Cycling boom in Hungary despite the hard knocks

Cyclists and traffic in Budapest

A lucky escape after being knocked from a bicycle in Budapest provided an unexpected opportunity to see inside the Hungarian health service.

Like all good sagas, this one begins with a long, heroic journey.

One fine September morning, I set out from the town of Mohacs, in southern Hungary, to cycle 200 kilometres up the Danube to Budapest.

Let other chroniclers tell the story of those five glorious days. I will jump straight to the hero's arrival in the nation's capital, and his near demise.

It was eight o'clock in the morning.

I was cycling slowly in the heavy rush-hour traffic on Csepel island, half an hour from my home. There are no cycle lanes on Csepel, unlike many parts of the city.

Eight years of successful lobbying by the Budapest Critical Mass group and the Hungarian Cyclists Association have turned cycling in the capital from an extreme sport, into a normal and relatively safe means of transport.

But the route through Csepel is still not finished, and a year ago, it was nowhere to be seen.

So I stopped to ask a pedestrian the best way to cycle towards the beautiful city centre. "All roads are packed," he said, "but try that one". I took his advice.

A car coming the other way saw a gap in the traffic on my side, and shot through it, into a side road. The problem was, that was not a gap. That was your correspondent.

My dismal failure to dress up as a car that morning nearly cost me my life.

The next thing I knew I was flying through the air, in the heroic style, and landed on my lower back.

"So sorry," said the driver, rushing to my rescue. "Are you all right? Just a bruise! I'll take you home!" But by then the pain was getting worse, so I curled up on the kerb and shut my eyes.

Image caption Nick Thorpe - back in the saddle

First on the scene were the police. First task, breathalyse us both. Fortunately not a trace. Not drunkards then. The ambulance arrived, sirens blazing.

I write the stories here, I wanted to say. I do not want to be the story.

As I lay in my vacuum bed in the ambulance, I overheard a conversation between the driver and his mate.

"Where shall we take him? Broken back? Lets try the Merenyi!"

I had never heard of a hospital of that name, but it sounded like 'merenylet' which means an assassination attempt.

I would have laughed if it did not hurt so much. Surely they did not think the guy was trying to kill me?

At the hospital I was rushed down a corridor full of folk with slings and crutches, to the front of the queue.

But as soon as I was laid on the X-ray table, it broke down.

Technicians with screwdrivers appeared as if by magic. I wondered if they were going to fix my back, but they concentrated on the machine.

Finally it was working and the results came back. "Bad news," said the doctor. "You have got a broken vertebra".

I experienced a horrible sinking feeling. Visions of wheelchairs began to haunt the young hero's fragile, eggshell mind.

The driver, meanwhile - let us call him Charlie - arrived at the hospital and seemed even more upset than I was.

He was so concerned, the staff assumed he was a relative and asked him to sign a form.

"No, no," he fumed, "I'm the perpetrator!"

He sat beside me and slowly we became friends. He teaches at the University of Homeland Security. My reporter's instincts took over and I questioned him about his work. It took my mind off my back.

Life in the hospital ward followed certain protocols. All six of us had spinal injuries, four from cycling.

The highpoint of the day was when the nurses brought us our painkillers. I learnt to urinate into a plastic bottle, known as a duck.

Image caption The pro-cycling movement is growing in popularity in Hungary

The ablest of the cripples represented the other men, as ambassador to the nurses.

By the second day it was me. I was feeling a lot better. Must have been the long ride, said the doctors. If you are in good shape, the impact does less damage.

On the third morning the white-haired one, as the nurses called the chief doctor, toured the ward.

"Where's the American?" he boomed.

I swallowed my British pride in the hope of hard information and waved a limp hand.

"Good news!" he beamed. "Less bad break than we thought, you can go home this evening!"

My experience from the inside of the Hungarian health system was not a bad one.

The kindness and encouragement of some of the underpaid, over-worked staff were sometimes offset by the disinterest and coldness of others.

The cost of three days ambulance and hospital care came to £400. As a British citizen, with a European health insurance card, that was paid for by the National Health Service in Britain.

The story of the last year has been one of frustration and physiotherapy, insurance claims and encounters with the criminal justice system.

Charlie admitted full responsibility, bless him. I agreed not to prosecute. The state appointed a mediator. I was body-searched on my way in to his office, to make sure I was not going to knife Charlie.

Little did they know that he rings me nearly every week, to ask how I am and tell me his troubles.

Image caption The global Critical Mass group aims to promote greener methods of transport

His car was stolen, his living room was flooded, he cannot sleep at night. He helps me deal with his insurance company. We shake hands and its all over.

Insurance is compulsory in Hungary, but drivers who can afford it take out extra cover, as in most countries, for harm to their own property and themselves.

I have received £3,000 in damages so far, less 18% to the lawyer. He hopes that was only an advance.

The other day I girded my loins, summoned my courage and cycled again, in heavy traffic. The drivers have not improved.

The reckless bravery of the other cyclists astounds me. Like spiders, dancing through moving machinery.

The numbers of those cycling is still increasing spectacularly.

On the Danube bikeway, and in Deak Square in the heart of the city, 15 to 20,000 bikes pass each day.

A Critical Mass rally in 2008 drew 80,000 people. The autumn ride, on Car-Free day, 22nd September, has been cancelled this year, but the cyclists promise another rally next April.

My back still hurts sometimes. I cannot run any more, but I can cycle. Charlie still rings. And the Danube beckons me back.

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