The Thin and the Powerful

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December 28, 2016 by shortbloke

When physical challenges are hard, but less than essential to survival, motivation can be hard to muster. I have to admit that on occasion I find a soft bed, a mug of fresh tea and a slice hot toast dripping with runny honey hard to put aside in favour of lycra shorts, freezing toes and drizzle running down my face.

First world problems, many would say. Frankly, they’d be right.

Unlike many in this unfair world, I am fortunate enough to live a life of plenty. I have fresh water on tap, a weather resistant roof over my head and a constantly powered fridge filled with stacks of calorie dense foods. I could – and actually in the event, have – become quite chubby, with very little effort.

In ancient Rome – where I imagine excess calories were hard to come by – opulent fatness was considered a sign of success and affluence. Where – and when – I live, thinness is more highly prized. Whilst chubbiness was once – and still is – hard to achieve for so many, I am fortunate enough to be struggling with attaining the right level of thinness.

Which, as a cyclist, is a particularly sticky problem. I like to ride up the side of mountains. As I have probably said before, riding up the side mountains successfully is all about power to weight ratios.The lower the weight, the less power is required to push it up hill. Conversely, the more powerful the frame, the more weight a body can afford to carry.

The big ride for 2016 was The Marmotte. Starting and ending in the beautiful French town of Alp D’Huez, it’s one of the toughest and most popular of the European Cyclo-Sportives, running a circuit around some of the most iconic climbs in the French alps : Telegraphe. Glandon. Galibier, and of course, the 21 hairpins up to the village of Alp D’Huez itself.

It’s long. It’s beautiful. And it’s brutal. The individual climbs are hard enough in isolation. Together, all in one day, they are a challenge of humongous proportions. As with most of these iconic European cycling events, the ride attracts huge numbers of both super lean and muscle bound specimens, all with hardly an ounce of excess blubber to share between them.

The Thin seem to have a cast-iron will capable of resisting even the merest hint of an excess calorie. Meanwhile, the Powerful have the patience required to carefully hone solid but extremely well balanced muscle structures. For me to achieve either would require either monumental effort or an investment of time I just can’t seem to find.

So, in stark contrast to both the Thin and the Powerful, I arrived in Alp D’huez75 miles a week under-trained, around 8lbs overweight and devoid of excess muscle power – in other words : utterly unprepared.  I was not going to log a great time in any known universe.

Despite all that, I was actually feeling reasonably positive. As I mingled with the Thin and the Powerful in the start pens, I was thinking positive thoughts. What’s the point of doing otherwise ?

The event itself is very well organised. It’s been running for many years and the organisers know exactly what they are doing. Each rider has a colour on their number, which designates one of the many start pens strewn all around the town of Bourg D’Oisans. The marshals are super hot on making sure only riders with the correct colour enter each pen. The signposting is pretty clear so anyone trying to get into the wrong pen is doing so with intent.

Once again the sparse sprinkling of toilet facilities produced some, well, interesting behaviour amongst the men, who at least had alternative options. I have no idea how the women deal with it.

The atmosphere in the start pens is something unique. Anxiety and anticipation, fear and excitement. Impatience and a desire to soak up the moment. It’s a mix of emotions that has to be experienced to be fully understood.

Starting with the elite pens and working their way down to the Fat Lads At The Back, riders are let loose from their respective pens in waves of 50 or so at a time.

Faster riders who were not able to get into a pen near the front are pretty soon weaving through the mass of slower riders, jostling on the one hand, but donating plenty of drafting opportunities to their less gifted brethren on the other.

Standing in the pens, it was cold and I put my arm warmers on. I started pretty well. Feeling slightly better than I expected I pushed on up the first of the climbs at a reasonable pace. It was however not long before the Blokes had all passed me and I was trailing a little back. Not to worry, there is a ways to go yet. I’ll get there.

As the first few hours passed and the sun poked its head around the mountain, it got warmer and I started to strip the various layers of clothing I had donned while shivering in the pens. Neck scarf. Arm warmers. It’s about a mile to the food stop, I’ll re-organise my pockets out when I ge……….



Hang on. What the hell was that ?

Suddenly I was on my arse on the tarmac and my bike was on my head. Just a moment before I had been moving moving. Now I was on the floor. Some of my discarded clothing had fallen into my front wheel, forcing the bike to an immediate halt and me over the bars.

Idiot. Complete Idiot.

Feeling a little shaky. I thought I better get someone to look at me.

“S’il vous plait… je crois j’ai tombee”.

“Vous attendez jus’qua la. Asseyez vous sur la mur la bas. Le Docteur, il vien. ”

So I sit on the stone wall at the side of the road and wait for the paramedic to turn up on his motorbike. I tell him I’d like to get moving if that’s OK. “Je crois non mon ami. Pour vous c’est fini aujourd’hui.”

What? Wait? What did you say? Why? I’m fine. No pain. My arm is a bit stiff but…. ah.

I can’t actually lift my arm. It moves but it won’t lift.

That’s odd. I guess that might be a minor problem.

