Bicycling (South Africa)
HE USED TO TO RIDE OFF CLIFFS. NOW HE RIDES AN E-BIKE,
AND HE’S NEVER BEEN HAPPIER.
THE TRAIL IS RATED WITH A SMILING
green circle in an approachable blue square, just a step up from the easiest terrain for beginner mountain bikers. The ground is rusty from a winter’s worth of decomposing pine needles and redwood bark. Spongy from last night’s rain, it sucks the momentum from the rider’s tyres as he approaches each lippy mound. Still, when he leaves the ground you can see he has style: he turns the handlebar, whips the back end of the bike in the air. He slashes the crumbling edge of a corner, spraying a rooster’s tail of dirt. His moves are so quick and casual as to seem almost involuntary, the twitch of muscles that carry years and years of memory.
Memory: to see him ride today, you would never know this rider has memory of what it feels like to ride his bike off a cliff edge. He has memory of leaping off wooden ramps as tall as buildings and watching the world revolve around him as he spins on his bicycle, of hearing crowds roar from the thrill of witnessing him stretch the perception of what is humanly possible.
Just three years ago, this ride was impossible. To ever walk again without crutches, improbable. At one point, to ever take a piss again without assistance from a medical device, questionable. To see him pop his front wheel up to splash over puddles now, you would never know that three years ago the rider was given a 5 per cent chance of ever feeling anything below his waist again. Or that when he gets off
his bike, he still can’t walk more than four or five metres without a walking stick.
Seeing him on the trail, you’d never know he’s anything besides another good rider. And of all the death-defying tricks pro mountain biker Paul Basagoitia ever landed in his lifetime, that may be the most impressive one yet.
– – –
ON THE MORNING
of 16 October 2015, in the desert outside Virgin, Utah, people woke up stressed.
It was finals day at Red Bull Rampage, the most extreme mountainbiking competition on earth. For the past week, the best freeriders in the world and their dig teams had been carving and shaping the side of a flat-topped red mountain. They had utilised its vertical faces, knife-edge furrows, and gaping canyons to design a course where they planned to showcase superhuman aerial feats: backflips and suicide no-handers, arms outstretched like wings as they freefell for seconds at a time.
Organisers had announced that finals would be moved up a day early due to an incoming storm, so almost everyone was rushing to get ready. All the riders had counted on that extra day of practice and rest.
But at least one woke up cool and calm. Paul Basagoitia, then 29, had been competing for a long time, so he was accustomed to last-minute changes like this. He had been coming to Rampage since 2008, and was dominant in slopestyle events, where riders perform Bmx-like tricks on mountain bikes. But recently, he had been feeling burned out from the constant pressure of competition, the need to keep pushing for bigger and wilder tricks. He had been thinking this would be his last Rampage. His plan was to win, then buy an engagement ring for his girlfriend of five years, Nichole Munk. He’d use the prize money to take her on a celebratory trip, and propose on the beach.
Paul felt confident as he walked up to the start gate and dropped in. There was just one part of the run that gave him some concern – a backflip over a canyon. But he nailed it: his speed, takeoff and landing were perfect.
Next up, a 270 off a massive hip jump. Again, he nailed it. Wow, this is going so well, he thought.
He kept riding. A casual whip over a kicker. A gap jump. He could not believe how well this was all going. He sailed off a 20m drop. In the video, you can hear him say “Shit” in mid-air.
Paul had more speed than he wanted, and when he landed, the impact jolted him slightly off-course. But Paul was still upright, Paul was riding it out. Then his pedal caught the branch of a bush. It flipped him over his handlebar. He bounced off the ground, tumbled over a small shelf, and landed on his back. It knocked the wind out of him. He was pissed off. He’d had such a good run going. Definitely top-three. But it was okay: he still had his second run.
– – –
PAUL BASAGOITIA’S DAD
joked that his son could ride a bike before he could walk. It wasn’t quite true, but from age 2, Paul preferred to move through his world on two wheels. “He would take off and ride all over town,” older sister Carol Basagoitia remembers. “People knew him as ‘the kid on the bike’.”
When Paul was six years old, his mom took him to a BMX race. He got third place. “I remember my trophy,” he laughs. “I thought, I wanna do this every weekend, and get as many trophies as I can.” Then someone told his mom that his bike was too big. So she got him a new bike. Paul took second at his next race, and won every single one after that for a long time.
