crash

The Unbearable, The Unspeakable, The Unforgettable and the (Nearly) Undrinkable

Central Georgia.

Not top of many people’s lists of places to spend a few days on holiday.  But I think it probably should be.

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Since leaving Tbilisi (above) on Thursday morning, I’ve only covered a couple of hundred kilometres.  Pretty slack by my standards.  I even had an impromptu extra rest day yesterday.  But the last 72 hours have still felt quite intense.

Headwinds, tailwinds, sunshine, snow, climbing, descending, motorways, tunnels, falling off the bike, home-made wine and Joe Stalin’s bathtub.  Actually, perhaps it really has been quite intense…  Where do I start?

When in doubt, I sometimes resort to stats.  Not this time, though (but there will be some at the end).  This time I have photographic proof of how unbearable the weather was on Thursday afternoon:

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You’ll just have to imagine the painful legs and tiredness that had developed during the morning.  I knew there was a lot of rain coming, but reckoned I could beat it to Gori.  The wind (into the face, naturally) began at about 15 mph, and got stronger and stronger.  By the time the picture above was taken, it was gusting over 30 mph (50 kph).  I got slower and slower.  And then the rain came.

It was only a brief (but intense) cloudburst; a prelude to the main storm.  I hid for a while, and then put the hammer down for the last 25 kms to Gori.  When I say ‘put the hammer down’, we’re talking about maximum effort in return for less than 10 miles-an-hour.  Unbearable.

I’m sure there’s a scale for how slippery things are.  I don’t need to look it up, because if there’s one thing that’s more slippery than wet ice, it’s wet cow droppings.

An unfortunately-timed gust of wind drops your front wheel off the road and onto the gravel shoulder.  This is a problem, as it starts sliding.  And it has bags attached.  Time slows down, reactions kick in.  You get the front wheel back on the tarmac (somehow).  Then the back wheel’s on the gravel.  Sliding again.  You get your weight forward to lift the heavy back wheel onto the road, just as the front wheel hits the wet cow droppings.  Bags or not, you’re now doomed.

The only good thing about Thursday is that, having stacked the bike and smashed into the road with my right shoulder (yep, the one the truck broke in Thailand), I can now report that the bike is a tough little thing, and that my shoulder appears to be in decent condition.  Apart from the new abrasions, that is…

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Thursday night.  Looking at the weather forecast.  It says that it’s snowing in Gori.  I stick my head outside.  It is snowing in Gori.  And blowing a gale.  It says that tomorrow will be dry, but that the wind will be up to 40 mph.  Average.  In my face again.  I believe it.  I’m having a day off.

The weather forecast was spot on.  As you can see from the flag ripping itself apart on top of Gori Fortress (picture above), the wind is, indeed, a wee bit brisk.  Thankfully, as well as the castle, and a pharmacy, Gori is the home of the unspeakable Josef Stalin.  So at least there’s a museum (or dictator’s shrine, depending on your point of view) to poke around while I’m there.

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I got to see Stalin’s bathtub, on Stalin’s personal train carriage.  It’s hard to imagine Uncle Joe sitting in there, playing with his rubber ducks and smoking his pipe, while supervising the deaths of tens of millions of people.  Or industrialising the Soviet Union and winning World War 2, depending on your point of view.

The museum is pure Soviet, and could really do with a bit of updating to include some of the less positive aspects of Josef’s career.  But I guess it’s a little tricky for the Georgians.  How do you play it when the only world-famous person from your country is a character like Stalin?

Focus on the scenery and the food (and maybe the wine), I think…

Because, once the wind had not only died, but turned magically through 180 degrees, the ride today was unforgettable.  Sun out, wind at my back, snow-capped mountains everywhere.  The little castle at Surami (below) was an especially nice bit:

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And I met my first fellow tourer since India.  I’ve no idea where they’ve all been.  As usual, I forgot to ask his permission to use his real name, so I’ll call him ‘Mark’.  Another Brit, and another solo inter-continental rider, heading for India via China (which is an especially long way round, in my opinion; but then he’d got to Georgia via Morocco, so what do I know?).  A great chance for the standard bike chat, with projected routes and info shared.

Both of us have been struck by the Georgian hospitality, and especially their penchant for ‘forcing’ home-made wine and vodka, some of which is outstandingly dubious, on unsuspecting guests (in my case, it was the same in Armenia, too).  ‘Mark’ was actually running with a hangover due to last night’s host insisting on ‘four for the road’ this morning.  And I had a 500ml glass of unusually yellow wine waiting for me at my lodgings this evening.

Though to get here, I still had to drop out of the high mountains, towards one of the few flat areas of Georgia, which I’ll cross in the next couple of days, before hitting the Black Sea.

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Lower hills, but the same tailwind and stunning scenery.  By the time I got here, I’d all but forgotten Thursday’s hardships.  A really beautiful run down the valley, twisting and turning in the warm sunshine.  A coffee in the shade halfway down.  Lovely.  That’s bike touring for you…

And, somewhere along the way today, I hit some large-ish numbers.  23,000 km for the round-the-world trip so far.  8000 km (and 5000 miles) since I started Part 2 in Vietnam in December.

