The challenge: get back in the saddle

Our passions make us who we are. Passions must be indulged. Riding a bike is one of my great passions. I own five bikes and desperately need another. The formula for the number of bikes a cyclist needs is n + 1 (n being the number the cyclist already has!). Whether up hill or down dale, the longer, harder and faster the better. I simply love to ride.

In his book ‘It’s all about the bike‘, given to me by good friend Richard Caddick, Robert Penn captures why we ride: “I ride to get to work, to keep fit, to bathe in air and sunshine, to escape when the world is breaking my balls, to savour the physical and emotional fellowship of riding with friends, to travel, to stay sane, to skip bath time with my kids, for fun, for a moment of grace, occasionally to impress someone, to scare myself and to hear my boy laugh.”

There are more I could add as a designer; inspire design ideas, solve a design problem. Some are more important than others but ‘for a moment of grace’ is a key reason I ride. I train and race mountain bikes. All in an effort to attain that moment of grace or flow on a bike. Head down, arms tucked and aerodynamic. Core tight, controlled and pedals flying. All for that moment of grace, when it all comes together and it flows. This winter, I had put in place a great base to compete well in the 2011 season. The National Championships were on the cards again, after scoring my first national points last year. The Leadville 100 in Colorado was a possibility. I enter each year, hoping for success in the lottery for selection. I had done two weeks hard training in the winds and hills of Lanzarote. Winter training was bitterly cold at times. The miles were under the belt.

Dalby Forest - Nationals 2010

I’ve always been a lucky cyclist. Small and lightweight, I’ve taken my fair share of falls. I fall well. My luck ran out, not on the side of a mountain, but on the side of a road near my home on the 18th Jan, as I cycled to Mild Bunch HQ to work with my Analog Coop and Mapalong buddies: @dotjay, @jontangerine, @shiflett, and @FictiveCameron.

The chair lift

I was cycling at about 15 miles per hour on a straight piece of road. The sun was bright. It was a cold but beautiful Winter’s morning. Brushing the branches with my shoulder, I was well positioned on the road, as far in as possible. Then, something happened, which my mind could not process. Without an answer, my mind made something up. Telling me the vast increase in speed and the huge impact from behind, was because I was now on a chair lift. My vision became dark and tunnel like, I clearly remember. My response surprised me. I didn’t panic! Maybe that’s how my mind intended it. This chair lift, then dumped me off. Luckily into the side of the road. It was over and I was conscious.

Have others experienced a similar phenomena? Where the mind makes up something when it can’t process what’s going on. There’s research demonstrating that the mind can incorrectly fill in gaps left from our fading memory, but this was new to me. I’m baffled and intrigued.

As I lay on the cold road, I became aware that I had been hit by something. Everything went as you’d expect. People gathered around. The scene was frantic. A lady held my head off the cold, hard road. Her hand was warm. Gently telling me that it would be okay. To stay with her. The emergency service, were quick and practiced. I was off the cold road and in an ambulance. I maintained consciousness.

I didn’t realise at the time but my MacBook Pro being in my backpack, took a huge impact and is a write-off. Right underneath this impact was where my back bone is broken in two places. Luckily the Mac took some of the force away from my spine, as you can see below, saving further injury.

Jon's old laptop looking worse for wear after accident.

Apple saved my legs if not my life, you could say! Not panicking may very well have helped too. I went the direction I was taken, which luckily was into the hedge, rather than back onto the road and oncoming traffic.

It’s thought I was hit by the side door and wing mirror of a large flatbed van. For many a cyclist, poor design of wing mirrors has lead to great injury. Some are metal and do not fold back on impact, causing  great injury. The design of this mirror did not take into consideration its contact with the world around it. Certainly not contact with a softy like me.