The kid liked winning. He and his mom would travel to races every weekend, and by age 10, he was number one in the world for his age group. But he felt a lot of pressure. “When I didn’t do well, my mom would yell at me,” says Paul. “What are we spending all this money on if you’re not doing well? Shit like that. We’re talking when I was seven years old.”
He moved on to dirt jumping when he was 14, then to mountain biking. One of his favourite things about his new discipline was that his mom wasn’t involved. “It was fresh air,” he says. Still, that fierce drive was deeply instilled.
“Paul came from BMX, a more cutthroat, competitive style of riding [than freeride mountain biking],” says best friend and former Rampage winner Cam Zink, who first met Paul at the local dirt jumps when the two were rising teen stars. Once, Cam recalls, Paul got access to a foam pit ahead of a contest. He was borrowing Cam’s bike at the time, so he brought it to the foam pit to practise new tricks. But he didn’t bring Cam.
Despite these early hurdles, when Paul was 17, Cam helped him get into the inaugural Crankworx slopestyle competition in Whistler. Paul didn’t have any sponsors yet, so he borrowed Cam’s bike for the contest again – and won. Cam was the first person to run up and give him a huge hug. That night, the two of them stayed in a friend’s old camper van, with no lights or hot water.
It would be the last time Paul would have to slum it. After Crankworx, he signed a
HE HAD ONE PIECE OF UNFINISHED BUSINESS FROM HIS RAMPAGE DAYS. FOR MONTHS, HE PREPARED IN SECRET.
slew of sponsors. He was still in high school and “making more money than my teachers,” he says. The next year, he came back to Crankworx and won again.
Paul quickly established himself as one of the best slopestyle and freeriders in the world. By age 21, he was able to buy himself property. On it, he built his own slopestyle course and foam pit. Sometimes he hosted invite-only contests for his buddies.
It was at the afterparty for one of these contests in 2010 that he reconnected with Nichole Munk. Paul remembered Nichole from high school, where he’d always had a crush on the petite, bubbly cheerleader with the pouty lips. Nichole had hung out with jocks. Even tonight, she’d come to the club with a bunch of fighter pilots.
But Paul was at the top of his game, living the dream as a pro athlete, and he was feeling confident. He walked up to Nichole at the bar and asked her to take a shot. Nichole ended up ditching the pilots. “I just hung out with Paul for the rest of the night,” she says.
Paul’s parents divorced when he was in grade eight; but before that, he remembered their constant fighting. “I always told myself I would never be married,” he says. “Seeing my parents’ relationship, I never wanted to be that.” Plus, girls he’d dated in the past had always given him crap about being gone all the time.
But Nichole was different. She was fiercely independent. The daughter of a police officer, Nichole grew up in a strict but loving and tight-knit family. She spoke her mind, and she wasn’t afraid to put Paul in his place. And yet she was kind, which inspired him.
“Before I dated her, I was more of a cocky guy,” says Paul. “She definitely humbled me, for the better.”
And that was even before the injury.
– – –
NICHOLE WAS ONE OF THE FIRST PEOPLE BY HIS SIDE.
Lying on the ground, Paul was panicking. “Babe, I can’t move my feet. I can’t move my feet.”
Medics arrived. They discussed how to get him out of there. There was talk of carting him out on a 4x4. A female medic put her foot down: This is a spinal injury, we gotta get a helicopter in here.
Watching the helicopter try to land close to him was frightening. The propellers created a blinding dust cloud that enveloped everyone. Rocks ricocheted off the blades. Whirling debris hit Paul and left cuts under his eyes.
The crash had not looked spectacular. Even the announcers did not yet know how severe Paul’s injuries were. As the helicopter lifted off, one of the medics said to him, “Everyone’s cheering for you. Give them a thumbs up. Let them know you’re okay.”
Paul almost did it, but then he put his thumb down. Fuck that ,he thought. That would be the fakest shit that I could possibly do. For the first time in his career, he knew he was in real trouble.
When Paul got to the hospital he was rushed into what would be a 10.5-hour surgery. Before they cut him open, the doctors stood over him and talked to him. They said something about going in, relieving pressure on the spinal cord, but Paul wasn’t really listening. All he could focus on was trying to move his legs.
