Lessons from 'knee-hab': Cycling columnist sidelined after fall from his bike

  • One-legged vs. two-legged exercises marked physical therapy progress.

    One-legged vs. two-legged exercises marked physical therapy progress. Courtesy of Ralph Banasiak

By Ralph Banasiak
Along For the Ride
Updated 9/3/2021 8:46 AM

Editor's note: This is the first column in a two-part series. Part two will publish next week.

Mounting a bike on a May Texas evening, little did I realize that a minor fall would mean more bike writing than riding this summer.


That same Saturday, famed Chicago architect Helmut Jahn also erred on his bike, running a Campton Hills stop sign, according to witnesses. His mistake cost him his life. Mine, a knee anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).

No matter how minor or common, falls happen in an eye blink and can yield costly consequences. If you've ever stepped off a curb wrong, you understand. Exposed on a vehicle without bumpers, metal sides, or roll bar, caution on a bike goes without saying.

Yet, biking's fitness benefits are tremendous, far outweighing any risks. A setback like mine -- yes, annoying, frustrating, time-consuming -- doesn't dampen my cycling ambitions.

As I prepared this "knee-hab" column, Peter Flucke, co-author of "Coast to Coast on a Tandem," advised me, "Two kinds of cyclists exist -- those that have fallen and those about to fall. Crashes will happen. They happen to many, but they are predictable, therefore preventable."

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Thinking back, I could have predicted mine.

Kissing concrete

Even for a short neighborhood ramble, I did my usual quick bike check, strapped on a helmet and shortened long laces on my chain-side shoe, all in the name of safety. Though the neighborhood was unfamiliar, daylight was still full. A short, casual meander on trails and residential streets was the plan, just enough to chillax.

Fortunately, I was not clipped in, going fast or far from an ER as I approached two orange-and-white striped traffic barriers separated by a six-foot gap. Or so it seemed.

I hadn't spied the yellow caution tape strung across. The tape stopped me, bike rolling on, knee kissing concrete.

Considering myself a very safe rider, several years and probably 10,000 bike miles have elapsed since my last fall, a sidewalk scrape. This recent mishap, however, confirmed the too often ignored "safety first."

My missing a minor visual cue reshaped summer plans, adjusted 2021 cycling goals, and killed my Tour de France delusions.

My knee as teacher

Days later, Dr. Charles Bush-Joseph examined my knee and pronounced the bad news.

For the price of a decent road bike, a flexible knee brace enabled movement in the injury's acute phase.
For the price of a decent road bike, a flexible knee brace enabled movement in the injury's acute phase. - Courtesy of Ralph Banasiak

Practicing at Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush, this arthroscopic surgical specialist and Chicago White Sox team physician had repaired two previous ruptured ACLs for me, soccer injuries 20 years ago. So I knew what ACL surgery involved, recovery and rehab, too. I was ready for round three, actually, counting on it.

I wasn't ready for his prognosis: "At your age, without a full rupture of the ACL, the outcome of surgical repair isn't much better than physical therapy (PT), specifically given what you want to do athletically."

He added, "Your knee will tell you what to do."

Three days later Jake Livingston, manager of Palatine's Rush Physical Therapy, with 11 years of assessment experience, concurred.

"Torn ACL is a complex injury, very difficult with sports involving twisting/torque on the lower extremities. It's the main stabilizer of your knee. It helps that cycling is a linear sport. Depending on one's age and overall function, one can get back into cycling without surgical interventions."

Stay in motion

A flexible brace replaced the knee immobilizer, allowing my softball-sized joint to bend, painfully at first. "Motion is lotion," advised Bush-Joseph, so I kept it moving.

Besides PT and home exercises, I double-crutched around the block, single-crutching before too long, then merely carrying that support device as a mental crutch.

PT helped me overcome the injury's acute phase -- swelling, pain, guarding. Range of motion, muscle strength and balance returned with specific exercises. It's been long and humbling -- two weeks before I turned a stationary bike pedal, six before I stopped climbing stairs like a toddler, 12 before I remounted a bike.

I recently worked up the nerve to ride my plow horse of a Schwinn, strictly on level terrain. The only downhills and uphills I've traveled lately have been psychological. More on that later. Meanwhile, my stallion Trek snorts impatiently, stomping its tires to get back on the road.

Pre-crash training prepped my rehab. In turn, rehab will inform my training ahead. As clinical "knee-hab" ends, self-disciplined home exercises should lead to my own pedal stomping.

Bike the Drive

The Fifth Third Bike the Drive rolls out on Sunday, Sept. 5, on Chicago's Lake Shore Drive.
The Fifth Third Bike the Drive rolls out on Sunday, Sept. 5, on Chicago's Lake Shore Drive. - Courtesy of Active Transportation Alliance

Be one of the first riders on newly renamed Jean Baptiste Point DuSable Lake Shore Drive as the Fifth Third Bike the Drive rolls out Sunday, Sept. 5, along Lake Michigan.

Riders can bike as many of the 30 miles as desired, stopping at three rest areas 7 to 8 miles apart, and finishing at the Grant Park bike festival. Those completing the entire course are eligible for 30-mile Challenge Medals.

Register online at bikethedrive.org/register, joining thousands of bikers in a unique experience on car-free Lake Shore Drive, snapping selfies along the lakeshore and the magnificent skyline.

Sponsored by Fifth Third Bank, the ride is a fundraiser for the Active Transportation Alliance, activetrans.org, a membership-based nonprofit advocacy organization working to improve conditions for walking, biking and public transit throughout Chicagoland.

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

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