Do you ride your bike in a group? Group riding - two by two, sitting shoulder to shoulder with the person next to you and with your front wheel only a few inches from the back wheel of the bike in front is a skill that takes practice, confidence and a serious amount of trust in the abilities of the other riders around you.
It’s a skill that’s worth learning though because when done correctly it can be great. Everyone can share the workload by taking turns at the front, and it’s nice to have company for those longer rides. The first time I joined a tri-club and rode my bike in a group was terrifying! But after a bit of practice in a local park with the beginner group and under the guidance of some excellent coaches my confidence grew and I took my new found skills to the road. I started going on longer rides with the group, taking on more challenging roads and loving every minute.
Until it all came (quite literally) crashing down...
It started out like any other training ride, I turned up to meet the gang at 6:30 am on a warm and sunny Saturday morning in March 2017. One of those beautiful late Australian summer, lightweight short sleeve days. I was on my new TT- bike - having taken it for a few laps around the park this was to be its maiden voyage down Beach Road, a right of passage for any Melbourne cyclist.
As we took off I remember noticing that the group was much larger than usual but that was fine I suppose, we were all doing various distances and would split up eventually. It was five weeks from my first 70.3 race and that day I was planning a 110km ride, followed by a short run along the beach.
We took off at a fairly easy pace, and soon we were building speed and cruising along nicely on a flat stretch of road at around 28-30km/hr. No wind, not too hot, chatting easily to my friend next to me and taking in the beautiful views along the beach as the sun was coming up over the bay... and then BANG! The group stopped abruptly and suddenly I was flying, somersaulting over the handlebars until my face hit the ground with a sickening crunch. In those split seconds before hitting the road all I could think was ‘it’s finally happening, I’m having my first crash in a group’. I rolled a few times before coming to a stop face down, almost in a plank position, resting on my elbows.
Someone got down beside me and asked if I was OK, and if I was able to get up. Was I OK? I did a quick mental body scan - head, collarbone, ribs, hips, legs, all good. I spat out some blood. Teeth? All there. Great, I thought, yes I can get up. I slowly got to my feet and made my way to a wall near the side of the road. More blood spitting, where was it coming from? The longer I sat there, the more aware I became that all was not well. I felt a sharp pain in my wrist that I hadn’t noticed initially and realized it might be broken. No big deal, I thought, it’s been broken before. Then I started to realize I couldn’t close my mouth. OK...maybe I’ve dislocated my jaw, I thought. My husband arrived quite quickly, closely followed by an ambulance, both having been summoned by one of the group (another benefit to riding in a group, plenty of people to look after you in a crisis). Soon I was on my way to the hospital, full of fentanyl and in great spirits. In my drug-induced haze, I planned out my next stages of training. This will knock me back a week or two if my wrist is broken, I thought, but I can still fit in a long ride and run with three weeks to go and stay on track for the race. Or so I thought...
Two days later I was prepped and ready for surgery to fix a titanium plate and screws into my broken face, with my wrist nicely wrapped in a plaster cast. Four fractures in the jaw, three in the wrist and a nasty little cut on my chin to be stitched up. And no, I would absolutely not be racing in five weeks time, or any time in the foreseeable future.
I was wheeled into theatre (the OR) by Lovely Nurse Katherine and a few hours later I awoke in the recovery room with the surgeon standing over me. “It went well” he said, before quickly disappearing and leaving me to resume consciousness so that I could fully appreciate the horror of my situation.
My face was on fire, and the pain was excruciating. I had descended into Dante’s seventh circle of Hell.
“How bad is it?” Theatre Nurse asks. I can’t speak. “Show me on your fingers.” My fingers? I silently screamed. Are you serious? I only have ten! This was some next level, other-worldly, unimaginable agony! I felt like Humpty Dumpty after he fell off the wall. Naturally, I started to panic and tried to touch my face to check that my jaw was actually still attached because it felt like my face had been torn apart.
“She’s getting distressed, more morphine please”, said Theatre Nurse as she pulled my hand away.
Lovely Nurse Katherine finally re-appeared after about twenty-five years (or it might have been five minutes, who knows). Then the morphine started to kick in and by the time I’m rolled back onto the ward to be greeted by family and friends, all is well in the world. This is not so bad after all! I can handle this, I thought. That euphoria lasted approximately 30 minutes. It was promptly shattered by the arrival of a doctor carrying a little bag of elastic bands. What fresh hell is this? I wondered. He then politely informed me that I’d had four screws drilled into my mouth and that he would now proceed to stretch tiny little elastic bands around those screws to hold my mouth closed tightly for the next six weeks, during which time I would consume a purely liquid diet. Through a straw.
