There were a number of things I was expecting when I booked a mountain biking holiday to Sardinia with Saddle Skedaddle, most of which didn’t happen. The two things I wasn’t particularly expecting were the number of espresso stops on our rides, and the trail of blood I managed to leave behind. The espresso stops were allegedly so we could use the toilets, but they were very welcome. And they occasionally involved gelato too. I also wasn’t expecting it to have quite such an effect on me, again for rather unforeseen reasons. Don’t get me wrong, I had a wonderful time, although I did have some moments of self-doubt and quite a lot more pain than I’d been anticipating. But I take away the positives, which are that I learnt an awful lot on that trip: not just about Sardinia and mountain biking, but also about myself.
Before you get worried, I should point out that there were no axe murderers on the trip. The trail of blood I left behind in various hotel rooms and on the trails was entirely the result of my own carelessness, and not a psychopathic room mate (even if I did stupidly mention to my room mate on the first evening that I often have dreams about killing people). First lesson learnt: at least wait until the second night before mentioning such things. I blame the wine.
So what had I been expecting? Actually, many of my assumptions were correct. Fantastic locally-produced and home-cooked food every night, large quantities of red wine, beautiful scenery, challenging riding, excellent rural accommodation, fun people, excellent guides, and laughter till it hurt. All those things came true, and more.
What had I been worried about that didn’t happen? I was a bit worried about the technical level of the riding, since I’m only a mountain biking dabbler, and even though Skedaddle had assured me that I’d be fine, I wasn’t entirely sure. I figured I could always get off and walk if there were any bits that were too technical for me, however. It turned out that the technical level was no harder than I was used to, apart from a couple of “Skedaddle cheeky climbs” – which I discovered actually just meant “impossible unless your name is Steve Peat” (google him if you don’t know who he is) – even the guides couldn’t do one of them (though it was fun watching them attempt it). I knew I’d be slow up the hills, and I was, but I wasn’t always the slowest in the group, and the others assured me they didn’t mind waiting. Actually the main reason for being slow up hills was a consequence of something else, which I’ll come on to. As usual, I was worried about my (lack of) sight and general lack of understanding by the group. Not so much the cycling part of not being able to see, but the usual fears about getting lost or not finding my way around, being too scared to ask for help in the dark, and so on. Again, it wasn’t an issue, even if I did end up going into the gents one day by mistake and incurring the wrath of an old man having a pee. Of course, he didn’t know I couldn’t see anything anyway.
What I wasn’t particularly worried about was falling off. Which is possibly stupid, because mountain biking is renowned for accidents, even if you can actually see where you’re going. In the past I’ve never actually fallen off (other than a “technical dismount”) mountain biking, because I tend to ride very cautiously. I’ve fallen off road bikes when I’ve slipped, but only once had a serious accident (many years ago, cycling back from church I slipped on wet rock on a farm track and fractured my elbow quite spectacularly – obviously God punishing me for not putting enough money in the collection!). What I also wasn’t really worried about was self-doubt. I’ve done lots of cycling trips before and enough mountain biking, and I’m generally a very positive person. Not many people with as many medical conditions as I have, plus being registered blind, go off on cycling holidays on their own and do all the crazy things I do. I have my self-doubts of course, but only over stupid things like not recognising people and falling down long-drop toilets in the dark.
So enough of the suspense. I won’t go into the full story or you’ll be here all night and this blog post will be marketed as a sleeping aid for insomniacs, but the bloodbath started on the morning of the first day’s cycling when I changed gear too enthusiastically and the chain came off. In reattaching it, I sliced my finger open on the sharp edge. After cycling for a few minutes I noticed that my leg and the handlebars were bright red and my finger was pouring blood, so I stopped to put a plaster on, while one of the guides administered some anti-bleeding spray. Of course, the plaster fell off later and more blood poured out, but it was only a minor wound. Still, I had the kudos of first blood on the trip!
