It seemed pretty daft to load the bike into the car, when the start of the Bowland Badass was only a few miles down the road. 10, maybe 15 at a push. Nothing really. Nontheless, into the boot it went. I had a plan. Those 10 or so miles were, I had in mind, going to be way too far to ride in the state I’d be in after the event.
The passenger footwell was filled with sugary snacks, drinks promising rapid rehydration and recovery and some utterly unhealthy but delicious pastry based products too. The drivers seat, cold as I first sat in it, to be my glutinous throne for the epic return journey.
There was no traffic on the way to the start. Early morning summer light heralded empty roads, setting the tone for the rest of the day. Unhindered progress through the centre of town and out into the countryside, even the traffic lights flowed with me, almost cheering me on.
Sign on was quick, effortless, no queuing, no effort, scrawl my name, say hello to the organisers, meet people who until this point had only existed on Strava, line up and…well, go.
Our route into the foothills was marshaled as well as any race I’ve done and as the miles ridden began to creep upwards so did the average pace of the group I found myself in. I saw groups and individuals who’d set of earlier as a blur as we flew across the warm-up, the early miles, the beginning as the sun started it’s ascent above us. Comfortable and cossetted in the middle of the group, I had a chance to look across at the scenery before it became sunshine bleached out. It was to be a hot one. I upped my drinking in reponse. I was ready for it.
A downward glance after about 15 miles brought my saddlebag to my attention. Stuffed to the gills with spare tubes and co2 canisters it’s weight had broken the straps holing it in place and it had started to slip down towards my rear wheel. Fearing a high speed accident if it made it that far down the seatpost I dropped out of the group and slowed to a halt at the side of the road in order to remove it and cram it in already bulging jersey pockets. By the time I’d made room for everything the group was long gone. A through-and-off ball of fast moving efficiency lost to the distance.
It didn’t seem to matter.
Without missing a heartbeat I decided I’d be back up at the front by the first feedstop, 62 miles in, remounted and set about working my way back towards them as if it were a certainty.
I started to flow through the tail of the comet as I rode over the first few serious climbs. Riders shelled off the back, those who’d decided to settle into their own rhythm, those who’d had no choice were greeted and passed over the climb to the Jubilee Tower, through the valleys towards the Trough of Bowland and up it’s winding gradient. Some dived onto my back wheel for a while as I paced myself and fell off as I began to work the hills harder. By the time I crested Seed Hill I was alone again and flying. To get to the top of each incline I needed to merely reach out and grab it. There was no resistance, practically no effort required, deep breaths were easy, every upward glance showed another summit suddenly within reach.
Pic by SportSunday
My pacing worked pretty much perfectly. A day-out-in-the-hills grin plastered across my face, I rolled up to the feedstop to find the leading group had been whittled away to just 3 riders, who were just about to set off as I unclipped a foot and began to top up water bottles. I watched them shrink into the distance again until they seemed far enough ahead to make it interesting, thanked everyone offering me food and sped off after them.
Reaching the back of the group just as we turned off a main road and began another secreted away climb over towards Tosside I had a brief chance to chat as we headed past Gisburn Forest and hit the lower slopes of the grovel up over Bowland Knotts.
Conversations ended as the climb proper started. Saddles were left behind as the road reared up in front of us. I simply looked down, pressed on the pedals and pulled the top towards me. As I crested it, I realised the group weren’t there any more. One guy had ridden up with me, but the other two were further back. I expected them to work their way back up to us on the descent but by the time we’d made the elongated U-turn back from Keasden towards Slaidburn they were nowhere to be seen. Neither was one of my bottles, which had ejected itself into the undergrowth, leaving me with 250ml of drink to get me from mile 80 to mile 102 as the temperature started it’s afternoon long peak somewhere in the high 20s.
The climb over the Cross of Greet doesn’t take much of a toll thanks to a gentle breeze keeping me cool, nor the smaller climbs between it and Newton in Bowland, but as the two of us wind our way up over Waddington Fell, we seemingly climb away from any air movement in to a quiet blast furnace. The tarmac fires heat up just as the sun fires it down. It feels intolerably hot. I watch metronomic drips of sweat work their way down my nose and bounce of the pavement as I pull myself upwards and pour the last of my drink down my neck. From the top to the second feedstation is either downhill or on roads flat enough to create your own breeze. Bullet dodged.
