To be airlifted from a bicycle crash with a broken back is a terrifying but thankfully rare experience. To have it happen to you twice though – I’m not sure there are the words. This was the second time.
The desire for that evening’s pizza and a cold beer after a hundred miles in 45degree heat the night before the Tour de France came to town, was palpable. These deserted roads and cols of my native pre-Pyrenees had guided my friend Gary and I into villages, through forests and over cols with the typical sight of about one car per hour. This was the last ride ride of a week of rides with friends clocking up the mileage before work resumed as the circus rolled into town and I had an appointment with the Mitchelton Scott team during their rest day on my local routes. Backstage Tour photos were planned for the depart the following day up the road in Carcassonne and then off south to local cycling culture hotspot – Girona, with the Giordana crew for more rides and photographs.
But then one car an hour became one car an hour too many.
I don’t remember much of that day and only up to about an hour before my life changed forever in the pull of a brake lever. But the last memory I have of cycling was the hunter-gatherer in me discovering a rarely found open bar in rural France and a lunch of a white Snickers bar and a can of Orangina for my starved friend, with us still 25km from home.
Like many, bicycles have been a large part of my life. From my friend Jimmy and I reliving the movie BMX Bandits, he on his Mongoose and me on my Diamond Back, to memories of pretending I was Elliot, racing E.T away to safety, riding/ flying a Kuwahara on my way to school. I met my wife to be on bikes in 1994 – my Rockhopper and her – Cannondale M700 got on well from the word go. Through the years bicycles took me everywhere from carving fluid turns through wooded singletrack on my too large but newly index geared mountain bike in 1987, to being encamped with cameras on pro-team buses at grand tours twenty five years later. Bikes have been a central theme in my life for as long as I can remember – for me cycling was life. It was why we moved to France, why a set of our digital kitchen scales were oil marked and why I waxed my legs for fashion. It was my tribe. It ruled my life. And then it changed my life.
That July day’s familiar route was baking in the afternoon sun. The kind of heat that makes good tyres sound tacky as they corner. Not that I cornered fast generally – to be honest, knowing the local tendency for a high speed & low concentration ratio in driving cars on these empty roads. I tended to descend like Miss Daisy.
What happened next is blanked from my mind in that way the brain protects you from traumatic memory. Light scratches to saddle, pedal and bar tape and a short skid mark on the tarmac are the only clues to what happened in avoiding an upcoming vehicle, I still don’t know how I ended up under that vehicle. I’m told that was a 20minute spell before the paramedics then a helicopter crew could move me then spend an hour saving my life before flying me off to a hospital down near the Spanish border.
A couple of months in a coma meant I spent that summer asleep. And then a year of hospital rooms left a bicycle shaped hole in my life for 2018-2019. Living in a hospital for a year was hard but being a foreigner with poor native language skills made it somewhat surreal too. As the coma moved from Glasgow Coma Scale 3 to a short lived vegetative state at 7 weeks and then a minimally conscious one for a month I finally made my exit from it via Post Traumatic Amnesia – a strange otherworldly consciousness in which I both was confused as to who or where I was and had repeated, vivid nightmares of both being run over by a car and oddly another flying a P51 out of Pearl Harbour in WW2 getting shot down and remembering the crash impact. Always the details in both dreams were the same and vivid. The smell of the oil, heat from the car exhaust, wheel, suspension strut and shock absorber by my head lying on the ground. For weeks I remember being asked what year it was and what I did for a living and my answer was always ‘1941’ and ‘a fighter pilot’.
The various teams of professionals that saved my life repeatedly and started to rebuild it with me were so good at their jobs that it’s a strange split emotion for those hospitals between a feeling of isolation through incarceration and one of utter gratitude to be in a society with good and available healthcare. Memories are dark but also fond in a strange Stockholm Syndrome kind of way.
I suppose I always just assumed I’d ride bikes again at some point. Like one tends to when breaking a leg or a rib (or 14 of them!), there’s a recovery period, followed by one of getting back up to speed, before life resumes as was, after a pit stop. But I will never forget the expression on the face of the brain surgeon that saved my life in 7hrs of surgery that first night, when I later on asked how long I’d be tied to a bed with machines bleeping away talking to my heartbeat? On reflection I think it was that moment I realised I had just lost cycling from my life. It had left me for dead on that col.
