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Coming back from a broken collarbone: a painful process

Sunday 6th August: Antwerpse Havenpijl, a race on roads as flat and fast as roads can possibly be. It was the first time, since leaving the junior category, that after an hour or so of racing I was still really feeling like I could win this UCI race. All was going well and I was riding in about 10th position when unfortunately a rider from the u23 Lotto Soudal team attacked and his foot came out of the pedal, meaning he suddenly flopped to the ground at 50km/h. I was about 10m behind him at this moment and was thinking already how I could avoid coming down over the top of him, but avoiding this was only possible if he fell off to the side of the road. He didn’t. He spread across the road and I hit him before flying through the air and head first into the ditch at the side of the road. I landed hard. Concussion (which I think dulled the pain of the other injuries), a broken wrist, and the collarbone into 5 large pieces.

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I’m not sure if it was the concussion or the painkillers, but none of this sunk in over the rest of the day. In fact, despite being in surgery four days after the crash, I hadn’t accepted the fact that I would not race again in 2017 for at the very least a month. This just wasn’t possible.

Just getting things moving over the following days was the thing that kept me sane. I met with the surgeon the day after crashing and was in surgery just a couple of days later. Although I had bags of time, I even met with Magnus Backstedt, my coach, to discuss the plan for winter training and even thinking about races in 2018! For me, just talking about the future made me feel so much better about the situation, I could momentarily forget the fact that the surgeon didn’t want me on the road for another 4 months. Of course making plans at this stage was fairly useless as we had no idea about how I was going to recover from this apart from knowing that at the mark of 3.5 months I would be having surgery again to get the plate taken out. The aim was simply to keep myself distracted as recovery from this sort of thing is unfortunately only a matter of time… A lot of time…

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Everyone was constantly reminding me to relax. There was much time before I’d be racing again and however keen I was to get to work, and push it hard on the turbo trainer, trying to maintain what fitness I had would only wear me down. So I listened to them all, I worked on the turbo but without much aim, just keeping things moving and keeping me entertained while I catch up on the other parts of life; studying to teach English as a foreign language, spend some important time with my close friends, relax with my family… Eventually, after about 2.5 months, I got a call from Magnus one day and to my surprise and absolute delight, he told me to get out on the road. The arm was moving and holding well, I just had to do all I could to be safe. My sanity was restored! Yes, this was a risk and not what the surgeon wanted, but the only risk came from crashing, and there are things you can do to minimise the risks…

3.5 months in, I was under the knife once again, this was the official end of this mental torture! I made sure to play things safe on the return as I hadn’t done much hard training for months.. Although, having said that, I was on the turbo just 5 days after the surgery and on the road 2 days later, but in terms of training workload, I was easing back into it with Magnus’ advice. And this takes us pretty much to where we are now! I got back into full training, and after some weeks I put in bigger hours on the bike than I have ever done before. I seriously believe that I have come out of this period in a much better place than I went into it as I really tried to use it as an opportunity to let the body adapt, fix some muscular problems in the legs and really take a step back mentally to see where I am and where I aim to be.

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And so, reflecting back on this time, what advice would I give to someone else who is unfortunate enough to be in the situation I was in back in August, or something similar? Firstly, having someone that has been through the same thing before there that you can talk to regularly. For me, Magnus has been coaching me for a year now and he had exactly the same injury back in his career, so he kept a cool head, told me to relax, and always knew exactly what to say and what to expect. Secondly, to always think ahead of where you are in the present. In this situation, there is nothing you can do really to speed things up, and looking to where you want to be in a few months’ time is what can keep you going strong. Finally, take it as an opportunity. It doesn’t have to be a big set back. It is very rare that serious cyclists get to take a large amount of time to take care of the other parts of life, so enjoy it, and put things into perspective, and this will have a positive impact on the bike.

The real test will come when I start racing again come early March, but I have never felt more ready!