I fell. Scraping across the abrasive Spanish pavement, at a speed faster than I’d like to comprehend. The peloton came off a small descent, into an open plain, where crosswinds put the peloton into the gutter on the right hand side of the road. Anticipating what was coming, I tried to move up as much as I could.
It turned out I moved to just about the wrong spot, so when the fifty riders in front of me dodged a rogue mountain bike laying in the road, I, or the rider in front of me was the eventual one to finally hit. And hit it we did. The last thing I saw was this multicolored clunker lying on the road in front of me, knowing it was too late.
It seems unfortunately fitting that my last journal was on the elation of victory, the peak, the pinnacle of sport. Today, quite the opposite.
I lie groaning on the pavement, praying not to get hit again from behind. I got up, grabbed my bike, taking stock of the damage done to body and machine – my bike was too damaged to ride. I shouted in the radio for a new one, but, being car twenty-one in the caravan, it took ages to arrive.
I surveyed the scene, searching for the owner of the rogue mountain bike. I decided that if I found him, I would promptly make an effort to kick his ass. I saw riders, mechanics, directors, yet everyone seemed to be associated with the race.
When Mitch, our mechanic, arrived with my spare bike, I tried to remount and continue on my way, but as soon as I gripped my right hood, I could feel my thumb seem to separate completely from the rest of my hand. I screamed in pain, and thankfully he had not yet let go of my seatpost. I stopped and he held my dark blue Ridley upright, as I tried to dismount without a functioning hand.
I knew my Vuelta was over right there. Kilometre 113 of Stage 7, in some nondescript dirt plain, in the middle of nowhere. I debated trying to ride the last 94 kilometres with one hand on the bars, alone since the peloton was already minutes ahead. I then considered the possibility of crashing again and causing more damage, and thought against it.
My mind was still racing, waffling between the possible outcomes of each scenario: Could my hand just be sprained? My thumb only dislocated? What happens if I get to the hospital now and nothing is broken? Will I be able to live with the guilt? I put too much into this Vuelta to give up so easily. I was still conscious and my legs were surely still able to turn the pedals. I could find a way to will myself to at least reach the finish line.
I considered how I would be lauded as a hero, broken body, gaping wounds down the entire left side of my body, hands unable to hold the bars, but still somehow reaching the finish.
Standing there bent over in pain, trying to reason in a state beyond reason, I had a moment of clarity. I might be able to make it to the finish that day, but what good would it do me? What if I were to hurt myself even more? Continuing in the race with a non-functioning hand, no matter how much I tried to deny it, would be a worthless cause. I would be unable to get a result, and I would be not only a hazard to myself, but to all the other riders in the peloton.
Again I thought, how ridiculous is it, this sport of cycling? We laud these guys who ride with broken bones, risking their lives and their futures, suffering through intense pain, for nothing but to escape having three meaningless letters next to their name?
Call me a wimp, but that’s not heroic. It’s idiotic. With that realisation, I turned around and hoisted myself into the ambulance without using my hands. I hung my head, thinking about the months of work, the weeks spent alone on top of a desolate mountain pass, the ever persistent hunger I withstood trying to shed every extra ounce of fat.
I thought about the amount of time I could have spent with my family, girlfriend, and friends. I thought about the amount of money I spent to do that. And I thought about how, in one brief moment, all of that work, that build up, that effort just went down the drain, only because someone misplaced their bike.
As the ambulance sped along the twisty roads, it felt like each curve caused the bones in my hand to shift, but it seemed like nothing compared to the rider next to me, who could not speak until 20 minutes into our drive.
Arriving at the hospital, we both swapped our previous set of wheels for new ones: him a stretcher, me a wheelchair. It seemed a little excessive considering my legs still functioned just fine. They wheeled him into the operating room immediately and myself to the front of the “line” – currently three wheelchairs long.
Two seniors groaning in pain, looking like they were approaching their deathbeds, and myself: a professional cyclist bandaged head to toe, wearing a brightly coloured American flag jersey tattered to pieces, loud stars and stripes shoes still strapped on.
What contrast, I thought. One minute, I’m flying down the road, in the company of 200 fit, healthy guys at the pinnacle of sport. An hour later, I’m sitting in a wheelchair. As I sat there, I noticed my pockets were still full of energy gels.
