A few months earlier, I’d been out mountain biking with a friend on our first ride together and she asked about me not wearing knee or elbow pads. It’s something I’d talked about with friends in the past, coming to the conclusion that after 20 odd years of riding a mountain bike (on pretty gnarly terrain at times) with no major accidents or injuries I just felt that wearing extra protection was a bit overkill for me.
It pains me to admit it, but there was also an element of smugness in my response each time – I’d obviously decided that I was pretty good as a mountain biker to be able to fly down the trails at speed and never come a cropper.
Oh how the mighty fall.
On the way home from a couple of weeks in the Scottish Highlands, we stopped at Glentress (Peebles) which is one of my favourite trail centres. I was originally planning a relaxing afternoon writing and drinking tea in the cafe as I was just getting over a chest virus. However, when I arrived there the weather was perfect and the lure of an gentle ride on a section of one of the best swoopy, bermy blue routes was too much to turn down.
I cycled the ‘Blue Velvet’ and ‘Berm Baby Berm’ (oh yes, does what it says on the can) sections and had such a grin on my face that after waving my husband off to burn some energy on the harder stuff, I went back to repeat them before heading back to the cafe. Everything flowed and left me with such a great feeling that all too soon the last section of trail was finished and I was rolling back down the final fire road a few minutes from the cafe, anticipating my tea and cake.
Then disaster struck…
Something jarred me and caused me to pull on my front brake…hard. The bike came to a sudden stop and before I realised what was happening, I was tipped towards the front. My face and shoulder hit the gravel first with my hands still on the handlebars. Thankfully, I had the presence of mind to roll once I was on the deck and came to sitting wondering what on earth had just happened. I remember realising that blood was streaming down my face, not wanting to move from sitting and wondering what on earth I was going to do. From choice, I often spend time on my own in the outdoors but as I sat there I cursed the fact that I was sorting this out on my own.
To cut a very long story short, I was lucky enough to have some lovely people stop to help. They kept me calm (even when I panicked inside because I couldn’t picture where I’d been riding and had to double check that I was at Glentress), passed me antiseptic wipes, went for a first aider back at the centre, made sure my husband knew what had happened and stayed until the ambulance crew scraped me off the trail and delivered me to Borders General A&E.
A fabulous team of Doctors and Nurses in A&E sorted me out – from washing out the gravel and dust in my many grazes, to speaking with plastic surgeons at another hospital before taking the time to slowly and carefully stitch my face back together in the hope of minimising future scars (thanks Dr Sally).
Discharged with 8 stitches around my eye (courtesy of my glasses) and another 4 above my lip (courtesy of a gravel track), a chipped tooth, numb front teeth and facial bruising/swelling which seemed to shock everybody who saw me or the pictures, the road to recovery began. In the interests of saving trauma to anybody squeamish (there were lots of friends who begged me not to show them), I decided not to put any injury pictures in this post.
However, for anybody wanting to see them, this link will take you to my Flickr page of injury photographs!
For everybody else, here’s a silly picture of my husband drinking wine on a midgey evening in the Lake District…
Whilst I was incredibly tired and uncomfortable that first week, everything seemed to heal quickly – I’m sure in part due to the recommended regular applications of witch hazel. A week later when my stitches came out, there was only slight bruising left along with my numb teeth.
At this point, I still had no desire whatsoever to get back onto my bike, which was a worrying state of affairs as mountain biking plays a big part in my life. However, I spoke with friends who had been in mountain bike accidents and they told me that time was the key – my body and mind would tell me when to get back on my bike and pushing too early could be counter productive.
I expected recovery to continue at a fast rate but 10 days after the accident I started to experience dizziness. When that worsened into constant dizziness and nausea even when sitting or lying down, I went back to my GP practice. They sent me to A&E that afternoon for a CT scan, which thankfully showed that I a) had a brain and b) everything was ok with it. The diagnosis was therefore temporary vertigo post head bump and I was prescribed medication for the nausea and exercises to help the condition – and anybody who has ever had to do exercises for vertigo will know how awful they are in the initial stages!
It’s only now, just over 3 weeks since the accident, that I’m starting to seriously think about getting back on my bike. One thing I do know is that it’s not going to happen unless I give myself more safety protection.
Having landed on my face, I am now extremely conscious that a regular biking helmet offers absolutely no protection to your face. My helmet did it’s job and took an impact around my forehead area, so if I’d not been wearing it I would have definitely received more injuries. However, I now see pictures of people mountain biking and immediately think about how unprotected they are. I can still ‘feel’ the impact of my face hitting the hard gravel track and despite mountain biking safely for years, I plan to check out a helmet with removable chin guard – if that’s what I need to get back on my bike, then that’s what I’ll look at buying.
Same with knee pads. Having received deep grazes on both knees, I want to have knee pads before I get back on my bike. Strangely, I received no injuries to my elbows and as a result I’m not hankering after buying elbow pads before I go mountain biking again. That said, I suspect my days of cycling in short sleeved tops are numbered.
It’s ironic that my accident happened on the least technical part of the ride. In some respects, that makes it worse. If it was gnarly technical riding which caused the accident, I could just walk around those parts of a ride in the future. However, a gravel track is something which I’d ride with the kids in our family and it’s difficult to know what I could do to avoid a similar accident in the future. Aside from never using the front brake, my only other option is to wind my brake levers so that the front brake has lots of give before it bites.
Finally, I understand all those people I’ve spoken to over the years about why they wear knee and elbow pads. Most of them told me stories about how they bought them after a bad accident. Yep, I get that now – when mountain biking is important to us, we do whatever we need to do after an accident in order to get back into the hills/mountains on our bikes.
On a final note, I would like to extend my thanks to everybody who helped me following the accident. So many people told me their names and I’m sorry that everything was such a blur that I’ve not remembered most of them.
From the people who stopped to help me, to our brilliant NHS – the ambulance crew who picked me up off the trail, Borders General A&E who patched me up, my own GP practice who swiftly dealt with the dizziness concerns and more recently to the team at Barnsley A&E who ensured that there was nothing sinister going on re concussion by sending me for an expensive CT scan.
The care I have received and the speed of response has been fantastic and whilst I know that we pay for the NHS in other ways, I’ve not had to pay for any of the care received directly from my own pocket. That’s something pretty incredibly and I have the utmost respect and thanks to all the professionals who have given their care to me.