Writer goes from serious car crash to 100mile bike race in a year

Crash diet! Writer, 41, who survived a near fatal car smash – which left him with broken vertebrae and suffering a stroke – overhauls his fitness during recovery and has now competed in a 100-mile bike race and lost a stone

  • Journalist and novelist Jake Wallis Simons, 41, was in a near-fatal car accident in October 2019, which left him with multiple injuries
  • As he made his recovery, he realised the importance of health and wellbeing to reduce the chances of serious illness in the future
  • Despite having vowed never to become a cyclist, he found himself taking it up
  • He soon became addicted, losing a stone and increasing his fitness 
  • Eventually he and his friend John ‘Jonboy’ Loveday took on a 100mile bike race in the New Forest – but things did not go entirely to plan, for Jake at least…

I suppose I was in shock, but when I regained consciousness, I felt no surprise. I looked at the crumpled car, the shattered glass, the thin jet of blood arcing from the back of my hand, and thought, mildly: ‘oh, I’ve just had a crash’.

I was in one of those treacherous country lanes in Hampshire, stuck behind the steering wheel with the door caved against the right side of my body. The last thing I could remember was driving along thinking about work. Then things had gone floaty, bathed in a strange-coloured light. Then nothing. Now this.

The other driver was sitting beside the road and crying. She had been in a Land Rover Defender. Hardly a fair fight. An oddly cheerful member of the public was leaning into the car, assuring me that help was on the way. I tried to joke that as a journalist, I deserved everything I got. Looking back, I’m not sure if the words made it out. I was very cold.

The car Jake had been driving at the time of his crash, showing where the Land Rover Defender ploughed in at the driver’s door, causing him multiple injuries

Jake’s car, pictured at the scrapyard, was completely written off in the collision

Fragments of numerous vehicles are visible at the site of the accident, a notorious black spot

Jake is transferred from Southampton Hospital to Winchester Hospital, where there is a specialist stroke unit

Jake lies injured and unconscious in Southampton hospital after the accident

Jake is visited by his three children a week after his accident while recovering in hospital

I was vaguely aware of an air ambulance landing in a field. Where was my phone? I needed to call the office. A policeman was asking if I’d been drinking. I told him of course not, it was a Wednesday afternoon. He handed me a breathalyser. I cleared my mouth of blood and puffed. He checked the reading, checked it again, gave a disappointed grunt and told the medics to begin the rescue.

I was off work for four months. When the dust settled, the list of my injuries included broken vertebrae, a lacerated kidney, fractured ribs, a punctured lung, deep cuts to my hand and shoulder, severe concussion, a split carotid artery and a stroke. Oh, and a chipped tooth.

The low point came when the nurses forgot my evening morphine, leaving me weeping with pain. The hospital bed, with its retractable table, row of get-well-soon cards, book of Alice Munro short stories and cardboard vomit-basin became my world, and every day my family, friends, colleagues and medical staff did their best to get me through it. 

My wife took time off work to see me daily, making my stay in hospital as comfortable as possible. My in-laws, Zoe and Ed, who are medics, improved the course of my treatment with their advice. My parents and mother-in-law chipped in to look after the kids, who lifted my spirits by visiting often. 

Siblings, aunts and uncles and wider family rallied round. My employers gave me huge support. Many friends trekked down to Winchester to visit. It sounds trite – and rather obvious – but I wouldn’t be here without them all.

Some time later, there was a story in the local paper about that junction. It was an accident black spot. Since my crash there had been at least four more at the same place, including one fatality. The Give Way sign had been turned around, the paper said, and due to a hedge and the incline of a hill, it was hard to see the crossroads until you were on top of it.

I have no idea if this was true in my case. When I returned to the site, I saw fragments of multiple vehicles swept into the bushes. Local people talked of regularly pulling victims out of mangled cars. To this day, my memory hasn’t returned. 

Thankfully, none of my injuries proved life-changing. Looking back, I think the ordeal was more traumatic for my family, who had to witness it without the benefit of drugs. They had gone through the distress of losing me for hours, only to find me badly injured after searching the local hospitals. My children still worry about me. 

Jake recovered with the help of his wife, Isobel, left, and his children and family, right

Jake had lost weight by doing the 5:2 diet after he started becoming a Fat Dad, left, but was still out of shape at the time of his accident. He recovers at home after being discharged from hospital, right

Less than a year after the accident, Jake celebrates losing a stone and cycling 100miles

On my side, it had one lasting result: I realised it was important to get fit. Nobody can avoid having accidents, but as a 41-year-old man, a healthier lifestyle would lower the risk of other diseases and help prevent future visits to hospital.

Until that point, my level of health had been pretty average. I’d been playing squash off and on. A few years earlier, when a Fat Dad threatened to emerge in the mirror, I had managed to stave him off by way of the the 5:2 diet (it took a whole year because I continued to drink like, well, a journalist). But I was still out of shape.

At the time of the accident, my weight was within the normal range, but on the higher end of it. A cholesterol test had been worryingly high. 