What the paramedic could see that I could not was the huge lump on my left shoulder. A sure sign of a displaced clavicle.  I had, extremely fortunately, instinctively tucked my head but landed pretty squarely on my left shoulder as I went over the bars. That pushed the shoulder down away from the clavicle, ripping open the tendons that hold the two bones together. A very common injury for cyclists, horse riders and skiers.

Sitting on the stone wall, I was feeling a mix of emotions. Relief that I didn’t have to slog up the side of any more mountains that day and absolutely gutted that I would not be riding over the top of any more mountains that day.

As the ambulance team approached to help me into the ambulance I rose from the cold stone wall, promptly falling over with the most excruciating cramp I have ever felt. No worries, a little salt will sort that out. Falling over however, from a doctors point of view, is not a good thing. Not a good thing at all.

Suddenly all hell broke loose and the speed of the French around me accelerated to a pace I could no longer track. Before I could really clock what was going on, I was lying on a stretcher trussed up like a chicken, looking at the roof of an ambulance weaving it’s way through the tiny mountain villages to the hospital on the other side of the valley.

It was cramp. I had a bit of cramp. But they thought I had broken my back.

Lesson…? Don’t sit on a stone wall when you are hot and sweaty and about to climb into an ambulance.

Well. Actually. Don’t let stuff fall from your bike into your front wheel. That’s probably the more important lesson.

After an hour of pidgen French with the rather attractive and extremely efficient nurse volunteering in the ambulance I was moved to a triage station. For the first time in my life I realised how realistic those hospital dramas are when they show the patient’s eye view. Still trussed up and unable to move, I could see only the ceiling, All around me I could hear doctors telling each other what I’d done and what should happen next. Every now and then a face would come into view and ask me if I needed a drink, if I was OK, if I was in pain. Then it would draw away, out of view again. Kudos to all those directors of hospital dramas. They got it spot on.

So then I’m moved to the hospital. There’s a whole set of posts I could write about that experience, but that would be boring, so I’ll cut to the chase. Suffice to say that from motorcycling paramedic to ambulance crew to hospital doctor they have an incredibly slick set up. Staffed to a large extent by volunteers, their paramedic and medical teams get you off the mountain with minimal fuss, plenty of smiley chat and absolutely no stress. Those people know what they are doing and it’s terribly reassuring.

The doctors there know all about this type of injury. It’s called anacromio-clavicular joint injury. It comes in 3 grades  – I had grade 3, where the two bones are completely torn apart. They do operations to fix them all the time. They drill a hole laterally into the shoulder bone, insert a pin to which they connect a plate and using more pins they connect the clavicle to that. Three months later, when everything has knitted together, they remove the plate. Two operations. Lots of metal.

Getting it done there would be 3 days in the hospital. No friends around me, no family, no money, all my stuff back at the hotel. No flight.

Not a good plan.

The doctor told me I could wait for a week to 10 days. Longer than that and I would risk losing the chance of a clean join.

I decided to fly home the next day. Amazingly, I had no pain at all. I had no movement in that arm, but I had no pain at all. So I was comfortable. Amazingly lucky. It’s the weirdest feeling. There was no pain, but no function either. The arm would just not move. Try as I might, it just wouldn’t obey the order to move.

Sitting in the hospital having made the decision to get back home, I had one small problem. How to get back to the hotel. My bike was somewhere on the other side of the valley and the Blokes were all still slogging up the side of various mountains. There was no choice – I had to get a 200 Euro taxi back. Taxis in the mountains are not the cheapest form of transport but they do work. (Kudos to Yellow Jersey insurance for covering that cost without any fuss.)

The next day I messed about and did very little. I walked some, but basically waited to get my flight home.

At home the surgeon decided to use a newer technique than they had planned in France. It’s called the Dog-Bone technique. Exactly a week after I had fallen, he drilled a hole vertically down through my shoulder and my clavicle and tied them together with kevlar string and a couple of titanium buttons (they are dog-bone shaped – hence the name). Literally tied them together. I’ve got two bones tied together with two little metals buttons and some kevlar string. I’m the rag doll equivalent of a cyborg.

Again, incredibly fortunately, I had no post op pain either. Within 24 hours I had stopped taking the pain killers entirely, mostly because I really didn’t need them. That is apparently not entirely normal. Many people have extreme pain with is typeof injury. I am lucky. I’ve no idea why. Neither did my surgeon.

When I went to see him for my 10 day check up he was visibly surprised to see me with no sling, slipping my arm easily out of my shirt with more dexterity than he expected. Chuffed at the excellence if his handy work, he sent me on my way telling me to rest for 3 months but to start putting pressure on the shoulder after that time to make sure the tendons rebuild with some density.

So here I am, starting to ride again, starting to think about next year’s big adventure. I still have unfinished business with the 21 hair pins up to Alp D’Huez. That will have to be sorted out at least once in the next few years. For now though, I’m planning a training schedule, looking forward to another crack at the magical Maratona in the Italian Dolomites and hoping the year to come is significantly less shite than the year just gone. I am afraid 2016 has left me in a state where that’s the best I can do in terms of motivational speeches for the time being.

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