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By Christian Vande Velde, CSC professional cycling team
Looking at the list of casualties from Ghent-Wevelgem, I couldn’t help but shudder. Broken bones; people hitting poles, cars and other riders – I know the feeling.
Even the slightest injury or smallest crash has consequences. And the older you get, the more the little things mean. The back gets tight, you pull a hamstring, and bang: You’ve triggered an old injury. Then you can’t train properly, or race the next race that will help you achieve your top form when you need it, and you start to worry that you’ll never get back on track.
When you’re young, climbing back on the bike is much easier, and sometimes you’re almost too keen to resume training. I’ve broken an arm four times and collarbones three times, and I’ve also jumped back on the horse too soon after crashing. Once I raced a Madison a few weeks after breaking a collarbone, and I’ve trained with a cast on my arm; at one point, I could almost slip the cast off because of muscle atrophy and sweat. Then, as a prize for my eagerness to stay fit and race the Vuelta, the doctor rebroke my arm and gave me some shiny new pins. Stupid, I know, but at the time it seemed professional and heroic.
And I’m not alone in this. Every injured athlete feels the pressure to get back in the game, whether it’s baseball, football or bike racing. Sometimes the pressure doesn’t come as much from the team as it does from inside. Take Fabrizio Guidi, for example. He has rarely made it through a classics season, for one reason or another, many times falling victim to the Three Days of De Panne. This year, he has worked really hard, changed teams, got a great result and no doubt was really looking forward to the Giro. But after 15 minutes of racing in Ghent-Wevelgem on Wednesday, he was nursing a broken wrist and looking further down the road, to the Tour.
Still, don’t be surprised to see him in Calabria for the start of the Giro. It’s not likely, but it’s possible. The team was undoubtedly relying on him for the Giro, and he was definitely looking forward to winning a stage.
It’s hard not to try; it’s in our nature to progress, rather than regress, especially during the season. If you’re sidelined for one reason or another, you get to go home and see your family and friends. It’s great, at first. You feel normal staying at home for more than a week at a stretch. But it really isn’t normal to be sitting at home with nothing to do, and you’re so focused on getting back to work that you don’t enjoy the moment; all you do is think too much.
Two other victims of Ghent-Wevelgem, Andreas Klier and Roger Hammond, had been favorites for Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix, a race that they’ve probably anticipated since showering after last year’s Queen of the Classics. They still might race, and they might do great, but racing while injured is iffy. The body compensates in lots of little ways that can lead to other injuries or bad habits, so sometimes it’s better to stay down for the full count and wait to fight another day.
This is where a strong team management really shines. They will look at your predicament from a better perspective than yours. You may be keen to jump back on the bike, but a savvy team director and doctors know better – they’ll tell you to relax, heal properly and prepare for races later in the year. Look at Johan Musseuw – he almost lost his leg in the Arenberg forest, and then one year later won the same race that nearly cost him a limb.
Unfortunately, most teams can be very short-sighted, pushing injured riders back into action too soon, delaying their full recovery and inflicting compensation injuries upon an otherwise healthy athlete. Again, not smart, but then hindsight is always 20/20.
There are examples to the contrary, of course. Rebecca Twigg won the world championships in the pursuit after breaking a collarbone one week before, and Graeme Brown swam in preparation for the Athens Olympics because of an Achilles-tendon injury and won two gold medals. But success stories like these are few and far between.
Injury is part of every sport, and it is ultimately up to the athlete to decide how he or she comes back, be it sooner or later, stronger or weaker.
The spring classics will always be the season of injury, and here’s hoping that all the casualties come back to ride another day, at the same level or higher.