I crashed my bike and broke my face in three places - my helmet might have saved my life

With a plate in my cheek, I'll be back on the roads soon

Cycling weekly writer tom davidson post-surgery
(Image credit: Tom Davidson / UCI TCL)

“How do you feel about your face?” the surgeon asks me, deadpan. I’m sitting in a dentist’s chair in a London hospital, my arm in a sling and grazing down my left cheek. The cuts stretch from a gash under my eyebrow, down to a bruise on the underside of my chin. I’m in no pain, but I’m feeling self conscious from the long stares strangers gave me on my journey in.

How do I feel about my face? The question catches me off guard. “Um,” I begin. “I mean, I’ve noticed my cheek is a bit sunken.” I wasn’t exactly sculpted like a Roman bust before, I admit, but as I look back at the surgeon, the asymmetry is obvious. My left cheek is as flat as the tarmac it bounced off.

Two days prior, I lived out one of my mum’s worst nightmares. I had cycled to the cinema to meet a friend, and as we sat through the film, a storm began to brew outside. I knew the weather would turn - I worked out I’d have a tailwind home, so I was looking forward to free-wheeling back through the city. My ride lasted two minutes. 

On a wet left-hand bend, riding at speed, my front wheel gave way and I hit the floor. It happened in a blink. I remember the feeling of falling, but I don’t remember the impact. When I came round, I was standing in front of three men, all on their way to the pub, clearly shaken by what they had seen. 

Proudly, I shooed them away. I then staggered, dazed, the short walk back to my friend’s house. My plan was to leave my bike there and get the tube home. I got lost on the way and called him in a panic. 

He sat me down on the sofa when I arrived. I explained what had happened, but my speech must have been askew. “Do you know what day it is?” he asked. “Um,” I said. The seconds drew out. “Do you know what we did this afternoon?” I didn’t. I couldn’t recall the cinema. His neighbour gave us a lift to the hospital, and I cried in the backseat, scared.

Until that day, I never knew there was a second lounge in A&E. The nurse saw me, a battered figure, and immediately marshalled me through a set of double doors into ‘Majors’, an area reserved for the most bashed-up visitors. Within 15 minutes, I was sat in front of a doctor. 

The first question she asked was telling. It seemed almost rehearsed, an obvious opener for those who cite bikes in their accidents. “Were you wearing a helmet?”

I was, I replied. I always do. “Good,” she said. “Throw that one away. You’ll need to buy a new one now.”

Despite my aching body and bloodied face, that thought pained me most. I had spent a fair whack on my POC helmet, and anyway, it only had a few surface dents and scratches. I fell on my cheek, after all. 

Together, we tried to conjure up an image of the crash. The helmet, it became clear, did more than I gave it credit for. 

Although my face broke my fall, we pieced together that I must have rolled sharply onto my head - my neck hurt from the jolt. A terrifying thought washed over me. It could have been so much worse. Had it not been for the polystyrene, which sheltered my softened temple, I might not be sat here chatting with the doctor.

The debate around helmet-wearing can be a divisive one. People say it’s futile, and only gives motorists confidence to drive recklessly around you. I’ve never understood their arguments. For me, the case is simple. If there’s even a slight risk of me falling and hitting my head - as there is on every ride - I want a helmet to protect me. That happened, and it did. 

I spent five hours in hospital that evening, undergoing six X-rays and a CT scan. The diagnosis was a broken wrist, and possible fractures to my skull - I was to visit the face specialists the following morning, for them to confirm. 

They counted three, all of them around my left cheekbone. “Don’t sneeze or blow your nose for six weeks,” they said. Six weeks! A burst blood vessel had half-filled my sinus, they explained, and any pressure would make my cheek balloon out. I am yet to sneeze since. 

When they asked me how I felt about my face, it turns out it was to make plans for the surgery. The procedure only took an hour. I went under a general anaesthetic, within just three days of my crash, and they fitted an inch-long titanium plate, making the incision through the gum line of my mouth. I’ll have no visible scars. They never told me how many stitches they put in, but I can count seven or eight with my tongue. 

Today, patches of my face are still yellow from the bruising, like turmeric-stained tupperware after a decent scrubbing. I’m cleared to get back on my bike at the end of the month, once my cast is off. My confidence will be dented, and I’m already nervous about cornering. 

As for my helmet, well, I need to buy a new one. I want one that’s lightweight and aero. I'll wear it with pride. I plan to keep the old one, too, not to use on the roads, but as a reminder of that blustery day, and how lucky I was to only break four bones.

Thank you for reading 20 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access

Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1