The pain was full on now, all down my right hand side. Morphine injections flowed. Oxygen helped with difficult breathing. Frustratingly, uttering my name to help the emergency services, was not possible. Surprisingly, amid all of this, as the medic struggled to take my heart rate, I smiled. There’s either something wrong with the machine, or this guy was seriously fit, I heard him say, which brought on a grin of pride in my Winter’s efforts. I knew then, that I was still with it. My head was no bigger than before! My bike came with me in the ambulance. It also accompanied me to A&E. I wondered when I’d be back in the saddle again. I couldn’t contemplate life without this passion. My recovery already had focus.

Recovery

The past two weeks, I don’t wish to recount. They were dark. I am very lucky, for lots of reasons. There are people that have to endure a lot more pain and suffering. I had a glimpse and it scared the shit out of me. My heart goes out to anyone going through such trauma. Hospital requires a new vocabulary; intravenous, haemoglobin, pulse, surgical, injections, bloods, bowels, to list but a few of unpleasant words. With the love and support of my wife, Jane, I got through it. Hospitals are no place to get well. I was pure delighted to get home to see my two daughters again.

Two and a half weeks on, I lie here on my good side, typing between naps. My spine is broken. My liver and more importantly, my right kidney have stopped bleeding. I’m less yellow too! The bruised lung inhibits breathing less now. The right side of my body has massive muscle and tissue damage. Time will heal I hope. Of all the mountain bike challenges I’ve done, six hour or twelve hour, this recovery represents the biggest challenge yet. Like all challenges, the mental side is key to success. I know this much. The Leadville 100 motto states, ‘You’re better than you think you are and you can do more than you think.’ This motto focuses on ‘think’ because the people, who run or bike this 100-mile course at 10,000 feet, know to get through it, mental strength is everything. Depending on the various scans, tests, physio and without problems, I hope to walk, swim, run and cycle again. Lets see what time brings.

A designer hospitalised

While in hospital, what was I to do? I was in pain and needing something to take my mind off it. I looked to another passion of mine, design for inspiration. There was little around me to inspire.

Photo in hospital bed

Beautiful things make us happy

Hospitals are all about function and utility. They focus on the individual’s physical, rather than emotional or spiritual well-being. Purposefully, hospitals remove all aesthetic from the patient’s surrounds. The approach seems to be, heal the body and the mind will follow! Many hospitals in the UK even remove flowers. Who’s to argue? In practical terms, it works. There’s two sides to recovery, as there are two sides to people: physical and mental. These are inextricably linked. In my experience, hospitals could cater better for the emotional side of recovery. As humans, we’re pre-wired to like things of beauty. Symmetry, colour, form and balance make us happy. Good design makes us happy, as Don Norman points out in his book ‘Emotional Design‘ (Why we love everyday things). Hospitals are devoid of any beauty by design. This compels us to want to leave, and makes them poor places to get well mentally. This got me down after a period of time. I longed for something beautiful to emotionally connect with, to lift my spirits. There was nothing. Perhaps, this is someplace where hospitals can improve.

A patient’s experience

Being in a road accident, my injuries were not contained to one area of the body. A team of doctors dealt with each of the injuries: one each for liver, kidney and orthopaedic. Each specialist, each excellent, but no one taking a holistic view of my well-being. With one group advocating mobility and another total bed rest, I received mixed messages and was left confused – not knowing whether to sit up or lie down.

This process is reminiscent of how some large sites and companies operate. Each department doing their best individually, in a silo. Just as in health care, this disjointed approach leads to an inconsistent experience for people using a web site. As on some web sites we use, the long tail is less planned and focused than the initial period of intense activity. This leads to inconsistency and sometimes neglect over the longer period. For a web site, this can be months or years. In A&E, this can be a matter of hours or days to go from intensive care, surgical to a recovery ward. I thought as I lay there, what if Apple did health care?

