A split second is not much; it’s the time it takes to put into place the semi-colon that preceded this sentence, or the comma that came after it. But it was all that was needed to see me fly through the air, land on the ground with my hands instinctively outstretched and, the radius of the forearm bones connected to the wrist, painfully broken.
I was home in Penang with my family for the annual Chinese New Year celebrations, and as always, my mountain bike came as part of the entourage.
After 3 days, I’d already clocked a decent ride on the notoriously fast Mt Erskine downhill trail, just 5 minutes from my mom’s house where we stayed. Dotted with big jumps (which I smartly avoided seeing as I’m cross-country rider, not a downhiller) and corners so tight and fast that only the centrifugal force of a near-horizontal bike in motion could keep it glued to the wall of the berm. The thrill is addictive.
The Mt Erskine ride was a quick afternoon jaunt. I’d ridden up the relatively short trail (a 23-minute climb) and flew down it, and then up and down twice more, without incident. It was Chinese New Year, and every night saw us out at one dinner or another, so no long rides for me.
The end of the Mt Erskine trail by bike. From here it leads all the way to the Botanical Gardens..mostly on foot...and some portaging if you want to continue biking.
Today, the first day of the Year of the Water Dragon, I set out for another ride. This time it would be up my favourite hill – Penang Hill. I’m fortunate that living in Fettes Park means all my favourite rides are within ‘a few pedal strokes’ away – no hassle with loading the bike up on the car.
By 4.15, I’m at the foot of the hill outside the Botanical Gardens. The plan is to be back by 6.30 and get ready for another dinner party. I’m looking forward to catching up with old friends at Philip’s house.
The sealed road up Penang Hill is only 5 kms, but it’s an unforgiving beast with some painfully steep, knee-busting sections that can only be survived with the use of a granny gear; in my case, a 22-34 combination. I love climbing this hill.
Oh yes...30% gradient at some of the steeper sections.
One hour later, I emerge onto the top of the hill, and I’m immediately deluged by a big weekend-crowd. I feel like I’m at an ASEAN summit – Indons, Bangladeshis, Myanmars, Nepalis – they’re swarming all over the place, clicking away with abandon. We are such a pitiful foreign-labour-dependent nation.
I stop at a viewing point to take a panoramic photo. It takes me a few tries to get it right. 2 Indon guys with a girl in tow come up to me and ask, “Bang, boleh ambil gambar dengan abang tak?” (Can we take a photo with you?). I’m flabbergasted that anyone would want to take a photo with me. I oblige anyway and pose with them. The guys take turns grabbing me around the shoulder like a long-lost brother, sweaty jersey notwithstanding and, making sure that my bike is visible, they have their pictures taken with me, with the vista of Georgetown and the mainland in the background.
The girl smartly declined.
The ride down to the bottom usually takes about 20 to 25 minutes, and it’s freewheeling almost all the way. As always, it’s a blast. I know this hill by heart – every corner, every tight switchback, even the off-camber bends that are dangerous when wet. But it’s CNY. It’s hot and dry. I’m confident going down, but not so cockily confident that I would hit 80 kph on the steep straight stretches. Yes, once upon a time, I was that foolhardy….
The evening sun is on the leeward side of the hill so the road is in the shade. The air rushing over me is cool and dries up the sweat quickly. I feel light-headed going down. It’s been some time since I last rode this hill so I’m consciously enjoying everything that’s whizzing past me. There are no other sounds except the sharp ratcheting of the noisy Hope hubs and the occasional skid of the back tyre as I over-brake the rear wheel approaching a switchback.
The brakes are working overtime at every switchback and I know for fact that the rotors would burn any flesh that unwittingly comes into contact with it. Once, I’d even worn out the front brake pad and ended up comically stopping the bike with my feet. Thankfully, I’d already slowed down enough to do so, and ended up walking the bike down the rest of the way.
Not surprisingly, the road is also sparse of the usual walkers, making the run down smoother.
About 300 metres from the bottom, I slow down and begin to corner into a tight double-switchback, the first of the last 3 to go before I’m home free.
I never heard it coming – the single-rider kap-chai chugging its way up the steep bend. In that split second, as I come face to face with the motorbike, all I can see and hear is the rider wide-eyed and yelling “Wohhhh!!!”. In retrospect, there was absolutely nothing I could do. It was a corner going downhill, and even at that slow speed, it was impossible for me to avoid him.
And so, I crash into his front wheel and went flying over the top. I land with a sharp pain on my left wrist. I get up and sit on the ground wincing in pain. I take one look a my wrist and I know without a doubt that it is broken. There is a slight protrusion where the bone is broken, and all I can say is “Oh, shit”.
Thoughts flash through my mind as I sit there – no more biking, pain, hospital, arm in cast … and no more biking. Oh shit, indeed. I mean, damn it…I’ve done this ride countless times, always without incident. Why? Why?
The guy asks me if I’m alright – dumb question, seeing as I’m holding my hand and wincing in pain.
“Would you like me to take you to a hospital?” he asks again. I tell him no, just take me home if you can.
“What about your bike?”
“Saya boleh pegang, tak apa” (I can carry it, no problem)
He looks at me, incredulous that I can still think about the bike.
I realise then that apart from the broken wrist, there isn’t a single scratch on me. So, there I was, one hand out of commission, and with the other, I grab my bike and rest the saddle on my shoulder, and I get onto the pillion. A photograph would be priceless at that moment but thankfully, it never crossed my mind.
It’s evening so the roads are choked with cars out for dinner. If I had called Lilian to come and fetch me, it would have taken her at least an hour to get to the base of the hill which takes me only 15 minutes by bicycle.
We weave through the endless stream of cars moving at turtle-speeds and reach home in 10 minutes. My mom is duly shocked when she sees me, but my wife is only half as shocked, mainly because there’s no blood and I’m still standing, trying my best to look normal. She’s somewhat used to the aftermath of bike crashes that I have sustained over the years, but this time, she doesn’t know that the injury is serious.
The Adventist Hospital is also near but it takes us 45 minutes to get there. En-route, Philip gets a call to expect 2 less guests for the night.
Anyway, I see a doctor in out-patient who tells me I need to see an orthopedic surgeon who, after looking at the xrays, tells me it’s best to operate and get a metal splint in place. The next day it’s done and the day after, arm still swollen from the surgery and in a sling, I check out. It has cost me RM9,500 but fortunately, insurance will cover it.
I like titanium as much as the next mountain biker but this isn't quite what I had in mind. I'm told it's surgical grade titanium, no worries of setting off the airport metal detector alarm.
The nice nurses giving me a post-op cryo-cuff, a sleeve with iced-water running through it wrapped around the wrist to reduce swelling
Squeamish to look at, yes...
What can I say? Que sera sera...
It will probably be about 2 months before I can ride again. Meanwhile, all I can do is lick my wounds and bide my time. But I take comfort in the Word which tells me that I should “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is His will for you”. I guess I’m thankful that I’m still alive. If only I can see the silver lining in there somewhere ….
Yessir, a split second is all it takes to turn your world upside down. Damn…if only those Indons had not asked to have their photographs taken with me. Or if only I hadn’t stopped to take a shot…or if only I had started earlier… or if only I had started later… if only… if only … if only….