– – –
THE SPINAL CORD IS A DELICATE BUNDLE
of nerve fibres that transmit messages from the brain to the rest of the body and back, regulating sensory, motor, and autonomic function. It’s extremely susceptible to damage; and unlike the vertebrae that surround and protect it, may not repair itself – even bruising can cause permanent paralysis. The higher in the vertebral column the injury occurs, the more function is affected: when a spinal cord injury (SCI) happens in the neck region, it causes quadriplegia, weakness or paralysis in all four extremities. When the lower areas of the spine are injured, the result is likely to be paraplegia, weakness or paralysis below the waist.
When Paul woke up from his surgery, he learned that he had suffered a “T12 burst fracture incomplete.” When he crashed, the force had burst his T12 vertebra – the 12th and lowest vertebra in his thoracic region, in the middle of his back – and the bone fragments had damaged his spinal cord. While his SCI was incomplete, meaning that some function existed below the level of his injury, when he woke up from surgery a doctor told him that he might have as little as a 5 per cent chance of regaining sensation or movement below his waist. The doctor told him he would have issues with bowel and bladder function. That he might depend on a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
Paul had been the first rider to land a 720 on a mountain bike. The first to do a double backflip on natural terrain. Now, when he needed to get out of bed, a nurse had to hoist him up from under his butt, as if picking up a child. Nichole had to help him bathe. To pee, he had to insert a catheter manually, tortuously, each time.
Disbelief gave way to the understanding that it was all gone – the bikes, the competitions, the films, everything he had worked for his entire life. His life, where he woke up every morning and did whatever he felt like: built a jump, called friends to go wakeboarding. In its place, a wheelchair, the walls, the wondering: if this was his life now, was it even worth living? He’d always told Nichole he’d rather be dead than paralysed.
Paul was in the hospital for three months. Nichole took off from work and stayed with him for the first three weeks,
sleeping on a little cot, then travelled back and forth from her job in Reno. A couple of months in, Paul told Nichole she could leave. You didn’t sign up for this, this is your out. As he describes it, she essentially gave him a verbal backhand. She was angry he’d even gone there. “This doesn’t even faze me,” she told him. “We’re doing this together.”
Paul left the hospital in a wheelchair. The months that followed were dark, despite the support of fans, friends and family, and sponsors like Scott that donated bikes for fundraisers to help cover his skyrocketing medical bills.
Paul was not comfortable seeing people, being seen, looking up at them from his wheelchair. He just wanted to be left alone. Nichole would come home from work and the curtains would be drawn and Paul would be sitting in the dark.
“You could feel the sadness,” she remembers. She’d rush around, opening the curtains, letting daylight flood in. She’d say, “Baby, you can’t be like this.”
But Paul was also a guy who had got up again and again from gnarly crashes and concussions and cracked bike frames, to accomplish feats previously considered impossible. So, even in his despair, he was determined to walk again.
He read everything he could about spinal cord injuries. He attacked his recovery with the same level of intensity that he’d had when he was trying to nail a new trick. The former trophy room off the front hallway of his house filled with free weights, resistance bands, a vibration trainer that he’d stand on to strengthen his leg muscles.
Six hours a day, Paul worked to regain his ability to walk. He turned off his phone, and trained, and stared at the prize cheques on the wall for motivation. He went to PT, where he inched up and down the parallel bars and did knee squats and other bodyweight exercises. He went to acupuncture twice a week. All this was much more than the doctors had advised him to do, which was just to try to “send signals down to those toes”. In fact, the more Paul tried to learn about how to recover from his injury, the more he realised that there was very little helpful information about what he should be doing, what progress he could hope for, and when.
The work started paying off. Paul built enough strength to lift himself out of his wheelchair, hold the railings of his staircase, and lift a foot onto a step. About six months in, he took his first steps with a walker. His feet dragged, sometimes lurched. But he was able to walk out of his garage, onto his street, into the sunshine. Around month eight, he went from the walker to forearm crutches, then quickly progressed to two canes. This was when he felt comfortable leaving the house again, seeing people. Shortly after that, he was able to drive. That was a huge milestone.
Paul started visiting other people who had just sustained spinal cord injuries. Friends who worked at the local hospital would let him know when an SCI patient came in, or their family members would reach out to him on social media. Paul would walk in on his forearm crutches, and he could see that it gave people hope. He would tell them his story, listen to theirs, and share what he had learned so far.
Paul met people who were in much worse situations than him: quadriplegics, people with complete SCIS, people who had passed the two-year mark – during which the most progress is typically made – and were still in wheelchairs. Seeing their struggles brought him perspective on his own injury.