On day 2, something slightly more serious happened when I was descending a slightly rocky path and hit a gully. Having negotiated much tricker terrain that morning and feeling rather pleased with myself for attacking it with reasonable gusto (and not even a wobble), this time I was not concentrating quite so hard, and the next thing I knew, I was face down in the dirt, having hit my right knee on a rock and bashed my left leg on the bike. Blood poured out of my knee this time. Luckily, Alessandro was right with me and quickly got out his first aid kit to patch me up, after checking there was no major damage. Ironically, only at lunchtime that day I’d been teasing him about the size of his rucksack and asking if he had dead bodies in it, as it seemed to be much larger than that of the other two guides. Luckily for me, it had not only a full first aid kit, but also a spare warm top which he lent me as the weather had turned very cold while we had stopped. I was actually giggling at this for the next few minutes, despite the pain. I realised later that I never did actually check for dead bodies though – I’m sure there was still room for one in his bag.
As we got back on the bikes, feeling a bit stiff and shaken but otherwise OK, I realised after a couple of miles that my left shin was hurting. I looked down and to my horror realised that there was a tennis ball-sized lump on it. Clearly the bike had hit me in the shin when I fell. Remembering the last time something similar happened, I was a little concerned (hit on the shin by a softball – which incidentally is not soft – the same thing had happened and it had turned out to be a cracked shin bone). Back at the accommodation, I iced my leg and tried to get the grit out of my knee in the shower, but it was impossible to see what I was doing in the gloomy bathroom light, and it turned out that my room mate was terrified of blood (and incidentally needles – neither of which are handy when sharing the room with a diabetic who also tends to get injured!). Dr Alessandro came to the rescue again and proceeded to get his medical kit out a second time. He may be an excellent first aider, but he would make a terrible torturer, as somehow he managed to disinfect and scrape out lots of grit without causing me any pain. He’d never get any secrets out of me with his torture techniques! Throughout the night and the following night, my knee bled into the bed, and I felt rather guilty for leaving a trail of blood in every hotel room we stayed in!
After two days’ rest, a trip to the hospital to check for fractured ribs or worse (another story), I was ready to ride properly again, even if I could barely walk, bend my knee, or breathe without intense pain, and only then after taking both ibuprofen and paracetamol at regular intervals. My confidence started to regain until we rode through my worst possible nightmare – rough forest in bright sunlight with deep shadows, meaning that I couldn’t even see where the path went, let alone distinguish rock from shadow on the ground. Being already injured, I was terrified of falling off, and it literally took every ounce of courage I could muster to get through that section. I was shaking at the end of it, but it was impossible to explain to anyone the extent of my fear and difficulty. And anyway, I’d come on the trip all confident about my ability, so I could hardly then complain that a few trees were so problematic. My self-confidence ebbed away and I just couldn’t get the nagging voice out of my head telling me I shouldn’t be out mountain biking and that I was an idiot for deluding myself that I could do this when I wasn’t up to it. I can’t even begin to explain what riding that stretch of ground was like for me, except perhaps mountain biking in a forest at night without any lights at all.
Normally I can snap myself out of these things, but I just became more and more frustrated and annoyed with myself, and by the evening I realised I had to talk to the guides. After a few glasses of wine I summoned up the courage to talk to them and try to explain my situation, feeling completely pathetic as I did so. I knew how it was sounding – they must be thinking surely what an idiot I was for coming on such a trip when it was clearly beyond me. However, they reassured me that it was normal to feel scared after a fall, and that I would be fine. I again felt like an idiot for getting so upset, but at least I felt a bit better.
Renato and Alessandro, I have to say, were very patient with me and of course they were right. My confidence started returning and I began to enjoy myself properly, until 2 days later I was descending a relatively smooth road and somehow managed to release the back brake unintentionally. I still don’t know quite how or why. The next thing I knew, I’d flown over the handlebars and the bike had flipped over me, and once again I was lying face down in the road, winded. Of course, I’d hit the same knee and shin as the previous time, and also scraped my ribs, chest, nose, arms and hands. I thought my finger was broken at first, but it turned out just to be cut and badly bruised, along with my other hand. Once again, Alessandro was on hand to get out the first aid kit and mop the blood from about 6 different bits of my body. My back and chest, already bruised and in severe pain before the fall, were now excruciating, but there was nothing for it but to limp onwards on the bike for the last few miles to the lunch stop where the others were waiting. Can you limp on a bike? I certainly felt as if I was. This time I was even more shaken than before and struggled to even form words and sentences. Yet again, I spent an afternoon sitting in the van with Renato, while the others got some challenging biking in. I was so annoyed with myself for such a stupid mistake.
