A bicycle safety lesson for North American travelers

I was riding my bicycle to work like I do every day, and as I went down a hill just around the corner from my house I hit the sidewalk wrong and went head over handlebars. My bike went to the left, my head struck concrete just above my right temple (thank god for my helmet!), and my right leg, arm, and shoulder dragged across the pavement.

I lay on the sidewalk, shaking in shock, staring at my hands, feeling alone and injured in a foreign country. I was sure my helmet was partially split open from the impact my head made on the sidewalk. I looked up at the road. Why aren’t any cars stopping for me? It felt like longer, but surely only took a few seconds for people to rush to my side. A neighbour brought me water and offered to stow my bike, another cyclist phoned his family doctor who was nearby, a man on his way to the beach offered me a ride in the coolest camper van I’ve ever seen with a black and white checked floor and an 8-track playing the Beach Boys.

In a daze, I got a phone quote from the private family doctor: $80AUD for a visit. Seemed expensive, but turns out the emergency room was $225AUD. It sucks to be an American abroad with no reciprocal medical benefits and a high travel insurance deductible. (For citizens of countries with nationalized health care, that emergency room visit would have been free and travel insurance is $30 instead of $300…) I got in to see the private family doctor immediately, they made sure I didn’t have a head or spine injury or broken bones, then dressed my wounds. I fumbled with my borrowed water bottle, unable to manage keeping it upright as I sat. The British nurse told me I had gone “head over tits”. An Aussie told me a better way to put it: I “came a cropper on my bike”.

After I was released, I spent the day ingesting painkillers and resting on my left side. A wonderful girlfriend came to my aid immediately to watch over me (you’re not supposed to be alone soon after sustaining an impact to the head). The day after, my arm and shoulder still hurt and everyone at work is grimacing at my impressive-looking battle scars, but I’m really thankful all my scrapes are superficial. It’s a serious reminder to wear your helmet (turns out it didn’t even crack, definitely did its job) and it frightens me to think of the damage I could have done without it. Still, scabby arms and legs was not the look I was hoping to sport on New Year’s Eve…

I originally wasn’t going to blog about this (because come on, if Erin falls on the streets of Fremantle and there isn’t anyone around does anyone really care?), until I found out that the likely reason I fell was a cultural difference:

A Canadian co-worker told me the breaks on bicycles here are opposite from North America–the rear break is controlled from the left handlebar and the front break is on the right. He said he sees it all the time, North American visitors go down a hill, instinctively hit their right break, it stops the front tire and sends them over their handlebars. I was definitely riding downhill, breaking as I dodged trash cans put out for collection; it’s very likely sharply hitting the front break by mistake is exactly what I did. There’s another Australian lesson for me, and something for others to watch out for.

A timely headline… Watch out Tony Abbott, it can happen to you too!
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