Ironically though, as much as cycling had dropped me into the jaws of death, it had also saved me. I was super-fit at that stage in my life at 45, riding big miles most days, and the paramedics at the scene made note that my heart was strong enough to keep my brain oxygenated until the helicopter crew took over, despite having crushed lungs and severe internal, head and brain injuries. The strength cycling had given me meant that after three weeks of fighting multiple infections including, bronchitis, meningitis and pneumonia in that coma, my body was able to stabilise itself. While I was in that ICU Sarah was told “Now he’s in that room, he will not die” and on the 21st day when I became stable for the first time was when Sarah felt she could believe it.
Where achieving standing up from being seated for months in a wheelchair then relearning to walk again around a swimming pool desperately clutching a float alongside fellow survivors will be a memory that stays with me forever, the dream of cycling one day flickered like a dim flame in the depths of my soul still back then. Being nicknamed Chris Froome by hospital porters was charming, but the day I could sit on a static bike and just turn the pedals gently was euphoric. The lady in a wheelchair on the set of hand cranks next to me each morning asked me once, “Where are you pedalling?” “The Alps” I replied, which she mirrored with ‘the streets of her native Paris’. That seemed like a long way from home until I discovered I was in a renowned recovery hospital here on the cliffs 1km from Spain that people travelled to from all over France. So here I was writing my signature in the long list of people that shouldn’t have made it, but somehow did.
I remain grounded by the whole experience. When I now see the photographs my wife Sarah took of the ‘Meet Gus’ poster on my hospital room wardrobe for the nurses to ‘know’ their asleep patient a little, or of me in my comatose state, or the ones of my cycling kit laid out, ripped, blood stained, tyre marked and documented for the dossier, I can’t help but feel like the luckiest of people. I can only imagine what a state the paramedics and Gary must’ve had to witness at the scene and that stays with me, and presumably them too.
I suppose cycling feels irrelevant to me now in a way. Bicycles themselves do for the first time in my life anyway. A sad fact illustrated by a room full of now retired titanium. But watching a doctor shake their head as they read your medical records and look up in disbelief at you having walked into their office, will ground one somewhat and put redundant bicycles in the spare room into perspective.
It has been an unwanted journey but perversely one with a somewhat personal growth. Now post hospitalisation, I’ve gathered from doctors that understand the numbers, that 50% of people with the severe brain injuries I sustained, never make it to hospital, and the added combination of spinal, facial and internal injuries I incurred left me with a 4% chance of even a form of recovery. To be thinking, seeing, walking, swimming, driving, or indeed clipping into road pedals on my turbo trainer, is to quote various doctors since, “So miraculous, it’s unheard of.”
When asked the hardest part of this enforced and difficult yet miraculous journey, I always felt the answer was probably the prejudicial, accusatory police interrogation while still hospitalised, that effectively blamed me for my accident by threatening charges of speeding “Like bikes so often do on these roads” – as I was told. When a GPS proved otherwise then I was informed a subsequent threat of a charge for “Not giving way to a vehicle ascending a hill” would be raised if they “Didn’t find anything else”. Having your rights read you by a policeman is instantly identifiable even in a foreign language, but to hear that while in a walking frame a few days out of a wheelchair, crumpled me into a heap of tears.
But actually with reflection over the whole episode, in a way the quiet tears that form when I hear a freewheel roll past is the hardest part of this unwanted journey. Time hasn’t healed that loss of my true love – cycling. The freedom and autonomy you discover when those training wheels are removed early on, stays and grows with you to escape the 9-5 grind or cross continents self supported, alike. To have that freedom stolen from you forever is a hard thing to mourn.
I won’t ride a bicycle again as the risks of a repeated injury and subsequent inability now to recover miraculously twice, are a bridge too far for me personally. I’ve used my nine lives now and this single event has affected every aspect of my life, from permanently seeing double vision and living with a traumatic brain injury, to accepting head pain on another level for the rest of my life as a daily norm – thanks to my three chronic brain haemorrhages staying past last orders. But to be sitting here writing this this after turning the pedals on a bike trainer this morning for an hour on my terrace looking at the hills I once rode weekly, is as much a thank you to bicycles as it is a farewell to them.
In an emotional last written word for a loved magazine I’ve been a small part of for a decade or more, I’d mirror my sentiments about cycling to these printed pages and just say, it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. Farewell cycling. Farewell Peloton Magazine. From the heart – Thank you both.
©Augustus Farmer 2022