind of ache to them. I got into Steve’s car to go to the hospital. Every time he hit a bump my leg would sway between my knee and ankle. My body was in shock, and the pain began to subside. We started chuckling every time it swayed, and then started laughing harder about what the hell we were laughing at. Dark humor helps. The doctor I encountered in the ER had very little humor. My first question to him was, “how long before I can ride again?” He told me I would be lucky to walk without a limp and would never ride a bike again. “Okay, thanks…bye,” was the next thing out of my mouth. I left that doctor as fast as I could, and my dad got me in to see Dr. Yates. Yates put in a titanium plate (the body rejects steel) and ten screws in my fibula to repair the complete syndesmotic disruption and fibular fracture of my right leg. I missed the first King of Vert in Paris because of this injury.  

Number 3: Cartilage Carnage 

April, 1988. With a leg full of hardware, I followed the doctor’s orders and waited patiently before I started riding again. Finally it healed, and I went to Kansas City to ride with Dennis and Rick. We celebrated with an all-night street session. I was careful not to thrash my leg too hard. The next day I woke up and my knee was swollen, super-sized. It wouldn’t move either. I went home and I got a MRI. The internal images revealed that I’d totally ripped both my medial and lateral meniscus in half when I’d broken my leg. The meniscus is a shock-absorbing cartilage in the middle of your knee. When Dr. Yates had put the plate in, he’d never thought to check it for other damage, and I had no idea my knee was jacked. My street session with the Kansas City BMX Brigade had aggravated the meniscus more and more until it was wrecked. Dr. Yates sewed it back together from the inside. Arthoscopic meniscus repair is considered a less invasive surgical procedure than using the knife. Dr. Yates drilled pencil-sized holes and slid all the tools inside my knee, doing the operation using a tiny video camera. Tech. 

Number 4: Ted Nugent Tumor Trauma

December, 1990. I don’t know how it happened, but a tumor grew in my right leg. I was diagnosed with Cat Scratch Fever, a shocking prognosis. My entire life, I thought Cat Scratch Fever was a just a cheesy fictitious disease, invented by the Motor City Madman, Ted Nugent. But it was real, and residing in my groin. The viral infection caused a growth to form under my skin. It was about the size and shape of a bar of soap, and it hurt to do can-cans. I had to get the lump removed, and this was right after my mom had died of cancer, so I was sweating it. The growth turned out to be benign. The day after the surgery I went to Austin with Spike Jonze for a road trip. I had to ride with a drainage tube sticking out of my leg, leaking excess puss. I came up with a few tube variations on vert. 

My recovery was also aided by Spike, a guy who won’t let a tumor get in the way of mayhem. We hooked up with a posse of Austin legends, Dave Parrick, James “Sheps” Shepard, and Ruben “The Cuban” Castillo. Rick Thorne was with us too. That night Spike climbed a rain gutter up to the roof of a nightclub and infiltrated the interior, saving himself the three dollar cover charge. Within fifteen minutes of entering, Spike’s personality was infecting the dance floor, causing an adverse reaction from some phony Euro-snob wearing a ponytail and a white turtleneck in the ninety degree heat. Euro was highly annoyed that Spike was having fun too near him, which made Spike even more pleased to cramp the guy’s style. Before long, Euro erupted, challenging Spike to a two-fisted throwdown. Spike tried to diffuse the human stress bomb by giving the guy a bear hug, then licked his face from chin to forehead in one quick motion. The instant before Euro decked Spike, out of the darkness came the rescue squad—Rick, Ruben, Dave, and James. They each clocked the guy in the head with a rapid fire punch, perfectly timed to the electronic beats pounding from the sound system. We were thrown out.

Number 5: Rotator Cuff Rip Off

January, 1991. I hadn’t done a one-footed 540 in weeks, when I tried spinning one. I held back a little and did it low. I crashed and landed with my right arm fully extended to break my fall. The impact ripped my rotator cuff, the group of four muscles that lay over your shoulder socket, which keep your arm in place and help it rotate. Mine was wrecked. 

