“Shattered.” Unless you’re referring to a gruelling day spent on the Belgian bergs, or at the front of the bunch deep into a Grand Tour, in relation to a cyclist’s physical condition there are few words more unnerving.
That was exactly the situation Luke Rowe was faced with in August last year however. As he lay in a hospital bed in Prague he was informed his right leg had broken in twenty places. Instead of enjoying a well-earned weekend away with his brother and some of their closest friends, Chris Froome’s top lieutenant was facing the possibility that his time as a professional cyclist might be over.
And in any other sport, his injury would almost certainly have been career-ending. Fortunately, as punishing as cycling can be, it is in some ways much more physically forgiving than, say, football, and Luke Rowe has returned to the WorldTour far sooner than even the most optimistic physician’s forecast.
Rouleur caught up with the Team Sky rider after a relatively relaxed first day’s racing at the Abu Dhabi Tour.
Can you talk me through the circumstances surrounding the accident?
I’d had a good season. Good classics, finished the tour [and] had a weekend away planned for my brother’s stag before returning to racing at the end of the season. It was in the Czech Republic and there was no real control, just a kind of free-for-all. The group before us were all jumping in the water and it just got really shallow at one little point. That’s the point where I jumped in.
Was your brother able to continue his stag do?
That was one thing I was quite clear on straight away. I was on the [river]bank, completely sparko and I said: “Don’t come to the hospital. I don’t want to see you. It’s your stag, they’ve all paid for it. Carry on, boys. I’ll see you back in Wales.”
Did you turn to the team immediately?
Straight away. Just a couple of hours after the accident, Dave [Brailsford] texted me. He didn’t really know the full story, what had happened, but he texted me saying: “You know, whatever happens we’ll get you back to where you want to be. We’ve got your back.”
Lying in a hospital bed in the middle of the Czech Republic and straight away you know the team is supporting you – it was nice to put your mind at rest. The team have been unbelievable.
You seem quite philosophical about the whole experience…
I’ve said from the start “shit happens”. I mean, it was a freak accident but essentially it was my fault. I’ve never blamed anyone but myself and going on, I won’t change anything.
I get the impression that for a lot of athletes, having some degree of work-life balance, like anyone else, enables them to maintain that level of commitment to the job.
You’ve got to have that balance. You’ve got to enjoy your life. You can’t wrap yourself up in cotton wool. It doesn’t mean you’ve got to be reckless and stupid, and I wasn’t, it was just a mistake.
You’ve been racing for a long time but were you at all nervous after that long out?
I knew through training I was going pretty well and everything’s started going in the right direction, so there’s nothing necessarily to be nervous about. It’s more excitement and looking forward to be getting back in the peloton and the whirlwind of it all.
And was this the right kind of race to ease yourself back in?
Yeah, perfect I think. Just the characteristics of the race, and looking at previous years it’s definitely a slightly easier race on paper [than others]. If the wind picks up it can get a bit tough but if you look at the races after this, it really gets tough. All the classics, Paris-Nice, Tirreno [Adriatico]. Everyone’s flying [by then], so it’s important to not wait until that stage and try and bank a race before it kicks off.
Where are you in your schedule? Considering the severity of the injury, presumably in some ways you’re pretty far ahead?
Yeah, massively ahead. The original prognosis was twelve months out, so to be back here after six is great. I’ve still got a lot of work to do but to be back at this stage at a WorldTour race is beyond my wildest dreams, really.
At what point were you able to start training again?
I got back on the bike properly after three, four months and everything just seemed to click quite quickly. You realise you’re not as unfit as you thought you’d have been. If you’ve ridden your bike for ten, twelve seasons consecutively you’ve just got that massive bank of miles, and your body never really forgets that.
Was there ever any fear at all that you might not return at all, or that you might not be the same rider when you did?
I think I’m at the stage now where I can definitely return to 100%, it’s just a case of when exactly. A lot goes through your head in the early stages: what exactly is going to happen? Am I going to return? How good will I be? For sure there were some scary times and you do question how it’s all going to come together, but luckily it has.
I’m fortunate to be in a position where I was surrounded by such amazing people and staff, and the facilities and equipment I had access to were second to none.
Do you have a fixed race schedule for the year, or is it take each one as it comes and see how your body fares?
I just said let’s just do this race first and see how I am. I could be alright or I could get my arse handed to me. After Abu Dhabi there isn’t a race programme, really. We’re just going to finish this, look at how the race went, and go from there, really.
Obviously a lot of people are talking about the classics… Roubaix and Flanders are the only realistic ones because they’re a few weeks later but I just have to see how it goes. I’d love to go but if you’re there with half condition you’re going to be stepping off at the feed for sure, so unless I’m 100% I won’t be there.
This time last year you were going particularly well. A 3rd at Kuurne–Brussels–Kuurne and a 6th at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad…
Yeah that’s this weekend now coming, isn’t it? So already [I’m] missing a couple. I’d rather be in Belgium racing, of course, but I’ve got to take what I can get at the moment and I’m just happy to be here with a number on my back.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity