RIB-TICKLER


I am a Fabergé egg, cradled gingerly between the crisp white linen gloves of an auction-house porter. As he trips on a protruding ridge of carpet, the assembled audience gasps. The extravagantly-decorated artefact bobbles upwards, out of his grip for a moment. But like a pro-cricketer, rugby union player or basketball star, the porter regains his composure and secures the egg, juggling the prize back into his grasp, before it lands on the floor. An audible sigh of relief emanates from the crowd.

 

At least that’s how I feel, as fragile as one of the rare, jewelled, ornamental eggs created in the nineteenth century for Tsar Alexander III. There are at least eight reasons for this whimsical state of mind. They are itemised in the letter sent from St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington’s major trauma unit to my GP. This missive refers to the CT scan taken of me at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital which showed, “eight right-sided rib fractures and a small volume of surgical emphysema”.



Eight broken ribs sounds hard-core (if not downright greedy) and it is almost as dramatic as the collision which led to me being laid up in St Mary’s for a week in the trauma unit.





I left work after midnight, so taking my favoured path through Hyde Park was not an option. Unlike Richmond Park, they lock all the gates at about twelve each night. I had at least three different routes home to choose from. I could turn left at the end of Kensington High Street and go down past Earls Court Underground station onto the Kings Road and then through Putney. Or, at the end of High St Ken, I could keep straight on through Olympia to Hammersmith, round the three-lane Broadway and over the currently car-free Hammersmith Bridge. My third option was a version of the last route, avoiding the Hammersmith gyratory with a detour to the left, across the Talgarth Road and past Baron’s Court station before coming to the bridge.


The last choice was slightly longer than the more direct approach through Hammersmith. It had the advantage of being on much quieter and safer roads. Oh the irony.

 

When I turned left onto Edith Road, I was alone save for a cyclist just ahead of me. He was on a vibrantly-coloured Lime-e, green, hire bike. He was meandering up the deserted street. So I thought I would easily pass him before the lights at the junction up ahead, of Gliddon and Talgarth Roads.


The offending e-bike still at the scene

 

I moved into the centre of the lane and started speeding past him. Just as I drew level with the electric bike rider, he turned right directly into my path. I remember noticing that I didn’t see his face at all. He made the manoeuvre without looking round and checking over his shoulder. In time-honoured fashion what happened next seemed to unfold in agonising slow motion.

 

First the collision. Our bikes made violent contact and I was thrown free of the saddle, cleats ripped out of the pedals. I sailed through the air for what seemed like an age. It was certainly long enough for me to see the metal bollard before my chest crashed onto it and I hit the pavement.


What a load of bollards


I remember capsizing my canoe on the River Tweed in the Scottish Borders in the month of November. We were extremely keen white water canoeists when I was a teenager back in the nineteen-seventies and eighties. The freezing water knocked the wind right out of me and I felt a rising surge of panic when I realised as I flailed about in the fast-moving current, that I couldn’t breathe. This sensation was a fraction of the discomfort I felt after hitting the steel pillar with such force.

 

I lay on the pavement, propped up on one elbow, struggling to manage even the shallowest of breaths. In the dim street lights, I stood out in my Proviz 360 jacket which uses millions of tiny glass beads in its fabric, to reflect light. In my prone state, gills flaring weakly, I glittered like one of the landed fish or “live rockets” in the Robinson Jeffers poem, “Purse Seine”.  All this time commuting and stressing about cars, buses and lorries, I never thought I’d come to grief at the hands of a fellow cyclist.

 

My chest was in a vice. Breathing was next to impossible and what wheezes I could muster were too shallow for comfort. Part of me thought I was truly going to expire there on the street at ten minutes to one on a cold November night.

 

The other rider sounded shocked but physically appeared unhurt. He was quick to apologise. He hadn’t seen me, he should have checked, he was only turning to ride up on the empty footpath. It became clear that even if I’d had time to yell at the back of his head  before we’d hit each other, he wouldn’t have heard me. Exhibit one lay brazenly on the ground next to our bikes and one of my lights. He’d been wearing a chunky set of headphones whilst pedalling.

 

I could not talk. I managed this in a low barely-audible voice, “I need an ambulance… please get an ambulance”.

 

At this point the kindness of strangers kicked in. Never say London is a cold-hearted unfriendly place. A woman came up the street (named ‘Ifor’ – at least that’s how it sounded). She lived nearby and knelt behind me supporting my back. She helped the other rider – still sounding as though he was in considerable shock himself – deal with the ambulance service on his mobile phone. Another woman, named Nicola, happened along. She crouched down and asked me pertinent questions about pain and symptoms and my breathing, in a low, soothing voice. We asked her if she was a doctor or a nurse as she seemed to know precisely what she was talking about. She said she was neither.

