In the autumn of 2006, I finished riding the 477,714-mile distance from Earth to the moon and back. On a bicycle. Yep. A big number, but it did not happen overnight. In fact the almost half-million mile journey took 30 years, three decades, more or less. I started slow, in 1977, when Devine coached Notre Dame football and soon led the team to a Cotton Bowl victory. I was 25 and covered 2,000 miles that year.
I commuted by bicycle. I toured by bicycle. I rode for fitness. And fun. Then, BAM.
New Year’s Day, 1983.
A 50-mile ride turned disastrously bad when a hit-and-run, uninsured drunk driver (later caught and convicted) going 60 miles per hour rear-ended me. And my helmetless head.
I woke from a coma about three weeks later. A Hoffman Device — its six rods resemble an oven rack — truncated and held together my right tibia. An inch-and-a-half wedge of bone was left behind on the road somewhere.
“Some dog probably snacked on it for dinner,” cracked my orthopedic surgeon. Ha-ha. Those surgeons are a riot. But with all the blood and gore they see, I guess they need some comic relief.
So did I. But it was a long time coming. Two months in the hospital. Four major surgeries. Ten long, long months on crutches. An initial prognosis that I would never walk or ride again. Or, at best, that they were “long shot” possibilities.
Ha-ha. Wait. Why am I laughing? No insurance. No settlement. No money. Ha.
Yeah, 1983, when Faust led Notre Dame to a one-point win in the Liberty Bowl, sure disrupted my yet-to-be-conceived moon ride. My only miles were indoor on a battered Sears exercise bicycle, between operations and periods of immobility, spinning with my one good leg. It was survival, pure and simple. Save that leg. And stay sane.
A 1984 article about my accident and recovery in the local Santa Barbara News-Press noted, “The Bible, comic books and will” pulled me through. I also read Thoreau. It was a physically painful year. Terribly painful.
Let’s fast forward through that grim, despairing period. I was on the road again by New Year’s, 1984. A 12-inch steel plate, nine screws, and multiple bone and skin grafts had the leg looking, well, pretty ugly. But it worked. And I could pedal. I carried a cane with me when I rode, at first, because my severely atrophied limb was now a half-inch shorter. I had to learn to walk, and walk carefully, when off the bike. Always. No missteps allowed.
Riding became my rehabilitation. Almost inevitably, it seems, it also became more purposeful. And faster. And helmeted this time.
Now I wish I had some grand proclamations. I wish I could claim superlative sporting accomplishments such as Notre Dame’s Orange and Fiesta bowl victories in 1989 and ’90.
Ultimately, I could not.
I qualified for the nonstop bicycle Race Across America in the 1980s, raced three times but never finished officially. (Hey, that race is hard.) John Marino, one of the race’s founders, once called me a “champion of persistence.” And he finished the race.
In football terms, there is no close analogy. But imagine playing 100 consecutive bowl games. No time outs. No half-times.
I do possess two rather obscure ultra-distance records from 1992 — averaging 20 miles-per-hour or so over 200- and 300-mile distances, hilly terrain, and sketchy road and traffic conditions. I also raced as a United States Cycling Federation (USCF) master and won a road race and two or three time trials. But none of this is in the same league as Notre Dame’s Sugar Bowl victory in 1992.
Nonetheless, the leg held up, and I kept pedaling. Racing sometimes, touring with my wife, Anna, commuting to work, lots of long solo hundred-mile rides that allowed me to contemplate. Some weekly group rides with local USCF clubs that did not.
Before I knew it, I had some serious miles in my riding journal. Journals. Many journals. Stacks of journals. In 1986, I amassed 25,000 miles (25,151 to be exact). In one seven-year period, I covered 143,000 miles (143,155 to be exact).
The years and coaching eras — Devine, Holtz — came and went. Weis arrived. I kept riding. Heat, cold (relatively, we live near Santa Barbara after all), sun, sleet, fog, rain. Steady 300- and 400-mile weeks, year round, for decades. Absurd riding hours. I had to constantly juggle the work/ride/life equation.
Why? Blame the coma. I lost a lot of memory in that coma. For example, my Notre Dame roommate taught me how to drive his funky VW van in 1972 so we could tag team on a spring break trip to Florida. I don’t remember his name. And now I don’t even have a driver’s license. It expired during the darkness of 1983 and was never renewed.
On October 2, 2006, the year Notre Dame lost the Fiesta Bowl, I rode mile 477,714. So I made it back safely, more or less. Currently, I’m riding less and racing more and have passed the half-million mile mark. Does all this riding rank somewhere in the annals of sports accomplishments?
Well, a Santa Barbara sportswriter in 2006 was impressed. He gave me two inches in his interior weekly column. He spelled my name wrong.
But Anna gave me a beautiful engraved plaque. It displays a silhouetted cyclist aiming upward toward a crescent moon. A “long shot,” it says. And she spelled my name correctly.
Dan Wesolowski lives near Santa Barbara and sporadically works for the Santa Barbara High School District. Photo Finish, a fiction thriller and his sixth book, can be found at buybooksontheweb.com and Amazon.com.