A good day out on the bike is a day when the medics don’t end up cutting you free from your jersey. It’s a morbid truth and it's my new-found perspective… When the worst happens, the typical order of events for a broken rider is something like this: the rider hits the ground, they feel the first of the pain, get carted off to ER for x-rays and finish the day either in a cast or headed to theatre for a touch of metal-work. Then, after a strenuous rehab, they inevitably return to life behind bars. It’s an exhausting and ugly cycle, one that we hope not to ride ourselves, at least not for a little while longer when it feels more ‘fair’ that we should again ‘pay our dues’. But in truth, this routine is the one that plays out if we’re lucky… in the ‘good’ cases. In 2016 we seemed to receive an extraordinary amount of bad news from the top, with a scary amount high-profile accidents. We read these painful announcements with a macabre interest… as a deterrent that will never quite be strong enough to keep us away. Unless it’s all gone sour for us before, we seem to harden to the stories.
Feeling a little ashamed that I'd never done so before, this winter I felt compelled to donate to the Road2Recovery charity fund… The horror stories from pro BMX riders Scotty Cranmer and Sam Willoughby and moto-X racer Jessy Nelson left me feeling far too unsettled not to take some kind of action. I can now imagine their situations all too vividly, especially having come to the horrible realisation that a fall to the ground does not mean you have hit the bottom; the worst times are yet to come. The last five months of my career have been some of the toughest in my life and I’ve had to dig deep to find the ‘good’ in a big heap of ‘terrible’.
As soon as I had my accident I was receiving messages from friends and family… ‘Get well soon’. I appreciated the thought obviously, but suddenly it seemed a bizarre thing for somebody to say to me… Get well soon? I was about to have the craziest and vivid of nightmares from the ketamine and hours of waiting and uncertainty before undergoing surgery and the longest recovery of my career. The sh*t hadn’t hit the fan yet! There’s also a mental war that soon begins… the 'it could always have been worse' philosophy helps for a while, but you tend to come back to thinking of all your friends and competitors who went home just fine that day! In my mind were now all the niggling questions and ‘what ifs’. ‘Why did I have to go to that race?’, ‘Would I still have crashed if I did this or that?’ and the more troubling thoughts, ‘will I ever ride again’, ‘will I lose all my sponsors’ and ‘how can I still make a living?’. Questions on questions, with no satisfactory answers. ‘Getting well soon’ comes so much later and it arrives with an even greater fear of it happening all over again.
What kind of imagery do names like Soderstrom, Nicole and Lehikoinen conjure up in your head? As unbelievably talented as these riders are and however many good times they've shared with us on two wheels, after so many terrible accidents and comebacks I struggle not to see x-rays, screws, blood and bandages in my minds eye… Some riders have it worse than others and only the miserable ‘dancing wheel of chance’, can be to blame. Until my injury this summer I always took in the list of injuries from any event as if they were the results alongside them, as many of us do. Often we can simply wait a few weeks or months and then expect to see these riders back in competition, we never think very deeply over what goes on in their lives in-between… we never have to. It’s an ‘icky’ business, other people’s suffering, but remember that we can help each other take the rough with the smooth and get through the dark times away from our bikes if we make a little effort.
For me it has now been five months. I’ve had three surgeries on my arm, consulted seven different surgeons and stayed at a rehab clinic for a month. I travelled regularly 500km away to Munich and cannot count the physiotherapy hours. I’ve learned how lucky those are who fall and are injured, only to find themselves back on the podium some weeks later. I’ve learned how crucial it is to have the right insurance, the best doctors and the top therapists.
| I cannot recommend enough to become a specialist yourself of your own injury; no one else will care as much as you do - Steffi Marth|
Watching the short documentary ‘The Mental Key’ with Redbull athlete Pavel Alekhin, things felt a bit familiar… Following an emergency procedure to repair his femur at a dubious hospital, Pavel almost lost his leg months later when it was discovered the operation had been disastrously inadequate. After my first surgery at a hospital a few miles from the race, I sent a mobile phone pic of my arm X-ray to a doctor I know in Munich. He was dissatisfied and told me to immediately insist the results of the surgery were checked with a CT scan, which the hospital was not happy about because they considered it unnecessary. Days later, after I'd already packed up to leave hospital after all the typical sickness and discomfort, they told me I needed another operation to realign the plate and screws that they now accepted were not correct from the new CT. In my case there would also be further complications; struggling with loss of sensation and muscle wastage in my hand it turned out that my ulnar nerve was badly damaged and doctors had overlooked it having given priority to the bone breaks and I found myself back in hospital one again in November with diminished chances of complete recovery.
Fortunately it seems I've now found the right doctors and a therapy route to get myself back on track, but I can’t stress enough how crucial it is to hunt for the perfect treatment for your own case and to talk to as many people you can who have been injured similarly. I’ve used more copy paper than I ever did at university, just through researching, printing x-rays and forms and writing to insurance companies!
There is light at the end of the tunnel… It turns out I too am one of the ‘lucky ones’. I’ve been training, day to day my arm improves and I plan to be back on my MTB by March. The longing for those beautiful days in the mountains gets even stronger, which is a great motivation and important fuel in the healing machine! I will probably still have to struggle with the consequences of a millisecond error in judgement for much longer, but I’ve been taught so many lessons. Bikes can bite back and although we shouldn’t forget it, the fear of falling can do worse damage… some things can’t be done cautiously. Above all, there is no better feeling than being healthy.
Thanks to all those who have supported me and all the other broken riders in healing. Ride safe, not too safe!
Flashbacks to better times in the mountains with Steffi.
: @natedh9 / @trek