Cycling Chronicles Vol 7

Cycling Chronicles Vol 7

There is one day in my life where I lived the term “foreshadow”, after being warned several times to be careful while cycling.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term foreshadow as “to be a warning or indication of future event.” Most of us will be familiar with the term from our high school literature studies.

The day was Sunday, May 3, 2020. Our community was dealing with the reality of lock down measures, as we attempted to control the effects of a global pandemic. It was one of the first weekend days of great spring-like sunny weather since the lock down had begun. People were anxious to take advantage of this weather, alone or with their families. The only problem was where to go. With stores, malls, parks, and conservation areas closed, options were limited.

Since the start of the pandemic, I had made several rides to Toronto, enjoying a marked decrease in the amount of motor vehicles on the road. On this fine weather day, I thought I would try a ride in the country, as my city rides had been less than relaxing, given the number of pedestrians and cyclists on Toronto roads. A ride in the country would be a peaceful alternative. I emailed a cycling friend, asking him to join me for the ride. Unfortunately, he had to wait for an Amazon package to be delivered to his apartment and could not go.

I headed out on my 2011 Scott Addict R1, without a particular destination or route in mind. The Scott is a professional level race bike, equipped with Shimano Dura-Ace components and Mavic Kyserium SL wheels. With the carbon fibre frame and carbon fibre parts, this 52 cm bike weighs in at 13.73 pounds, without pedals. It was from the first generation of lightweight carbon fibre bicycles.

West was the direction I picked, and I headed up to Bovaird Drive to begin my journey. I stopped off to see our goddaughter, who had very recently returned from northern Ontario. I found her sitting out in front of her mother’s house and we had a short conversation about her trip and future plans. She told me to be careful as I continued my ride.

As I headed westward on Bovaird, I paired up with another cyclist on a road bike, who had turned on Bovaird at James Potter Road. We talked about the weather, which had become punctuated by periodic strong gusts of wind, from the northwest, as we rode along to Mississauga Road. There, my fellow cyclist said he was going north and asked which way I was going. I told him I was continuing west on Bovaird, to which he said, “Be careful on that next stretch of road, a cyclist was killed there yesterday”.

As we parted ways, I thanked him for his advice and explained that was one of the reasons that I was proceeding that way, to see the scene of this tragedy. As I passed the crash site, I noticed it was just a straight section of Highway #7, near an intersecting road.

There was not much automobile traffic as I began the descent through a rock cut, into the village of Norval. What happened next was enough to bring me to a higher level of alertness. A combination of factors converged to create a scary situation. The wind gusted just as I was entering the rock cut and an SUV passed me at exactly the same time, which in combination with my speed of 52 kph and the fact that the winter sand had not been cleaned off the road yet, involuntarily moved my bike about a foot and a half to the left.

With new respect for the conditions, I continued on my ride, climbing the hill south, out of Norval on Adamson Road, and then turning west again on 10th Line Concession. This is when I realized how many people had the same idea I had on this fine day. On a normally quite rural road, I was meeting other cyclists every few minutes.

Upon reaching Highway #25, I turned south, and with a gusting northwest wind at my back, sped south, cruising at around 50 kph. Once in the town of Milton, I turned west again on Steeles Avenue, to try the challenging double switch back, climb up the escarpment. Now the roads became more crowded, with slow moving cars, cyclists, and pedestrians. People wanted to go somewhere, but there was nowhere specific to go.

I proceeded south on Old School Road to a conservation area entrance, where several people stood looking at a closed sign. Once I had taken in views at a few spots on the escarpment, I decided it was time to head eastbound, toward home. I picked a descent that I was not familiar with, on the Fourth Line. On the initial down grade, with a quarter wind behind me and no cars in sight, I shifted to a higher gear, coming to the first curve at around 40 kph, which felt a little fast, but I was able to apex the curve smoothly and came out of the curve carrying speed. The second curve, further down the hill was banked in my favour, so I was also able to carry speed through it and then the road became straight and steep off the escarpment hill. The world began whiz by as acceleration increased markedly on this section of the narrow, two lane road. At this point I briefly took my eyes off the road to look down at my cycling computer. I was surprised to see 74.3 kph. I was still accelerating.

