On bikes and bones

How I survived a high-speed accident

A week ago we set out on a somewhat daring enterprise: to cycle around one of the largest, most beautiful lakes in Europe. It is a very popular tour that thousands undertake each year. Even elderly people, who are assisted by the marvellous invention of e-bikes.

Lake Constance is surrounded by three countries: Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

In the future I will be writing an article that describes all the beautiful places we saw and the things we did. For now I am using this page to inform relatives, friends and business associates what happened during the trip and what consequences it has for the next few months.

The high-speed accident

We rode around Lake Constance on nice, modern e-bikes. They support your efforts in a very intelligent way, taking some of the load every time you press down on the pedals. On the first day, starting from Friedrichshafen, we covered over 70 km, crossing from Germany through Austria and entering Switzerland. On the second day the organisers had arranged train tickets to Sankt Gallen (St. Gall, San Gallo in the map above). There we spent some hours exploring the world famous hermitage which contains a historical library with books from the 9th century. It was very beautiful and very impressive.

The way back to the lake is all downhill, with well-built bicycle lanes that invite you to test the speed you can achieve on modern “velos”, as the Swiss call them. I was able to get up to 45 km/h, and could have reached 50, if I had had the courage to do so. Incidentally the e-bike will only assist you up to 25 km/h — for safety reasons. At one stage, cycling at a more leisurely pace, I saw the lane blocked by three cyclists who were using it to chat. Instead of slowing to a stop and protesting I swerved off the lane onto the car road, which was empty, and after passing the group, tried to get back onto the bike lane. Unfortunately the curb separating the lane from the road was higher than anticipated and, instead of mounting it, I crashed onto the pavement.

One of the three offenders rushed over to me and asked if I was okay. “I think I am,” I replied — I was more concerned about the e-bike. It seemed in perfect condition, and we were able to continue the trip without further ado. I had a bruised knee and modest pain in the ribs on my left side. I was wearing a bicycle helmet, and that saved me from a debilitating injury — my head smacked onto the stone pavement when I crashed, but it was unscathed. And otherwise I seemed to be fine, and we got to our next destination towards the evening. We had covered over 120 km since the start. I need to mention that the weather, on most of the trip, was blistering hot: we were roasted by glaring sunshine and temperatures rising to 37°C. Absolutely brutal.

That night the pain in my chest became quite intense, and in the morning it was positively unbearable. I have never experienced such pain in my life. Getting out of bed, coughing or sneezing, or raising my left arm, were hideously painful. I had clearly bruised or even cracked a rib, I assumed.

So what were the options: return to Hamburg on the third day, leaving the rented bikes at the hotel, where the organisers could have them picked up? Ingrid, seeing my distress, advocated doing exactly that, and repeated the offer every day. I decided to continue for a while, and discovered that things got much better with me on the bike — in fact after a while I told her I was fine and on the way to complete recovery. Apart from the scorching heat it was a very enjoyable third leg of the trip.

But: dismounting from the bike at the hotel made the pain come back in full force, worse than before. Another traumatic night, only relieved to some extent by 600 mg of Ibuprofen. The next day the same: I was fine on the bike, in excruciating pain when I got off for lunch or sleep, with Ingrid offering to break off the tour and take the next train home. But we continued, covering slightly over 200 km after the accident, and getting onto the train back home on schedule, yesterday (Thursday). The pain had slightly abated, and I had made an appointment for Friday, 8 am, with my doctor here in Hamburg.

However fate had one more tribulation in store for us: the train trip back home was continuously interrupted, once for two hours due to a “field fire” across the tracks up ahead. Finally, due to one of the most violent hurricane storms to hit northern Germany in recent years, all train services were suspended and we were asked in Hanover, 160 km from home, to find quarters for the night — together with hundreds of other distraught passengers. Fortunately we had a better solution: call Tommy. Our son got into the car, picked us up and dropped us at our doorstep shortly after midnight. It had been a harrowing 14-hour journey.

The diagnosis

So this morning I was at my doctor’s doorstep, at 8 am. After examination he sent me to a trauma surgery clinic, where a nice lady doctor listened to my story and then had me x-rayed. After scanning the images she turned to me and said: “It happened on the second day of your tour? And you rode on for three days and nearly 200 km??” The implied continuation was: are you some kind of a nut?

What she saw on the x-rays (click to enlarge) was four broken ribs. They are not clearly visible to a lay person, and so I asked her: really broken, with air space between the parts? Yes, severed cleanly. She did a careful ultrasound of the surrounding tissue, making sure there were no bone splinters tearing at the lung or scratching the pericardium. Thank heavens that was fine, and that there were no haematoma —no blood clotting behind the broken ribs. Everything was clear, I could return home.

The treatment: none at all. Turns out you just have to wait for the ribs to heal, all by themselves. They fuse back together and repair the damage, in around six week. The only thing to do is control the pain. For this I have been given a regime of medication, starting with Ibuprofen and Novalgin, and including pre-opiate tablets which I should use in case I had “important meetings or lectures to deliver.” If the pain becomes unbearable I would even get opium, they said. Not going to happen — I am clearly on the mend. Although, maybe out of curiosity…?! But I have tried it once before.

When leaving the surgery clinic I asked the doctor: “Is there any worse pain than four fractured ribs?” — “Sure,” she said, “five fractured ribs.”

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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