In the end…

There is a lesson to cyclists: it was important to the emergency services and everyone there after that I was waring a helmet, with a hi-visibility jacket and was well positioned on the road. This did not stop me being hit. It did deflect any blame away from me and onto the driver. I was told by Police, later in hospital, that they were looking to charge the driver with a serious driving offense. As cyclists, day or night, we need to do all we can to be seen. It not only puts us on the right side of the law, but it keeps us safe nearly all the time. Join the movement to bring hi-vis jackets back into fashion – it could save your life.

The triumph for me lies in the kindness of my family and also strangers. The hand under the head, the encouraging words, the visit from the police officer while off duty. The non-stop and uplifting support of my wife and kids and all my amazing family in Ireland. The past few weeks, the Irish Channel has seemed bridged. The amazing and continued support from other web professionals, though sites like Twitter, is nothing short of healing, priceless. I’m hugely proud to be a web professional. To be part of a cohesive and caring community, that keeps giving.

There’s the triumph of the human body in adversity. To take an impact and not only survive but start to mend itself. To unleash adrenaline when needed, which by comparison, is far more powerful than the best synthetic pain killer. I feel thankful and lucky to still be here. I thank my lucky stars I was wearing a backpack, helmet and didn’t panic. That I fell away from the road and not into oncoming traffic.

I will get around to thanking everyone individually, but for now here are some anonymous sentiments, which really helped heal:

“Good to hear you talking to us. It’s often a long journey to recovery. Take things minute by minute. Go easy on yourself.”

“So sorry to hear about your accident. Please God you’re now over the worst of it. As my late Mother would say about that van driver ‘that his hole may fester’. God bless you.”

“Wow, Alan! Life can be so shocking. You’re dear to my heart; wish wisdom for doctors; strength, healing, peace for you/family.”

“Send your prayers to @alancolville who get hit on his bike by some dope in a truck. He’s laid up in the hospital plotting his revenge.”

“Relieved to hear I still live in a world with marvellous You in it. Sending good vibes.”

Thanks to @colly for this touching video dedication from the New Adventures conference, which I missed due to the accident. At the conference, designer and fellow Analog Coop colleague, Jon Tan, very kindly dedicated his talk to me. Chuffed!

Posted Thursday, February 3rd, 2011 under bike, design, psychology, UX.

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28 comments

  1. Jeeze mate!!! I had no idea! I’ve no doubt that your passion for life will be the fuel on your road to recovery. May it be swift and full. Thoughts and prayers with you and your family and thank you for sharing your experience. (Guy and my brother, who also cycle to work, will be getting a link to this!)

  2. Alan, so glad to hear you’re doing better. It will be a long road to recovery, but it sounds like you’re in a good place. Sending positive thoughts and prayers your way.

    Melanie xx

  3. James Tarling says:

    Wishing you a quick recovery and that you can get back on your bike soon. So impressed that you have found things to inspire you from all this.

  4. So glad you’ve survived and are able to write again. Seems like you’ve a way to go, but it’s good that you’re able to think positively.

    Regards,

    Rob…

  5. what a great read alan, thanks for sharing your ordeal and reminding us all how fragile our lives are. I’d tell you to ‘keep on truckin’ but you may not appreciate the pun so instead we’ll just keep you in our thoughts and send you love and positive vibes, k? x

  6. Saw a retweet from @greg_a (originally by @jontangerine) about this post on your accident.

    I’ve got the helmet. I’ve got the high-vis jacket. I’ve even got a backback and wear it regularly when I cycle. Your story has just encouraged me to get a MacBook Pro. My black plastic MacBook just doesn’t look like it’ll do the job!

    My brother fractured his spine in a snowboarding fall. His water bottle had frozen in his backback and that happened to be between him and the white stuff when he hit the ground. He was lucky and the damage was minimal. He was back on his feet and back on his board (and bike for that matter) in a matter of weeks.

    I wish you all the best on your recovery and look forward to reading that you’re back on your bike.