Twenty-one minutes before I was to wake up in the back of an ambulance, I saw something that would raise the hackles on the back of my neck and slow my perception of time to a crawl. An SUV was driving up the escarpment toward me and, because of the steep slope I could see in through the windshield.  What I saw was the woman in the passenger seat pointing in the air above the escarpment, possibly at a group of circling hawks. When she did this, I saw the driver start to crane his neck to see what she was pointing at. The vehicle began gradually drifting across the centre line, into my lane.

I was in a situation that I had never been in before, in that the options were few and would most likely result in catastrophic injury or death. There was little to no shoulder on either side of the road. The ditches were deep and possibly rocky. Not a place you want to enter at almost 80 kph. The only viable options that I processed in a number of seconds, were to try and ride the broken edge of the road on my right or wait until the last possible second and steer over to the opening in the oncoming lane, as the SUV had drifted over into my lane. Hard braking at the speed I was going would most likely result in the bike going down and my body skidding along the pavement, possibly ending up under the SUV.

As the milliseconds ticked by, when I would have to commit to a course of action, suddenly the driver of the SUV stopped looking at the sky and realized he was way over the centerline and yanked the steering wheel to the right, returning to his lane, just as I whizzed by. The experience was sobering, a reminder that as a cyclist, I was not always in control of what happened on the road.

Once at the bottom of the escarpment, I spent some time watching the group of soaring, circling hawks, that had indirectly, nearly caused my demise. I then continued east through the town of Milton, leaving town on Steeles Avenue. Coming off the Highway #401 overpass, I established a comfortable cruising speed of around 35 kph, with the aid of that quarter tail wind from the northwest. Since the wind was gusty and there was still a fair amount of sand from winter road maintenance on the road, I remember riding slightly further out in the curb lane than I normally ride. I remember passing a Halton Regional Police Officer on the shoulder of the road, who was speaking to a person who was astride some kind of motorized bicycle. There was also a vehicle pulled over in front of the police cruiser, with a male driver and several kids in it. My next memory is approaching an intersection with traffic lights, which were green in my favour. I did a shoulder check as the road widened out with a dedicated right hand turn lane. This is where my memory ends.

I regained my faculties while sitting in the jump-seat in the back of an ambulance, with a paramedic sitting in the seat across from me. As I looked around, my first thoughts were that it was Sunday night, and I was in the middle of a COVID dream. I was trying to remember when I had gotten home from my bike ride and what I had eaten for supper. I was still drawing a blank on this when I noticed that the paramedic was filling out a form from a card in his hand. When he asked me my name, I realized he was reading it from the card, which I then realized was my health card.

That is when I started to take stock of my situation, I was not in pain and in fact I was very calm and peaceful. I tried to look around more but was restricted by a cervical collar. From what I could see, my left hand was covered in blood and my right arm was bandaged to my chest. My right shoulder seemed to be sticking up unnaturally. My memory of the next two hours is patchy. A sort of in and out. Later at the hospital, a doctor told me that although I was conscious at the scene of the crash, I was incoherent. I do remember, when we arrived at the hospital, which I recognized as Milton District Hospital, I was able to give the Halton Regional Police officer who met us there, a phone number to contact.

The advantage of being taken to Milton General Hospital during the pandemic, was that there was only one other patient in the emergency area, so I received immediate care. Examination, x-rays, CT scan, suturing, and clean up happened within a fairly short amount of time. My memory is patchy of these two hours, but certain things stand out, like being lifted on to the x-ray table and the CT scan machine. These two things stand out because they hurt my shoulder. The thing I remember in detail is the doctor dealing with the 5-inch gash in my head, not because it was painful, but because the doctor was complaining, “if you would have been wearing a helmet, you would still have a concussion, but I probably wouldn’t be spending all this time cleaning dirt and grit out of your head”. She was worried about being able to close this gaping gash in my head, without leaving a large trench scar. With a lot of pulling and eleven stitches, she was able to close this ravine.

Cycling Chronicles head injury

Since I had a concussion, I was assuming I would be staying the night, for observation. Apparently, I was giving them all the right answers, as I was discharged as soon as the doctor was convinced my head wound was not going start hemorrhaging again.

I was transported in a wheelchair to the sidewalk in front of the hospital, where my wife, who seemed incredibly grateful that I was alive and not crippled, was waiting with the car. She had picked up my bicycle earlier from the ambulance garage area. As we drove home every pothole and bump was felt and magnified through my injured shoulder.

