This article was produced in association with Zwift
Richard Ferguson’s cycling story is like many others born in the Seventies. Engrossed by the exploits of Stephen Roche’s Triple Crown in 1987, he was persuaded to take up racing as a junior, and continued to satisfy his competitive desires well into his adult life. “Weeknight third and fourth cat. races are just smash-fests,” he says. “They’re a lot of fun, really enjoyable.” He raced time trials, too, 10- and 25-miles. “I got all the stuff: the fancy bike, the disc wheels. Everything.” He flirted with triathlon for five years – “I embraced it for my sins,” he laughs – and is now “building my own gravel bike. Cycling has been a constant part of my life.”
Last Boxing Day, just two days after returning from a Christmas ski holiday with his family, Ferguson, a 51-year-old exercise physiologist lecturer at Loughborough University, went out on his bike in the morning. His aim was to get back into the rhythm of riding after a week on the slopes. “It wasn’t particularly cold, not one of those winter mornings where you can see frost on the pavement,” he remembers. “I was going to go out for an hour, pootle along at 15-16mph.”
All was going well, until he slid on some black ice he hadn’t spotted. “In a nanosecond I had hit the deck,” he says. “My wheels slipped under me, and so quick was my fall that I hadn’t even had a chance to take my hands off the handlebars. The right side of my head hit the ground first.”
He didn’t lose consciousness, but a driver, who happened to be a dentist, stopped to help and noticed that Ferguson was bleeding from his ear. It signalled a skull fracture. He was rushed to hospital and the diagnosis confirmed the fear. He also had a cheekbone fracture and his right eye suffered a huge amount of bruising.
Worse was to come. “The ultimate consequence of the fall was that I lost sight in my right eye, probably due to the huge amount of trauma and bruising. It was instantaneous. They did scans and there was no physical damage to the optic nerve and the retina was still attached. I was put on steroids and anti-inflammatories and they said we’ll see how it progresses over a month.”
Eight weeks later, his sight still hadn’t returned. He went back to the consultant and was hit by devastating news. “He confirmed that the loss of sight was permanent and irreversible.” How did he feel? “It was a bloody shock, because I thought with there being no structural damage to the eye, over time my sight would come back. There was a lot of emotion, a lot of upsetness among my wife and kids.” Within a day, however, Ferguson’s perception altered. “It changed my life, there have been adjustments to make, but I can still function. It could have been a lot worse.”
Most pressingly for Ferguson the cyclist was how he’d return to his favourite sport. Zwift was mentioned by a friend. “I was a firm anti-Zwifter,” he laughs. “It was banter among friends, but I was always saying I would never get it. I’m old-school: I will ride in any weather, in the dark, whatever conditions are thrown at me. I’d see mates uploading 80km rides on Zwift and be thinking, ‘just get outside, for goodness sake!’”
His accident made him reassess though. “I bought an indoor trainer to try it out, and within no time had fully embraced it. Cycling on the road is risky for reasons we’re all familiar with and I have to be even more careful with just one eye as the risk of an accident has increased for me.”
Previously, Ferguson would head out on a long Sunday ride with mates, and do between two and four hour-long rides during the week. “Now all those midweek sessions are on Zwift,” he says. “I do the workouts, working through the training plans and different sessions. I love the structure they provide.” Has his cycling improved? “Absolutely, 100 per cent. I am an exercise physiologist so I know the benefit of interval training, but before my hour-long road rides would be hacky sessions, a few efforts here and there but mostly just riding along. On Zwift there’s a purpose to my riding and I’ve massively felt the benefit.”
Thursday nights would usually be chaingang sessions with local clubs, but since his injury, “while I can ride steadily in groups without major problems, the carnage of chaingangs is such that it is a little unnerving and I felt quite vulnerable. Zwift allows me to do these regular, structured hard sessions.”
Ferguson hasn’t yet gone full pain cave mode, but his indoor trainer does sit in his garage with a wall-mounted TV broadcasting cycling races while he pedals away. “I rarely use the group rides, and I haven’t embraced racing. Yet. We’ll see.” While Ferguson still goes outside on long weekend rides with friends, Zwift has enabled him to continue to ride between six and eight hours a week, sometimes even more; without the platform, his loss of sight in his right eye would have drastically cut down his riding time.
He says his racing days are over, but there’s a smile when he acknowledges that his performances are better than ever. “My biggest racing achievement is that I maintained myself as a fourth cat racer,” he laughs. “That’s how average I was. If I’d been doing these Zwift interval sessions 25 years ago, I might have been able to promote myself to a third cat!”