The irony was I’d hurt myself because I was holding back, to avoid hurting myself. My whole arm stung with electrified hellfire, but it stayed in its socket and didn’t feel like I’d broken anything. The day after the slam, I was scheduled to do some demos in Australia with Mark “Gator” Anthony, Brian Blyther, and Chris Miller. My shoulder ached super bad, but I iced it every night. From Australia I flew directly to the King of Vert contest at Thrasherland in Arizona. During the pro finals, I got a flat at the end of my second run. I borrowed the nearest bike I could find, and dropped in. I had to literally hold on and hoped it responded to what I wanted it to do, which was a flip fakie. I almost pulled it, but the bike felt alien, and the seat post was so low, I had to stand up on the roll back. I bit off a little more than I could chew, and paid for it with another slam. My rotator cuff tore some more. But, I won the comp and the 1990 Pro of the Year title. 

I got home from the Arizona contest and had to get the hardware (ten screws and a plate) removed from my leg because the bone had grown over it. I was still growing and it was going to affect the growth of my leg, so they had to go back in and chisel it out. The upside was, I would only have to take about a week or two off before I could ride again. I asked Dr. Yates if he could take a look at my shoulder during the operation because it had been aching. I woke up with a big puffy incision on my right arm and a shoulder immobilizer on it. Dr. Yates came in and said I had immensely torn my rotator cuff, and I was looking at four-month recovery. Shit! I didn’t expect that. 

That one-footed 540 injury made me realize my pain tolerance was getting pretty strong, and even if I could handle the pain it didn’t mean something wasn’t seriously wrong. It was also the gateway to serious rotator cuff problems, which plague me to this day. Every time I put my arm out when I slam, it tears my rotator cuff. All because I held back on that trick. 

The incident convinced me to never try anything half-assed again. 

Number 6: Arm Harm                 

October, 1992. During the summer I took a bad slam on my elbow. I never got it checked, and didn’t know I’d chipped off part of the bone. The bone spur healed in the joint, and before long I couldn’t bend my elbow enough to brush my teeth, brush my hair, or shave. I’m right handed, and had to learn all those tasks using my left arm. It sounds simple, but it’s not. That was my mentality at the time—I’d modify my life around injuries, as long as it didn’t interfere with my riding. I was getting accustomed to my unbendable elbow by the time I went to the Rider Cup in England, in October. A good day of riding came to a halt when I hung up doing a flair. I stiff-armed into the flat bottom with my right arm extended and hit my head on the top of my arm so hard I knocked myself out, ripping my rotator cuff again and worse. The slam put me in so much pain so fast that I knew I’d done something very bad to my body. It was a long, sore flight home. When I got back to the United States I immediately went to Dr. Yates for surgery. I asked him to check out my elbow while he was in my shoulder—two birds, one stone. I woke up with an immobilized elbow that hurt worst then my shoulder. It was a tough surgery. In the video of the arthroscopic portion of the surgery, there are a bunch of tools stuck deep into my arm and Dr. Yates says, “I’ll be filleting your elbow now.” I didn’t expect it, but it took a lot of therapy and time before my elbow would bend again. 

It works fine now, and I’m back to shaving right-handed. 

Number 7: Air to Spleen 

April, 1993. It started when I built a 21 foot tall quarterpipe (about twice the height of a normal vert ramp) and convinced my partner Steve to tow me at 50mph on a motorcycle down a plywood runway. I’d let go of the tow rope, grab my handlebars, and shoot out of the ramp 18, 19, 20 feet and more. Within the first session, I’d broken the world record (my own), easy. The ramp was taller than a telephone pole, so add the aerial height, and I was about four stories off the ground during my peak. The power of the forces at work made themselves apparent one day when I hung up my back wheel on re-entry from 21 feet out. I was going so fast when I clipped the coping, it ripped the tire off my wheel and wrecked my rim. I didn’t get hurt, but it opened my eyes up to the speed we were dealing with. Eventually it became such an ordeal to use the motorcycle tow rope to ride the big ramp that I converted the giant quarterpipe into a giant halfpipe—with two transitions, my plan was to pump it under my own power. I built a 46 foot tall roll-in off the top of our warehouse to send me into the ramp. But the giant trannies proved to be too much to maintain speed, and my airs would start at 19 feet and get lower and lower with each wall. 

I wanted to ride the halfpipe and sky out of it. I reverse-engineered a weedeater engine and rigged it to my bike. I duct taped on a gas tank, and used a 122-tooth sprocket to drive my rear wheel. Then I’d rev the tiny engine full throttle, drop into the ramp and start pulling airs. It was just powerful enough to maintain my speed, and just light enough so I could get about 23 feet out of the halfpipe—44 feet off the ground. But the bike felt super weird. It was heavy, the engine made the weight offset, and if my timing was off and I missed my pump, I’d fall from the sky like a rock. 

