How to do you cope when you can’t ride your bike? Adele Mitchell finds out the hard way - by breaking her elbow.
‘I think you should be in casualty, not the pub’.
So said the friendly local mountain biker – who also happens to be a GP – when he saw my massively swollen elbow. We were both in the local pub at the time – him enjoying a post-ride pint, me celebrating my friend’s birthday and trying to ignore the fact that I was in agony (‘it’s only a bruise!”).
Five hours earlier I had suffered my second heavy fall from my mountain bike in a week. The first had been a top-speed over-the bars incident, the second a silly topple-over onto sun-hardened earth that was akin to landing on concrete. Both times I’d landed on my left elbow: something had had to give.
The next morning an orthopaedic doctor confirmed my worst fears: I had broken my elbow. 48 hours later – and after surgery to wire it back together - I came home with my arm in a cast and the prospect of a long period of inactivity ahead of me.
Thanks to expert intervention by the NHS, I had no doubt that my arm would recover. I was, however, less confident about how well I would cope with the sudden withdrawal of my regular cycling fix. I was told it was likely to be several months before the joint would be strong enough for me to get back on the trails or enjoy long road rides again.
From riding three to four times a week to doing nothing felt like a very sudden stop indeed.
With my Strava account frozen on the day of the accident, and my bike still splattered with mud from that fateful ride, I glumly contacted the organisers of the two events I had been training for – the Prudential Ride London and British Heart Foundation South Downs off-roader – and deferred my places until next year. I also had to pull the plug on a possible road bike trip to Mont Ventoux.
Then I set up the dictation option on my computer so that I could work, put the car keys away in a drawer (no driving for six weeks!), and wondered what I was going to do next, other than feel pretty miserable.
First I had to face the fact that my inactivity would coincide with the best riding months of the year. It felt like all those winter months of training through mud, rain and icy winds had been for nothing. As the evenings got longer and the sunsets ramped up to eleven, I could barely contain my envy as roadies cycled up the country lane where I live to enjoy riding the hills.
To keep myself vaguely fit and boredom at bay, I took to doing regular long walks (thank goodness I hadn’t broken my leg!). And in a fairly desperate attempt to stay in touch with the sport that I love I even walked to the local mountain bike trails to meet my friends for their post-ride coffee. They were very kind and never once mentioned what a fabulous time they were having – though of course I knew, because I could see that the conditions were perfect.
If I’m honest walking on my own was a fairly lonely experience, but I was on a mission to salvage what I could of my fitness so I trudged the local hills until my feet hurt even more than my arm did. I’d often greet passing mountain bikers - as I would have done if I were riding - but instead of being a fellow rider, I was now just a woman in an anorak. As a result they pretty much ignored me: that was a low point.
Meanwhile, back at the aforementioned mountain biker’s pub, I’d show just about anyone who would look (and, probably, quite a few who really, really didn’t want to) my fantastically long elbow scar and bruises.
Amongst friends, everyone was very supportive and I’ve heard all sorts of tales of riding injuries sustained and riding injuries recovered from. This has truly helped me believe that there is a light at the end of the tunnel - and it is getting brighter all the time.
While researching recovery, I came across information on the Kubler-Ross stage ‘grief reaction’ in relation to injured athletes (or, more accurately in my case, people who ride bikes a lot!!). There are four stages of recovery that we are likely to experience – and I certainly recognise them!
- Denial (‘it’s only a bruise!’).
- Anger (envying other cyclists who were riding when I couldn’t!)
- Depression (this stage is not inevitable btw, nor did it effect me – although I did feel a bit sorry for myself during my ‘woman in an anorak’ phase)
- Acceptance and reorganisation (this injury has happened, but I too will get better).
Recovery is definitely a process of baby steps and not giant leaps. But six weeks post-op I finally got the news from my doctor that it was okay to cycle again – but only if I a) stopped if it hurt and b) didn’t fall off.
Unfortunately you only need to look at my collection of scars to know that falling off is something I am quite good at, so I loaned a turbo trainer and put in a few stationary miles to start with. The stability enabled me to mount without having to put too much (painful) weight on the bars, and even I couldn’t fall off. Riding in my own home also meant I could stop as soon as any elbow discomfort kicked in.
Vibration was likely to cause discomfort too so when I finally ventured outdoors I took to the road on my mountain bike: thankfully the combination of a mostly smooth surface and suspension to soak up any bumps did the trick. I also swapped to fail-safe flat pedals instead of SPDs to minimise the risk of falling of.
Fitness -wise those first rides felt like hard work but eventually muscle memory kicked in and everything started to feel a bit easier.
As my elbow continues to get stronger I’ve now ridden off-road a little (no drop-offs just yet!) and this week I managed my first road bike ride - another bridge crossed on the road to recovery!
I’m mindful that I am still several months away from the time when my damaged elbow will be as strong as the other one. But every ride is feeling easier and my fitness is returning.
And that’s what I am focussing on right now.
We’d love to hear how you coped if you have had to take time off cycling because of injury. Feel free to share your experiences below!
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