Cycling isn’t dangerous. I’m repeating that to myself while I’m sitting in the waiting room in A&E trying to make sense of what just happened. And what, thankfully, did not happen. Cycling isn’t dangerous. In 3 years and 20,000km the only injury I’ve ever had was a cut knee from tipping over on my own driveway when I forgot to unclip. Until today.
My husband often waves me off on my rides with a fatherly “Be careful!” which irritates the hell out of me. Like at my age I’m going to be reckless! Driving for 30 years has given me excellent road sense. I know where I’m going, where the gravelly bits, potholes and narrow bits are. My bike is well maintained and the wheels are unlikely to fall off halfway down a fast descent. But the unfortunate truth is that no matter how careful you are, sometimes the planets just misalign; a leaf falls off a tree a hundred miles away and causes a ripple that leads to me coming face-to-face with a white van on a blind corner at the bottom of a narrow, wet, gravelly hill. And soberingly, the gap between carrying on your day as planned, and a life-changing incident, can be millimetres; seconds; a blink.
There is a split second when you realise it’s irrecoverable, that you’re going down. There’s no clichéd ‘life flashing before your eyes’ moment – there’s no time. You’re already off balance, and tarmac is hard. Any screaming pain anywhere? No. Good. Get up off the road quickly. Don’t cry. Just hold it together to talk to the driver who’s as white as his van because he’s realised he could have killed you today. Ask if he’s OK. My bike! Oh God my bike! Like me it’s scraped and battered, but we slid without hitting anything other than the ground, so there’s nothing that can’t be fixed – shame I can’t say the same about my gilet which is shredded across the shoulder. I reassure my friends I’m alright, overly cheerfully so I don’t cry. I’m going to have a gel, I really want a cup of tea with 2 sugars.
Getting back on the bike is horrible, I’m shaky and starting to hurt, but I need to get to the next town to meet the van and get a lift to the hospital. My hand is going blue and swelling up like a balloon. But I need to keep riding. And it’s strangely comforting to just turn the pedals, stroke after stroke. Can’t help crying, but no-one can see behind my glasses.
That was over a year ago. The fact I can recall it with such accuracy shows what an effect that accident had on me. Over the next couple of days my knee swelled up and the road rash burned, but the scrapes on the bike were sorted out and after talking through it, frame-by-frame, many times with my friends, it all started to fade. I went on to qualify as a British Cycling ride leader and rebuilt my confidence, learning from what happened to judge riding situations carefully to protect those I’m leading as well as myself.
So when our club leader had the confidence in me to ask me to co-lead a 140km ride for the Rapha Women’s 100, I was hugely proud, but also incredibly anxious. The forecast was wet, wet, wet. And as it turned out, on the day, it was even wetter. Facing a 10% descent in the pouring rain, I absolutely bottled it. I was supposed to be ride leader and I couldn’t get myself down a hill that I’d watched my whole group disappear down just moments before. I looked at the bottom, the road curving round to the left – exactly the same conditions that had led to my accident. Was I imagining that my knee started to twinge?
I can’t do it. I’m a failure. I’m not fit to be a ride leader. I hate cycling.
The curious thing about being a ride leader is that so much of the effort that goes into the job is worrying about what might happen. You recce the route, looking for things that might be a hazard to your group. You talk to your riders, find out about their fitness and confidence levels, ability and expectations, so you can adjust the ride to make it a great experience for everyone. You carry at least 3 inner tubes, loads of extra food, space blankets, first aid kit, maps, route guidance, tampons and paracetamol, spare everything, just in case they need help. But leaders are also human, and sometimes it does get a bit hairy for us too. I gave myself a break and pottered down on the verge. The group waiting for me down the road in the rain were smiling and chatting, taking a well-earned few minutes to scoff bananas and flapjacks, my co-leader was brilliantly encouraging, and we made it home just as the sun was coming out. I’ll lead another day, and I’ll make it down that hill in the rain. In the meantime I’ll appreciate that there are leadership qualities in everyone in the group, and sometimes all you need to bounce back is a smile from someone to say it’s ok.
Special thanks to Dorchester A&E, the most marvellous hospital with excellent staff and quick, efficient service. To Solomon at Rapha who did such a great job repairing my gilet. And to Stu for coming back up that hill to get me 😊