And it lit a fire in him. He got an idea.
Using his Gopro and DSLR camera, Paul had actually been filming his recovery since week one in the hospital. The project had begun out of boredom, but now he thought, what if he made a film about his experience – one that would raise awareness about spinal cord injuries? About nine months after his crash, he approached Red Bull Media House.
Paul was a private person, not the type to share much on social media or articulate deep emotion. But when Red Bull green-lighted the documentary and it was time to hand over his footage, he held nothing back. In fact, when film director Fernando Villena began reviewing it, he initially found some of it so raw that he wasn’t sure what to do with it. The crash clip from Paul’s Gopro on the day of Rampage shook him. “Just being in that first-person view of somebody at the moment their life changes... I was like, how are we going to ever use this material? It was just too graphic,” he says.
Then he got to what’s now known as the infamous “catheter scene,” which Paul filmed at 3am just days after his injury, nude in front of the toilet.
“I was like, that is never going in the movie,” Fernando recalls. “[It] was so traumatic to watch. It took him eight minutes.”
When he got to the part that Paul filmed while getting his staples taken out from the surgery, Paul said into the camera, “Hopefully I can be the guidance for someone else.” And suddenly, it clicked. “I realised what he wanted to do was leave a record of what someone goes through in this situation,” says Fernando. “So we needed to show all of it.”
The documentary, Any One of Us, ended up featuring not only Paul’s experience, but those of 17 other people living with SCI. Paul became friends with several of these cast members, and others in the SCI community – like Eric Howk, guitarist for the band Portugal. The Man.
For most of his life, Paul had surrounded himself with professional athletes, other people who were also fixated on winning contests or races. Suddenly, he was building a new crowd and a new purpose. He used to get messages on social media from aspiring young riders, asking, How do I get sponsored? Now he was getting messages from people struggling with SCI, asking, How do I beat this thing?
At home, Nichole felt the change. Paul wasn’t feeling sorry for himself anymore. He was empowered to help others. “It was really beautiful to see,” she says.
By this time, Paul had been pedalling a stationary bike for months. His glutes and calves still didn’t work, and he still had no sensation below his knees or the ability to flex his feet or ankles. But with the strength he’d built in his quads and hamstrings, he could pedal. It wasn’t satisfying, though: he wanted to be outside.
One day about a year after the crash, Nichole came home from work. She found Paul in the garage, with his friend Ben, building up a carbon Scott Genius mountain bike.
“Whose bike is that?” Nichole asked.
“It’s my new one,” Paul said.
Nichole paused, then just took it in stride. “Okay.”
The next day, Paul went for a ride. His goal was to surprise Cam at his house, about 30 minutes away. As Paul wheeled his bike out, he leaned on it for support. He had to put the dropper seatpost all the way down and use a curb to get his leg over the top tube. He missed the pedals a couple of times.
But then he pushed off and started pedalling: out of his driveway, through the vine-covered gates of his complex, and right down a wide, sweeping street with a bike lane. As he coasted downhill, he felt the wind. It felt like it was splashing on his face. He felt the sun on his back, on his arms. He smiled and smiled. He was speechless with joy.
Then the road flattened out. There was more traffic. Paul pedalled hard, but he couldn’t get much speed going. The intersections were stressful, stopping and
starting again. Cam’s house was at the top of a hill. Paul had no calf strength, so he couldn’t stand up on the pedals. He strained up the climb, sweating. His muscles were fatiguing. At one point he thought he might roll over backwards.
Cam was out in his yard; and from a distance he saw a rider approaching, wearing a familiar T-shirt. He kept looking, thinking it might be someone he knew. When he saw that it was Paul, at first he couldn’t believe it. “What the shit?” he said, as Paul rolled up, grinning.
It was perfect that Cam was there. In that moment Paul was as happy as that day he first won Crankworx 12 years ago, on his best friend’s bike.
“To be able to get on a bike, and pedal again, it was probably one of the highlights of my life,” he says.
HIS DAD’S CHILDHOOD JOKE had finally come true: Paul still couldn’t walk without a cane, but he could ride. As he started mountain biking again, he worked out how to compensate for the things his body couldn’t do. Where most riders flexed their ankles to pump the bike through rollers or on jumps, Paul learned to use his upper body. Because he couldn’t feel his feet, he’d look down at his pedals to make sure he was still on them. And he couldn’t ride anything with much elevation gain, so he mostly stuck to flat trails. Then, in December 2017, Scott sent him an e-mountain bike. When he first saw the e-spark, it actually made him angry. What was this, some kind of adaptive bike? He had competed in Rampage. He didn’t need a bike with a motor.