The latter part of my hospital recovery was spent in the stroke ward at Winchester. One day, when I was strong enough to walk, a physio suggested that we see how fast I could clock up five miles on the indoor bike. I did so, and shot straight to the top of the leaderboard. Admittedly, my competitors were all geriatrics. But still.

The victory gave me an irrational sense of confidence, and after I was discharged, I bought an indoor bike of my own. Little did I know what I had begun.

During the months of recovery at home, I started using my new indoor bike regularly. I dug up YouTube videos of American women leading spin sessions, telling viewers that they were strong and awesome.

At first I couldn’t complete even the shortest workout, but slowly I regained my strength and I graduated to cycling training videos, which were less syrupy. Every session left me with waves of endorphins and an unprecedented sense of wellbeing. I was getting addicted.

Growing up, I’d always liked bicycles. My first proper one had been a scarlet BMX, to which I later attached a siren. Later, I would cycle to school on a green-and-purple mountain bike, hopping over tree-roots in the park. But as an adult I had grown to detest the MAMILs that clogged the roads every Sunday, and swore that there were some lines I would never cross.

But spin biking was allowed. Imperceptibly at first, I began to lose weight and before long I had written myself a simple training programme – though without anything in particular to train for. I started the 16:8 diet (basically skipping breakfast) and shed a few more pounds, while also, theoretically, getting the health benefits of fasting.

Bike Fit Analyst Mark Herbert, left, of Vankru Performance Cycling in Hampshire, ensures that Jake’s bike fits him and won’t cause back-ache prior to the 100mile race (Jake sporting a lockdown haircut)

Jake training at home on a Wahoo Kickr Core turbo trainer, which replicates the experience of riding on the road and allows the rider to compete against other cyclists in virtual races

Jake as a child on his first bike, left, and the ‘magical’ Garmin Fenix 6 fitness watch, right, which made a huge difference to his training

Then came the gadgets. I bought a FitBit, which told me my heart rate and the number of calories I was burning. But as things got more serious, I plunged into the world of Garmin.

The fitness device company attracted negative coverage when its systems were hacked a few months ago, but that’s only because people rely on it so much. I got the Garmin Fenix 6, an extraordinary piece of engineering that has the looks of a decent watch but gives you more health and training data than you could shake a stick at. 

It even boasted a battery life of two weeks (there was also a solar option, which frankly boggles the mind). I quickly fell in love.

With the Garmin on my wrist, when I did a spin session, I could see the precise effect it had on my fitness, and easily monitored my progress. The thing was great. It was magic. It was a game-changer.

Finally, the moment came. Although I was still cleaving to my hatred of MAMILs, indoor training had its limits. It was time to buy a bicycle. A road bike was OK, I supposed, so long as I didn’t get any lycra. Well, apart from the padded shorts, which you can hardly overlook if you want to live a normal life.

I purchased what’s known as a ‘gravel bike’ – basically a road bicycle with drop handlebars and slightly knobbly tyres. The one I selected was a Scott Speedster, chosen because as soon as I touched the pedals, the thing shot forward like a thoroughbred. It was begging for speed.

More glorious kit followed. Given my recent crash, safety became a bit of a preoccupation. I got a Giro Synthe helmet, which was light as a feather yet came equipped with Multi-directional Impact Protection System (MIPS) technology. I didn’t want to risk concussion again, which had taken months to clear.

I also got a radar for the back of my bike. Yes, a radar. The Varia Rearview RTL515, the first of its kind in the world, flashes angrily at cars that approach too fast and bleeps on the screen of your handlebar computer to tell you how many are behind you. It made me feel a great deal safer, particularly when the wind was loud in my ears.

Handlebar computer, I hear you ask? Oh, yes. The Edge 830 – essentially a bike sat nav with speed and performance stats – was indispensable. You can ask it for a 30mile route, say, and in seconds it will plot one out depending on popularity among cyclists nearby. I got a Garmin heart rate monitor and cadence sensor, too, which tells you how fast your pedals are going round. OK, OK. I admit it. I was hooked.

You’ve probably seen this coming, dear reader. There’s no easy way to say this, but it wasn’t long before lycra was simply the most practical way forward. I bought a baggy cycling jersey, then a tighter one. Finally, one early morning before a ride, looking back at me in the mirror was a MAMIL. (Which, of course, stands for ‘Magnificent Alpha Male In Lycra’.) The transformation was complete.

Jake starts the 100mile race strong and focussed, with no idea of what was to come, wearing the Giro Synthe helmet, known to be the safest one money can buy

John ‘Jonboy’ Loveday, left, and Jake Wallis Simons, right, take on the challenge together

Jake speeds past the 70mile mark, smiling in spite of the mounting nausea

The anniversary of my crash was approaching. I phoned my old friend John ‘Jonboy’ Loveday, the fittest person I know, and we began training for a 100mile race called  the New Forest 100 Sportive, which was going ahead in spite of Covid (chapeau!).

We went for long rides every weekend, starting at 65miles and working up to 85. On one occasion, as a result of missing a turning, we ended up cycling 105miles, eating wild blackberries to keep our energy up until we were rescued by my wife with a packet of cereal.

My body, of course, was still a bit crocked from the crash. I began to get sharp twinges in my lower back. So, in what turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve made, I booked myself in for a ‘bike fit’.

