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After crashing out of the sport, loneliness lingers

Editor’s note: The following is a companion story to a feature in Velo magazine’s “Danger Issue,” which chronicles the crashes of five riders and their various tribulations, either to make it back to the sport, or back to life. As you’ll see, this story takes a look at what happens when riders don’t make it back. If you want to read the full print feature, pick up a copy of the magazine, which is out now.

BOULDER, Colorado (VN) — A wobble. An inch. A broken back, busted teeth, blood pooling, on the road and in the skull. Femurs snapped like toothpicks under a heavy thumb. Cringe.

The physical atrocities of severe bike crashes are tangible, stomach-turning. This is the cost of pinning on a number, of doing business and fighting for a living in a sport where the only protections are tights and Styrofoam buckets.

There’s another side to all the replays, the photos, the triumphant returns. After riders crash out of bike racing, there’s a loneliness that descends, wrapping its chilly fingers around daily life, squeezing riders who were once part of the peloton’s very chain. Sometimes, the things and the people that were there before fade away, along with the prospect of racing a bike again. Cycling, from the top down, is an identity sport — how many recreational riders define themselves as cyclists? Plenty.

From this side, the sport is much different. It has a way of forgetting its casualties, perhaps out of necessity to keep pedaling, heads down, into the wind. This melancholy reality of quitting the sport and walking into unknown futures is an incalculable cost, and sometimes it hurts much more than broken bones ever could.

Tara Llanes

In the six months after she creased her back in the final event of the 2007 Jeep King of the Mountain gravity race, Tara Llanes went to physical therapy three to four times a week in her native Southern California, hoping for her nerves to fire again, to be able to walk. For an elite-level athlete, the work is the easiest part; it’s the space between efforts that’s enough to swallow someone whole.

“The time that I was spending at home was really hard. I felt like I didn’t see too many of my friends. It was the hardest time,” she said. “I felt so isolated. I couldn’t drive yet. If I needed to go anywhere, I needed my mom or a friend of mine.”

Her mom lived only a short distance away, but it happened to be up a massive hill, and that’s no small feat for someone in a wheel chair, no matter how strong she is. “It wasn’t like I could just go out the door and roll down the street,” Llanes said.

She’d wheel down the street, a far sight from the athlete she once was, but with the same heart, the same mind. People just couldn’t see that much.

“I see it in their face,” she said. “When I’m going down the sidewalk they’re kind of looking at me as if don’t know whether to keep looking or not look.”

Llanes, 35, ended up splitting up with her partner after the crash, and wondered what would come next, if she’d be alone.

“Am I ever going to date? Is anybody ever going to want to date me?” she asked. “Your whole life — it’s amazing to me just how much standing does for your body. It’s absolutely unreal to me. It seems like something so simple that everybody does. And because I can’t do it right now, it makes so many things in life challenging.

“I thought, ‘am I going to be some crazy chick living at my mom’s house 15 years from now?’”

It’s been five years since her crash. She still cannot walk. But the industry has stuck with her and she with it. She now works for Pearl Izumi as a rep, and the companies she was riding for at the time of the accident didn’t run away, either. Llanes has gotten married to a woman she used to compete with, Elladee Brown. She’s not alone, not even close, but there are still moments that creep up on her, sitting in a car, watching a group of riders wheel past her in her new home in North Vancouver.

“I feel mad about what happened. I don’t resent cycling. I don’t resent mountain biking at all. It was an accident. It wasn’t something that anybody did. I’m certainly not mad about cycling. I love cycling — that’s what I want to do the most, out of anything in the entire world.”

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