So that’s the last three days.  A milestone or two for the trip.  Some unforgettable scenery.  The unspeakable Uncle Joe.  Sometimes unbearable weather.  And the home-made wine.

Which, it turns out, isn’t undrinkable at all…

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Perspective and Bereavement

It’s been a busy, painful and tiring few days.

And I think, after making sweeping (and potentially erroneous) statements like ‘the trip’s over’, and ‘only a smashed collarbone’ in my Thai hospital post, you probably deserve a little more of a considered appraisal of what’s occurred.

I was in pain and in shock, after all.  Not a good time to be making decent assessments.  So let’s roll it back a little, and start at the start.

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The roads in Thailand had seemed pretty benign.  I was heading north on the coast last Sunday, with a gentle tailwind, in the sunshine, without a care in the world.  I passed a temple or two.  It was the middle of the afternoon.  The road was quiet.

And then the truck hit me.  And then I woke up in hospital.

My initial understanding of what happened was pieced together from shards of half-remembered conversations with doctors and policemen (quite possibly with a little morphine involved, too).

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Apparently, the truck had grazed the right-rear pannier on the bike, flipping the Beast and me sideways to smash my collarbone on the, erm, hard shoulder.  The doctors had scanned me while I was semi-conscious, and my head and spine were OK.  I was a very lucky boy.

But the more I thought about it, the less some of this made sense.  Why were all the scratches and scrapes down my left side, when it was my right collarbone which was damaged?  How did I end up with a bump on the back of my head?  And how was I knocked unconscious if I’d fallen off sideways?

Time, crash scene photos, and endless scans and x-rays have clarified things a little since.

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The collarbone didn’t break on the road.  That was a false assumption, based on how most cyclists pick up the injury.  In fact, the truck really did hit me, as well as the bike.  And it hit me hard.  The bike went down on the left (that’s the scrapes and scratches accounted for).  But all the damage to my shoulder was caused directly by the truck.

Tons of metal on flesh and bone at a closing speed of about 60kph.  Not what you’d call a fair fight.

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After finally getting back to the UK on Saturday evening (a long and tedious journey, of which little needs to be said), I spent most of the rest of Easter weekend in and out of another hospital.  More scans, more x-rays.  Every one identifying more damage.

The truck pretty much took out the whole upper-right quarter of my torso.  As well as the collarbone, my shoulder-blade is now in three big pieces (and several smaller ones).  I’ve got at least four broken ribs.  And at least four fractured vertebrae in my back to match.  So that’s technically a broken back, then.  Oh, and a bunch of neck vertebrae which now have bits missing.

And so I won’t be riding a bike for a while.

So far, so unlucky.

Or…

So far, so very, very lucky to be alive, sitting slightly uncomfortably on a sofa and writing a post.  So very, very lucky not to be paralysed or brain-damaged.  I’m actually a relatively happy bunny at the moment.

If I’d arrived at hospital in the UK with those back injuries, I’d have been straight into emergency spinal surgery.  If I hadn’t been wearing a helmet (smashed into a thousand tiny pieces), the truck’s indicator housing would have stoved in the back of my skull like an eggshell.  And if one of the broken ribs had punctured a lung (apparently pretty common), I’d have been in real trouble too.

None of those things happened.  So it all depends how you look at it.  Yes, I got hit by a truck.  Yes, I need an operation on my shoulder (that’s next week’s fun-packed agenda).  Yes, I’m finding it difficult to sit or stand or lie in comfort.  But if you’re going to get hit hard by a truck, this is probably the best outcome you can hope for.  I can walk.  I can think.  I can breathe.

Is the trip over?  Well, clearly yes, in its original form.  Even if I had a break and then went back to finish my planned route, that would be two ‘half-way round the world’ trips, rather than one whole one.  I’m a bit gutted about that.

But again, a sense of perspective is required.  Assuming the op goes OK, there’s nothing to stop me from cycling in the reasonably near future.  Am I finished with long distance touring?  I don’t think so; I’m already climbing the walls with boredom here (that’s obviously metaphorical, given my condition).  And I nodded off earlier, and had a dream about riding a bike through the Alps.  Or maybe the Andes.  Or the Scottish Highlands.  Some hills, anyway.

Will it be a series of shorter rides, or another intercontinental journey?  Will I finish what I started, or start something new?  I don’t know.

But I don’t think the riding’s over just yet…

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Now, some truly sad news.  Whatever the next ride is, I’ll be missing a faithful friend.  The Beast is, erm, deceased (well, it more-or-less rhymes…).

Tough old boot that The Beast was, the truck was one step too far.  It just wasn’t worth trying to bring it back to the UK for repairs, especially as the truck’s insurance were willing to pay me out for it.

So sadly, after over 15000 trouble-free kilometres (including a few before the trip), and at just over a year old (far too young), it’s time for me to look forward to whatever the next adventure is without the solid, heavy, reassuring presence of The Beast alongside.

I’ll keep you posted on what that adventure might be, how my recovery goes, and what Beast II looks like over the next little while.  Guess there are still a few unknowns out there to chase down…