In an extensive session, cycling wizard Mark Herbert from Vankru Performance Cycling in Hampshire diagnosed my battered physiognomy and adjusted my bike until it fitted like a glove. Vankru is known as one of the best bike fit outfits in Britain, and deservedly so. Mark’s dark arts and elaborate tech worked like a dream. Sayonara back pain.

My family viewed the transformation with bemusement. They were a little taken aback by the passion with which I embraced this new sport, and were concerned about me spending so much time going fast on the road.

So when it was raining, I set aside my spin bike and hooked my bicycle up to a fantastic Wahoo Kickr Core indoor trainer, which allows you to play biking computer games, racing in realtime against people all over the world.

The indoor trainer adjusts itself to your fitness level and offers you a range of sophisticated training plans, all of which are very fun and realistic. A two-hour session on a spin bike was a challenge, but the Kickr held my interest by simulating the cycling experience, even down to the noise of the tyres on the tarmac. It quickly became a huge part of my routine. 

I was sleeping less and would get up at 5am to accomplish four or five hours on the bike on a Sunday morning. My alcohol consumption had gone down. I had subscribed to Cycling Weekly. There were mutterings about the personality changes that can be triggered by a stroke.

How can I explain all this? Mainly, I think, I realised for the first time how my physical condition affected my sense of health, confidence, happiness and wellbeing. My mood was immeasurably better and I felt like I was taking on the world. I got my cholesterol tested again and it had fallen to normal levels.

There is a scientific basis for this. Research shows that time on the bike brings a host of physical, mental and spiritual benefits. It reduces stress and depression, improves sleep and memory and boosts productivity and creative thinking, not to mention lowering risks of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and mortality. 

In the final analysis, it makes you feel good. And with the suffering of the car crash, which caused such distress to my family, fresh in my mind, I was determined to do everything I could to avoid hospital in the future.

The absurd quantity of flapjacks, caffeinated gel and bicarbonate of soda that would turn Jake’s stomach

A sign made by Jake’s children to support him as he took on the 100mile challenge

Jake pedals over the finish line, sore and covered in vomit, which thankfully was not picked up by the camera

Jonboy crosses the finish line, looking in rather better condition than his riding companion

Jake collects his medal after crossing the finish line, having come 41st out of 300 riders

Jonboy, left, and Jake, right, celebrate the end of the race after just over six hours in the saddle

Admittedly, there was something rather philistine about the whole thing. To keep my energy topped up on long rides, I began eating energy gels, which have to be the most revolting culinary experience on Earth. It was like eating shampoo (and not in a good way).

And the ostentatious equipment, normally ridden by self-satisfied executives with pendulous, lycra-clad paunches, was all a bit of a turn-off. Not to mention the friction with motorists.

But the more I learnt about cycling, the more I became inspired by its history, its passions and its poetry. What could be more reckless and heroic than Eddie Merckx, the best rider of all time, breaking his jaw in the 1975 Tour de France but battling on over three massive Alpine passes, through 140miles in the blazing sun, knowing he had no hope of winning? And coming third?

What could be more cultured than the principle of team cycling, which requires a group of riders to take the wind and the strain on behalf of their leader before releasing him to glory, with no hope of triumph themselves? 

What could be more exciting than seeing the pageant of the peleton battling up mountains with hysterical crowds closing around them, or screaming down the descents, putting their lives on the line for victory?

And what could be more magnificent than Lance Armstrong’s seven victories in France, followed by his soaring hubris and spectacular, Shakespearean fall? 

Twelve days before the anniversary of my accident, race day arrived. The course was undulating without too many steep sections, and Jonboy and I felt fully prepared and ready to go.

But I made an amateur’s error. When you ride long distances, you need to keep eating every 20minutes, or you’ll run out of energy. So far so good. But rather than sticking to the eating strategy I’d practised in training, I overdid it.

One caffeine gel an hour became two, plus 30 mini-flapjacks. My water bottles were stuffed with carb and caffeine powder. Worst of all, I had found some crank advice on the Internet suggesting that downing bicarbonate of soda made your muscles alkaline and resistant to the buildup of lactic acid. (It didn’t, I later discovered.)

After about 30miles, I began to feel sick. The feeling built over the next 50 and became intense. Then, at the top of a brutal climb at the 85mile mark, in full view of the spectators cheering us on, I puked all over my bike, my precious Garmin and myself.

Two things were going through my head as I swerved, covered in vomit, to the side of the road, and retched my stomach lining into the grass. First, I feared that this was the end of my race. Second, I wondered whether anybody was taking pictures (they weren’t, thank God).

After a few minutes, when I had puked myself dry, I suddenly felt right as rain. Without the gungy mass of caffeine, sugar, carbs, flapjacks and bicarbonate of soda in my stomach, I was ready to go again. It was then that I knew I wasn’t going to fail.

Finally, just over six hours after starting the race, stinking and sore but having averaged 16.9mph, I crossed the finish line a few minutes behind Jonboy, in the top 40 out of 300 riders, in the gold category. I had done it. I may have sacrificed my dignity, but I’d triumphed over that Land Rover Defender.

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