weeks later the headaches returned, just after
Phelan had flown to Japan for the Single Speed
World Championships. “I told myself, ‘I’ll get
over this,’ but it was excruciating, so I finally
took a taxi to the ER.” Hours later he was near
death and underwent emergency surgery for
a subdural hematoma (bleeding in the brain).
Phelan immediately flew home and spent the
next two months visiting him at the hospital
during a slow recovery that will never fully end.
Challenges remain each day. “I can’t remember what I did five minutes ago,” he says, with a
smile that shows he has come to terms with his
impaired short-term memory. His head injury
also affected his directional sense (he gets lost
easily), his vision (he’s 90 percent blind and has
tunnel vision) and visual processing (he can’t
read anymore). Yet it’s his diminished balance
and coordination, which prevent him from
safely riding a bike, that bother him the most.
“Mountain biking through nature was the way
I relaxed and expressed my appreciation for the
earth,” he says.
Remarkably, he’s attempted solo rides alongside Phelan, but after two spills he’s turned to
riding a borrowed road tandem or donated
mountain-bike tandem with his wife or a friend
at the front. He also does two-and-a-half-hour
hikes each morning on one of two memorized
routes, devours books-on-tape and is driven by
Phelan to appointments to try to improve his
eyesight and visual processing — sessions paid
for through a GoFundMe account.
“The amount of help I’ve received is mind-blowing,” he says. More than $140,000 from
2, 100 people has poured in, mostly from strangers who heard or read about his circumstances.
For Phelan, getting breaks from her near-con-stant attention to Cunningham has come in
the form of donations of time from many in the
tight-knit mountain biking community. People
stop by to make a home repair, perform bodywork, cook a dinner, or as fellow mountain-bike
pioneer Joe Breeze has done, join Cunningham
for a tandem ride.
“The first bike I show off when I give tours
at the Marin Bicycling Museum is the 1979
aluminum mountain bike — the first one ever
— that Charlie made,” Breeze says. “More than a
dozen features on that bike were ahead of their
time, which shows what a visionary he was. And
he’s still got it. He’s still a strong cyclist on tandem rides and more conversant than ever. He’s
always out to improve on his abilities and that
has never changed. He’s come a long way.” m