I had it all planned out. I was going to spend a couple of gentle days acclimatising to the French Alps before tackling the 175km and 5,000 metres climbing of the Marmotte Gran Fondo. On my first short preparation ride I spun up the Col de Sarenne and took a few scenic photos before turning the bike round to roll down the mountain road.
I picked up speed, rounded a gentle left-hand bend then BANG! I lost control of the back end. I distinctly remember a ground level view of the road, a twist and a bounce before ending up in a ditch at the side of the road. I laid in the ditch for a few seconds assessing the damage. My arms and legs were fine but as I tried to stand up I realised my neck and back were in a bad way. I slumped back down into the ditch and waved feebly until a group of passing cyclists saw me and came to help. Within minutes a couple of cars had stopped and started to transport me to the local medical centre, back at the top of the mountain. Within minutes of arriving at the medical centre I was X-rayed and helicoptered to Grenoble hospital where I was hooked up to a multitude of wires and tubes. I struggled to take in what was happening, possibly a combination of shock and painkillers preventing the brain from processing everything, but I distinctly remember thinking things must be bad when they cut off my cycling kit! A while later one of the medical team explained to me that I had fractured several vertebrae and was going to need an operation – it dawned on me that this was not going to be a quick fix.
This chapter is not a blow-by-blow account of what happened after that moment of dawning realisation, it is about key lessons learned. I sincerely hope that you never have to act on these lessons but if the worst does happen I hope that they will help.
Wear a Helmet
It still amazes me that people don’t wear a helmet when on a bike. Not wearing a helmet is figuratively and literally a no-brainer! I hope I am preaching to the converted but just in case here is a photo of my helmet after the crash. Without the helmet I would not be here – enough said.
Carry your Phone
Your phone will, quite literally, be your only contact with the outside world so make sure you always have it with you and that it is fully loaded with contact details. In addition, make sure it is charged up before you go out!
Wear an ID Band
An ID band with basic contact details and information on any medical conditions or allergies could be a lifesaver.
Have an Up-to-Date EHIC Card
That little bit of blue plastic is invaluable. It gives you no questions asked access to emergency medical care and drastically reduces any up-front costs. Each EHIC card is only valid for a limited period, so make sure you check the card you have is up to date.
My brothers card expired in 2010... luckily he hadn't needed to use it!
Have Valid Travel Insurance
Don’t take a chance with your travel insurance. It is tempting to take a chance and go without but in extremis it is worth every penny. Make sure your policy covers you for all the activities you are going to do – cycling may be viewed as an extreme sport, particularly if you are taking part in an event/race.
Create an Emergency Information Pack
Ensure you have copies of your EHIC card details, travel insurance policy, contact details etc. Put this in a clearly marked envelope in an obvious place in your luggage as, in the worst-case scenario, you may need to explain to someone how to find this information.
Identify a Back-Up Team
Who would you call on to help you out? Wife/husband/partner is the obvious choice but also think about the practicalities. There is a huge amount to sort out, ranging from managing the idiot who hurt themselves, negotiating with travel insurance companies, dealing with hospital administration, retrieving luggage and bikes and do not underestimate how different/difficult this is in a foreign country/language. I was lucky enough to have a lot of people offering support and it was my wife and brother who split the tasks between them – my wife dealing with the emotional support and admin while my brother did the heavy lifting, packing my bike for the return journey and retrieving the hire car. I would seriously suggest that you consider two people, although your travel insurance company’s definition of “reasonable support” may not extend that far.
Get a Clear Explanation of Your Condition
It can be difficult to take in what a doctor is telling you when they are speaking in English, let alone a foreign language, so persevere. It is very easy to accept the first explanation but you probably need to build up a full picture by asking all members of the medical team. The surgeon only told me about the injuries that he had tackled with screws, plates and rods and it wasn’t until a friend (who happened to be a radiologist) identified other injuries that couldn’t be operated on that I got the full picture. One of the challenges with getting injured abroad is that you pass between various medical teams, who each assume that you are fully briefed – don’t be shy and ask each new medical team to explain what is going on!
Understand the Repatriation Process
Having got through the immediate medical procedures, your thoughts will turn to how to get home. In the worst case you will need to be re-patriated which can be a long, slow and painful process. First, check what options you have for re-patriation. If you are lucky enough to have private health cover through your work, check if it covers repatriation and, if so, use to your HR department to help - the more you can get done via people you know and trust the better. If your private health doesn’t cover you, make sure your travel insurance does but be prepared for a lot of bureaucracy and delays. Repatriation is expensive and is travel insurance companies use sub-contractors so it takes a lot of energy to get it agreed and in place. Travel insurance companies are likely to favour repatriation via road ambulance unless the local medical team explicitly specify repatriation by air but don’t expect anyone but yourself to take the lead in getting the travel insurance company and medical team to agree how to proceed. When you do finally get into the UK, don’t assume you are home and dry. If you are not being repatriated via a private health arrangement you will be taken to an NHS A&E department for triage and assessment before being allowed home. It is highly likely that you will need physio, occupational health and pain management assessments and as you are likely to be a non-critical case, this will take time. Try not to get too frustrated!