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September 24, 2011 Features No Comments

I wrote this a few months ago for a book being put together by LFGSS. I don’t think the book has been published yet, but this article was about the power of internet community spirit in hard times. The reason I focused on people I didn’t know and not the great friends and family that rallied round, is just because of that: I didn’t know them. So thanks again, not just the LFGSS guys, but everybody else who supported us then and now.

Everybody goes through life thinking “it’ll never happen to me,” and then one day, it does.

“Someone was holding my hand and comforting me the moment the truck had stopped rolling,” my girlfriend tells me. “At the time I could see my leg was lost and I just wanted to die, but the girl holding my hand was comforting me and helping me to stay calm.” The way she says it fills me with awe and incomprehension. Being trapped beneath the rear wheels of an 18 tonne truck is something I find impossible to imagine.But hearing her talk about it months later, in almost matter of fact tones, when day-to-day routine has made her situation ‘normal’, is a blessing. And since that Monday in early December 2010, I’ve counted many more blessings besides.There’s a thread on the LFGSS forum called Rider Down and I think this chronicle in particular demonstrates the community spirit of this two-wheeled culture more than any other.  The support network had made contact the moment that hand had been extended to my girlfriend, Veronika. It happened before the paramedics had arrived on the scene, it happened even before the truck’s ignition had been switched off.

Situations like these – accidents, incidents, call them what you will – don’t just happen to the person directly involved. They may start on the tarmac but they don’t end there. If you read through the posts on the rider down thread you can see the effect as it ripples out beyond friends and family and hits the whole community.

A good number of people reading that thread knew about the situation before I did. Veronika was getting well wishes from concerned strangers about the same time as I got a call from the human resources department at work to tell me the police were on their way.

It sounds like a cliche, but the moment I stepped out of the office and into the police car, it felt like a veil had been lifted from my eyes and I was suddenly aware of a whole other world that existed in parallel with the one I knew. I wasn’t just given an insight into the emergency services, it was an insight into human nature.

Veronika was asleep for the best part of three weeks, blissfully oblivious to the chaos going on around her. While she benefited from top notch medical care, I benefited from a great support network of family, friends and co-workers who all banded together to help me get through this. I’m eternally grateful to them, but I’m also deeply touched by the great comfort I got from people I didn’t know, people who I might never have known had this not happened. The fantastic doctors, surgeons and nursing staff; the first policeman on the scene who stopped by the hospital several times when he was off duty; the fireman who jacked the truck up at the scene and cooked me and my dad dinner on Christmas day; and the LFGSS forum members with their support and understanding.

I remember one morning during those first few days, a policeman from the Road Death Investigation unit coming in to see me. It’s a morbid name for the division, but it probably most accurately reflects the gravity of the incidents they deal with. Quite early on in the conversation he said something like: “Some cycling group has been in touch as well, to offer their support. London single something…”

“London Fixed Gear Single Speed?”

I think my face lit up for the first time in days at that point. I’m not a regular user of the forum but I visited on occasion. I’d posted a couple of mechanical queries in the past and got the impression that no one wanted to speak to me. I suppose like most forums, there’s a level of insularity, in-jokes and banter that exists among the hard core of users who spend the most time on there. It’s probably a difficult environment for a newbie to break into and made the responses to my updates about Veronika even more touching. Now she jokes about the fact that no one replied to my posts about the workings of coaster brakes, but floods of responses came in after I posted updates about her recovery.

While I’d guessed there would be something about the incident on the Rider Down thread, I hadn’t expected so much genuine concern and it seemed like the only thing to do was release whatever information I could – a difficult exercise as things were touch and go for a while there.

It was a very cathartic experience. During those early days, lots of conversations I had with people revolved around the dangers of cycling in London and assumed that I would become some sort of campaigner against cycling. Indeed, for a few weeks I was pretty shaken up about the whole idea of ever getting back on a bike again. You may remember a young policeman who got stabbed in London around this time. Well, he was in the bed opposite Veronika for a while and Boris Johnson came in to see him. My mum was sitting with Veronika that day and I left her with instructions to lobby Johnson about better cycling infrastructure for London if she saw him. I had to laugh when the nurses told me his handlers snuck him in and out the back door, avoiding the public eye. How many people on an intensive care ward are going to be in any state to harass the mayor? But maybe he’s met my mum before.

So we got dozens of messages of support, not just for Veronika’s general well-being and recovery, but also encouraging notes on the future potential of an amputee cyclist. Even as I write this, another message has just landed in my inbox, gently reminding me that an update on Veronika’s recovery is long overdue. Never mind what shenanigans go on in the rest of the forum, LFGSS is populated by upstanding gents and ladies who are very caring and supportive. I even managed to track down the lady cyclist who first held Veronika’s hand through the pages of the forum. How’s that for providence – Veronika will now be able to shake that lady’s hand once again, but under very different circumstances.

I was also encouraged to get back on the bike and back onto the streets of London myself. It’s reassuring to know that there are people out there who go through similar cycling experiences on a daily basis and it feels good to be part of something that can reach out to people in a similar situation to Veronika’s, as well as those that are involved in better and unfortunately, worse, incidents. There’s no sense giving up something you’re passionate about because of fear. If that happens, everybody loses.

I’m sure everybody goes through life thinking “it’ll never happen to me,” whatever it is, and then one day it does. In these situations we all rely on the kindness of strangers for support. I found a comment on LFGSS from forum founder Velocio, which sums the community up nicely: “This place is about the people. First and foremost it’s about the people.” The rest just really isn’t that important. It’s like the man sang – when the milkman of human kindness stopped by, he left an extra pint.

Written by James Middleton
James is the founder and editor of the Bespoke Bicycle Club as well as the founder of 8Ball Bicycles and director of Colossi Cycling UK.