One day MTV Sports called to see if I had any new projects I was working on. I invited them out to Oklahoma to check out the giant halfpipe. It was windy, but we were on a tight timeline, so I rode anyway. On one of my airs I came in sideways and spanked the ramp with my torso.   

We watched the crash on video and it didn’t look that bad. We were still talking about filming more high airs when I noticed my collar bones began to ache. I hadn’t taken much of the fall on my arms or shoulders, so I couldn’t figure out why they were throbbing. It was pressure from blood hemorrhaging inside my abdominal cavity. Before long I began to get dizzy. On the way to the water cooler, I leaned against a wall for balance, and the floor rushed up to greet me. A few minutes later, the ambulance arrived. 

As I lay flat on my back, the medic tried his blood pressure cuff and got a weak pulse. I didn’t have five hundred dollars for the ride to the hospital and my health insurance was a shake of the dice, regarding what they’d cover and what they wouldn’t. We told the ambulance to go away, and Steve and my girlfriend Jaci brought me in. 

The ER doctor examined me and told Steve I’d need an emergency spleenectomy to save my life. I had about twenty minutes to live, he said. Inside my ruined spleen was leaking massive amounts of blood—I had lost four pints. 

A spleenectomy is one of the crazier abdominal surgical procedures. The doctors remove all thirty-something feet of your intestines and put them in a bowl next to you while they mop up the blood and remove chunks of broken spleen floating around inside you. After the ruptured spleen is cleaned out, the doctors check your intestines for holes by hand, like looking for a flat tire in a bike inner tube. 

The first thing I saw when I woke up in the recovery room was the MTV producer. I’d just had my colon fondled from the inside, could barely open my eyes, my brain was spaced out on anesthesia, and my whole torso was throbbing from the trauma. “Hey, Mat. I know this is a bad time, but, could you sign this, ah, liability release form for us?” 

Number 8: Supersplinter 

August, 1993. There’s nothing like the feel of having stiff wood rammed into your ass. I’m talking, of course, about splinters. I was having a mellow session on the Ninja Ramp and the plywood surface was in tatters. I didn’t really think too much about it. I started working on a few new tricks and crashed, sliding sideways down the tranny. On the way down, a piece of plywood peeled up and was driven through the right side of my butt. I got to the bottom and jumped up like my pants were on fire—a quick inspection revealed a wedge-shaped splinter with a tip thicker than a pencil. It had pierced my right cheek on one side, and come out the other. Deep. It was one of those laughing on the outside, crying on the inside moments. I got out a pair of vise grips, clamped onto the wood near the entry wound, took a deep breath, and pulled. It broke off inside. The tip was sticking out on the other side, so I pressed my luck and tried to pull the fat end through the exit hole. I broke off that end too. By that time, the acute pain had subsided. I went back to riding. 

We were holding a contest at the Hoffman Bikes compound in less than two weeks, and there was a lot of work to do fixing up the street park course. The day after my splinter, I was outside pounding nails with Steve, team manager Kim Boyle, and Jamie Mosberg, a cinematographer Airwalk had hired to shoot a promo with me riding my twenty-one foot quarter pipe.  Somehow, the subject of who had the hairiest ass came up. Jamie, whose nickname is Mouse, claimed he did, and threw down the challenge. I started laughing that the first contest on the new Hoffman Bikes park was going to be a hair ass contest. I dropped my pants and heard gasps. Mouse technically won, as we discovered his ass is carpeted in brown fur. But my bruised and inflamed splinter tipped the scales in my favor and I was declared the champion. I hadn’t told anyone about my splinter, and after the laughter died down, Steve and Kim began to get concerned. I was forced to go to the hospital and have it surgically removed. Mouse brought his camera and documented it, and said he’d edit it to General Hospital music. The next day we shot the Airwalk promo, and I couldn’t sit down. 