  7. What an amazingly written piece. I hope you recover fully, both in health and emotionally.

  8. Wow, that’s some story Alan! I too used to race x-country so I fully empathise with you on what you say there. Had my fair share of falls too but not quite like that. Thank god for the MBP eh!

    You may remember this? http://is.gd/qecdRo :)

    Hope you recover soon!

  9. You have written so eloquently about such a traumatic experience, I am moved and impressed. I wish you a smooth, speedy and full recovery.

    What really motivated me to write though was to thank-you for your good advice about wearing a helmet. Both me and my partner cycle – until recently we did so on a daily basis in London, but we’ve just moved out to the countryside and are a little trepidatious about the country roads – and we have an ongoing dispute between us about whether to wear a helmet or not. Your point about wearing a helmet, that – whether or not it protects you from further damage in an accident – it helps you in the aftermath (if that isn’t too dramatic a term!) with regards to the response from the emergency services and police/insurance finding fault, is a winning point.

    New helmets are definitely to be place on our heads before we venture out into our new surroundings on two wheels.

    (p.s. the Analog website went straight in my inspiration library when you launched and I very much enjoyed Jon Tan’s talk at #naconf)

  10. OK… First off, I’m not a fan of helmets. They are annoying and I only wear mine occasionally. Based on this post I have made a promise to myself to aim to wear one all the time.

    However, I have hated hi-viz reflective jackets for a long time. I want to be comfortable when I am cycling. This is my hobby and a way to exercise. I have tried vests and shoulder to waist straps before and just cant stand them, epecially if I want to push myself and burn a calorie or two.

    During long lazy summer rides to a country pub I don’t really fancy decking out full PPE.

    So I am currently searching for a neon orange hoodie. Prefereably, available in the UK. I would prefer it not to have reflective parts, since I am thinking about day light cycling and I have a high-vis jacket for night cycling. Also I would prefer not to have massive logos or branding on it. The only hoodies that I have found so far are neon yellow. Not really my cuppa tea.

    If anyone has ever seen anything like this, I would be interested to hear of it.

  11. First of all, Alan, I’m really glad the worst is behind you and seeing what a determined person you are, I’m sure you’ll be back in the saddle soon. Wishing you a quick recovery.

    I was hit by a car a few years ago, also riding my bike to work. I signaled that I’m changing lanes, quickly looked back, was about to change lanes… the next thing I remember was flying off to the pedestrian side of the road. The woman who hit me came out and started yelling at me, blaming me for the accident. Fortunately, I’ve had witnesses, even a woman cop happened to be there, saying I did nothing wrong. I was just thankful that I’m alive, nothing happened to me, so I didn’t press any charges.

    In your case, I’m really hopping the careless driver who hit you will be rightfully punished.

  12. Dear sir,
    What an inspiring account! That mac book makes me wince. What brilliant conclusions you draw from this though, i wish you the best of recovery and that you’ll be joining the Leadville 100 next time for sure! Thank you for these words.

  13. What a beautifully written article…

    I fractured my spine in a horse riding accident years ago. I don’t remember much detail about my recovery – but the important thing is that I recovered. And you will too.

    I’m sure attitude was as important as the care I received. Some days were tough – some days I was overcome with an intense awe of how fantastic the human body is. It’s fragile and yet so so resilient…

    I love your n + 1 analogy. It applies to everything – mountain bikes, gadgets, chocolate…

    Please keep writing of your road to recovery.

    Best wishes
    Pam :-)

  14. It’s emotional to read your account of the accident, Al. And it’s amazing to see you – and others as readers – take inspiration from it.

    You’ll already know that your point about generic, stale, and impersonal design in medicine interests me. Emotionless design, you could call it! Interesting to think that many hospitals are missing an important part of physiological well-being – the psychological. As a result of this post, you’ve got me reading about evidence-based design for health care, which is a study based on the theory that physical environment has measurable influence on our well-being. Research into this has apparently been around for 30 years or more, yet seems to still be in its infancy.

