'When I woke up, I was already thinking about cycling': Milan Vader on his road back to racing
On stage five of April’s Itzulia Basque Country, Jumbo-Visma’s Milan Vader suffered life-threatening injuries, was placed in an artificial coma for 12 days, and suffered dozens of fractures as well as requiring stents to be inserted into his carotid arteries. A little over two months on, the Dutchman speaks to Rouleur about his remarkable recovery from the brink of death and paralysis.
We’ve been talking for close to half-an-hour, and I’ve been astounded - inspired, even - by Milan Vader’s positivity. Ten weeks ago, just a few hours after I’d last seen him smiling and laughing as he went to sign-on at stage five of the Itzulia Basque Country, the Dutchman crashed hard and almost lost his life. It’s when he addresses the reality of what occurred that there is a noticeable shift in his cheery voice. “I feel really lucky,” he speaks slowly. “There were a few moments that I could have been dead.” He pauses. “I am very lucky.”
When the 26-year-old was catapulted from his bike in the second hour of the day’s racing, he flew over a guardrail and landed, motionless, on a hill that steeply descended down the side of the road. Almost no-one clocked what had happened.
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“The race doctor didn’t notice me down the road, but an Intermarché rider did. The doctor initially went to him, but he said he was fine and that there was a guy down there who he’d better help first. I was lucky that the doctor was a heart specialist because he stopped the ambulance on the way to the hospital to do some interventions because he saw something wasn’t right. He saved my life.”
A race doctor attends to Milan Vader after his crash at the 2022 Tour of the Basque Country (Getty Images)
Upon arriving at Bilbao’s hospital, doctors were deeply concerned for the life of Vader, a mountain biker by trade who was only racing his 10th day as a professional road rider. His team released very few details, and his parents - Patrick and Ingrid - flew from the Netherlands to be by his bedside. “The doctor didn’t say much to my parents because he didn’t know anything,” Vader explains. “My parents said that you like to hear that something is going to be alright, but they didn’t get told that. For them it was really hard.”
There were multiple complications. He broke his spine in 11 places, cracked eight ribs, broke a shoulder, a collarbone, an eye socket and a cheekbone. The biggest worries, however, were a perforated lung and a ruptured and punctured carotid artery that required stents to keep him alive. Vader was stable, but doctors placed him in an induced coma in which he didn’t come out for 12 days.
He has no recollection of the crash, nor the hours before it, but he has since been informed about the state he was in. “The first week in the hospital I was in a coma and was paralysed on one side,” he says. “They found a little air bubble in my brain in one of the three brain scans they did. They got the air bubble away with some medication, and then the function on the right side of my body came back and I could move my right leg and arm. Then it was OK.”
He laughs when discussing his broken body, describing the now healed fractures as “not the biggest problems - they were, like, nice! Not so bad!” But the ruptured vein was life-threatening, the coma allowing the doctors to operate and repair it. As he lay alive but stationery, his weight plummeted from 62kg to 53kg. “I didn’t have any fat, so it was all muscle that I lost.”
‘I just had to learn everything all over again’
On April 20, Vader was woken from the coma, oblivious to his accident. “I woke up and the first thing I asked for was a Coca-Cola and if Primož [Roglič] was still in yellow,” he laughs. “I didn’t panic at all. My dad said this is what happened and then I got really emotional - this was the only hard time.”
I had spoken at length with Vader a week before his accident, and I was struck by his happiness and optimism. Jumbo-Visma had signed him on a three-year multi-discipline contract, the aim being to win cross-country mountain bike gold at the Paris 2024 Olympics, and to also develop him into a GC rider. The parallels with Roglič run deep. I hadn’t expected the same level of enthusiasm and cheerfulness to be as apparent this time around; to my surprise, he is more positive than ever.
“It wasn’t scary at all,” he responds when asked how he felt not being able to walk in the beginning. “That was because I already knew when laying in the bed in Bilbao that all my coordination was gone.”