Number 9: Shouldering the Pain

September, 1993. We were holding a Bicycle Stunt comp at the Hoffman Bikes park over Labor Day weekend. My rotator cuff had been torn for a while, and I was scheduled to get surgery on it the Thursday before the comp. I told Dr. Yates we’d need to postpone the surgery so I could ride the contest. I was also intent on riding the twenty-one foot quarter-pipe, for the skeptics in attendance. I did a few airs more than twenty feet high, and on my last aerial my arm gave up the ghost. I totally ripped my rotator cuff off the humerus head. That is a very bad thing. Dr. Yates had his work cut out for him. His surgical notes start with a right shoulder diagnostic arthroscopy, followed by open repair of massive rotator cuff avulsion with bicipital tenodesis and subscapularis tendon. Translation? Yates told me my rotator cuff muscles were like a thin piece of fatiguing metal. They could snap anytime, and I didn’t have any control over it with my arm raised above my head. I could literally rip my arm off if I crashed bad enough. From that day forward, I had to use a shoulder brace with a string attaching the underside of my arm to my ribs, to keep my arm from extending too far up. I lost all movement and strength in my shoulder. After not having a haircut for six years, I shaved my head because I couldn’t raise my arm high enough to brush the dreads out. My arm even dislocates in bed sometimes, and it won’t go back in. Once I rolled over and my arm fell out of socket. I had Jaci trying to yank it back in, but no go. Finally I had to call Steve at about 6:30 in the morning to help me get it back in. That’s the sign of a true friend. 

Despite the best medical treatment I could find, my arm has never healed. 

Number 10: Weak in the Knees 

July, 1995. My meniscus tore in half again over the course of many slams. In the 1990s, street riding was the fastest growing facet of bike riding, and there were many opportunities to see where the limits could be pushed even further. Riding was getting progressive more technical, and really burly. It sucked me in and I found myself riding more street and less vert. Street riding can be like therapy. I’d throw a Suicidal Tendencies tape in the Walkman and set out to unveil what the street had to offer. After a good session I’d come back relaxed and cured. It wasn’t uncommon for people to jump off buildings, or if you messed up on a handrail, to tumble down long flights of concrete stairs at full speed. Whenever you crash riding street, your knees usually suffer the most because you try to abandon the bike and run out of the crash. During this era I tore my meniscus, my PCL, and a bunch of other cartilage in my knee. Sometimes the flapping meniscus would get caught up in between my femur and tibia, and lock up my knee. Dr. Yates did another arthroscopic surgery on my right knee and roto-rootered it out. He had to remove my meniscus. I had no shock-absorbing cartilage in the middle of my knee. Yum. 

Number 11: Rotator Cuff Rebuild

March, 1996. My shoulder injury put a limit on my riding. Dr. Yates said that there was nothing left to do; my shoulder was fucked. I think he was sick of spending hours putting it back together only to have me rip it right up again. Basically it had come to the point where I had to decide: If I chose to ride and challenge myself more, then I could lose my arm. I decided I wasn’t done yet. 

Yates suggested I see what the Stedman-Hawkins Clinic could do for me. It was located in Vail, Colorado, and I scheduled a stay, right after my first B.A.S.E. jump in New Orleans. Dr. Hawkins was the shoulder specialist and Dr. Steadman, the knee guy. They are a world-renowned surgery group and the team doctors for the Denver Broncos, Colorado Rockies, and the U.S. Ski Team. I flew into Denver and took a bus to Vail. This was my first solo mission to try and find a procedure that would get my body working again. My plan was to get Dr. Steadman to check out my knee and fix my PCL, which I’d torn a couple years earlier. At the same time I was there to have Dr. Hawkins double up the surgeries, with a rotator cuff overhaul. That way I could stack the recovery times together and be out for the least amount of time. However, after I arrived I found out the knee would take too long to recuperate, and I was scheduled to do the closing ceremonies of the Olympics. I decided to just get my shoulder fixed. I could still ride without a PCL, and live without one. During the surgery on my rotator cuff, I got a nerve block that made my arm completely numb. It was freaky to get a preview of what it would be like to totally lose arm function. 

The surgery went well, and after it healed, my shoulder stayed in its socket better. But Dr. Hawkins didn’t have much faith that it would withstand the rigors of riding. 

Number 12: The Battle of Wounded Knee

When I wrecked my ACL and PCL at the Shultz Show in June of 1998, I knew what had happened held grave consequences for my riding. ACL’s can probably be repaired a hundred times and still get decent results—their job is to keep your tibia and fibula from sliding up your femur and dislocating. PCL’s are much harder to repair, and can only be fixed two or three times before they’re toast. I’d just wrecked both the ACL and PCL in one shot. I would have little to no chance of ever riding like I wanted to again, and was looking at a lot of months of pain just to recover. I was twenty-six years old, and had planned on building myself a twenty-six foot ramp for a belated twenty-sixth birthday. My life had just completely changed. Bike riding, as I knew it, was over and I would have to accept it. 