Some x-rays, a few bandages, and a plaster cast that looked like it was made by an 8 year-old in arts and crafts, and I was on my way. We headed back to the team lodging, a hotel above a service station. I had to stay with the team at the race for a few days still, as I was unable to use my hands. My right thumb was broken in two places, and dislocated. I would later find out my left wrist was too.
It was in those few days I realised how lucky I am. I think I may have received more messages of support in the days following my crash than I did after either of my victories this year. I was baffled by how many people offered to help me no matter where I decided to head next – Nice, Michigan, Ireland. The team doctor set me up with an operation in Dublin.
I dreaded remaining at the race. It may only be an unspoken thing between us riders, but one of the worst feelings in the world is staying at a race that for some reason you are no longer a part of. Whatever the reason: illness, injury, or just plain fatigue, if you stop, it’s best to get out as soon as you can. You feel out of place, ashamed, unnecessary. Even if it wasn’t my fault to be out of the race so soon, I still felt I had let down my team and my teammates by leaving them when I did.
Occasionally you hear a story of some teams refusing to change riders’ tickets if they do not finish a stage for some reason, forcing them to remain at the race until the end as punishment. Of course it wouldn’t happen at a race as long as a three week Tour, but a few days is rough nonetheless.
Those couple of days, however, made me realise what a great team we have.
Everyone, from the staff working hard to keep everything running, to the riders still in the race, helped me day and night. My roommate Conor stayed up late talking to me trying to be encouraging, and helped me pack my suitcase the next morning to leave the hotel. Our soigneur Pedro helped me cut my food at lunch.
The press officer Niall gave me a pep talk to bring up my spirits. Javier, another soigneur, cleaned my wounds and even washed me because I couldn’t do it myself. The entire group staff and riders helped me with anything and everything that I needed, even though they were in the middle of a Grand Tour, because they knew I couldn’t do it alone. I could not be more grateful to every one of them for that.
Chute! A brief history of crash photography
These are my first broken bones in ten years since starting to race as a high level cyclist, and it’s my first injury to knock me out of racing for an extended period of time. So I’m taking it as a learning experience.
I’ve had trouble turning my brain off or away from cycling, as when I’m not participating in the sport, I’m one of its biggest fans. I watched the Vuelta daily, as I had to keep up to date and follow my team, and occasionally had to give them a kick in the ass when I saw them sitting at the back.
The first weeks after the injury were incredibly difficult for me to deal with. It’s partly why I’ve only gotten around to finishing this journal now. I was down and this feeling was exacerbated by the fact that I was unable to do most regular tasks without assistance. Things weren’t going particularly well for the team either – shortly after I crashed out, someone lit our bus on fire in the middle of the night, and it burned down. No joke.
A week and a half after my crash, unable to stop following the Vuelta, I was home riding in the car with my girlfriend, streaming the race. I was able to see my close friend Stefan Denifl take the biggest victory of his career. For a moment, I forgot everything.
I forgot the throbbing pain in my hand, forgot about my inability to do much of anything alone, I forgot the fact that I had to leave the biggest race of the year. I forgot how much I wanted to be there.
At that moment, the only thing I could feel was pure joy, his ride nearly moving me to tears.
Stefan and I have been teammates for three years. Over that time we have formed a close bond – we have been roommates at nearly every race we have done together. Two years ago, he had a nearly career-ending knee injury, but fought extremely hard to return to the bunch. Last year, in the pending collapse of IAM we sat on our hotel room beds wondering what we were going to do. Eleven months later, I watched him take the biggest win of his career.
That was when I realised this: it’s the contrast that makes sport and life so great. It’s going through those lows that make us appreciate those highs so much more. This year I have had my fair share of both. But when you always have sunshine and roses, they start to lose their appeal.
It’s being down that makes me want to be back up and on top. I wouldn’t ask for an injury like this to happen again, but I realise that it is a part of the job we do. And I’d sign up for this season in a heartbeat again, even if I knew this is what it contained. I will do my best to accept the ups and downs as they come and appreciate them for what they are – they aren’t mutually exclusive.
The pendulum may have swung this way for now… but it’s going back the other direction.
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