I joked a little about recycling old unpublished stuff. And mostly that’s true but in this case it really isn’t. Coming up four years ago, my friend Russ Pinder has a massive crash on a brutal descent in Wales. The outcome was a “T4” which means he is paralysed from the chest down. But he’s doing ok and that’s almost entirely due to his mental strength, refusal to succumb to misery and the love and support of his family. He’s an inspiration to everyone but his survival is due – at least for the first days – the air ambulance.
The “hour of life” which differentiates those dying in inaccessible mountains and those being cared for in hospital is often down to the charity funded yellow helicopters. You can read more about a foundation Russ and his friends started to support them here. If you’ve got a spare quid, there are far worse places to spend it.
Anyway here’s the article written in March 2003. It was too raw to publish after the accident and I’m only doing it now in the hope that at least one of you who occasionally find the hedgehog amusing may like to donate to a fantastic cause.
I have a friend called Russ. Donâ€™t get me wrong, heâ€™s not some schoolyard pal or a soulmate whose take on life complements mine. Heâ€™s just a bloke Iâ€™ve been riding with, on and off, for the last eighteen months. Heâ€™s fast everywhere; uphill, downhill, over technical challenges and on the road. Heâ€™s passionate about our sport to the point of being a little intense. Heâ€™s a bike per genre kind of guy with a lightweight hardtail, a pimpy full-suss and a FR/DH bike. Sometimes heâ€™s a bit condescending and his competitive gland is scarily overactive but all in all, heâ€™s a generous, warm hearted, committed mountain biker.
Like I say Iâ€™ve got a friend called Russ. Heâ€™s lying in a hospital bed paralysed from the chest down. He wanted to be the perfect mountain biker, straining for the pinnacle of his sport and yet for all he has put in, the rest of his life stretches away in a chasm of paralysis that his wheelchair can never cross.
Itâ€™s a week since it happened but details are still sketchy. Whilst my downhill medium was snow and skis, a bunch of the usual suspects had taken advantage of the unseasonably dry weather to tackle the famed Tal-Y-Bont loop. Last year, Iâ€™d done the same and been blown away by the pace and the mountains. It was a pretty intimidating ride on all counts but Russ was in his element â€“ fast and confident, excelling in his chosen sport. This time out, the world schismed and weâ€™ll probably never know why. But on the descent from the Gap, Fate tipped the balance delivering a partial sacrifice to an uncaring God. Itâ€™s a brute of a descent â€“ steep, scary and unforgiving at the top tending to stupidly fast whilst retaining itâ€™s rocky backbone toward the bottom. I vividly recall Russ blowing by me last year â€“Gulfstream to Cessna â€“ accelerating to Motocross speed with only a light plastic compound helmet as protection against a fall.
Iâ€™m working off eye witness accounts swayed by aftershock and grounded in guilt. â€˜What else could we have done?â€™ his riding companions plaintively ask. Probably nothing but the spectre of passiveness in the face of nebulous evidence will haunt them for a long time. Maybe for ever. No one actually saw the accident but empirical evidence from the aftermath is compelling â€“ the front wheel 50 yards behind the battered frame, itself lying beyond the trail boundary fence, equidistantly bisected by a permanently damaged and limp Russ, lying motionless on the unyielding rocks which broke his fall and broke his back.
His riding friends were magnificent. They kept him warm, took a GPS reading and urgently called an air ambulance. This in the light of Russâ€™ helmet being nothing more than polycarbonate shards and the man himself crying â€˜I canâ€™t feel my legsâ€™. I just donâ€™t know who to start feeling sorry for first.
Helicopters, hospitals, logistics and worrying ate up the next 6 hours as Heather (Russâ€™ wife) is driven from Didcot in Oxfordshire while his riding buddies crowd into the ward waiting for news. There wasnâ€™t much and none of it was good â€“ rumour and introspection are not happy bedfellows.
Fast forward a day. Heâ€™s due at the Spinal Injuries ward in Stoke Mandeville hospital. Thatâ€™s good â€“ itâ€™s the premier institution in the UK for such injuries and itâ€™s only five miles from my house. A friend of I go to see whatâ€™s happening. No Russ as yet but the ward is still terrifying â€“ not the nurses who are kind and calm, but the distress of the patients and the signs on the wall accentuate the long term hell for anyone that passes through these doors on a trolley. Itâ€™s hard to look at a noticeboard displaying a rota for bladder training and not lose the plot completely.