I went home and Dr. Yates scheduled me for an operation. I had to wait for a cadaver ligament to be “available.” Soon thereafter, I got the call that someone’s Achilles was packed in ice, on its way to meet me. The surgery was a real challenge. Since I’d torn both my ACL and PCL, there wasn’t any accurate way to ensure a tight, centered implementation of both ligaments. I wasn’t encouraged that the outcome would be successful. But I had a very skilled master surgeon on my side, and the winds of fortune blowing my way the day of the operation. It took months, but my knee healed nicely with even tension from both the front and back ligaments. 

The next time I got on my bike, I had to struggle to clear five feet of air. I was being mellow, trying to get acclimated to the feel of my bike moving underneath me. It was so foreign. It gave me a whole new respect for bikers. I couldn’t believe how much I’d taken my skills for granted when I was at the top of my game. Now those skills were gone. I played around, sticking to lip tricks until my brakes slipped on a Canadian nosepick. I dropped to the bottom like a dot com stock. When my leg hit the ramp, my lower leg sheared off and rode up my femur, completely tearing my ACL. I couldn’t believe it. I wondered, again, if this was it for my days as a biker. 

 Number 13: The Synthetic Solution

February, 1999. I decided I wasn’t ready to give up yet. After crashing the Canadian pick and trashing my cadaver components, I became desperate for a way to fix my knee. I’d need another operation just to walk, so I figured I might as well research every alternative treatment done on ACL/PCL replacement. Thank God for the Internet. I found hope in the form of synthetic ligament replacement procedures. Just as quickly, I ran into a brick wall in the U.S., because the FDA refused to sanction synthetics, citing it wasn’t a long-term option. By even giving me advice on how to get the procedure done elsewhere, a doctor practicing in the U.S. would put their medical license in jeopardy. It’s funny how you think you own your body, yet the government really has control over us in so many ways. Dr. Yates knew the deal, though, and was very helpful in steering me in the right direction for plastic parts: France. Their top orthopedic doctors had been successfully doing ACL repair on rugby players using a thing called the LARS ligament. These guys were back on the field after only four weeks—my previous surgery took me out for six months. 

I started sending faxes and emails to French doctors with unpronounceable names. 

I narrowed it down to two options. I could go to France to have the surgery done, or go to the French province of Montreal, in Canada. I chose Canada for its socialized medicine. The prices were right, only about five thousand dollars for the entire operation. It ended up going down like a drug deal on Miami Vice. I had to go alone, and bring cash, and pay the doctor in my hotel room the day before. The downside was, they wanted me to be a human guinea pig. They were doing research on the operation and wanted to prove it could be done without extensive anesthetics, which are the most dangerous part of any surgery. By proving it was possible to do the surgery without anesthetics, they could promote it as a safe alternative to ACL reconstruction, increasing their odds of being sanctioned by the FDA. 

The procedure called for them to open up my knee and drill a six-millimeter hole down the length of my femur. The drill bit was fifteen inches long. I would be fully conscious and have no pain medication for the surgery. In fact, I could watch close on three TV monitors in the room. 

It was kind of like an interactive horror movie. My skin was numbed with a local anesthesia, and then the doctors brought out the drill. “We haven’t figured out a way to numb the inside of the bone, so this will hurt,” my doctor said to me. It hit bone and the room filled with a smell that, well, I don’t think you ever want to get a whiff of your own bones smoking. The drill surged and grunted onward, the tiny motor straining as the pain began to increase. Then the tip broke though into the marrow. My heart rate was supposed to stay below eighty beats per minute, and it shot through the roof when I felt the hot drill strike the soft marrow inside my femur. It was pain taken to a new level. The knobs turned to an eleven-kind of painful. It didn’t help matters to actually see what bone marrow looks like; spongy red and yellowish pulp, like corned beef hash. I had to struggle and concentrate on my breathing to get my heart rate down, while squeezing the steel rails of the bed with my hands as tightly as I could. Every once in a while the nurse would lean over and say in broken Franglish, “You doing real well, Mot.” This went on for the longest thirty minutes of my life. Once there were holes in my femur and tibia, the doctors threaded a polyester ligament through the bony tunnels. Basically, they put a ski rope where my ACL once was.   

Afterward I was sewn up and I sat up on the table. There was an awkward pause as the doctor snapped off his latex gloves. I’d just had major surgery, without drugs. “Am I free to go?” I asked, my mind reeling and unsure of what to do. “Yep,” said the doctor. We shook hands and I limped from the surgical table to go outside and flag down a cab. 

