By David Kennedy
As we prepared for a recent photo shoot for the Aug 2020 issue, we put out our monthly casting call for test riders who could do double-duty as photo-shoot models. That month, however, we were coming up short on volunteers. As a last resort, I suited up and rolled out on the Cannondale Topstone Lefty to take a few glamor shots with our own Mountain Bike Hall of Fame photographer John Ker.
Around the halls of RBA and MBA, John is infamous for taking his time (lots of time in fact) to get just the perfect shot. And knowing that, in the end, he always comes up with gold, most of us have learned to be patient. Since we had planned to get both gravel and pavement shots of the Topstone, I packed an extra water bottle for what I knew would be a long day in the field. The unfortunate reality was that it became the shortest photo shoot I’ve ever done with John.
I had a great idea to get a few shots on the road before we reached the gravel where we planned on shooting the Topstone. The road was dusty and poorly maintained, but I didn’t give the conditions a second thought. I was making a tight U-turn to the left to come-around for the second salvo of shots when the Topstone’s front wheel caught a rock. The wheel slid out, and I fell with it. Unable to pull my hands out in time to brace myself, my left ankle took the brunt of the impact.
I laid in the middle of the road, still clipped in, under my bike. My sock absorbed the blood rushing from the compound fracture of my tibia. John rushed me to the hospital.
The X-rays confirmed a few spiral fractures on my tibia and that my ankle was broken. The ER physician determined the injuries were serious enough to require same-day surgery. Before I was wheeled into the OR, the surgeon asked me if I had any questions, and as cliche as it was, the only thing I could think to ask was, “Will I be able to ride my bike again?”
I woke up that night with a metal rod the length on my tibia and a plate supporting my ankle in my leg. “I hope it’s titanium,” as I shook my head at the incredulity of the thought. “Geez, I’m such a bike dork.”
THE COMEBACK BEGINS
As I’m writing this five months later, I’ve been off the bike for longer than any period in the last 10 years. Had it been any other year, I would’ve missed out on big rides like the Dirty Kanza, the Belgian Waffle Ride and all the crits I spent most of my weekends competing in.
Of course, as the old saying goes, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” And so being unable to ride, I fired up YouTube and watched some old race footage for some inspiration. Nearly every race had a crash, and I winced each time someone hit the asphalt. I realized I had forgotten about so many serious injuries that many of the sport’s top athletes have overcome. Remember when Philippe Gilbert flew off the mountain at the 2018 Tour de France? He finished that stage with a broken knee. And just as I was writing this story, I read how Geraint Thomas finished a stage in the Giro after crashing and breaking his pelvis. Talk about tough; no one comes tougher than bike racers.
THE QUESTION THAT STILL HAUNTS
How (or, maybe more critically, why) do they return from potentially career-ending injuries and put themselves in a position to have it all happen again? I can’t speak for them, but I came to an understanding during my first attempt to finish the weekly Rose Bowl ride after my doctor cleared me to start riding again.
Following my surgery, I spent four weeks on crutches and going to physical therapy just trying to get the basics of balance and walking back. About eight weeks later I rode outside for no more than 20 minutes. Those baby steps were not easy; nothing felt right. Even brief sessions on the trainer were painful.
Surprisingly, it was an e-bike borrowed from the stable of Electric Bike Action test bikes that proved to be the best form of recovery. Initially, I’d ride it for just an hour, and it felt like I had the power of two legs; it was like a big crutch! Even with the assist of the e-bike, when it came to climbing, I knew I had just lost all my endurance, and that was the big hurdle.
Eventually, five months after the surgery, I felt good enough to jump back on my pedal bike and head over to the Rose Bowl for the weekly training ride. I jumped in one lap late, and the usual suspects were keeping the pace pinned. My heart rate was skyrocketing upwards of 197, and I was dropped on the fourth lap. But, I knew I’d be back the next week and the week after. How else to get my speed back up? And after a few more attempts, I completed all 10 laps at the Bowl.
The one question I’ve been constantly asked is if there were any lessons I learned from the painful ordeal. I guess I could take a tip from Troy and not use road bike pedals on a gravel bike. But, above all else, I gained a newfound level of respect for not only the talent cycling demands, but the drive and determination required to continually succeed at the highest level of the sport.
THE GREATER COMEBACKS
At 22 years old, Greg LeMond became the first American to win the rainbow jersey at the Men’s World Championship road race. And three years later, he became the first American to win the Tour de France in 1986.
The following year, while nursing a hand injury from an early-season crash, LeMond was accidentally shot by his brother-in-law while out turkey hunting. With 60 pellets taken in the back, the American great was in critical condition and his season was lost.
Again in 1988, LeMond crashed in the spring and was unable to maintain fitness for the season. “I still have my motivation, and there is absolutely no truth to the talk that I am finished,” LeMond said in a newspaper interview. “Many of the best riders in the sport’s history didn’t win their first major race until their mid-20s. I feel like I am just starting to reach my peak.” LeMond began training for a return in 1989.
