Having your travelling companion break both his arms whilst mountain biking in Slovakia wasn’t exactly what I had planned for my first backpacking trip around Europe. However two weeks into our seven week trip that’s exactly what happened. It wasn’t all bad, it did give us a great story to tell.
One full day in Vienna and we had already had enough, the city was overflowing with tourist groups and I couldn’t really understand why. With this in mind, the executive decision was made to get a train to Bratislava the following day to do a bit of mountain biking.
We jumped on a train the next morning and 45 minutes later pulled into Bratislava. Tom (my travelling companion) had successfully managed to organise rental of a pair mountain bikes and as if by magic when we walked out of the station there they were. We paid a small deposit, donned our helmets and off we went towards the hills.
Not having a map and only a vague idea where we were heading we lucked out when we turned a corner, saw a sign for the chairlift and knew we were heading in the right direction. Another half a mile up the road we found our first bit of track and left the comfort of the tarmac road.
After a bit of cycling and a quick stop for a beer and hotdog we found a trail that looped around the top of the hill. We hurtled around this loop and three quarters of the way around found the downhill trails and the chairlift. We attempted the steeper downhill trail before very quickly realising it was much too technical and abandoning it in favour of the tourist trail. In order to mend our slightly bruised egos we proceeded to fly down this trail and quickly reached the bottom.
We made our way over to the chairlift and enjoyed the peaceful journey up to the top of the hill. Finishing our lap of the looped trail we found ourselves back the small rest stop, had another hotdog and beer and played a few games of cards.
We’d had a great day biking around and planned to make our way into the city to tick off some of the standard tourist sites before dropping our bikes off and heading back to our hostel in Vienna. Little did we know at that point the fun was far from over.
Making our way back I led the way, filled with confidence after spending the entire day bombing around the tracks and not falling off once. I was going quite a pace, enjoying the adrenaline as I sped down the dirt track. When I made it to the road I skidded to a stop and turned around expecting to see Tom hurtle past. Nothing… 10 seconds pass and still nothing. I turn my bike around and walk around the corner and see him lying on the floor about 50m up the track. With his bike strewn a few meters away from him I knew he’d had a good fall.
As all good friends would do in a situation like this I got my phone out to take photos and walked up to where he was giving him a bit of friendly abuse as I approached.
He quickly explained how when trying to manoeuvre out of an little indent in the dirt track he had hit a rock causing his handlebars to turn sideways and sending him flying over the handlebars. His outstretched hands had taken the brunt of the impact and not faired too well but he’d been lucky not to land on his face.
“I think I’m going to pass out” he mumbles and promptly does.
I give him a little prod and a couple seconds later he’s conscious again. It’s at this point I know one thing for sure, we definitely aren’t going to be cycling back to the train station.
We’d hardly seen anyone all day let alone anyone that could speak good English but as fate would have it luck was on our side. 20-30 minutes after falling off two older teenagers leading a group of young children emerge over the crest of the hill. We explain how we think Tom has broken his arm and the guy in charge helpfully phones an ambulance for us. I walk down the track to wait for the ambulance at the road, leaving Tom in the capable hands of fifteen 10 year old’s who have proceeded to surround him. 10 minutes or so later Tom walks down with help of the group and joins me where I’m waiting. We thank the group for all their help and they wish us luck.
The ambulance arrives soon after and before doing anything the paramedic wants to see Tom’s EHIC (European Health Insurance Card). Thankfully we remembered to sort these out before we left and I pull it out of his wallet for him. As Tom climbs into the back of the ambulance I try to figure out what to do with the bikes which we were meant to be returning to the train station in under an hour and a half.
While Tom spends the next half an hour explaining what hurts I walk down the road a bit further and speak to the owner of a restaurant. After explaining the situation he happily lets me lock the bikes outside and leave the key with him to be collected by the bike shop later.
When I return the ambulance is ready to go so I jump in and we speed off to the hospital. I call it a hospital only to be polite for when we arrive it didn’t exactly fill us with confidence. We sat down in a half lit corridor (most of the lights were broken) and waited for Tom to be seen. Nobody spoke any English and at one point somebody got wheeled past on a stretcher with wooden wheels (I wish I was making this up).
Several hours later and after a lot of pain (Tom later tells me he passed out several more times when they were examining him) and a couple x-rays the conclusion is reached that Tom’s arms aren’t broken at all and just badly sprained. They bandage them up and pretty much tell Tom to just man up.
No painkillers, no sympathy and definitely no lollipop for being a good boy.
It’s at this point we suddenly realise we have no idea where we are. We try (and fail) to find somebody who speaks English and could help point us in the right direction. Just as we are about to give up an older man overhears us talking and asks if everything is alright. We explain what’s happened and how we need to get to the train station and he kindly offers us a lift. During the 10 minute journey we learn he is a Maths teacher from the local university and thank him for his kindness.
Finally back at the station we discover the next train to Vienna isn’t for another hour and a half so we do the only sensible thing, get a beer!
It’s about 7pm by this point and the bike shop has collected the bikes from the restaurant. The man who took our deposit this morning rings me and explains he’s driving over to give us the deposit back. Obviously feeling a bit guilty about what has happened as we get the full deposit back which is very generous considering Tom’s bike was pretty scratched up from the fall.
We make it onto our train and are soon on our way back to Vienna and our hostel for a well earned night’s rest.
The hospital take 2:
In the morning we get directions from the hostel and make a trip to the hospital in Vienna. After the state of the hospital in Bratislava Tom decides it worth, at a minimum, getting them re-bandaged in a more sterile environment. The hospital in Vienna couldn’t have been any more different to Bratislava if it tried. The cleanest, whitest and most sterile building I ever been in to this day.
Austrian efficiency rears it’s head too, within an hour and a half Tom has three consultations and a handful of x-rays. When he comes out after the second time he has the bandages completely off and you can clearly see the damage done to his hands.
He explains how they want to re-do the x-ray just to double check that they aren’t broken. Sure enough he comes out the third time with a full solid plaster cast on one arm and a flexible cast on the other and with a grin that tells me one thing, they are in fact both broken. So it turns out that Tom hit the ground pretty hard and the force from the impact had in fact fractured bones in both his elbows.
What happened next?
You’d think breaking both your arms would end a backpacking trip, but no we still had nearly 5 weeks left!
Luckily as Tom had only broken his elbows I could carefully help him slot his arms through the straps and with minimal paint he could carry his own backpack. Dosed up on the strongest painkillers legally available over the counter we continued our trip.
To minimise loss of movement the cast came off when we were in Berlin, just over a week after it had gone on. Although even after this short amount of time Tom still couldn’t straighten his arms fully and it wasn’t until several weeks later when we bumped into a sports physiotherapist on a train did Tom learn the exercises he needed to get them back to normal.
We finally made it home 5 weeks later with a great story to tell and some lessons learned.