I finally got a cab and crumpled into the back seat, marveling at the incredible strangeness of life. Ten minutes ago there were six hands shoving tools and titanium screws inside my knee, and suddenly I was in some dirty shoebox of a taxi, hustling back to my hotel. I kept thinking I was doing something wrong; there was very little post-operative pampering and nurturing going on. At the hotel, I fell in bed and flipped on the TV. I settled in for what would become a forty-eight hour pay-per-view marathon, starting with the buddy cop comedy Rush Hour, subtitled in French. Before long I had to use the bathroom, and faced my first crisis; I couldn’t walk, and had no crutches. I got two chairs under my arms and used them to slowly crab across the room to the beckoning toilet. It was a painful, sluggish struggle. 

On the third day I got in a cab to the airport, boarded my flight, and went home a new man, with new knees, and a new lease on life. 

Number 14: Snapping the Ski Rope 

May, 1999. The LARS ligament healed up clean and quick, and I was back on my bike in a month. I rode and grew stronger, clearing my brain of business troubles by carving around on the half-pipe. Before long I was eyeing a line which had been calling me for over a year: a big transfer from the vert ramp to the street course. It was during a casual session at the Hoffman Bikes Christmas party, when I decided to give myself a present: the gap. I launched and pulled the highest back flip I could over it, and in my enthusiasm, over rotated. I was wearing a knee brace and still managed to dislocate my knee on impact. The synthetic ligament was ripped out of my femur, and I was back to square one. I didn’t know what to do, and felt totally defeated. It was another black day at Hoffman Bikes.  

I sent a letter to the doctor in Canada that did the LARS surgery and he said it would have been really hard to break the synthetic ligament, they were supposed to last at least five years. Dr. Yates did an exploratory surgery and found the ligament wasn’t broken, I’d just yanked it out where it was anchored into my femur. He reattached it with a better procedure, implanting a little more titanium into my body. Two weeks later I had a fully functioning right knee again. 

But I didn’t hop back on my bike immediately. I’d just been through a frightening two years, plagued by knee problems, and I wanted to be mentally ready for what came next. I didn’t want to rush out and push myself in a race to get back my chops. It was also a tough time to make this decision. The sport was bigger than it had ever been, and it was the most lucrative time to compete in the pro vert class. You could make ten thousand dollars for a flawless two minutes on the ramp. I was staging events, running a company to pay back my debts, and watching everyone prosper. 

I’d pushed the boundaries throughout my career, and knew there were other things I still wanted to do on my bike. But I couldn’t expect my body to keep up with my mind, without ending back up in the hospital. I wanted to go in a new direction entirely—one that was a challenge, but also without expectations. I took my brakes off, to rediscover my bike under the new terms I was dealt. I didn’t know what was possible on a bike without brakes, and it was like a new sport. At one point I stripped my bike down to just the essentials: a frame, fork, bars, crankset, and wheels. Just too see what I could do with that. I was in my own world. I went back to the beginning, to the rewards that got me interested in the first place. Just riding. Not competing, not endorsing, nothing else but discovering what I could do with my bike and my body. I wasn’t in a class any more. 

People ask me if all this trauma and suffering was worth it. I’ve invented over one hundred original ramp tricks. I can roll in and catch fifteen feet of air without pedaling. I’ve felt the rush of taking off my hands during 540s spun eleven feet out. I’ve jumped my bike off the edge of a thirty two-hundred-foot cliff. I’ve shot up a ramp to see what the ground looks like from fifty feet above it and rode away from peril. I’ve ridden for crowds of screaming people, eighty thousand strong. And I’ve ridden by myself, where the only sound was my breath and my tires singing on plywood for hours on end, when there was no else left to ride with.

None of it would have ever happened if I thought the pain and suffering it would take to ride my bike and follow my heart wasn’t worth it. If you want to experience life’s pleasures, you have to be willing to take all the pain and failures. 

I love what I do. No regrets.

Categories: Arthur No. 1 (October 2002), Mark Lewman, W.T. Nelson | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

About Jay Babcock

I am an independent writer and editor based in Tucson, Arizona. In 2023: I publish an email newsletter called LANDLINE = Previously: I co-founded and edited Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curated the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was somehow listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. From 2010 to 2021, I lived in rural wilderness in Joshua Tree, Ca.

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