I pour a full bottle of water down my throat as soon as we stop at checkpoint two. I already knew we were using up the 166 mile distance quickly, but when it was announced that were a full hour up on the quickest time to this point from last year the reality of what we were doing hit me. My plan was working. My aims were clear in my head and easy to see on the road in front of me. I wanted to be back at the car in less than 10 hours, though I wouldn’t have told you if you’d asked me, and suddenly it was not just possible, it wasn’t even just probable, it was a conservative estimate. We hung around for a full 15 minutes, I fed myself and watered myself to go right to the finish without stopping again and as we set off up the slope towards Barley I began to think about when I should start to speed up more.
Through Barley and Newchurch-in-Pendle as if they weren’t there, I could see the climb over the Nick of Pendle waiting at the bottom of the ridge we were on, inviting, just waiting for me to hammer up it. Pick up the pace and start pushing myself knowing there were only a few major climbs left after it.
I never got to it.
I saw my front wheel bounce across the road in front of me as the back of my head slammed into the tarmac. Hard. I’d aimed, both wheels locked up, tyres rippling across the road surface, for the only gap I could see between the two opposing cars suddenly filling the road in front of me. A gap between one car and the dry stone wall boundary of the lane. It wasn’t wide enough. I’d pirouetted over the bonnet, tearing my forks apart in the process, allowing the front wheel to come to rest some way further down the slope.
Immediately I leapt up and became aware that my hand was soaked. Glancing down I noticed I suddenly had one white shoe and, to my surprise, one red. Then the floor around me was red and the cause of it seemed to be my index finger. Like a bloodsoaked Midas, everything thing I touch turns red. I do the manly thing and refuse to look at what’s causing it, working on the principle that if everything’s still attached it doesn’t need further investigation. Instead I start picking pieces of my bike up from across the road, begin apologising to the somewhat shocked owners of the car I just flew over and ponder how I’m going to get a spare bike here so I can carry on. I urge the other rider to carry on while I work out what I’m going to do, he does, after some protesting and some discussion I don’t hear with the car owners. As I formulate a plan to get me back home the car owners let me know they’ll stay with me until the ambulance arrives.
This seems totally overkill, given that I’m fine. Bloodied but fine. Bit stiff, but then you would be after backflipping onto a road. Whatever. I won’t be able to get a lift for a while, and if it’s already been called I might as well wait around for it. I’m not sure how easy it is to ‘call off’ an ambulance once it’s on it’s way anyway.
Moments later it arrives, lights blazing, sirens screaming unnecessarily loudly across the fellside. I’d have rather it turned up with less of a fanfare but either way it got here remarkably quickly and the two guys who leap out are full of enthusiasm, so I go along with all the examining they require, still contemplating what time I could finish the ride in.
I make what seems at the time to be a mistake by uttering “oww” as tipping my head backwards causes a flash of pain in my neck. It’s nothing more than the usual post-crash niggles, but it seems to set alarm bells ringing in the two paramedics and it’s suddenly imperative that I go to hospital. In the ambulance. Strapped to a spinal board. With my head taped solidly in place so I can’t move it at all. FFS.
The fact that it involves leaving my bike with two total strangers (who’s car I just smacked!) isn’t a priority, according to the paramedics. I let them off that obvious faux-pas, as they might not have seen just how awesome a bike it is, even with the forks in tatters, and agree to go with them, after getting everyone to agree that it’s all just very precautionary. I’ve got to get back to the car, even if I can’t finish the ride, there’s a whole footwell full of food and drink waiting…
We arrive at the hospital – the wrong hospital as far as I was concerned, as Blackburn may have been closer to where I crashed but Preston would have been much more convenient for me thankyouverymuch – quickly and I feel like Charlie with his golden ticket to the chocolate factory. People seem to point at me, say “neck” and queues simply part for me to flow through. I get x-rayed from tip to toe – two x-rays for my chest when I take a breath in, as it won’t all fit in on one shot (apparently this means I’ve got a big lung capacity, woo!) – and many important looking people appear in the narrow field of view I’ve got thanks to having me head strapped in place while lying flat on my back looking up at the ceiling, introduce themselves and the disappear again, clutching printouts of the x-rays.
