How it feels to crash.
I’m going too fast, downhill. I don’t feel in control of my bike. Up ahead, a signal to turn off left. I wasn’t expecting this. Will I turn off in time? Do I know how to turn sharply?
Panic. I raise my left hand to signal my imminent turn, and I am going faster. My panic ascends, courses through my fingers, and I yank on my brake.
The wrong brake.
I am told my cartwheel over my handlebar was incredibly graceful. Like an acrobat, my limbs were perfectly outstretched.
It’s just before sunrise, on a cold January morning. We’re on a busy commuter drag into Central London, about to descend into the London Basin. Fewer than sixty seconds before, I’d been cycling up the second biggest hill I’d face this morning. I was euphoric. A month out of training with two broken ribs and a torn intercostal muscle, I was back. Not a peep from my legs or lungs. Fuck you, bronchitis. I can’t run, or lift weights, yet, but I can peddle, and that’s what we’re doing this morning.
I know something has gone badly wrong as the bike stops its forward trajectory. The front break slams on the wheel and I numbly register the blast force to my chest. My arm is still signalling left, frozen. Lights from cars around me go out of focus, street lamps soar into the distance, off the cliff of my peripheral vision.
I am told my cartwheel over my handlebar was incredibly graceful. Like an acrobat, my limbs were perfectly outstretched, one leg following the other, pivoting at my shoulders. Worthy of a stage performance.
Nearly two years later, I close my eyes and feel my helmet smack against the dark tarmac. The helmet kept me alive, I will think, later. Head first, and my body follows, slamming into Archway Road. I am lucid the whole time, and I will stay awake, aware, and clutching to life.
On the tarmac, I am still and silent. A memory of a childhood holiday is conjured. It’s of the black, wet rocks on a beach at St Mary’s, Scilly Isles. To my touch, the rocks are cold, covered in barnacles and mosses.
And then I scream. I am filled with the sound of oncoming traffic. I know it’s coming, behind me. The sound of my scream shoots down through me, and I feel my legs caught among the body of my bike. Connected and entangled, I scream. This is terror. I will know it again, and it is white and like ice in your throat. It overtakes my breathing; I inhale as I scream because cars are coming. I must get out of the road. I must move. I am alive now, but if I don’t get off the road, I may not survive this. I want to live. I must move.
I know that to reach the pavement, it starts with moving my fingertips.
I crashed. Comprehension smashes into me like a tsunami. I fall silent. I surrender to stillness.
I hear dragging. Time slows, and my arms and one side of my leg are dragging us to the kerb, dragging us both across the glistening tarmac. My screams become rasping sounds, uncontrolled and unconscious with each push to get to the pavement. To safety. I concertina the left side of my body. My arms pull at the road, my left leg pushes and the bike passively follows. Each grain of loose tarmac is like a sharp pebble. The ground is magnified, engulfing, but I can’t see or sense the scene around or above me. I am blinded by panic and terror, but I can see the base of the kerb. Get to the kerb. I must get up onto the pavement. To safety.
Car lights are behind and beside, rushing towards us. Traffic noise comes back into focus. Reaching the kerb edge from the road feels like I am pulling myself up over a cliff edge. With the force of my scream, my shoulder and chest are on the pavement. Scrabbling, dragging, begging, screaming, we both scrape onto the pavement. I fall back. I am safe.
I crashed. Comprehension smashes into me like a tsunami. My bike is beside me. I am lying out on the pavement. I can’t move. My knee screams at me, but I can’t turn over, I can’t lift my shoulder.
I look up at the pre-dawn sky, see a myriad of colours in the clouds. I don’t try and move my head. I fall silent. I give up moving. I surrender to stillness.
I have crashed. I was recovering, and now I have crashed. I begin to cry.
At roughly 7am on 28 January 2014, I crashed my bike on Archway Road, London. I survived the accident with a broken clavicle, a bruised knee, and a mind that wouldn’t forgive itself for breaking. My doctor tells me that because I was in such excellent physical condition, what should have been a compound fracture was restrained to a clean break, and held in place by my deltoid muscles. For the next four months, I would be trapped in my broken body, dependent on opiates and cocktails of painkillers for the most basic of functionality, while my clavicle fused itself back together. I would learn to brush my teeth with my left hand, learn how to master pain. I would learn to accept help cutting up my food, I would not be able to type, I would be inconsolably angry. I would discover friends who would become family. I would take the script of my life and tear it to pieces. I would start again.
This weekend, I’m collecting my bike, Ermintrude, from her maintence service and I will climb back on her. We will ride again.