Craig Lewis’ long road back to cycling’s elite ran through the Tour de Beauce on Wednesday when the Champion System rider stormed to a solo victory.
In May 2011, then 26-year-old American Craig Lewis, riding for HTC-Highroad, was enjoying the finest grand tour performance of his career at the Giro d’Italia. Then, it suddenly all went wrong. He and teammate Marco Pinotti went down in a horrifying pileup at a traffic sign on stage 19.
Lewis spent three weeks in a hospital bed after compartment syndrome and a muscle rupture nearly cost him his right leg. Swelling around his femur reached critical mass, requiring emergency surgery. Lewis’ career — and even his leg — were in real danger.
Flash forward more than a year — through a summer of setbacks that included not only the painful rehabilitation process but the stress of trying to find a team that would take on a rider with a broken leg — and Lewis found himself, almost miraculously, atop the podium after stage 2 of the Tour de Beauce in Quebec on Wednesday.
The feelings between then and now couldn’t be more different.
“The feeling? Relief! It has been a really long time with one setback after another,” Lewis told VeloNews. “Even this morning, with the rain, I was having constant flashbacks [to the crash]. It’s engrained in me by this point, so I am very happy to be able to overcome that part for once today.”
All the sweeter for Lewis was that he soloed to victory out of a three-man breakaway that enjoyed more than 100 kilometers of freedom Wednesday.
Lewis, runner-up Jamie Sparling (Raleigh GAC) and Alexander Serebryakov (Team Type 1-Sanofi) escaped a little more than 40km into the 159.7km race and never enjoyed more than a four-minute lead. The trio held off the chasing efforts of race leader Francisco Mancebo and his Competitive Cyclist team, however, with Lewis beating Sparling by five seconds.
The American’s long road to recovery included a complex bone graft operation in December. He rode through the 2011 USA Pro Cycling Challenge in August — at the back — but stopped training shortly after. But in 2012 he’s done a fair amount of racing for someone whose femur is still technically fractured; he only resumed training at the first of the year.
“I’m missing a big base so I’ve struggled to find consistent form,” he said. “I’m excited to get this race in my system and really focus on the Tour of Utah.”
Can he climb his way back to being among the best of the sport, a position he enjoyed when racing for the powerful Highroad team? Lewis was serving as the top mountain domestique in arguably the hardest grand tour of the year for Pinotti and Kanstantsin Sivtsov when he crashed out of the race and a place at the sport’s top level.
“I’d love to return to the WorldTour,” said Lewis. “I really enjoy riding grand tours. Even though I have had few successes, I seem to shine brightest in the longer events. Getting back to the top level would be incredible, and I hope that’s with Champion System.”
He could well be on his way with Asia’s first Pro Continental team. With his win, Lewis climbed into second overall at the Tour de Beauce, three seconds behind Mancebo.
Thursday’s 164km stage 3 features a summit finish at Mont Mégantic.