The 31-year-old British rider, who was a latecomer to cycling, was on the up and up after a strong 2020 season. However, her career ground to a halt after she suffered a concussion in a heavy crash at last year’s Strade Bianche.
After initially believing she’d be back to racing later in the spring, it soon transpired that Banks would be a lot longer on the sidelines. Even simple things like reading, watching the television, or standing to have a conversation became challenging, and she wondered if she should try and race again.
“I thought about packing it in so many times. Last year was so hard, and there were so many dark moments. I didn’t know how seriously I thought about packing it in, but I really thought why am I doing this? Because it was so bad,” Banks told VeloNews after making her return to racing at Gent-Wevelgem earlier in the spring.
Being an elite athlete can sometimes be a very selfish pursuit, but Banks’ comeback was more than just about her. She had to think of her family, too, and she wanted to make sure her husband would be OK with her getting back into the peloton when she could have another serious fall.
“I had a conversation with my husband like, well, ‘what do you think? Like, are you happy with me taking the risk to go back?’ Because really bad accidents are quite rare in cycling, but they happen and you know they will,” she said. “Every day we all think about Amy Pieters and her family and just really just hope for the best that she’s just going to be okay and come out of the coma. It’s a reminder that bad accidents do happen.
“It’s not just about me, it’s about the impact on my husband if something were to happen to me as well. We had a very serious conversation about it, ‘is this worth it? Is this really what you want?’ And we decided that yes, cycling is dangerous, and there is a risk of a bad accident, but the risk is relatively low and I think I would regret it if I didn’t give it another shot.”
Banks’ recovery process was long and drawn out and she underwent vestibular rehab during her recovery. It was several months before she could ride a bike again, and even then she had rehab work to do as she got used to riding around others without feeling sick.
After hope for a late-season return dwindled, Banks refocused her attention on making her comeback in 2022 with her new EF Education-TIBCO-SVB squad. She was scheduled to ride the Setmana Ciclista Valenciana in February, but shortly before it was due to start she tested positive for COVID-19.
It was yet another disappointment for Banks, especially as she’d felt she was in good form.
“I was nervous for Valencia, but I was really excited because I was going there to help the team,” Banks told VeloNews. “I was really looking forward to kind of seeing what I could do and I was going to be going in with no pressure, but like an expectation of myself and I felt like I was probably going to exceed my own expectation.
“I tested positive and … I didn’t feel so unwell and I thought well, it’s kind of inevitable and better now than later. I’ll just have my week off the bike, and then I’ll get back to it. I was locked up in a tiny room in Spain and it was pretty hard. I just couldn’t get anything done. I couldn’t really think straight.
“Even though I’d had a bit of trouble breathing, it was only for a few days during my week of isolation. But I hadn’t been raising my heart rate, I hadn’t been doing any exercise, I was just in a small room, walking up and down in meter square space. I got back on the bike and tried to ride, and I just couldn’t breathe, and I had no energy. I know that the energy comes back but the biggest problem was I just simply couldn’t breathe.”
Like she had experienced with her concussion, Banks’ hopes for a swift return to racing were dashed. Riders at the Opening weekend and Strade Bianche were scrapped as she struggled to recover from COVID-19.
While Banks was recovering from the concussion, Banks had bad reactions to the coronavirus vaccine, and she was worried about how the virus would affect her nervous system. She began to wonder if she would ever get back in the peloton.
“It was pretty scary,” she said. “It was pretty gutting, but I managed to get over Valencia pretty fast … but down the line, I realized that it just simply wasn’t getting better. I felt quite upset at that point because when you’re just unfit, it’s really easy to rectify that, you just need time on a training program. But when it is a pretty unknown virus, and you don’t know really what’s going on, it just felt like history was repeating itself.
“It’s kind of similar to some of the concussion symptoms because you have an upset of your nervous system and a dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system in concussion and it’s very similar in COVID. This is why I was so concerned about it, because I had such strong reactions to the vaccinations that made my concussion symptoms so much worse. I was sitting at home not really able to ride my bike.”
After setback after setback, Banks finally had herself on a start list again at Gent-Wevelgem last month. She didn’t want to make too much of a big deal about it, almost expecting another misfortune to befall her before she could line up in Ypres.
This time, there would be nothing lurking around the corner to stop her. There were nerves and she felt a little emotional about pinning a number on again, but it was like no time had passed as she rode out on that Sunday morning.
The only problem was, she had lost form and training during her recovery from COVID-19.
“It doesn’t feel like I’ve been away for a year,” she said. “The peloton works the same way as it always did and you can refine those peloton skills a little bit, and like I definitely need to refine them, but the hardest thing is that I’m not fit right now.
“It’s not really a case of it’s difficult to judge my peloton the skills when I’m not physically able to kind of perform in the way that I want to.”
She has since ridden Dwars door Vlaanderen, where she went on the attack early in the race.
While Banks was still looking for form at the start of April, she believes that she’s been able to improve her racing mind during her lengthy layoff. While she couldn’t watch much in the early months of her recovery, she had a lot more time to watch and analyze races than she does now she’s back to racing.
“I still understand the races the same that I used to, probably better actually, because I’ve had a year like watching them,” Banks said. “A lot of the time, I couldn’t watch the races last year, because I couldn’t really watch the TV, but in the second half of the year, I could watch them.
“I haven’t had two hours to spare since yesterday to watch what happened in the last few hours of [Gent-Wevelgem] and I’m not sure I will have two hours to spare for a long time. By the time I get home, that’s going to be four hours of racing that I need to catch up on. But tactically last year, watching the races was just quite interesting.”
Following her COVID-19 setback, Banks has had to adjust her expectations for this opening part of the season.
“I’m very realistic about this period,” she said. “I know how fitness works and there’s no way I’m going to be back to peak for the end of this block. So, this is a kind of like race training block, in order to prepare myself for the big goals later in the year.”