 

Finally a police van pulled up followed some minutes later by an ambulance. I heard the cyclist with whom I’d come into jarring contact tell the police the collision had been entirely his fault. It turned out he was a documentary maker. Maybe his next piece can be about road safety. Before I could properly thank the two good Samaritans or talk to the bike rider, I was taken inside the ambulance and the door was shut to keep out the cold. By this time I was shivering uncontrollably.

 

The police had been quite relaxed about my bike, “Will we just chain it up here?” they’d said, indicating the road-side bike rails. I’d been dubious about how secure the bicycle would have been lying there for God knows how many days, tethered by a single HipLok. The local resident, Ifor, had offered to take the bike into her building’s grounds where it would be more theft-proof. She was on the point of giving me her contact number when the paramedics had insisted on getting me inside the back of their vehicle. That’s the last I ever saw of the three of them.

 

It’s galling to say that I’d made no attempt to simply brush it all off and jump back on my bike. It turns out that would have been impossible anyway as I was to find out when I did retrieve my single speed. The handlebars were wrenched out of alignment and the front wheel was locked solid against the forks.

 

For my lack of gung-ho spirit I must apologise to a long list of cycling legends who have truly earned the hard-man epithet through their exploits.

 

There’s Fiorenzo Magni who didn’t let a small spill stop his participation in the 1956 Giro d’Italia, a race he won three times. Magni, who spent much of his career pedalling in the shadows of Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali, suffered a broken collarbone half way through the Giro. Undaunted, he soldiered on and can be seen in one of cycling’s most famous vintage images, biting down on an inner tube attached to his bars as he grinds the pedals and fights off the pain. He went on to break his arm but still managed to finish the race, securing second place overall, into the bargain. That’s a hard man.

 

I bow in deference to Johnny Hoogerland of the Netherelands. He was involved in a crash caused by a badly-driven press car in the 2011 Tour de France. Hoogerland’s hip resembled an inexpertly-butchered side of beef it was so badly lacerated by the barbed wire fence the collision had thrown him into. Of course, he shrugged off this setback by changing his shorts and cycling on to the end of the stage.

 

And let’s not forget Lawson Craddock of the EF Education First pro-cycling team. In the 2017 Tour Craddock sustained a broken shoulder blade on Stage One, some three weeks before the end of the race. He quickly earned his hard-as-nails reputation by vowing to continue. For each stage he completed, despite his injury, he pledged to donate $100 to help repair the flood-damaged velodrome back in Houston where his career had started. It’s possibly no surprise that his race number was 13. Craddock made it to the Champs Elysee in last place, that year’s Lanterne Rouge. Inspired by his fund-raising initiative, others had started donating to the velodrome pot and it stood at just under $200,000 as Craddock and the rest of the pros entered Paris on the last day of the Tour.

 

No such heroics for me. My next stop was Chelsea and Westminster Hospital A&E where I underwent an x-ray and a CT scan in fairly short order. We were able to unpeel my various layers of winter cycling kit without the medics having to produce scissors and start snipping.

 

Jackie was now with me. I’d managed to speak to her first by phone from the ambulance before handing the mobile over to the paramedic. The police had wanted to ring her but I didn’t want Jackie hearing a strange voice telling her I’d been in an accident.

 

We weren’t prepared for what came next. I was being transferred to the major trauma unit at St Mary’s hospital in Paddington. “You have a broken bone in there,” was how Harold, the quietly-spoken A&E nurse explained it to us. It turns out I had five broken ribs, three of which were fractured in two separate places.

 

I spent a week in hospital taking oral morphine four times a day. When I was sent home to recuperate for up to five weeks, I was given two bottles of the a-grade pain killer to take with me. I understand why these need to have safety caps on them. But it’s not easy to press the top of the bottle down hard before unscrewing when you are contending with eight rib fractures. This would have become my own personal Catch 22. I need the morphine to dull the pain but it’s too painful to open the morphine bottle. I am eternally grateful to Jackie for taking time off work to nurse me through the first couple of weeks. She was on bottle-top duty.

 

 Fabergé eggs may look fragile but on reflection I think the delicate condition of my battered ribcage more resembled that of a real egg - shell, albumen and all. This egg is not being lovingly transported over a smooth floor in the practised hands of a gallery porter. Rather, it has been plonked carelessly inside the bottle cage of a bike which is being ridden hell-for-leather across the jarring, unforgiving cobbles between Paris and Roubaix. Ouch!

 

Finally back in the saddle

 

 

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