ST. PETERSBURG — All he planned to do was sit on a bike again. He had no illusions about leaning into the aero position and pedaling 100 RPMs like in his hammerhead days, when he blew by other riders and felt immortal.
David Arnold, 52, just wanted to sense the saddle under his pelvic bones, squeeze the grips, toe the pedals, feel like a cyclist. He wasn't sure he would even try to go anywhere.
He hadn't ridden since the beautiful Sunday morning of July 6, 2003. He was winding his way through the St. Petersburg suburbs with 40 elite cyclists when a man disoriented by diabetes drove his Lincoln Continental into them at 30 mph.
Nobody was killed. But 14 riders were seriously hurt. Arnold, his left knee shattered, his femur almost severed, was among the most terribly maimed.
Over months and years, almost everyone hurt in the accident recovered enough to resume their workouts. But not Arnold, a technology research specialist at St. Petersburg College. After eight surgeries he walked stiff-legged, like Frankenstein.
Last summer, after he developed a new infection, he endured operation No. 9. His orthopedist removed his left leg just above the knee.
As things worked out, that was just what he needed to get back on his bike.
• • •
The other day, Arnold drove his shiny Chrysler convertible to St. Petersburg Limb and Brace on 37th St. N. Prosthetist Michael Rieth had designed him a new leg and he had learned to walk on it. Now Arnold would try to get on a bike, too. His friend and fellow cyclist Bill Hansbury, who also has a prosthetic leg, was there to support him.
Arnold popped the trunk and removed two bicycle wheels. He opened the rear door and took out the frame. His prized Greg Lemond racer had been demolished in the accident along with his left leg. This bike was his old mountain bike, dusty and rusty, like him.
He put it together, leaned it against a van and straddled it. "No. No. No,'' he mumbled and climbed awkwardly off. He adjusted the saddle and tried again. It still didn't feel right.
Arnold is one of those perfectionist technical guys; as a younger man he built race-car engines. He enjoys talking about engines but talks about feelings with difficulty.
He fiddled once more with the saddle. He said, "We don't quite have it yet, Mike.'' Rieth agreed. "Next time you're here I'll contour the socket of your prosthesis to allow you to sit a little easier on the bike,'' he said.
An intense man, Arnold now tuned out everyone else. For a minute no one spoke.
"Okay. I'm ready,'' Arnold suddenly said from atop the saddle.
Rieth and Hansbury spoke in unison.
"What? Are you sure?''
Arnold pushed off against the van. He was moving.
• • •
For an instant Rieth had his hand on Arnold's back. He trotted next to his patient like a dad teaching his little boy to ride on a suburban sidewalk.
"I'm riding,'' Arnold said, the way an excited little boy might. "I'm riding.''
His pretend left foot fell off the pedal. He reached over and lifted it back on. He disappeared around the corner. Leaning on his own artificial leg, Hansbury predicted, "He won't want to stop.''
Arnold could not hide his smile as he pedaled. This euphoric moment on the bike could not erase memories of the accident, the months in the hospital, the pain and anger and loss. But it was a start.
He pedaled around the building again and again. He pedaled between parked cars and bystanders. It wasn't like he was a hammerhead reborn — hammerheads are cycling gods who ride 30 mph or more even on level ground — but he was riding, and that was enough, for now.
"I didn't think you were going to do it,'' Michael Rieth said when Arnold pulled over.
"When I'm walking I'm an amputee,'' Arnold said quietly. "On a bike I'm a cyclist.''
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at (727) 893-8727 and firstname.lastname@example.org.