1. I didn’t know those screws were in my mouth until that point and 2. I was looking forward to a burger and chips for dinner, so as you can imagine, this news was not well received.
Not well received at all.
So I did not make it easy for him. After finally managing to get one set of bands in place with a pair of forceps and a lot of effort (it was a bit like trying to force-feed a baby if I’m honest) he said, “You won’t like this but you need DOUBLE elastics”.
“No chance,” I said.
“But it needs to be tight.” He patiently explained.
“Don’t care, not happening.” Said the thirty-year-old baby.
And so we compromised by agreeing to try again later. When it came to ‘later’ I refused to open my mouth. One set of elastics it is then.
Later that evening I saw my reflection in the mirror for the first time. The bottom half of my face was swollen to about twice it’s usual size, and I looked like I’d gone ten rounds in a boxing ring. If you’ve ever had the viral infection mumps as a child, you’ll know what I mean. A few days later I was discharged and so four long days after setting out on my Saturday morning bike ride, I was finally returning home. So began the long road to recovery.
I am not a patient person and so I completely underestimated how long it would take.
A week after the accident I went out for a walk and managed 500m before I felt dizzy and had to sit down. It was infuriating. How could I go from being fit enough to ride 100kms a week ago to not even managing to walk to the end of the road? The accident itself, combined with the trauma of surgery and general anaesthetic had taken a massive toll. I had also lost significant weight in a very short space of time (Hot tip: want to drop 5 kilos? Have someone screw your mouth shut for a few weeks, that’ll do it).
I was in a very dark place. There were lots of tears and feeling sorry for myself in those early days. But I slowly came to accept what had happened and realized how lucky I actually was, and how much worse things could have been. It took me a while to accept that it would take time to heal and that I would not be able to train or race for a while.
I rested as much as possible in the first few weeks, then boredom quickly set in. I started walking, very slowly at first and only short distances. When my husband went back to work, I walked by myself. Then with friends, whoever was available to walk the patient. I gradually increased every day until I was able to walk around 10km. I felt so much better, every day was a new achievement.
When I felt some fitness returning I started to run. With the plaster cast on my wrist, it was a bit uncomfortable. But I got used to it, although it attracted a few odd looks sometimes from other runners.
Six weeks after surgery the screws came out of my mouth and the plaster cast came off. I was free! Learning to open my mouth again was a challenge but I could finally stop drinking my meals and that was cause for celebration. When I had mastered running again I switched attention back to the bike. This was a much harder comeback, given that my last ride caused this whole mess but I finally worked up the nerve to get back on the horse. Only riding indoors at first, on the wind trainer.
When I had built up the confidence to ride outdoors I practiced in the park, short flat laps with no traffic getting in the way. I rode with my husband at first, and then with only two or three other people and it was a long time before I had the confidence to go back into the group. Even now it still makes me a little uneasy and I am quite selective about who I ride with and how big the group gets. If it’s too big I would rather hang off the back by myself, much preferring to stick to smaller groups of people where we each know our riding abilities and feel safe in each other’s company.
Eleven months after the crash I finally completed a half Ironman triathlon. It might have taken nearly a year longer than originally planned but I got there in the end and it was worth the wait.
I’ve learned that in this game we chose to play, unfortunately accidents happen every day and sometimes we are unlucky enough to get caught up in them. If you’re determined to get back to full strength then the mind is a powerful thing and can get you through some very dark moments.
Many people told me to give up cycling, it’s too dangerous. Well-meaning people who I know had my best interests at heart but it’s not the right thing to say to someone who’s had to give up doing what they enjoy through no fault of their own. It’s not just cycling you would be giving up, it’s the friends you train with, the lifestyle you lead, the freedom and the buzz you experience, new kit days, post-ride coffee dates, the adrenaline of competing and of course those hard-earned Finish Line Feels! Accidents happen every day, in all walks of life. Recovery is the final step in overcoming something terrible and should not be rushed. Look for the bright side in everything and surround yourself with good, positive people who make the journey a little less painful, I assure you it is worth it in the end.
“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling but in rising every time we fall.” Nelson Mandela
Written by Roisin Friel, Siren Luminary
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If you like this post, check out Roisin's other blog: Here Comes the Sun