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compose Guest time Apr 25, 2023 comment 7
We’re proud to present “Broken Bike Blues,” a stirring film from Brady Lawrence that shares the story of his dad’s recovery and return to cycling after a tree fell directly on him while he was out on a ride. Join Brady and his dad, David, on their first bikepacking trip together through North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains in the 10-minute film here…
Words, photos, and film by Brady Lawrence
Where does a story begin? In 2013, my dad, David, was out on a mountain bike ride in Raleigh, North Carolina, when a flash storm hit. In a matter of minutes, a typical humid spring day in the South turned to chaos as trees all over the neighborhood were blown over by gale force winds. Just a quarter mile away from home, one of those trees fell directly on my dad. The impact sheared his aluminum Santa Cruz mountain bike in two and left him pinned under the weight of a large oak.
He likely would have died if a neighbor had not seen what happened and immediately called 911. Instead, the fire department quickly cut him out of the wreckage and rushed him to the hospital to start treating a traumatic brain injury, collapsed eye socket, numerous cracked ribs, a collapsed lung, a broken arm, a shattered ankle, and five cracked vertebrae. He spent one month in the hospital and another three in rehab.
Maybe this story starts even earlier. For as long as I can remember, my dad has carried around at least one harmonica. But one is often not enough. Harmonicas are tuned to just a single key, so if you want to spontaneously get on stage with a band at a bar, a true “harp player” will need to have several harmonicas with them. As a teen, watching my father go up to performing musicians at a venue and convince them to let him play was equally embarrassing and awe-inspiring.
As I got older and started to play in bands myself, I relished inviting my dad on stage to take a harmonica solo or sing a blues riff. He had gotten me into playing music. Now, we could share it. Laid up in the hospital with little to do, he played harmonica to keep his recently collapsed lung active and entertain whichever unsuspecting nurse was treating him. When the Raleigh Eyewitness News crew came to produce a story about him, they had an easy cold open: the injured cyclist singing the blues in the hospital.
“In the whole recovery process, I don’t remember doubting that I would ever be back on a bicycle.”
When I was 12, my dad gave me a mountain bike for my birthday. It didn’t have suspension, but it did have SPD pedals. On one of our first rides out along a river path, I paused to let another group of cyclists ride past. Unable to clip out, I tipped over and fell into the river. My bike clung to the bank, and I hung from my bike, one foot still clipped in while my torso slumped into the cold water. Despite this early setback, cycling became increasingly central to my life and my relationship with my dad. He was quick to pick up the harmonica again after his accident. But the true question was, when would he get back on his bike?
I could go back further. Born in 1955 in tidewater Virginia, he rode bikes everywhere as a kid. As a boy, he had a paper route and prided himself on his ability to ride past a mailbox, open it, put the newspaper in, and shut it, all without getting off the bike. He drifted away from cycling over the years but dove back in with the fervor of a mid-life crisis at age 45. When I wasn’t busy training for high school cross country, we would ride the rolling singletrack trails of the North Carolina foothills.
He built a community of riding buddies—a classic group of middle-aged men half-riding, half-racing each other—and even competed in a few races. Lying broken in the hospital at 58, my dad knew that his time riding bikes wasn’t over. Just three months and countless hours of physical therapy later, we went on a road ride together. He weighed significantly less and the leg that had until recently been in a cast was weirdly skinny, but he held a good pace and even tried to outsprint me to the city line.
After I moved away from North Carolina to pursue a career in filmmaking, our rides became fewer and further between. I got more into bikepacking and eventually started making films about my trips and some long-distance bikepacking races. I wanted to do a bike trip with my dad, knowing he would love the freedom of a long trip in the woods, but my freelance cinematography schedule made it difficult to plan. Then the pandemic hit, and all my gigs were canceled.
I finally had the chance to plan a trip with my dad. I had long wanted to make a film telling the story of his accident, the recovery, and how this near-death experience changed his outlook on life. A father-and-son bikepacking video would be the perfect opportunity to weave it all together and have some fun in the process.
We aimed for peak fall foliage in October in the Blue Ridge Mountains and started planning. I came here to BIKEPACKING.com and pulled together a combination of the Appalachian Gravel Growler and other Pisgah bikepacking routes with a starting point at my parent’s house in Weaverville, North Carolina, just outside of Asheville. The route would take us through 144 miles of road, gravel, and trails with some 15,000 feet of climbing. At 65 years old, it would be my dad’s first-ever bikepacking trip and his first time camping in years, but he wasn’t too nervous. The accident had taught him to meet these opportunities as they come and not take them for granted.
Almost 20 years ago, my dad bought me a mountain bike and kickstarted my love of cycling. Now it was my chance to return the favor. I got him a set of Apidura bikepacking bags, gave him my one-person tent (I took the bivy), and together, we packed his bike: sleeping bag in the saddle bag, backpacking meals and tent up front, peanut butter in the frame bag. I did a pre-trip interview, loaded my camera gear in a backpack, and we set off for four days on some of the finest gravel and singletrack that western North Carolina has to offer.
Seven years earlier, it was unclear whether my dad would survive his accident, let alone ride a bike again. But here he was, cruising down technical trails on a loaded mountain bike. He even rode some sections multiple times so I could “get the shot.” We were both grateful for our second chances.
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