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Charlie Cunningham’s Road to Recovery

You Can Help a MTB Pioneer Recover by Donating to Charlie Cunningham’s Medical Fund

TPC Note: We were fortunate to catch up with Charlie and Jacquie at their home in California during the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame Grand Opening in the summer of 2015. They were very kind, and generous with their time. Anyone in the cycling industry can look at a Cunningham bicycle and see Charlie’s genius, but when we left his house after a long day of filming we weren’t buzzing about his bikes, instead we couldn’t stop talking about the type of person Charlie is. He is a humble, gentle human who let his passion guide his career, not the other way around. This is cycling’s moment to give back to a man who contributed so much to our sport.

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Words by Molly Hurford, Bicycling.com / Photos by The Pro’s Closet

Cycling owes plenty to its pioneers, from the creator of the pennyfarthing to the engineers who started working with carbon fiber. But mountain biking owes perhaps its greatest debt of gratitude to a man named Charlie Cunningham, and right now, he could use some support from the cycling community to which he’s given so much.

A master frame builder, Cunningham was the first to begin welding aluminum mountain bikes. His contributions to the sport, including co-founding WTB, made him one of the first inductees into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame in 1988. By then, he’d been building custom frames for over a decade, and he’s continued to do so in Marin County, California—at least, he did up until two months ago.

A mountain biking accident in August left Cunningham physically crawling out of the woods for two miles with a major head injury, broken ribs, a broken clavicle, and shattered pelvis. He was only in the hospital for a few days before heading home to custom-build a cane for himself, but six weeks after the accident, his head injury manifested as a subdural hematoma. Today, he’s in the hospital recovering—but his prognosis is questionable.

His wife, single-speed-loving mountain bike devotee Jacquie Phelan, talked with us about Cunningham, how their love of biking changed both of their lives, and what they’re facing now. Read the interview, and if you’re as touched as we were, consider donating to the GoFundMe site raising money to help with Cunningham’s hospital expenses, rehabilitation, and retrofitting of his home to make it wheelchair-accessible. The cycling community has always taken great pride in taking care of our own, and Cunningham is certainly deserving of a helping hand.

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How did you and Charlie meet?
Jacquie Phelan: I was looking for the right mate and Marin County had a few fast guys, but Charlie was the one who respected women, who didn’t feel threatened when I was as strong as he was. He’s been my mate since 1980 when we first met. We compliment each other perfectly. He is a hermit, and I’m outgoing.

What happened to him in August?
I got a call on August 3 when I was in a Japanese language course that Charlie was in the ICU. Something happened and he came to in a pile next to his most recent, beautiful bike. He dragged himself to a parking area about two miles above where we live, despite five broken ribs, a broken clavicle, a broken pelvic bone, and a near-fatal head injury. His Specialized helmet saved his life. He was only in the hospital for three days, and came home and started walking on crutches, then with a cane, and made it to total independence. He was fine. That led me to think I could go to the Singlespeed World Championships in Japan, which is why I had been taking Japanese lessons at the Middlebury Language Institute.

Why was Singlespeed Worlds important for you?
Singlespeed is like mountain biking was when Charlie and I first met. It was just a small, collegial affinity group, not a platform for selling SUVs like it is now. Since our beloved pastime has been framed as an extreme sport now, the eco-minded of us run in the other direction into singlespeed, where there aren’t really prizes or categories, there are usually costumes, and I thought 35 years after being in the mix with the mountain bikers, I had found my tribe again. There’s so much circulating now about how extreme and dangerous mountain biking is, and that’s the image that companies want to give off, but it can also be so fun and safe. There are a thousand women’s clubs now that have members out enjoying mountain biking—they just aren’t in the news!

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So what happened after you left for Japan?
Charlie was getting better. It had been six weeks since the accident, he was fine, and I took off for Japan. And his condition worsened the minute I took off. He took a taxi to the emergency room. To his own detriment, he turned down requests that he have a CAT scan—seven hours worth of requests—that would have revealed the damage that had happened in his cranium, the subdural hematoma. He has such a high tolerance for pain that until he was nearly dead, he held them off. I’ll never forgive myself for having left because I would have overridden that and just said ‘Please take a picture of his head.’ At least, I guess. We can’t know. People keep reminding me not to go there, not to think about what might have happened. I’ve been teaching mountain biking for a million years and I always tell people not to look where they don’t want to go, and that’s something I’m having a whole lot of trouble doing right now.

How is his recovery going now?
I’m just not sure that the old Charlie will ever come back. He’s so horribly brain damaged. There aren’t any doctors willing to say what will happen. But he’s not a vegetable. He can’t eat or swallow, he can’t stand, and he has a hard time vocalizing, but he’s conscious. I just go to the hospital every day for several hours and hold his hand and try to understand what he’s saying and watch as they try to get him to learn how to swallow. It feels like he’s in a dream state. If he knew that people were working around the clock trying to keep him alive, he’d be embarrassed. He’s very modest and humble. I’m just doing my best to take care of him and hope that he has a quality life.

What would he want people to know?
He’s always seen the bicycle as an extension of the human body and a vehicle for transforming the human spirit. He has a deep spiritual side. I lack that, but I’m getting schooled in it right now. He truly believes that you’re not doing any harm when you’re on the bike, you’re only improving the world. It’s about human locomotion and personal transformation. Not just transportation.

Donate: Charlie Cunningham’s Medical Fund

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See photos of Charlie’s former personal rider, the 1986 Cunningham Indian: http://bit.ly/cunningham-indian

 

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