Editor’s note: Tom Soladay is a professional cyclist with the Kelly Benefit Strategies- OptumHealth Pro Cycling Team. He won the sprinters jersey at the Nature Valley Grand Prix in 2009, along with back-to-back wins in USACrits Speedweek.
Hello cycling world. I am writing this diary for VeloNews in hopes that I can shed light on a side of cycling that is not often covered: what life is like for a cyclist forced away from the sport to deal with illness or injury and how long the road back to the start line can truly seem. Here is my story.
I started racing bikes for the University of Maryland in 2005 as a form of cross-training for triathlons. I went as far as finishing on the podium in a local marathon and even winning a half ironman. My first races as a category 5 saw me win three races in eight days. But as I progressed as a triathlete, a running-related knee injury snuck up on me. Instead, I turned my efforts to cycling. I was 22 years old.
In 2008 I signed my first professional contract after finishing on the podium at the elite national criterium championships and winning Downers Avenue at Superweek. In 2009, I finally learned how to race my bike with Team Mountain Khakis. I rode away from my breakaway at the Historic Roswell Criterium and won again two nights later with a three-to-go attack at the Beaufort Memorial Cycling Classic. A few podiums after that I had the sprinters jersey from the Nature Valley Grand Prix hanging in my closet along with the USACrits leader’s jersey.
All of the sacrifices I had made, the pressure I put on myself and the support from my friends and family brought me to a place where all of my dreams had finally come true. I had become one of the biggest breakout riders in 2009 and the number of contract offers showed it. I signed with Team Type 1 with the hopes of getting some European experience.
My training, however, was inconsistent as I was preparing for the 2010 season. I tried to shake it off by driving from my hometown of Bethesda, Maryland, (yeah Mid-Atlantic!) to Tucson, Arizona, for a warmer climate. But instead, it felt like the floor fell out from under my feet when I got there. I could barely pull through on the group rides, I had to cut every workout short and even my days off were a struggle.
When rest was not enough, my coach BJ Basham and I looked at my diet and sleeping habits, then eventually ordered a series of blood tests. We found that a previous exposure to Epstein Barr Virus (EBV) — which causes Mono and stays with you for life — had been reactivated and that I was dealing with a current infection.
Commonly referred to as chronic fatigue, EBV cannot be treated with antibiotics. You must start on a diet filled with immunity-building foods and supplements. In order for the body to fight the infection, you must keep all physical activity to a minimum. All that a traditional physician can tell you is to treat the symptoms — meaning that when you feel tired, don’t do anything.
After speaking with three different doctors, I was secretly hoping for a miracle but the news was always the same. My heart was broken. I had always heard stories of riders experiencing similar issues, but I’d had a plan and this wasn’t part of it.
At this point I had no idea that I was about to miss the entire season and be faced with a slow road back to the peloton. One berry protein/root vegetable cleanse and a few easy weeks of training later, it was apparent that I was not getting over my EBV anytime soon.
Twice, I took more than a month off from ALL forms of training during the season.
Each time, I struggled to remain positive when my first rides back had a heartrate ceiling of 130 bpm and power that never got above 120 watts.
It was an emotional rollercoaster. I would try to keep my head up, but that was difficult when faced with constant disappointment. My weight continued to fall as I lost a lot of the muscle mass in my legs. It was mid-July when my second attempt at a comeback fell flat. Season over.
I had taken college classes at the rate of one semester per year for a long time. Now that I was approaching my final semester of my undergraduate studies, I was worried. It wasn’t the three economics courses for which I had registered, but the fact that I had just spent another six weeks on the couch. I had literally been cutting my trips to the grocery store short and my walks around the block were a challenge.
All I wanted was to be healthy again. I no longer cared what jersey I had on my back. My love for this sport could not be ignored, it kept me up at night and I couldn’t sleep. I dreamt of lacing up my running shoes and pedaling my mountain bike to the grocery store without the fear of forced rest to follow.
For the next four months, I averaged four hours of training per week. That’s right, four hours per week for four months! I started with 10-20 minute rides at 80-100 watts. Ultimately, my condition left me with more questions than answers. “Am I tired from the EPV or severely weak legs?” was one question I asked myself each day.
Finally, the New Year arrived and with it came the promise of a clean slate. I knew that 2011 had to be better. I was fortunate enough to sign with Kelly Benefit Strategies-OptumHealth thanks to some understanding directors who each had struggled with Epstein Barr during their cycling careers. By January I gained back seven pounds that I had lost, completed a 20-hour week at training camp and joined my first group ride in more than a year.
Most of my riding hovered in my active recovery and endurance zones for January and February. But soon I found myself thinking, “Might as well race, right?” I drove up to Merced, California, and got dropped 8k into my first race in more than 18 months. I had to rotate in a group off the back for three-and-a-half hours to make the time cut, fighting cramps to come home in 87th place.
As though I had not learned my lesson from Merced, I returned to racing the next weekend only to finish 42nd out of 44 riders in a first stage time trial in Murrieta, California. You can’t fake it when there is no one to draft off and my 320 watts for 12 minutes didn’t fool anyone. Six months earlier I was afraid that I was going to have to retire when I couldn’t find a team that would sign me and now I couldn’t stop smiling while I was getting my head kicked in.
Every single one of us is faced with adversity. We all have our own unique story. When hitting life’s road blocks, how is it as athletes that we get through? Fortitude? Prudence? I can tell you that maintaining both is quite difficult. We know how to put our heads down and push through the tough times, but when dealing with illness/injury the best thing we can do for ourselves is to be realistic, humble and patient.
In the final stage of Murrieta, I bridged across to the winning break and subsequently hung on for dear life at the back. I still have a long way to go but remain optimistic. Next up for me is Sunny King in Alabama, Tro Bro Leon and Tour of Brettagne in France.
Stay tuned as I continue to send in updates of life in the slow lane.
*Special thanks to: my coach BJ Basham, for without your patience, knowledge and support I would not be where I am today; my close friend and training partner Bruno Neto, you motivated me to get better so that you wouldn’t have to ride by yourself anymore; my twin brother Matthew, we have always been in this together. Thank you.