    It’s really great to see you on the road to recovery already, and I look forward to seeing you take on the National Championships, even though it won’t be this year. I know you can do it!

    I for one will certainly be wearing a helmet whenever I go out on my bike from now on. And thanks to Ollie’s comment above, I may well invest in one of these!

  15. Thats the badger, thanks Jon

  16. Alan, I’ve never met you but I’d just lime to say your efforts to put this article together have been well worth it. Great read and hope you are back on your bike soon!

  17. Alan, as a fellow cyclist and web designer I wish you all the best.

    While on the mountain I have continually been told that mountain biking is all about being in control when you are out of control. By the sounds of it, despite all of the adversity you have this well under control.

    Best of luck and recover soon mate!

  18. Awesome! Considering the circumstances: awesomer.

  19. Alan,

    I am so happy to hear that you have kept your spirits up throughout this trying time. Having the support of a loved one when seriously injured is the one thing that kept me from getting down in the dumps, so please make sure to cherish (and reiterate your appreciation for) your wife.

    Keeping the mind busy is something that helped me, and I’m sure that you’ll have no problem with that. Being at home in comfortable surroundings is always best for the healing process, it’s one of the reasons why home birth / midwifery and the more ‘elite’ hospitals with better decor are gaining recognition aside from having doctors that are the best in their field. I’m very sure that not being woken up by footsteps, alarms, bloops and that machine that goes BEEEP! is a great help as well. ;)

    In any case, I hope that your personal goals are met; customer expectation is always key, but knowing your drive for excellence… it will be delivered with a smile. Keep your chin up no matter what, we ARE a resilient beast.

  20. Alan Colville says:

    Writing this was cathartic. Reading these is inspiring.
    Thanks so much for the kind wishes and good vibes.
    I’m delighted people are taking away positive messages.

  21. John Burchill says:

    Hi Alan, we met up at grandads funeral. Just heard heard about your accident after being on the phone from my mum. Mum and dad (Mick and Margaret) send their love. Really impressed with your progress and your attitude, you are clearly strong in mind and spirit. Keep us informed, and take each day as it comes and i wish you a speedy recovery.

    Best wishes,

    John

  22. alancolville says:

    Really good to hear from you John.
    I hope Mick and Margaret are keeping well. Say ‘hi’ from me.

    Thanks so much for your best wishes.

  23. Eleanor + Kevin says:

    hi alan, glad to hear you are making a good recovery. our thoughts and prayers are with you. if you have the same strength and spirit that grandad had in his long life we know you will be back on the bike before too long. take care.

    best wishes

    kevin and eleanor

  24. Carmel McDonald says:

    Alan,

    I was about to book my car in for a service at Colville Hunt and did not have their number and had to look it up on the internet and came across your story. Thank you for sharing your ordeal with the World, a lot can be learned from it. Wishing you a speedy recovery and my thoughts and prayers are with you. You have a positive attitude and this will go a long way to your recovery and you will be back on the bike again. Take Care.

  25. alancolville says:

    Thank you Carmel for your kind words and wishes. I hope you found the Colville Hunt number and the service goes well :-)

  26. Massive congratulations on your recovery Alan. My brother was nearly killed in a bike/car RTA and spent 6 months in hospital + 3 at home before he could stand unaided with crutches. It takes a hell of a lot of courage, backed up with support to come back from something like that. Well done to you and keep on going!

  27. alancolville says:

    Hi Justin! Your brother’s accident sounds terrible. I wish him the very best in his physical and mental recovery. I hope his life returns to normal and he gets back in the saddle, if that’s his aim. Thank you so much!

  28. alancolville says:

    Hi friends! It’s coming up on two years since the accident. I thought I’d share my progress in getting back in the saddle with you – http://half-arsedracer.com/fullycommitted/

    Thanks always for the best wishes and support.

    Happy Christmas and a safe New year,
    Alan

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