With middling success throughout the early season that following year, LeMond admitted he was on form, but only expected a top-20 finish at the Tour de France. However, the five time trials on the schedule played to the American’s strengths.
LeMond finished fourth in the prologue around Luxembourg, 6 seconds out of the lead. The Stage 3 team time trial saw LeMond fall 49 seconds behind rival, former teammate and three-time Tour champion Laurent Fignon. Two days later, LeMond produced an incredible TT effort to finish 55 seconds ahead of Fignon and took the yellow jersey in the process. LeMond and Fignon would battle over the remaining 16 stages with neither wearing the jersey for more than five consecutive stages.
Instead of the traditional laps around the Champs-Elysees to close out the race, Tour organizers scheduled a 15-mile time trial that finished on the cobbled boulevard with Fignon holding a 50-second lead. LeMond was not only an expert time-trialist, but opted to use innovative tech, clip-on Scott aero bars and a teardrop-shaped Giro helmet. Fignon was a traditionalist as he opted to ride in the drops and let his ponytail wave in the wind.
In his 2009 autobiography, Fignon said, “I was convinced deep inside that I could not lose. According to my calculations, I knew that it should take the American about 50 kilometers to regain more than a minute on me, not the 24.5 kilometers between Versailles and the Champs-Elysées. I could not see how it could happen. It was not feasible.”
In fact, not only could it happen, but it did happen when LeMond finished 58 seconds ahead of Fignon for one of the greatest comebacks in the history of cycling. It is the only instance the final stage of the Tour de France determined the overall victor of the race and by the smallest of margins—8 seconds.
Just over a month after the Tour, LeMond would win his second rainbow jersey, and in 1990 he
would go on to win his third Tour de France title. What a comeback!
While Lance Armstrong’s admission to doping will cloud the entirety of the polarizing Texan’s career, it shouldn’t take away from the fact that in 1996, at the young age of 25, Armstrong was diagnosed with stage-three testicular cancer. For years he had dismissed the groin pain as just a side effect of the sport. Unfortunately, the cancer spread throughout his body, reaching his lungs and brain. In addition to various drug cocktails and surgeries, Lance was forced to undergo debilitating chemotherapy in 1996. Armstrong’s final chemotherapy treatment
took place in December of that year.
In 1997, he began training, and after famously being let go by the French Cofidis team who saw no hope in a successful return, in 1998 he returned to racing with the U.S. Postal Service team. And, of course, it was one year later that Armstrong won the Tour de France with a 7:27 lead over second-place finisher Alex Zulle. The miraculous comeback from sitting at death’s door would mark just the beginning of Armstrong’s historic impact on the sport.
Chloe Dygert is the most dominant American cyclist since Kristin Armstrong. She’s won an Olympic silver medal in the team pursuit and seven world championships on the road and track. Just 23, Dygert has already had a handful of comebacks in her career. A torn ACL left her sidelined in 2013, and in 2018 Dygert crashed at the Tour of California and suffered a concussion, effectively ending her road season.
In 2019, Dygert returned to form and won the World Championship time trial by 1:32 over Anna Van Der Breggen, the greatest margin of victory ever in the event’s history.
Unfortunately, in her 2020 bid to defend the rainbow jersey, Dygert lost control of her bike and crashed into a guardrail, slicing her thigh open like a razor blade. With the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Dygert will still have a chance to go for gold in August.
Toms Skujins understands the harsh reality of being a domestique in pro cycling—that being a loser is part of the job. Opportunities to win aren’t easy for anybody, especially for Skujins. But following breakout stage wins at the 2015 and 2016 Tour of California, Skujins was selected to help Andrew Talansky capture another win for the Drapac Cannondale team in 2017.
And it was on Stage 2 that Skujins found himself with an opportunity to win a third. But, disaster struck first when on the serpentine Mt. Hamilton descent his front wheel slid out, causing him to slam to the asphalt. The film footage was graphic as it caught the brave and disoriented Latvian stumbling back on his feet and lifting his bike before falling again. Almost immediately he nearly collided with fast descending riders as he attempted to retrieve his Garmin in the middle of the road.
With help balancing from a neutral-service mechanic, Skujins finally remounted his bike before almost hitting a curb. Moments later the Cannondale Drapac team car caught up to Skujins and convinced him to abandon. Doctors determined Skujins had broken his collarbone and suffered a concussion in the accident.
One year later, Skujins signed with Trek-Segafredo and was again selected to ride the Tour of California. On Stage 3, Skujins put himself in position to shine. As the race neared the Laguna Seca Raceway finale, Skujins had broken away with Sean Bennett, and as the peloton chased them down, Tom swung around the final corner and sprinted to the finish line for the win, exactly 365 days after crashing on Mt. Hamilton.
A year after overcoming a three-minute deficit to win the 2018 Giro d’Italia (his third consecutive Grand Tour victory), Chris Froome was racing in the Criterium du Dauphine to build up to the upcoming Tour de France. While removing his vest as he previewed Stage 4 aboard his time-trial bike, a gust of wind blew him off the road and into a wall at 35 mph. His team reported, “Initial examinations confirmed multiple injuries, most notably a fractured right femur and right elbow. He has also suffered fractured ribs.”
