Skid marks … and Bad Parenting?

Author and son, out for a ride.

My son and I were out for a bike ride. It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, and we were learning to pace line and having a good time. Having recently watched the Tour de France, we had enjoyed how the US Postal team cyclists were less than a foot apart on the road, benefitting from the wind shadow of riders ahead. I told my son: 

“Son, did you know that trailing cyclists in a pace line can save up to 1% of energy for every mile per hour they’re traveling? In the Tour, cyclist pace lining at 30 mph could save nearly a third of their energy doing that.”

My son, either breathless on the bike, or couldn’t care less: “Huh.”

We were zipping down the bike path along the Highline Canal in Denver, the wind in our hair, having a pretty good father-son afternoon. We were traveling about 15 mph on long clear stretches of smoothly paved, tree-shaded asphalt. We were alternating the lead. For now, I was leading, and he had developed enough consistency and confidence to be within a foot of my back tire. 

“Do feel the difference? Are you in the wind shadow?”

“Yeah! Actually, this is pretty cool!”

What could be better, an outing with my son, a beautiful day, imparting an occasional word of wisdom, spending time together. I was being a good parent. 

Ahead was the dip in the path towards the tunnel underpass at Iliff Avenue, where the path narrows and pedestrians share the right-of-way. As we approached, I suddenly spotted a pair of elderly walkers heading down into the tunnel, and we were already nearly upon them. Worse, there were bikes emerging from the tunnel from the other direction. I had no place to dodge. I signaled to slow, and immediately hit my brakes. My 16 year old son, immediately behind and slightly to my right, slammed on his brakes as well, squealing to a stop. I stopped just short of the pair. My son, squeezing the brakes for all he was worth, with no escape direction, struck one of the women, who shouted “Oh!”, and went down. 

We were horrified. 

We leapt off our bikes and apologized profusely. 

Fortunately, the woman was able to stand after a bit, limping. 

After glaring at us, she and her partner let us know exactly what they thought of our speeding down the path at unreasonable speeds and striking pedestrians. 

We walked them to a nearby bench and sat with them for awhile, before we rode on, much more sedately, having lost the joy of the day. After a brief period, we decided to abandon the rest of our ride, turn around and head home. 

We passed them again on the path home, and heard them say as we passed “those were the guys.” We felt terrible. 

It took my son 2 months to get back on a bike again, and we have never pace lined since that day. We both take it slower now, particularly around ANY pedestrians or any blind corners or tunnels. The speed and the workout can always wait, right? Why did it ever need to be another way? I see others on bikes flying by, narrowly missing pedestrians, and wonder how we ever survived as a community, as a species. 

Fortunately, my son and I still go cycling together. Thank goodness. 

The scene of the crime.

We approach the spot. Incredibly, it has been 5 years, and the skid marks are still there, indelibly marked into the concrete despite many seasons of sun and rain. He looks at it and sees his shameful past.

“There it is Dad, that spot where I almost killed someone.”

I’m surprised. I had hoped he had let that go, but he had not. I told him that I understood why he felt bad, but I also helped him see that you ought to be able to trust your parent’s judgement, but that =I= had let him down, and worse, I had literally pulled him into a situation where he could not avoid hurting someone. I told him: 

“Those skid marks are not symbol of an error on your part. They’re a symbol of my Bad Parenting.” It was my shame, and not his. 

In the years since, this moment has lost none of its painfulness. Somehow, excruciating emotions are the yellow highlighters of our lives. This memory is as indelible as those skid marks that I see every time I ride by.

Be careful out there, y’all. 

Author: CT Lin

CMIO, UCHealth (Colorado); Professor, University of Colorado School of Medicine

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