Then he rode it up the small climb to his house – and realised this bike was going to change things.
His first opportunity, Paul headed straight to the world-famous Flume Trail. He climbed the steep fire road, then flowed along the scraggy singletrack cut into the granite mountainside. He marvelled at the views of the deep blue lake to his left, and at the miracle of the technology underneath him. Climbing was still work, and Paul was no faster than the average amateur rider. But he felt like he had his life back.
Suddenly, so many trails were a possibility. He could ride with his friends, and not worry about making them wait. Paul had already been doing small jumps and wheelies, but on the e-bike, he did his first nose bonk – springing off a small wooden ramp, landing on his front wheel, and riding it out for a second – after his crash. He celebrated by taking Nichole out to a fancy dinner that night. “I literally didn’t sleep for two nights after that,” he laughs.
He started riding more often with his buddies who were airline pilots. It was fun, more his speed. And even when Paul did ride with Cam and their pro friends, the dynamic was less serious, more about just getting into nature. Off the bike, Cam saw other changes in his friend, too: a new openness, a sense of contentment. Paul seemed like a happier person.
Something else happened as Paul approached the two-year mark. He had been thinking that he still had one piece of unfinished business from his Rampage days to attend to. For months, he prepared for it in secret. First, he practised standing by a wall without his cane. When he could do that without falling or having to grab the wall, he tried taking shaky steps. Finally, when he could walk four or five steps consistently, he felt ready.
In October 2017, almost exactly two years after his injury, Paul Bas stood up from his chair. With the ocean in the background, and the setting sun bathing the skies pink and gold, Paul dropped his cane and took his first unassisted steps in public. He walked to Nichole, got down on one knee, and asked her to marry him.
– – – PAUL HAS BEEN LOOKING FORWARD TO THIS COOL, CLOUDY APRIL MORNING IN 2019.
It’s been a long winter, and this is the first week since January that the trails have been dry enough to ride. As he and his buddies pedal up a wide fire road through towering sequoia stands, the scent of pine needles and spring thaw permeates the air. The motor on Paul’s bike whirs softly.
Paul just got back from where Any One of Us debuted at the SXSW
Film Festival. People in the audience came up to him afterwards and shared their own struggles – with SCI, with depression. The summer will be filled with travel to film festivals.
But for now, he’s just excited to ride. There are still many things Paul may never do again – like wakeboard, which he loved, or snowboard, which he and Nichole used to do together. He still walks with a cane, and his back fatigues after just a few blocks. He still can’t get through an airport without a wheelchair.
But Paul really doesn’t dwell long on what he can’t do. He’s too quick to appreciate what he can do: have a shower on his own, get out of bed at all, drive. Looking back, he can’t believe he used to take all those little things for granted. He tells people now, it almost takes something really bad to happen to you, to make you appreciate what you have.
Sometimes people ask him, If you ever recovered 100 per cent, would you go and compete again, do Rampage?
The answer is a hard no. “Those days are long gone,” says Paul. “I don’t ever care to do a backflip again. I would never put anybody close to me in that situation ever again. I’m just so glad to be able to pedal on the trail with friends.”
The group arrives at the top of a flow trail called the Hoot, that swoops left and right down the mountain like the lazy tail of a lasso. In a past life, Paul would have said the jumps on this trail were too small, not even fun. Today, he can’t wait to drop in.
The dirt is soft and spongy from last night’s rain, and squishy pools lie in wait, threatening to wash out a carelessly weighted front tyre. As Paul starts down the descent, he takes it easy. His buddies pull away, leaving him and his friend Matt behind. But Paul doesn’t push to catch up.
Instead, he plays. The rider who once flew off cliffs and rooftops enjoys flicking his bike over four-foot tabletops and popping wheelies over puddles. He stops to eye up a little hip jump, then goes back up the trail to hit it. Matt crouches to take a video, and Paul throws a quick, cheeky whip for the camera. It’s nothing like what he used to do. It’s something he was never supposed to do again. As he coasts off, he bounces on the pedals, as if his body cannot contain this joy.