He knows what is next in the story, and starts chuckling; he’s clearly regaled his experiences to many a friend and colleague. “I couldn’t feed myself and when I tried to, the food just ended up on me in my bed! Everything! I couldn’t hold my phone, and I wasn’t able to turn it on or off. Even swiping was difficult. I just had to learn everything all over again. When I could walk a little bit, I tried to stand up on my toes, but I didn’t have the power for it. It was so crazy.
(Image courtesy of Jumbo-Visma)
“I expected to step out of bed and walk away. When I asked the physio if I could start to walk, he said ‘OK, if you want to, let’s try’. They sat me straight on the side of the bed and even that was… uff, I got so sick because of my balance and centre of gravity after laying flat for three weeks. My body was used to lying horizontally so I got vertigo standing up and was so sick. I could stand up for 30 seconds and I was sweating like hell, a heartbeat of 120bpm. That was enough training for the day!”
It took Vader a week to learn how to walk again and he was then moved back to the Netherlands on April 26, 18 days after his accident. Three days after being able to stand once more, he asked doctors in his new hospital if he could ride a bike, so they brought a stationary one to him from the gym. “I thought, ‘OK, let’s try a 170 watts recovery ride’, but I couldn’t even turn the pedals!” he says. “There was no movement at all. So I went down in watts and at 30 watts I could get some movement. From there I started to ride 15 and 20 minutes at a time at 30 watts. It was just easy stuff, and from thereon when I had energy I stepped on the rollers.”
Road to recovery
After four days in a hospital in his native country, he was discharged and sent home. “I couldn’t wait - I was so excited to be sitting in the garden, to be outside. My skin was dead,” he adds. The rehab continued at pace in his own surroundings - but each day brought with it fresh challenges. “The first week was quite hard. I was really tired and I was even tired after eating breakfast.”
Yet Vader approached the obstacles head-on with a mindset equipped to overcome them. “Quite soon after, we saw some progression,” he adds. “When you’re younger, you have to learn everything, so you can always learn everything if you want to [no matter the age]. I wasn't scared of that.
“In the first weeks I learned so many new things again. The first time standing in the shower instead of sitting, the first time walking up the stairs. Simple things, all for the first time, and actually it was quite nice. Everyday I made some progress and had some success. It was nice to start from the bottom rather than fighting to gain an extra one or two percent like I would normally do in training.”
His recovery has been rapid, drawing similarities to that of Egan Bernal who also almost lost his life and faced paralysis. Vader has already ridden a ride over 100km, and his father quipped to him on his first ride outside that “if this is your form now, then your form in the Basque Country must have been really good.”
The truth is, it was. He was 29th in the opening time trial, and sat 32nd on GC before his abandonment. His transition to road racing was seemingly effortless, all those projections of a bright future looking rather accurate.
It’s obvious that the crash hasn’t stunted his ambition, nor scared him into thinking that a career away from two wheels is a better avenue to go down.
“Actually, in the hospital when I woke up, I was already thinking about cycling again,” Vader says. His week is now divided by three or four strength training sessions, and the other days are reserved for riding.
(Image courtesy of Jumbo-Visma)
He wants to return to racing before the season’s out. “The team and the coaches said they won’t set a date to race again, but up until now everything has gone super-good with my recovery, but I know that I cannot progress [at the same rate] every week so we don’t set a date.
“My coach made some calculations after the 100km ride and he said that I was at 60% of my maximum, so it will take three months of training to get me to 100% of my maximum. So maybe at the end of the year. I hope to race this year again to keep the feeling, otherwise I will have been out for almost a year.”
He admits that not remembering anything of the crash “helps me to go on the bike and to do what I want”, but he rues the missed racing opportunities - especially being deprived of scoring crucial mountain bike Olympic qualification points. “It’s not ideal,” he says, “but I have to deal with it. That’s a concern for later.”
As we wrap up, Vader agrees that he doesn’t want to become defined by the accident, and nor does he want to field questions on it forever. Yet he will sport his multiple scars proudly, for they are the evidence of his second go at this thing we call life. “It’s now part of my story, part of my life. There’s not much I can change - so just be positive.”