A marker here – I hate hospitals. Irrational and stupid but I still do. Iâ€™m shaking as we leave and it gets worse. Outside the entrance to the spinal ward is a bloke our age in a wheelchair apparently paralysed from the neck down. Heâ€™s talking earnestly to his seven year old daughter who looks on with wide eyes and no understanding. The chair reminds me unpleasantly of Davros of Dr Who fame and I canâ€™t shed the image of a restless body confined to 5% of the movement it was born with. This is real and itâ€™s scary shit.
Click fast forward again. The MTB forums are aflame with questions, updates and messages of goodwill. They ring hollow in my head: â€œGet well soon and back on the bike Russâ€?. Yeah right like thatâ€™s going to happen. Iâ€™m angry now, the piousness and hypocrisy is cloying â€“ I know I should be touched by the core of their sentiments but Iâ€™m not. Later I chill out a bit â€“ maybe the threads are a little naÃ¯ve but theyâ€™re heartfelt and now Iâ€™m proud of our little community. We really care for our own.
Itâ€™s been a week. The tape wind forwards but not much changes. No visits except the family made up of Russâ€™s brother, wife and two kids both under 10. Heather is hanging in there by all accounts but what can she tell the kids? Theyâ€™ve only known daddy as a sporty, athletic can-do-anything kind of guy and now theyâ€™re facing a major readjustment.
The prognosis is bad. Russ has been told his spinal cord is shattered â€“ there is no cure â€“ heâ€™ll be paralysed for the rest of his life. He is 38 years old. But heâ€™s a fighter with a positive mental approach yet I canâ€™t help thinking this must be too much too soon for anyone. One minute in your prime, confident and successful supported by a loving family and the next WHAM, youâ€™re a cripple, a dependant, fighting daily embitterment and questioning always questioning â€˜WHY ME?â€™ to a world that has branded you different. You must think of all the things you used to be able to do but now youâ€™re an object of pity or ridicule defined and imprisoned by your wheeled cage. Christ itâ€™s keeping me awake so how is Russ coping surrounded by the sterile hospital environment, lying awake with a broken back and broken dreams? All the time in the world to think and no physical ability to do.
We went for a ride. Many of the guys whoâ€™d witnessed the accident were aghast at the prospect of getting back on a mountain bike. But we had demons to exorcise. Itâ€™s strange because I was sure weâ€™d take it easy â€“ maybe ponder the pointlessness of our sport or tell tall tales of our rides with Russ. But we didnâ€™t. We nailed everything right on the razors edge pushing uncaring into the adrenal zone and loving the rush. Maybe thatâ€™s it â€“ itâ€™s a risk and reward gig and even with Russ lying in hospital, thatâ€™s still not enough to make us stop.
Mountain biking is sometimes an exercise in not thinking. It strips away the social conventions that drive you to â€˜do the right thingâ€™. It reduces life to simple pleasures and binary decisions; left or right, slow or fast, spin or race. It makes you love it â€“ the lifestyle, the danger, the bullshit, the dopamine hit, the difference even when you think youâ€™re hating it.
Donâ€™t misunderstand me. Russâ€™s accident has shaken me to the core. Iâ€™m dreading walking into his hospital ward because I know heâ€™ll see the truth in my eyes: â€˜Sorry Mate, Iâ€™ll do whatever I can but THANK FUCK itâ€™s you and not meâ€™. Iâ€™m not proud of that neither am I alone in thinking it. And it scares me â€“ our sport is a drug â€“ yet Iâ€™ll never give it up until Iâ€™m too old, too scared or too damaged. And I know Russ would have done the same. Heâ€™s not a martyr and Iâ€™m not going to canonise him because we all embrace the danger and we have to live with the consequences. Itâ€™s not fair and itâ€™s not right but itâ€™s our choice. There is no middle ground.
Mountain Biking is in our blood. Itâ€™s like the Hotel California â€“ you can check out any time you like but you can never leave.
Iâ€™ve got a friend called Russ. Itâ€™s early days but Iâ€™ve got a feeling heâ€™ll come good. In two years time, weâ€™ll be cheering on the Mall as he races past in his wheelchair, arms pumping and race face in place, against the other heroes who we applaud but will never quite understand. I hope itâ€™s not wishful thinking but I just know in my heart heâ€™ll be fine. And if he isnâ€™t, heâ€™s going to have a whole community of like minded people who will never stop helping him be all he can.
Iâ€™ve got a friend called Russ. Iâ€™m proud to be his mate.
PS: I never got to see Russ race down the mall but he’s back on a 4 wheeled bike now and he is off skiing next month. Which is about as close to a happy ending as you could hope to get.