Black Ice Ops

There’s a saying in football that you’re never so vulnerable as when you’ve just scored. I just learnt that lesson, even though I thought I’d taken every precaution in the book. For the foreseeable immediate future, I’m out of the game. And for the first time, here’s how it happened…

I checked the forecast on Sunday night, Monday night and Tuesday night: it was nothing that I hadn’t seen before but knowing the terrain of my optional routes, I chose as best I could with safety uppermost in mind. On Tuesday night at bedtime, I made my choice, thought I’d got it right, then experienced it unfolding in a split second before my eyes in the middle of nowhere at 5:40am the following morning.

The killer was a heavy downpour at bedtime on Tuesday night. I suspected it when I set out on Wednesday morning but never in my unwildest dreams expected it to pose a significant threat. That’s when complacency becomes your enemy.

Every night this week, I’ve ridden home across the Fenwick Muir in sub-zero temperatures. At six o’clock, it’s not really that dangerous unless the daytime temperature has been around zero all day. That’s when you know that the danger zones are likely to be as described on the tin: and there are plenty of them, and always in the same places. You get to know where they are, and you know to look out for trouble.

So on Tuesday night, with flooding prevalent on much of my route home and temperatures fast approaching -2C, I already knew that Wednesday morning was a recipe for disaster if I didn’t wise up.

The thing is… I thought I had.

When the rain was hammering down at 11pm, I knew that the Cutstraw Road/Clunch Road favoured option was already out of the question. There are far too many places on that potholed, rutted unlit single track country road where the rainwater runs off the fields and across the road. And being a back road, it never gets gritted. It had detour written all over it.

That left me with two choices: Old Glasgow Road, which starts off as six miles of East Ayrshire followed by four miles of East Renfrewshire before it reaches the relative safety of suburban Newton Mearns, or the arterial Fenwick Road out of Stewarton followed by the A77 all the way from Fenwick. I never, ever ride the A77 bike lane in freezing conditions because it’s never, ever gritted and a spill is just one of a hundred black ice patches away. And the main carriageway, whilst sparsely populated at 5:30am, has the odd arsehole on it who thinks that the road belongs to them and that you should be in the ice lane. It’s scary.

So on Wednesday morning, I went with the Old Glasgow Road. The concern is always “what if East Ayrshire have gritted their bit and East Ren haven’t”. By the time you get to the high point at the White Loch, there’s no alternative, there’s no turning round, it’s just a 500ft descent down a twisty descent. Now that’s scary sub zero…

I knew as soon as I left our street and got out onto the main road that the gritters had been out. You have no idea what a relief it was to hear the crunching of rock salt under my wheels. It becomes like an old friend in winter. It’s when the top of your front wheel is white and the road is twinkling in your lights that you have to be extra careful. But that wasn’t the case here: I was sorted.

For those of you who don’t know Stewarton and the countryside that surrounds it, especially on the Glasgow side, it’s hilly. For six miles after you leave the town on the B769 Old Glasgow Road, it climbs, then flattens out, then climbs again, and repeats this cycle of events for the full six miles until the White Loch. There are one or two bends to be careful of, but in the main it’s a good fast road. Drivers think so too, which is why it’s not my road of choice, but at 5:30am, when you see a motor every ten minutes, it’s no big deal.

Four miles out of Stewarton, just before what’s referred to in our house as the long straight, there’s a farm on the left, opposite where the Corsehouse Burn takes a sharp 180 turn about 20 yards away in the field. Unbeknown to me (in the dark), the burn had overflowed in the night and the water had run down off the field and across the road. I approached it round a left hand bend where the road starts to go slightly downhill at a point where you start to pick up speed for the long straight, ahead of the final climb to the White Loch.

I see a lot of stuff on Social Media about modern cycle lights being far too bright (and badly adjusted) for the traffic conditions so I tend to keep mine pointed down at the road about 5 yards ahead: and in the main, that serves me well: until Wednesday morning that is, when I came round the bend where the burn had frozen across the road. No amount of road salt was going to sort that out.

I hit the brakes and purposefully headed for the other side of the road where the camber was higher: that way, I figured I could use the road to straighten up the camber and stay onboard. There was no way I was stopping in time, not from 15mph with five yards notice.

I thought I’d got away with it. I crossed over all the ice that I knew was underneath me and gingerly headed back across the road to my side. Then I kid you not, I hit the deck in 0.3 sec flat.

For the first time I can remember in ages, I hit my head on the tarmac. The instant headache was the first thing I remember, followed immediately by “ooh, ya fecker, that thumb really hurts”. And the chain had come off. And the handlebars were twisted inwards on both sides. When I came off on the ice in Glasgow last week, only one side of the handlebars took a hit: this time it was both. It was a big impact. A dog emerged from the farm, followed quickly by its owner, to find out what the commotion was all about. The dog got a bollocking, not from me I might add, as I was too busy trying to pull myself together, before it was ushered back inside.

I reckoned I had two choices. Six miles back home and the ignominy of a failed journey, or carry on then spend the rest of the day worrying about how I was going to get the bike home.

And see the best bit: I’m on First Aid duty at work this week. Was I going to A&E on my watch? Was I hell: I self assessed, with the help of a colleague who used to be on the rota. We decided that I probably hadn’t broken either my thumb or my hand, but that an ice pack and ibuprofen would be a good idea.

That got me through the morning, but the pain never really went away. At four o’clock, I had a decision to make, which wasn’t really a decision at all because I reckoned that by riding 19 miles in after the accident, I could probably manage the 20 miles home. The only issue was going to be how I would manage the brakes going down the fearsome Billy Bowie hill with its 90 degree left hander at the bottom, leading straight into a giant pothole if you get the approach wrong. Pothole versus pain: I’m better at pain than I am at potholes. But it was the pain that convinced me that I’d better go and get this looked at soonest.

Jane was still at work by the time I’d turned myself around in the house, and not wanting to (a) subject her to a long wait in an A&E waiting room (b) drive in case they strapped it up such that I couldn’t drive myself home again, I went for the bus.

I guess I must have known my luck wasn’t in when I got five yards from the traffic lights when the bus went past, right to left (it’s a totally blind junction so you can’t see what’s coming). I waited the full half hour, cursing, to the next bus: -2C.

The staff at Crosshouse couldn’t have been more helpful or more friendly. Not only was I in and out in just over an hour, which included Triage, assessment, story of why I was on my bike at 5am, X-ray and diagnosis, I even managed to get an assessment on last week’s rib injury that’s been giving me jip ever since. It turns out that that’s an inter costal muscle tear that might take up to six weeks to heal. You know what? I hope to be through 24,000 miles in six weeks: pain is only a four letter word to a Highland Marcher.

But a hand that’s 20% bigger than the other one, and a thumb that can’t even turn the key in the door, is worth more than just a wee bit of pain. Uppermost in my mind is the fact that I can’t, absolutely can’t come off the bike again while I’m like this. I can’t even grip the handlebars without pain, and for four hours a day, that’s a tough shift. For once, just this once, I’m taking a timeout. LCFN is not a game…

Not even Black Ice Ops.