Four months of recovery lay ahead, but Froome still returned to racing. During his recovery, Froome said, “The Tour de France is the driving force. The big prize for me is to try and get back to the Tour de France. It’s still too early to say if it’s doable. I’m going to do everything I can to get back to where I left off.”
Unfortunately, Froome was not selected for Team Ineos’ 2020 Tour de France squad. And after, Dave Brailsford refused to extend the four-time Tour champion’s contract after it was revealed Froome had decided to move on by signing with Israel Start-Up Nation for the 2021 season.
Will Chris Froome ultimately prove his injuries and former team wrong by returning to his previous place as a Grand Tour winner? Time will only tell as he will compete one last time for Ineos in the postponed Vuelta a Espana before moving on for a new year that’s hopefully filled with promise and redemption.
In 2018, Philippe Gilbert got back on his bike to continue Stage 16 of the Tour de France despite a spectacular crash that sent him flying over a wall. The then-36-year-old Gilbert was 35 miles from the finish and in the race lead when disaster struck. As he negotiated a left-hand bend at speed, Gilbert failed to brake in time, skidded out of control and was sent flying headfirst into a ravine.
The former world champion was helped back up onto the road and given first aid. Although shaken, he looked to have suffered only bruises and scratches. Gilbert finished the stage. Following the stage, his team announced he had fractured his patella and was headed home.
Less than eight weeks after the crash, Gilbert returned to racing, and seven months later he won Paris-Roubaix.
WOUT VAN AERT
If the 2020 edition of Strade Bianche will be remembered for anything other than being the race that marked the WorldTour’s return to racing following the five-month COVID-19 shutdown, it will be Belgian superstar Wout van Aert’s audacious attack on the final sector of Italian gravel that won him the race.
Having finished third in the previous two editions, as he rolled across the finish line, Van Aert celebrated his first Classics win and his first victory on the road since his career nearly ended 13 months earlier.
In the 2019 season, Van Aert had proven to be a dominant force, having overpowered the world’s premier sprinters during Stage 10 of the Tour de France. Four days later, Van Aert was on track for another stage win in the Stage 13 individual time trial when he clipped the roadside barrier and was thrown off his bike.
Blood was gushing out of Van Aert’s leg as the helicopter camera zoomed in as the rider laid in the middle of the street. As paramedics attended to the wound, it was obvious that Van Aert would be forced to abandon his debut Tour. He was later transferred to a hospital near his home in Belgium and was told it would take two months before he could begin rehab.
Arguably one of the best cyclist of 2020, Van Aert has collected over half a dozen wins in the shortened season, including wins at Milan-San Remo and Strade Bianche, as well as two stages at the Tour de France.
In late September, Van Aert earned silver medals in the World Championship time trial and road race, thus proving true his post-crash assertion, “Falling down is an accident, staying down is a choice.”
During Stage 16 of the 2009 Tour de France, celebrated German rider Jens Voigt had one of the more terrifying crashes ever caught on live TV, which resulted in numerous cuts, a concussion and a broken cheekbone. Here is an excerpt from his autobiography “Shut Up, Legs: My Wild Ride On and Off the Bike” that explains what happened:
“If I had one weakness throughout my career, it was descending. And it resulted in two of my worst crashes. We were in the Alps on the final climb of the day, the Saint Bernard Pass, before dropping into Bourg Saint Maurice for the finish. When Bjarne asked who wanted to commit to the early breakaway, he knew he only had to look at me once to get the answer he was looking for.
“I was pulling at the front and Bjarne came on the radio and said, “Hey, Jens, you don’t have to do all the work here. Others can pull if they want to win the stage.” And that was my last memory! “Two weeks later, I was walking again. And if you can believe it, by the end of the season, I was lined up for the Tour of Missouri. I was committed to the idea that I was not going to let this crash, however bad it was, end my career. I really didn’t want to be the rider who was remembered for ending his career in a bad crash.”
STIMULATE YOUR RECOVERY
BACKMATE POWER MASSAGER
In lieu of a masseuse, Backmate’s Power Massager is one of the simplest methods for a post-ride, deep-tissue massage. Former AMA Superbike rider Eric Bostrom suffered a career-ending crash, which left him with near-chronic back and neck pain due to a traumatic spine injury. He found that alongside daily therapy, a self-administered massage was the best way to feel next to normal. About $450 less than options like the Theragun, Bostrom’s Backmate Power Massager offers three variable speeds that improve blood flow through percussive vibrations delivered right where you want them.
There’s an app for just about everything these days, and for those looking for the smartest ways to recover, PowerDot is it. PowerDot uses electrical muscle stimulation to cause contractions in nearby muscles completely powered by its app-based controls. The contractions increase blood flow to flush out lactic acid and reduce inflammation, which expedites muscle recovery. Recently, PowerDot introduced Smart Recovery. Best paired with health apps like Strava and Apple Health, PowerDot determines the most efficient stimulation patterns from recent workout data, like duration and intensity, to personalize recovery. ν
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