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Editor’s note: After a serous crash while training, VeloNews contributor Chad Haga returns to racing Wednesday at Dwars Door Vlaanderen.
I’m not as handsome as I used to be, but I’ve certainly looked a lot worse. Scars add character, I’m told, which is good because I look like a war-battered protagonist in a Tarantino film, my neck a weave of pink ribbons that culminate in a knot of scar tissue. Those scars, though, are the only obvious evidence of the crash, which amazingly resulted in a mere flesh wound. As I shuffled through the hospital’s hallways, I felt like the irrepressible Black Knight, insisting to an incredulous King Arthur that it was “but a scratch!”
I endured countless stares as people tried to make sense of the “Walking Dead” extra that had wandered off set, but I was too focused on my recovery to be bothered much by them. At each stage, I was wholly committed to reaching the next one as fast as possible without pushing too far. I made sure to go to bed each night worn out, which wasn’t hard to do. The hospital staff seemed endlessly surprised to always find me eating (thanks to soigneurs bringing me food), that apparently their diet of chicken broth and apple juice was insufficient for a healing body.
I was surprised at my appetite as well — recovering from such an impact (and regenerating a fair bit of blood) does require a lot of food, and I burned as much energy getting the food into my mouth as it provided me. I was eating like it was a stage race, it seemed, but that’s also because it took 30 minutes to eat an omelette one tiny bite at a time, taking breaks to relieve my neck from looking at the plate and my shoulder from lifting that heavy fork, eventually just lifting the plate to my face to just shovel it in with an apology to those around me as crumbs fell from my numb and swollen lips.
I felt on top of the world when I left the hospital, my second surgery canceled after my double vision faded naturally. I was able to saunter along at a pace that would blend in perfectly with the casual Spanish pedestrian, and I could finally chew things that were slightly firmer than an overripe banana, if only on one side of my mouth. I was certain that the difficult part of recovery was behind me, and then I bonked on a long walk, my undernourished body throwing in the towel after losing multiple pounds in a couple of days.
Once I could finally eat more than I was burning off, my recovery picked up speed. I was able to walk a few miles every day, and slowly my bruised feet stopped complaining and my knees shrugged off their tendency to buckle. I should have been on my way to start my season in Qatar, but instead I was engaging in slow-motion footraces with unsuspecting grandmothers. In hindsight, posting up may have been poor sportsmanship, but I needed a win.
As the first of my stitches were removed, my knees had enough range of motion to pedal a bike. I started on the stationary bike at the gym for its upright position (the first time I’ve ever been excited to ride one of those), adding 30 minutes each day. When I felt strong enough to ride my own bike on the rollers (saddle-to-bar drop is cool until your neck no longer wants to hold your head up), I put on Netflix and went to work, taking a break every 15 minutes to relieve my neck.
With everything going well, I celebrated the removal of the final stitch with a ride outside. I was thankful for my American teammates’ company on that first outing as I was definitely overwhelmed by traffic on the way out of town. That ride was exhilarating, but it was also an indicator of just how tough a full recovery would be. I knew I had a lot of work to get my legs back, but first I needed sufficient neck strength to get through a ride.
After working my way up to three-hour rides, I was given permission to test my legs a bit. Naturally, I went full gas up a 15-minute climb to see what was left of my fitness. With my heart pounding in my ears and my legs on fire, I posted numbers that were impressive back when I was a category 2, but I felt alive in every sense of the word.
As time went on, my legs and neck grew stronger, but those who tracked my recovery through Strava only saw half of the story. For weeks, the bike was the only place I felt truly normal. I awoke fresh and full of energy, hurrying out the door for my three hours of bliss while my body cooperated. Everything changed when I climbed off the bike, however, and my body proceeded to return the punishment in spades. While supporters left me kudos on my successful training, I was stretched out on the floor, delicately massaging the tight cord of muscle running from behind my ear to my shoulder. The dull ache grew to a nuisance every time I spent more than a few minutes doing anything more active than watching TV, or if I neglected to stretch it every five minutes. The support of my brother and fiancee were crucial, as I had no energy to even prepare a sandwich for myself after burning it all on the bike. I rallied long enough to sit up and eat before focusing my last reserves on surviving until 9:30, when I would finally succumb to exhaustion, craving sweet relief of the growing pain in my neck and resisting a return to the pain meds I had so joyfully given up weeks ago. I took to sleeping on the floor, as it seemed to minimize the number of times my neck would awaken me in the night.
After weeks of this miserable cycle, I made a breakthrough. I found that I could ride during the morning and even go grocery shopping in the evening. Then I could play the piano for a bit. My rides got longer, and I eventually stopped noticing my neck at all. I’ve been immersed in training, more focused than I’ve ever been as I prepare to return to racing, desperately clawing my way back to the form I had in January. I’m not quite there yet, but it’s coming back quickly and I’m ready to race.
I’m eager for the chance to earn attention for my racing rather than my ability to bounce off a car, ready to attack races with a vigor that can only be attained by nearly losing the privilege altogether. Two months to the day after I was lifted away to emergency surgery, I will pin a number on for the first time of 2016. The lingering effects of the crash are only present away from the bike, and a bit of scar tissue and a sunken cheekbone won’t slow me down in the least. I’m bracing myself for sore cheeks all over again, this time from a permanent — if slightly lopsided — smile.