As soon as we got home, I had to examine my bicycle, expecting an expensive array of shattered carbon fibre and tacoed (bent) wheels. I was completely amazed, upon initial inspection, to find the bike completely intact. The chain had skipped off but there was not even a scratch on it.

Thus started the mystery of what happened that day. Although I never regained memory of the incident, I did obtain certain information from other sources.

First, were the injuries. I sustained a concussion, caused by an impact on the right back side of my head. The impact point on my right elbow transferred the force up into my shoulder cleanly snapping my right clavicle. The impact point on my right hip caused severe bruising, but fortunately did not break my pelvis or displace the joint. The last impact point was the side of my right knee, which resulted in some skin loss. The only other marks on my body were on the back of my left hand. It was scraped along with the crystal of my watch. My cycling jersey had abrasion marks, but only on the back of the collar, indicating no prolonged skidding on asphalt.

From the injuries, I would say I was unconscious before I hit the ground.  The reason I concluded this was because the impact that snapped my collarbone was through my elbow. When a cyclist falls, instinctively they extend their arm out, to cushion the impact. This usually results in a breaking or injury to the wrist. There was no injury, or even marks on my right hand.

The question is, how did I go from riding at 35 kph to being unconscious? I could have fainted or a blow to the head could have been the cause.

My journey to find out began with the responding police officer. It turns out he was on the scene almost immediately because he was the police officer that I had passed while he was doing a traffic stop on Steeles Avenue. He did not see anything occurring himself, but he told me he would check his dashcam footage. Once he checked it, he found it was no help, as an SUV had pulled over in front of him, obscuring the view. (It turns out it was a father, with his three kids, wanting to find out where he could take his kids legally, during the pandemic lockdown.)

The police officer had provided me with the phone number of the woman who had found me beside the road. She was incredibly happy to hear that I was alive and well. She had seen me by chance, she explained, as she had missed the turn into Walmart. Upon executing a U-turn on Steeles Avenue, she saw me lying by the roadside. Her first thought, as she approached me, was that I was dead. I was lying on my back and my head was surrounded by a large pool of blood. She called out to me several times and I did not respond. She then began a CPR protocol by shaking my shoulder. At this time, to her relief, my eyes opened. She then called 911 and in a short time, aid was on the scene. She did tell me that she found my sunglasses and water bottle out in the curb lane, and she picked them up. She was very worried about my health, asking me if I had to have a blood transfusion, due to the amount of blood she thought I lost at the scene.

During my convalescence, hope that I would regain some memory of the event never did materialize. Even when I visited the site, months later, it did not look like I envisioned in my mind’s eye.

I have since resigned myself to the fact that I will never regain the memory of the event.

One of the clues of what happened was found on the back of my head. At the base of the gash on my head was a perfectly round impression, approximately two inches across. When I was there, I could not see anything that would leave an impression like that, on the shoulder of the road. Of course, I did not know the exact place where I came to rest. The fact that my bicycle had no marks or scratches on it suggests that my pedals did not release, I took the bicycle with me, and my body protected it. I also had a camera in a case, that was strapped around my waist. The camera case was resting on the small of my back and was undamaged.

The other possibility of me passing out while riding cannot be discounted. I have an opinion from an anesthesiologist from Hamilton General Hospital (whose son is a provincial level mountain bike racer) that a combination of dehydration and effort, could have resulted in me passing out, while riding at 35 kph. Although I cannot completely discount this opinion, looking at the position of my head wound, the fact that I was not really hammering hard at the time, and the fact that there were no marks on my bike to indicate that it had impacted anything, I am less likely to consider this as viable.

Given the facts that I have presented, I will leave it to the reader to form their own conclusions.

I have always considered myself lucky, as I have not really dealt with any serious health issues or injuries in my life. The fact that I came through this incident, after convalescence, with no permanent damage is not lost on me. The fact that I was knocked out cold for an indeterminate amount of time, yet did not sustain any lingering concussion issues is amazing. The fact that I received almost immediate aid may be part of the reason I came through this so well.

I returned to bicycle riding as soon as it was viable and safe to do so. As far as I can see, there have been no permanent physical problems because of this crash. Initially, I encountered minor psychological trepidation when I started riding again, which subsided with time. The fact that I have no memory of the incident, I believe helped in this regard.

At the present day, I continue to enjoy riding bicycles, as I have for over 50 years, and consider this incident another chapter in The Cycling Chronicles.

There were other stories, but they are for another time. Story by Steve Stoller.

other blog posts by Steve