That evening I tried to clean up my various injuries in the shower and get rid of the grit. I thought I’d done a good job, but shortly after getting dressed, I looked down and realised that the leg of my jeans was covered in blood. It took me a while to find the source, but it turned out my elbow was pouring blood like a tap, so I grabbed the nearest towel to staunch the flow, and used up the last of my supply of plasters. Of course, that night both elbows bled spectacularly into the bed again, so I left the room the next morning looking as if I’d murdered a goat in the night, or perhaps that a mad axeman had chopped my head off.
There was no way I was not going to ride the next day, but if it had been painful and mentally challenging before, it was now twice as bad, and I laboured up (and down) the hills feeling mentally and physically wrecked. All confidence gone, I spent the entire day debating whether I should give up mountain biking forever, and even if I should give up road cycling too. Maybe I just wasn’t cut out for it. On the bright side, however, I finally knew what it felt like to go over the handlebars, something I’d always wondered (and also feared the most out of all my cycling accidents – well, other than death of course, but there’s no point worrying about that, because once you’re dead you don’t feel anything anyway).
The final day’s riding brought so many challenges – legs and back that hurt so much I could barely move them, an inability to breathe without intense pain, an insulin pump that stopped working for several hours, and getting so cold I couldn’t stop shaking for an hour. However, by the evening after a hot shower and a stern talking-to (from myself) I managed to regain my composure and enjoy the final evening together with the group.
This all sounds like a terribly negative post, and as if I had an awful holiday, but that’s only one side of it. The other side of it is less interesting to describe, but I had many wonderful hours of riding, laughing till my sides hurt, learning new tips from the guides, drinking wine, eating wonderful food, all the things I’ve already mentioned and so much more. The rest of the group were very patient with me despite being very slow at times (me, not them!), and despite being very grumpy at times (not like me at all), and they constantly made sure I was OK. The guides I can’t fault. Alessandro looked after me following both my falls, and always encouraged me when I was feeling low. Renato was quietly solicitous the whole time, and nothing was too much trouble, including spending several hours in the hospital with me one night, even though he was tired and in pain himself. Laura kept me smiling throughout the trip and gave me lots of cycling tips and motivational encouragement – the best of which was a video of her falling over the handlebars only a few years ago when she had first started mountain biking herself. I shouldn’t laugh, but it made me feel a lot better. Even though it was her first tour as a cycle guide, and her English was not quite as proficient as the other two, which made her a little quiet a first, it’s clear that she learnt so much during the trip and will be an excellent guide in no time at all. Well, she already is.
The enjoyment of the trip is so strongly related to the quality of the guides, and for this reason despite the challenges I encountered, I really did have an excellent time. Alessandro told me on the last night that I’d have enjoyed the trip more had I been more positive, which I at first took to be quite insulting, since I think I’m generally quite a positive person, but I think he was talking more about my own self-doubt, which was the only thing that let me down. And that’s a totally fair point.
So, lessons learnt from the trip. I’ll never stop worrying about the stupid things. That’s just my nature. But the only thing that really let me down was getting injured, and both of those were really my fault for not paying enough attention on the less technical sections of the route. I was so worried about the hard bits I forgot to concentrate on the easy bits too. They say you’re not a good horse rider until you’ve fallen off at least 20 times. Having grown up riding horses, I must have fallen off at least 20 times by now, though I’m not sure if I’m really a good horse rider yet. I wrote previously about my experience of riding a horse again for the first time after 30 years. I’m clearly nowhere near a good mountain biker as I’ve only properly fallen off twice, both on this trip. So I guess the moral of the story is not to let my lack of falling off mountain bikes put me off continuing to ride.
Postscript: In retrospect, this post doesn’t really do Sardinia and Saddle Skedaddle the justice they deserve. I’ll rectify that in another post…