After what seems like hours, either then 2nd or 3rd important looking doctor (I’ve lost count a bit by this point and have become distracted by the stains on the ceiling tiles) comes back, announcing that he has both good and bad news.
I forget what the good news was, which is pretty impressive as it must have been been fucking brilliant, given that the bad news was “you’ve broken your neck”.
Apparently it can’t be fixed by me just getting to sit up for a bit and having a cup of tea, and nipping over to Garstang to get the car isn’t a goer either. I’m stuck to this bed (literally) for quite some time.
During the evening as the A&E department somewhere below my feet, as i’m still horizontal on the hospital bed, empties itself of daytime injuries and refills with the stimulant fueled evening crowd, I’m transferred to Preston for the neurosurgeons there to poke and prod at me, but not before the ambulance guys pop in to wish me well, at which point I begrudgingly admit that they were right to make a fuss, and important looking doctor #1 calls in to let me know what had happened in the day’s Tour de France stage. I leave still strapped down to a bed but impressed with just how friendly everyone is.
From there on in everything slows down to a crawl. New ceiling tiles to stare at bolster little in the way of enthusiasm. Evening light becomes night. I become aware of just how dehydrated I am, even with a drip in. A bottle of lemonade on the bedside table to my right, just in view if I crane my eyes in my now immobile head, becomes harder to reach than the top of any hill. Hours of fingertip scrabbling in the quiet moonlight have no effect. It’s a million miles away. It remains tantalisingly out of reach.
The next morning I’m told that I won’t be out on a bike for months. I have the option of surgery which will reduce the healing time and mean I don’t have to walk around with my head in a cage for 8 weeks. It seems as good an offer as I’ll get, so I take it, wondering if this is classed as the silver lining to the ceiling tile cloud I’m stuck under.
I suffer the ignominy of being spoon fed a meal shortly after agreeing to having a bolt screwed into my vertebra and it’s announced that I’ll need a wash. I agree, knowing that the last thing I’d done before having a nice lie down in this bed was ride 115 miles in the blazing sun. I probably whiff a bit. I’m not sure how that’s going to happen though, I’m not allowed to move my head so how I’m going to get to the shower room is a mystery. I decide that they obviously haven’t thought it through. They’ll realise their mistake in a minute. They won’t have thought about the fact that my head’s strapped in place. As I became aware that the curtains around my bed were being quickly drawn across I realised that the nurses had very much taken it into consideration. For the first time since being a baby, I was to have a bed bath.
No ordinary bed bath though, oh no, I’m classed as being “at risk” due to the broken bone hovering near my spinal cord, so my entire spine has to remain still at all times. This is made possible the same way the curtains around me were drawn so quickly.
A sideways glance revealed a row of four nurses uniforms stood to my left, with another to my right and one inches away from my forehead. Further investigation tells me that all of the uniforms are women’s. The owners all seem quite young. Quite cheerful. Quite chatty. In good spirits.
I became aware of a screaming in the distance as my 15 year old self howls in anguish that this is happening to me now and not then, when it would probably have formed the basis of several life long fantasies.
As it is, having four girls grab and pull me towards them in unison while another gently washes me just feels incredibly socially awkward. It’s made worse by the pain it causes in my neck. Not by the pain itself, more the obviousness of the discomfort I’m in. In response, while still clutching me toward them, the nurses tell me how well I’m doing throughout, reassuring me and encouraging me. My 15 year old self is somehow suddenly inches away from my face. Apoplectic. Swearing to god that if I didn’t already have a broken neck he’d break it for hogging all the fun.
Laughing probably isn’t what the nurses were expecting as a response from me…
Once clean, I’m starved for a few hours before surgery. There’s no clock within my eyeline, so I become convinced days have passed. Ceiling tiles have just started looking quite tasty as a few porters whisk the bed I’m in down to theatre. I’m advised not to fight against the feeling of sleepiness as the anaesthetic is plugged into the IV. I’m asleep before I can come up with a witty response.
“I won’t fight it as long as you let me take some home with me…”
“…Oh bugger, they’ve gone” I announce, to a completely different and completely confused nurse in the recovery room several hours later.